The Salt Lake District Attorney's Office was scheduled to begin screening charges Wednesday afternoon against at least one of those arrested in connection with the drive-by shooting death of a 7-year-old girl playing on the sidewalk in front of her house earlier this week.
Frank Benavidez, 20, and three 16-year-olds were arrested following the fatal shooting of Maria Del Carmen Menchaca and booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of first-degree murder. Investigators say Benavidez was behind the wheel of his black SUV that drove past Menchaca's house on the corner of 800 West and Fremont Avenue (1100 South) about 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Police say a juvenile inside the vehicle fired a round toward Menchaca's house, fatally striking the little girl in the chest.
Although some police officers Sunday indicated they did not believe Menchaca was the intended target, investigators said that aspect of the case was still being investigated. They do believe, however, firing in the direction of the young girl's house was intentional.
Benavidez and juveniles Gabriel Magallon, Tiona Vigial and Mae Johnson are documented gang members, police say. Salt Lake police detectives say the shooting was the result of an ongoing rival gang situation between the suspects and at least one person who was inside Menchaca's house. Benavidez was at the house earlier in the day threatening at least one person, according to family members.
Although the three youths were booked into juvenile detention on first-degree homicide charges, they could be charged by the DA's office directly into the adult system because of their age and the severity of the charge. Tuesday, the district attorney's office could neither confirm nor deny that charges against the juveniles would be screened today. Under Utah law, the DA cannot even acknowledge they are investigating a juvenile unless charges are actually filed in the adult system.
Official charges against Benavidez and possibly others weren't expected to be completed until Thursday or Friday.
Meanwhile, the mourning continued on the corner in front of Menchaca's house where a make-shift memorial of candles, balloons, stuffed animals and angel figurines continued to grow.
A small number of people from the Glendale neighborhood gathered at the memorial for the second night of a nine-day prayer vigil, while family members attended a Mass and a viewing for the girl Tuesday night.
A funeral could be held sometime today, friends said.
Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker issued a statement Tuesday afternoon, calling the shooting "heartbreaking" and "senseless."
"This tragedy raises many questions about how our community can better deal with the gang problem. In the days and weeks to come, I will work with Police Chief (Chris) Burbank and other law enforcement and community leaders to assess our efforts and identify new strategies for keeping our community safe," he said in his statement.
Many residents in Menchaca's neighborhood said the sound of gunfire was nothing new in their neighborhood. The Glendale area in particular has had a few high-profile gang-related homicides in recent months including Wally Knapton, the manager of the Family Dollar store, 1145 S. Glendale Drive (1350 West) earlier this year, and Faviola Hernandez, the owner of The Shop beauty salon, 1329 W. California Ave. (1330 South) on Aug. 15, 2007, during a robbery.
Burbank, who was vacationing with his family out of state when Sunday's shooting occurred, said he has been kept up-to-date on what has been happening at home.
Burbank told the Deseret News Tuesday that great improvements in policing have actually been made in the Glendale area since the Family Dollar homicide.
"Mobile watch has increased, we have neighborhood watch, more community involvement," he said. "Glendale is not worse than any other area. We have problems that happen all over the city. I've seen a great deal of improvement in the Glendale area. We have a lot fewer problems than 10 or 15 years ago."
Gang problems or robberies or burglaries can happen anywhere in the city, he said.
The key to improving the area is getting the community involved, he said. Since January, Burbank said an additional 40 people have signed up to become neighborhood or mobile watch volunteers in Salt Lake, with the majority of new members coming from the Glendale and Rose Park areas.
"Residents know much better than we do who belongs in a neighborhood," he said. "We need to open better lines of communication with them."
While extra patrols of Glendale that started after the Dollar Store shooting will continue, Burbank conceded that stopping a drive-by shooting is nearly impossible.
"The prevention needs to occur long before the guy gets in the car and goes to do the drive-by shooting," he said.
To do that, anti-gang and anti-violence messages need to continue to be taught in the schools and rec centers, he said. Progress has been made in Glendale, Burbank insists, but suffered a setback Sunday."It's a horrible event. We monitor these types of things constantly. For silly unknown reasons, these types of things flare up. It's just horrible when an innocent person like this is caught in the fire," Burbank said.
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