Alice Wheeler
On Friday night, July 19, two rival gangs met up in a tiny Seattle park. Just before midnight, the meeting turned violent. "Words were exchanged," according to the police report, and a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, clad in a black shirt, shot a 19-year-old member of the United Latino gang in the chest. One of the 19-year-old's friends shot back several times, apparently missing the Mara Salvatrucha gang member. Neighbors called the police, while everyone in the park fled. The police later found one gun in the park.

Four days later, on June 23, a second shooting occurred half a block away, in a QFC parking lot. Someone who claimed to be part of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, according to the police, pulled out a gun and shot a 24-year-old man in the arm and leg. Police haven't caught a suspect in either shooting.

There wasn't a word about the shootings in the Seattle Times or Seattle Post-Intelligencer, perhaps because they happened in a place where the daily papers don't go looking for shootings. The unlikely setting was Crown Hill, a quiet residential neighborhood in north Seattle. The shootings caught neighbors off guard, too.

"It was a shock," says one Crown Hill resident who did not want to be named.

The police aren't saying much about the shootings. "It's a problem that we're aware of," says police spokesperson Deanna Nollette. Though the police department has a gang unit, which was called to the scene of both shootings, the unit did not want to discuss the gangs or the shootings.

But the police have seen the Mara Salvatrucha gang in other parts of town, like Pioneer Square's Occidental Park. The gang, made up mostly of El Salvadorians--the name means "Forever Salvador"--is an offshoot of a Los Angeles gang. A July 30 police memo that calls Mara Salvatrucha "very violent" says the gang has been on SPD radar since mid 2000. But the gang presence in Crown Hill is apparently new.

Meanwhile, Crown Hill residents are on edge. Folks who live in the otherwise peaceful neighborhood--full of modest single-family homes with small but neat lawns--are reluctant to discuss the shootings. Mike Donohue, owner of Bob Johnson's pharmacy on NW 85th Street at 14th Avenue NW--halfway between the two shootings--says he's heard bits and pieces about the incidents. "From what I heard, there was a new gang in town, and [police] think that's what's been going on," Donohue says. He's noticed an increased police presence in the neighborhood, mostly in unmarked cars.

The first incident happened in tiny Baker Park on 14th Avenue NW, one of the few parks in Crown Hill. It's a secluded and tree-filled refuge, a block away from the noisy intersection of NW 15th Street and 85th Avenue NW, where a Safeway, a QFC, a new Walgreens, and a few bars draw a lot of traffic.

Ironically, neighbors banded together to build the park five years ago, demanding a family-friendly space in the urban environment. Now they are poised to reclaim the park from groups using the sheltered green space as a spot for illicit activity.

People have always hung out in the park after it officially closes at 11:30 p.m. The neighbors say they've called the police before, to report noise or suspected drug sales. "Virtually ever since that park opened up, there's been people there late at night," says Donohue. "It's off the street and kinda dark and easy to hide in there."

But until last month, late-night parties at the park and occasional fistfights were all the neighbors had to contend with. The shootings were a first, neighbors say.

The Whittier Heights Community Council--which helped create the park in 1997--isn't waiting for police to take care of the gang problem. It has set out to make the park less inviting at night.

The council wrote a letter earlier this week to the parks department, asking for a new closure time (dusk, instead of 11:30 p.m.), more lighting, and "Drug Free Zone" signs. "[We] will continue to do whatever we can to keep this treasured little park safe and pleasant for the neighborhood," the council wrote.

So far, it seems Mara Salvatrucha hasn't claimed Baker Park as its turf. The gang's trademark, "MS13," has been graffitied elsewhere, but not at Baker Park.

amy@thestranger.com