RICHMOND -- A violent gang feud historically fought on city streets has expanded to one of the Bay Area's busiest freeways, Interstate 80, where 70 million motorists drive each year, law enforcement sources say.
Freeway shootings are not new to the East Bay, but this latest run -- two dead and others injured, two seriously, in seven shootings since November -- suggests gang members are choosing the busy commuter route to settle conflicts.
"The gangs are feuding, and some of them are taking it onto the freeway," Richmond police Lt. Felix Tan said this week.
Law enforcement sources believe the freeway is a preferred venue for the crimes because there are fewer witnesses and cameras, easy getaways, and targets may be less aware of their surroundings.
"Folks are being followed as they leave one place where someone has identified them. They sit on the individual and follow them on the freeway," said DeVone Boggan, who as the head of Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety has worked closely with local gang members.
He now runs Advance Peace, a consulting firm. "It provides an easy escape route. It's unfortunate, and it's certainly crazy," Boggan said.
One shooting occurred near the University Avenue exit in Berkeley; the other six happened between San Pablo Dam Road and Pinole Valley Road in West Contra Costa. In some cases, cars that were not the intended targets were hit by bullets, and a toddler was injured by flying glass when a window was shot out. Only the Feb. 27 killing of 39-year-old Leslie Graham Jr. has been confirmed publicly as a gang-related hit, but the California Highway Patrol said all the shootings are targeted and being investigated as gang-related.
Graham was a member of a gang affiliated with North Richmond and a rival of a Central Richmond gang, according to court documents. Graham has served time in federal prison on weapons charges and in 2013 was chased by Richmond police while he was in a car matching the description of one involved in a gang shooting.
Police said 25-year-old Anthonio Ragland, who was killed in November near Pinole Valley Road, was targeted but did not say if he had gang ties.
Times have changed in Richmond, according to police. Most of the violence has historically occurred in Richmond's most troubled neighborhoods -- in the city's central area known as the Iron Triangle, the south side and in unincorporated North Richmond.
Violent crime has dropped to historic lows in Richmond in recent years as police use new technology such as surveillance cameras and a gunfire-detection system to help investigations and prevent crime, Tan said. Police have also improved their outreach in the community, which has helped build trust and cooperation.
It appears the area's gangs have taken notice and are evolving with the times, Tan said.
"Landscapes have changed for the crooks and the gang members," he said.
One law enforcement expert said freeway shooting investigations are more complex than those that occur in neighborhoods because of a lack of witnesses, possible destruction of evidence because of car crashes and difficulty establishing where exactly a shooting took place. The most recent shooting was reported as a solo car running off the road until police were able to get to the driver and determine what happened.
"Even gang-related shootings that occur in the city of Oakland or Richmond are themselves difficult enough for investigators to get any kind of traction," said Tom Nolan, a retired Boston police lieutenant and criminology professor at Merrimack College. "It just compounds fourfold the difficulties when these shootings occur on the anonymous setting of a freeway. That's a new low for gang-related violence."
Gangs in Richmond are a collection of mostly small outfits, but there are a few exceptions of groups ranging from 80 to 100 members, according to Satish Jallepalli, a deputy district attorney with the Contra Costa District Attorney's gang unit.
On their own turf, residents are aware of new cars or people coming into their neighborhood but are more vulnerable on the freeway, where they are focused on driving and surrounded by strangers in other cars, said attorney John Hamasaki, who has represented several accused gang members. The city's hip-hop artists rap about having to pump their gas fast, and gang members are guarded in what they post on social media, not wanting to offer clues to their rivals, he said. In October, 22-year-old Tamonni Featherstone posted a video to Instagram in which he said he couldn't show the outside of his car for fear someone would recognize it, find him and kill him. Less than a week later, on Nov. 1, Featherstone and another man were shot dead while at a red light at Macdonald and San Pablo avenues in what police called a targeted killing.
"You don't get to have a normal existence," said Hamasaki, who had represented Featherstone. He said his clients are less gang members and more males born into a violent environment predating them who join groups based on their neighborhood. "I wish there was a way to solve the issues in Richmond. The idea that people are stalking people onto the freeway -- that would be a level of planning I haven't seen."
The CHP has increased patrols of the Eastshore corridor and is working with Richmond and county and federal authorities to solve the cases, said CHP Officer Daniel Hill.
No arrests have been made, but the chances of innocent drivers being caught in crossfire are low, he said.
"The chances of getting struck by lightning is higher than that," Hill said. So is the chance of crashing your car, he added.
Motorists interviewed this week had mixed reactions. "(The bullets) might hit anything," El Sobrante resident Steve Jefferson said while pumping gas on San Pablo Dam Road on Wednesday. "It's a public safety hazard, and it's just morally wrong. It's a shame."
But Anthony Miller, a 25-year-old Richmond resident, shrugged when asked about the shootings. He said he recently witnessed a homeless man being stabbed in front of his home. "I don't think it's a big thing," Miller said. "It just what happens."
In the wake of the shootings, police have intensified patrols in known gang areas and over the past week have arrested eight men with known gang ties, Tan said. None of the men has been charged with crimes related to the freeway shootings, but the lieutenant said there also has not been a shooting on I-80 since the sweeps.
"It's not an accident that things aren't popping off again," he said. "We are obviously hitting the right target."
Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, who represents the western part of the county, said he is confident the CHP will solve the cases.
"When homicides occur in distinct neighborhoods, oftentimes people outside those neighborhoods don't pay much attention. They should. We are all safer when every neighborhood is safer," the supervisor said.
David DeBolt covers Oakland. Contact him at 510-208-6453. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.