GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sunni Madiesa-Gloria Harwood no longer fears that someone will take her son. She keeps his ashes in a carved oak urn in her china cabinet, guarded by prayer candles.
“I’m going to see him again,” she told Target 8 investigators, “and he’s going to smile at me like he’s always smiled and he’s going to say, ‘Come on, Mom, I’ve got a seat right here waiting for you.’ I know he is.”
Her 19-year-old son, Angel DeLeon, her firstborn, who had tattoos of his mom’s first name and a broken heart on his chest, was shot and killed last March.
Police and the prosecutor ruled it self-defense — even though the autopsy report obtained by Target 8 shows he was shot squarely in the back of the head.
“I didn’t know my son was in a gang until they (police) came and told me,” his mom said.
In court records, police identified her son as an associate of the Latin Kings and the shooter as a member of their rivals, the Mexican Mob — both active, longtime gangs in Grand Rapids.
“They ambushed him. I know they did. I know they did. My son’s not one to back down,” Harwood said.
She is convinced her son died in retaliation for an earlier gang-related ambush murder of a Mexican Mob member by the Latin Kings:
“They’re just getting revenge on each other. That’s it.”
Her son died a month after the Grand Rapids Police Department and the Kent County prosecutor announced a one-man grand jury had indicted more than a dozen suspects in gang violence from 2019.
But a Target 8 review of court records and interviews show that didn’t end the gang violence.
“What I think we see in the city of Grand Rapids primarily are groups that are associates,” Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne said. “Now, they’re both dangerous, the organized groups and the groups that aren’t organized. In fact, I’d say the unorganized group may be even more dangerous because they do whatever.”
Records show there were two gang-related homicides last year in Grand Rapids, along with at least three other shootings that sent victims to the hospital.
“There’s still the Wealthy Street, Bemis, Boulder Crest, the Sevens,” Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker listed. “Are they officially gangs? But they’re groups that we’re aware of and they’re out there.
“I think a lot of the cellphone store stuff is related to groups like that as well; we’ve seen a tremendous amount of cellphone stores, the car dealerships, those are not isolated individuals, those belong to groups as well,” Becker continued.
SHOOTING TO JOIN A GANG
Two members of the Sevens gang, Jamarie Bell, 18, and Shaquan Washington, 26, are accused of shooting a 35-year-old father of five to death as he sat in a parked car in October.
While victim Romito Jones had no gang affiliations, he was parked outside a store in a neighborhood associated with the Bemis gang, records show. The Sevens and Bemis gangs are known rivals, according to court records.
Jones was a well-respected man who had helped his neighbor, Hillary Scholten, in her run for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He was a dear friend,” Scholten said. “He was someone who was always there for his family, for his neighbors, for his community.”
He had gone to the store pick up butter.
“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” his cousin, Datasha Chapman, said. “Some 17-year-old boy wanted to be in a gang, and he had to go to Miss Tracy’s and shoot somebody, and my cousin just so happened to be there.”
“We have gangs that are now shooting people at random just to join a gang,” Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack said. “The police department and the city, it’s about time Grand Rapids realizes we do have gangs.”
‘THEY SHOOT, THEY SHOOT’
Grand Rapids reported a 200% jump in shootings last year, though police can’t say how many were gang-related.
A woman who didn’t want to be identified, fearing reprisals, said her son was sitting on a porch across the street from their home when shots rang out.
“They fired two shots, one shot hit the house and one shot hit my son in the shoulder,” she said. “If my son had not been standing there, it would have went in between the eyes of a 2-year-old child.”
Court records show police believed the Mexican Mob was behind the drive-by. They have made no arrests.
A month later, a shot hit the woman’s home, punching a hole next to the window of the second-story bedroom where she was sleeping.
“I’ve gotten low in my own house with people driving by I don’t know,” she said. “I had to go out and purchase a .380 because I don’t know.
“They shoot, they shoot, shoot. Everybody’s got a gun.”
KALAMAZOO: ‘LOCAL STREET CLIQUES’
In Kalamazoo, where police refer to gangs as groups, nearly half the city’s 15 homicides last year were group-related.
“There’s a very small number of people that drive the majority of our gun violence, and a lot of these people are group involved,” Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Deputy Chief David Boysen said.
Last year, Kalamazoo reported 50 group-related shootings, up from eight the year before.
“We don’t have a lot of the nationally affiliated (gangs),” Boysen said. “Ours are local street cliques, like named after a certain part of town, north side, south side, east side. They’re just street groups and there’s not a lot of structure, but they all associate in groups.”
Just one of Kalamazoo’s seven group-related homicides last year is solved.
“Our biggest challenge is our group-involved homicides are the most difficult ones for us to solve,” he said. “Of those that are unsolved, we know who did the shootings in most of those; it’s just being able to put a case together that we can prosecute. We don’t have the witnesses willing to come forward.”
Back in Grand Rapids, in a southwest side neighborhood near Burton Street and Buchanan Avenue, the Mexican Mob has marked fences and garages with its graffiti.
“Any neighborhood where you’ve got graffiti and stuff like that, I think people are worried and they’re very concerned,” Becker, the Kent County prosecutor, said. “That’s part of the reason these cases are so difficult to bring to court, is people don’t want to talk. They have to be on the street, they have to live in these neighborhoods where these people operate, so they are not forthcoming.”
A recently retired Grand Rapids police officer, who didn’t want to be identified, worked closely with the feds tracking gangs. He said the Latin Kings and Mexican Mob have been in Grand Rapids for decades. The Latin Kings, he said, are part of the People’s Nation, an umbrella of gangs based in Chicago, while the Mexican Mob is independent.
“The bullet doesn’t have a conscience,” he said. “It goes where it’s aimed, it doesn’t always end up where it was intended, so you’ve got collateral damage with people that may or may not be involved.”
For gangs, he said, retaliation is justice.
“That’s part of the game,” he said. “You take one of ours, you do something with one of ours, we’re coming right back at ya.”
THE DEATH OF ANGEL DELEON
In the March 2020 shooting death of Latin King associate Angel DeLeon, witnesses said he approached a group of Mexican Mob members and fired two shots before his gun jammed.
“My son said he had to meet somebody at 7 o’ clock, and he was dead at 7:20,” his mom Sunni Harwood said.
Police and prosecutors said that a reputed member of the Mexican Mob returned fire in self-defense, shooting her son in the head.
Police found a 9 mm Smith & Wesson next to the victim’s body.
The shooter, who was seen running away and jumping into a car after the shooting, was never charged.
The dead teen’s mom didn’t know until Target 8 told her that her son was shot from behind, in the back of the head.
“This is the first time I ever heard where he got shot,” she said. “It raises so many questions because I didn’t know he was shot in the back of his head. I was thinking face.
“How do I know that they weren’t attacking him and he was trying to get away from them?”
Police and prosecutors defended the self-defense ruling, saying it would be difficult to prosecute the death of a man in a shootout, no matter where the bullet hit him.
The dead teen’s mom is convinced the shooting was in retaliation for a killing eight months earlier.
“I’m a mother and I’m going to try to find the truth because I don’t think the truth really came out,” his mom said.
Police said the man who shot her son was the brother of Saul Espinoza, a member of the Mexican Mob, who was shot and killed at the Fourth of July 2019 fireworks show in Grand Rapids. In that case, four Latin Kings surrounded the victim’s car and fired 24 shots into it.
In an affidavit, police wrote: “The Latin Kings and Mexican Mob are rival gangs and the circumstances suggest the motive for this shooting to be gang rivalry.”
While Angel DeLeon was not involved in the shooting, two of his close friends were. Both Ulises Ferrer and Oscar Urtiz-Esquivel are in jail on charges of murder and as gang members committing a felony.
Prosecutors also charged Latin King Raymond Barrios with the Fourth of July murder but records show he has fled to Guatemala under an alias.
Records also show he has used the WhatsApp messaging app to buy and distribute marijuana, heroin and cocaine.
‘I’M SCARED FOR MY KIDS’
Angel DeLeon’s mom takes some of the responsibility for her son’s gang affiliation.
“That little boy made me a mom,” she said.
She raised five kids on her own. Angel was her oldest.
“He was, he was special. I had him at 14. I ran away just to make sure i could take care of him.”
But when her son was 7 or 8, she dated a member of the Mexican Mob.
“They called me a mob girl because I was dating one of them,” she said. “I regret, because I showed my kids that was OK. It wasn’t. Even though I told them never to be in it, but when you affiliate yourself with them, how do they learn that?”
Her son died not long after serving time in a boot camp for robbery, but she said he had gotten his GED and a job.
“He was on his way. I don’t know where, but he was on his way. He was doing really good.”
After her son’s death, she talked on social media about going to police, court records show, leading to a threat on Snapchat: “If yo mom aint ready for a funeral don’t (expletive) wit me.”
“To me, God’s powerful more than they are,” she told Target 8. “So if something’s going to happen to me, God’s going to let that happen to me. If that’s the way I go, that’s the way I go. But I’m going to do it protecting my kids. I’m not going to let them threaten us.
“I have one more son. I’m scared to death. He’s 16. I’m scared to death because of how his mindset is and how somebody killed his brother, now he feels like he has to get revenge. I’m scared. I’m scared for my kids.”
She believes her son is in heaven with her father, who died a month before him.
“I want my son, his name, to stand for something. If it’s for gang violence, then for other kids to see, look, is it worth it? If he did go over there to kill somebody, if he did go over there for self-defense for us, or to protect us, was it worth it? Because, he’s gone, and we’re all hurt. I’m never going to be the same. My heart will never be the same. I feel so cold.”
Target 8’s investigation of the rise in violence in Grand Rapids and other West Michigan cities continues with “The Most Violent Year.” Click on the image below to watch.