Guardian Angel in Gangland

By Susan Sward

Deputy District Attorney Victoria “Tori” Verber-Salazar ’87 remembers the moaning of the two mothers that day in a San Joaquin County courtroom as if it were yesterday.

At a sentencing hearing seven years ago, one of the mothers had heard the judge impose a sentence of 75 years to life on her 16-year-old son for slaying a member of a rival gang. The other woman was the mother of the victim slain by the defendant.

“Outside the courtroom the two mothers embraced — they shared the pain of losing a son: The one mother would only get to see her son through Plexiglas and the other would never see her son again,’’ said Verber-Salazar, who has been prosecuting Stockton gang homicides since 2005. “The pain and suffering was overwhelming. It was difficult to watch.”

Since 1987, when she started out as an intern in the San Joaquin County district attorney’s office, Verber- Salazar has dealt with horrors most people would find unbearable to face: babies beaten to death, brutal rapes, bloody bodies. But the case that made the two mothers cry, which was prosecuted by one of Verber-Salazar’s colleagues, hit her hard. 

Young people learn about life behind bars by connecting with former gang members during a videoconference conducted by District Attorney Victoria Verber-Salazar.

Horrors of street crime created a mission

It was then that Verber-Salazar pledged to bring peace to the streets of Stockton by rehabilitating young gang members before she had to prosecute them and send many to prison for life. Her work since then earned Verber-Salazar a meritorious service award from SMC in 2011.

“I understand people’s anger over crime,’’ said the 46-year-old mother of three, in her office in the green and gray walled Stockton courthouse.  “But what we had been doing wasn’t working; the jails and prisons are maxed out.’’

Over the years, Verber-Salazar has relied on lessons learned from her family and from her education at Saint Mary’s High School in Stockton and at SMC.

“I see the suffering the victims endured,’’ she said. “I hear the screams of their loved ones as they arrive on the scene. I see such agony that some days you feel you cannot take any more, and that’s where Saint Mary’s High School and Saint Mary’s College come into play. They gave me the foundation to believe, to fight for social justice and for those who need it most.’’

In the footsteps of family role models

Born in Stockton, Verber-Salazar had strong role models. Her grandmother fed and gave a bed to those needing help, and her mother established a school for homeless young children. Several members of her family have worked in law enforcement: her deceased father and an uncle were police officers, her brother is a deputy sheriff and her great-grandfather was sheriff of Mokelumne Hill in Calaveras County. 

Verber-Salazar has worked for 25 years in the district attorney’s office, having earned her law degree at Patino Law School, attending classes three nights a week while working during the days. She still throws herself into her work, beginning at 5 a.m. on days when she is in trial. Married to attorney Joseph Anthony Salazar, who handles the cooking at home, Verber-Salazar works her schedule around her children’s sports and school activities as much as she can, relying on family and friends for backup when she is in a demanding gang trial.

Keep kids out of prison

“In trial, she is very straight-on, sticking to the facts, and she can introduce fireworks if it’s called for,’’ said Deputy District Attorney Janet Smith, who also prosecutes gang homicides. About Verber-Salazar’s role urging young people to leave gang life, Smith said, “If there is anything to do to make the community safer and to deter people from coming before her in court, she’s going to do it.’’

In one such effort to stem the flow of young gang members into prison, Verber-Salazar has moderated 12 videoconferences since 2007 in which inmates at Valley State Prison for Women at Chowchilla answer audience questions via video. So far thousands of students and juvenile offenders have watched these videoconferences.  The Chowchilla inmates speak frankly about how their sentences are so long that they will die in prison for their roles in such crimes. The maximum penalty under state law for gang-related homicides is life in prison or death.

Getting girls out of gangs

In an effort to support young women trying to leave gangs and create a different kind of life, Verber-Salazar cofounded Girls in Transition with Maria Alacazar.

“The first time I saw Tori speak to kids, I saw her willingness to give our kids something to strive for,’’ Alcazar recalled. “The kids could not believe at first that someone like her, being a D.A.  prosecuting gang members, would take an interest in them and want them to succeed.”

Valerie Frazier, a former state prison parole officer who also works with Verber-Salazar in this effort, said, “I have been in law enforcement a long time, and Tori is one rare jewel.’’ Frazier, who heads a Stockton-based group called Hope Ministries, also wonders when Verber-Salazar finds time to sleep. “She does her prosecutor job relentlessly, but her heart and passion is to mentor kids and bring them around.’’

Warning kids to clean up their act

After years of prosecuting gang members, Verber-Salazar knows the labyrinthine structure of the Stockton gangs — Flyboys, Spring Street, Tiny Rascals, Mixed Team, Smack Team, Northside Gangster Crips and Loctown Crips. Gone are the days when fists settled disputes; now it’s done with guns. Brothers and former close friends are sometimes in rival gangs, and the reason behind the gunfire often seems inconsequential. Typically, it’s some instance of perceived disrespect or it’s when gang members are caught “slipping” — meaning they are unarmed and out of their turf — on neutral or rival gang turf.

Verber-Salazar’s message to her young audiences is always: Clean up your act now. She said, “You don’t want to see me as a prosecutor, because by then it is too late.’’

On a recent gray spring day in Stockton, a city of 292,000, the streets do not look particularly threatening. There is an old-time, comfortable feel to many small homes in the tree-dotted neighborhoods surrounding the downtown. But there is no true peace here.

Through April 2012, there had been 17 homicides in Stockton — 14 of them gang-related.  That tally is three times the number of homicides by the same time last year. 

Verber-Salazar calls the conditions fueling the bleak homicide numbers “a perfect storm.” Methamphetamine ravages families, leaving many children adrift. Unemployment is high — at more than 15 percent and the financially stressed city’s foreclosure rate is one of the highest in the nation. The poverty rate, too, is high. 

Budget cuts are part of the problem

Looking back, Verber-Salazar recalls how bad crime was in 1980s Stockton. But police increased intelligence gathering and often spotted volatile situations before gang violence erupted. They confiscated many guns, and community policing helped. But with budget cuts, all that is mostly gone. Today the number of sworn officers in Stockton is 320, down from 440 in 2007– 2008.

“We saw what our work achieved in crime suppression over the years and we have seen it all taken away,’’ Verber-Salazar said. “We have lost the ability to get ahead of situations, so a lot of young people are losing their lives.”

Still, she reaches out to young women who others might consider beyond the pale. 

One young woman who made it out

In 2007 Carina Garza, then 24, was picked up by police for her role as the driver of a car speeding away from a robbery-involved shooting that left a man dead. “The police had me in custody in the homicide division for 18 hours, and they gave me a choice. I had two little girls.  I could pick the gang or my kids. I decided to go with my kids,” she recalled.

Garza testified for the prosecution and then, she said, her former gang retaliated against her: “I was jumped, beaten up. Another time they surrounded my house and banged on the windows.’’ Garza and her children moved out of the house.

When she and some other girls met Verber-Salazar, Garza was surprised. “She talks to us not like a D.A. but in our language — she doesn’t talk to us like an authority figure. She told us about the positives of living a normal life — it would be more calm.’’

As Garza worked with Verber-Salazar, Frazier and Alcazar, she said she began to change.  She got married and runs a small business stocking vending machines. Much of the time she stays with her three girls in the home she and her husband bought.

“I wouldn’t have made it this far without Tori, Maria and Valerie,’’ Garza said. “They keep in constant contact with us — like they fell out of heaven as our guardian angels. At first, I thought it was just too good to be true. But it’s true.’’