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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Shooting about girl, not gang

Sheriff says boy was killed after fight escalated



MANATEE COUNTY -- The shooting that took the life of 9-year-old Stacy Williams III on Monday may have involved gang members, but authorities say it was not a gang shootout.

Instead, sheriff's officials now say, the tragedy began as a common fistfight, with two youths arguing over a girl.

But when one of the boys started losing the fight near the Manatee Woods apartment complex, the situation escalated.

He called in a buddy for back-up and minutes later a car pulled up to the scene and several shots were fired from inside it.

Stacy, who was known for riding his bicycle throughout the central Manatee neighborhood, was walking nearby with his bike.

It is unclear if Stacy was watching the fight, or just passing by, but either way the boy was hit in the head by one of the bullets. He ran for help and was taken by family and friends to Manatee Memorial Hospital, but was pronounced dead after arriving.

Three teenagers with suspected links to the Latino gang SUR 13 have been charged in connection with Stacy's death.

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office is continuing to investigate the shooting that happened about 8:30 p.m. Monday in the 3200 block of Fifth Street East.

Orlando Valenzuela, 15, of Bradenton, is accused of being the shooter and was identified by witnesses in a photo lineup. He has been arrested on charges of murder and discharging a weapon in public.

Ashley Rios, 16, and her boyfriend, 16-year-old Johnny Vasquez, are each accused of being principals to a murder.

No other arrests are expected, said Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube.

That means no charges are expected against the two men in a black Cadillac who were at the fight but drove off as two bullets were fired at their car.

Steube on Wednesday sought to downplay the possible role that gang rivalries might have played in the incident.

"We're not going to step out and say this was a gang shooting," Steube said. "We do not know of any (gang) affiliation of those involved with either the fight or the (Cadillac)."

Authorities believe the three suspects were called on the phone by a male involved in the fight at 36th Avenue and Ninth Street East.

By the time the three showed up, a second fight had broken out in the 3300 block of Fifth Street East, near where Stacy was standing.

Valenzuela is accused of firing several bullets into the group watching the fight, one of which hit Stacy.

He also fired two bullets at the Cadillac, investigators said, though the motive for the shooting remains unclear. Neither man in the Cadillac fired back or displayed guns, Steube said.

Authorities initially said 15 rounds may have been fired that evening. They now say it was probably five or six.

Both Valenzuela and Vasquez have had prior run-ins with the law, records show. Valenzuela was charged with possession of a firearm last year. Vasquez was charged with having a concealed firearm, also last year.

A circuit judge on Wednesday ordered the teenagers held at a secure detention center for juvenile offenders for at least 21 days. None made any statements in court.

State prosecutors will determine in the coming days whether to charge any of the three as adults. Defense attorneys are expected to challenge the evidence in the case.

Two witnesses said they saw Valenzuela shooting from the car, according to sheriff's reports. Rios, who authorities say was the front-seat passenger, reportedly said "keep shooting" during the attack, authorities said. Her mother, watching in court, shook her head when she heard that detail.

Valenzuela's mother, Blanca Ariano Belancourt, said she feels sick about everything that has happened.

Speaking from the window of her home on 16th Street West on Wednesday, Belancourt said her son was not involved in the shooting.

She swears that Valenzuela was home Monday night when police say the shooting occurred. Her eyes were still puffy from crying since he was arrested at their home.

"I hurt so much for the family of that little boy. My family is hurting also," she said, speaking in Spanish. "But I don't agree with any of this. He is innocent."

Valenzuela is a student at Gulf Coast Marine Institute in Palmetto, an alternative school for at-risk youth. He lives with his two brothers and a sister, and his mother and her boyfriend.

Belancourt said she does not know anything about her son's suspected involvement with the gang SUR 13.

Rios, of Palmetto, attended Palmetto High School.

Vasquez was a student at Horizon Middle School. The 15-year-old had aspirations to go into the military, said Andy Avalos, who has a mentoring program for at-risk youth called Juventud Latina, which means "Latino youth."

"When he told me he wanted to join the military, I said, 'That's good but if you get into trouble, you can forget about that plan,'" Avalos said.

Avalos, whose 26-year-old son is a former gang member, met Vasquez for the first time about two weeks ago.

A concerned family member called Avalos to ask him to reach out to Vasquez, who lives with his older sister. His parents are not around.

"I told him he needed to be careful when picking his friends," Avalos said. "And I said, 'If you're hanging with the wrong guys you're going to get into trouble.'"

Grief counseling continued Wednesday for students and faculty at Stacy's school, Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary. "Stacy We'll Miss You!" was the message on the school's marquee. The flag hung as half-staff. A memorial of teddy bears and flowers lay at the foot of the flagpole.

Wendy Herrera, principal at Orange Ridge, said some of the children were afraid after hearing of Stacy's death, while others wanted to know when they would see Stacy again.

"This is a very delicate time for them," Herrera said. "We want to assure them school is a safe place for them."

Stacy's funeral will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Bradenton.

Staff writer Michael A. Scarcella contributed to this report.

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