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'A Troubling Trend' 

Fortuna police: preventing teen gun possession a 'top priority' after pair of arrests

click to enlarge Fortuna police officers reported seizing handguns from a 15 year old and a 13 year old, both students at Eel River Community School, on Sept. 8.


Fortuna police officers reported seizing handguns from a 15 year old and a 13 year old, both students at Eel River Community School, on Sept. 8.

The community of Fortuna was jolted Sept. 8 by news that police had arrested two teenagers in possession of handguns, one of whom had allegedly bought the weapon to school as part of an apparent "beef" with another student.

The two arrests — hours apart of a 13 year old and a 15 year old — are the latest in a string of firearm-related arrests and violence involving teenagers in the Friendly City, following the arrest of a 19 year old on suspicion of attempted murder in connection with a July 24 drive-by shooting and an Aug. 27 incident in which a 17 year old reportedly accidentally shot himself in the groin.

"I think it's a troubling trend and the more we uncover, the more troubling it is," Police Chief Casey Day said of the latest arrests. "Our main concern is getting these guns off our street and protecting our community and our kids."

The latest arrests center around Eel River Community School, located on Newburg Road, which serves about 90 students in seventh through 12th grades and is run by the Humboldt County Office of Education (HCOE). Eel River is one of five community schools run by the county office to accommodate students who come "via referrals from the department of probation, school attendance review boards and school districts," and are generally "temporarily in need of a supportive, alternative educational program in order to progress academically and socially," according to the county office's website.

HCOE Director of Outreach and Community Engagement Stacy Young said a community member came forward and told Eel River Community School staff the morning of Sept. 8 that a 15-year-old student planned to bring a gun to campus that day. Young said staff immediately called the Fortuna Police Department and put the school on what's known as a "soft lockdown," meaning students remained in class with their teachers, but the doors were locked and the campus was on alert. Police, meanwhile, surrounded the campus with a plan to apprehend the student when he arrived.

At 9:22 a.m., the student arrived in the school's parking lot as a passenger in a car and was immediately detained and searched, with officers reporting finding a semi-automatic 9mm Glock handgun with a loaded magazine, as well a loaded magazine for a .22 caliber rifle, according to the police department. He was taken into custody without incident and booked into juvenile hall on suspicion of illegally possessing a loaded handgun on school grounds, possessing live ammunition and other charges.

Day said the student was known to police, as he had been arrested back in February on suspicion of attempted murder, robbery and concealing evidence. Day said the teenager was then released from custody after a risk assessment, with a trial date set for next month.

As to the most recent arrest, Day said the preliminary investigation indicated the teen brought the weapon to school as a part of "a beef" he was having with another student. He said it's unclear where he obtained the handgun, noting it was unregistered and does not appear to have belonged to anyone in his family.

"The juvenile was in a situation where he was staying with a 19-year-old girlfriend or acquaintance that was outside of any traditional family setting," Day said.

Hours after news broke of the first arrest, Fortuna police announced they had taken a 13-year-old Eel River Community School student into custody, also for gun possession. Day said that the investigation into the 15 year old led his department's problem oriented policing team to social media accounts that led the department to obtain a search warrant for the 13 year old, who they tracked down on McCullen Avenue in Eureka and booked into juvenile hall on suspicion of a variety of firearms charges, as well as making criminal threats.

Day said the specifics of the pair's "beef" were not yet clear, and he was unsure whether it was a "mutual disagreement" or something more one-sided.

The firearm found on the 13 year old came back to a registered owner.

"It was what we call unreported stolen," Day said, noting the registered owner — whose home the 13 year old had access to, though he is not family — didn't realize the gun was missing until police called.

Young praised school staff and Fortuna police's handling of the situation.

"They were swift and they were careful, and no one was hurt and everyone is safe," she said.

Young said a HCOE crisis response team, including a school psychologist and a school safety director, responded to Eel River Community School on Sept. 11 to meet with students and staff, and will provide "ongoing support as needed." Additionally, she said all county schools are reviewing their school safety plans in the wake of the arrests.

Day, meanwhile, said the police investigation is ongoing.

"By no means is the police department done — we're continuing to look at evidence and pursue other leads," he said.

On July 28, Fortuna police announced they'd made an arrest in a shooting that occurred four days earlier, with detectives saying Miguel Angel Moreno, 19, had opened fire on someone out of a moving vehicle over a years-old grudge stemming from a dispute at a quinceañera.

Then, last month, police responded to a report of a gunshot fired on Smith Lane to find a 17-year-old lying on the ground, bleeding from what detectives later determined to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his groin area. Day said investigators believe the juvenile was riding his bicycle home and had the firearm in his waistband "or pocket area," when he reached down to adjust the weapon and "inadvertently pulled the trigger," shooting himself. Police alleged the boy then tried to cover up what had happened, going home, changing clothes and stashing the gun under his mattress before family members found him and called an ambulance.

Day said the gun in that incident is believed to have come from a "source outside the home," though it was still under investigation.

The police chief expressed frustration with new laws in California that significantly limit the circumstances under which police can interrogate minors aged 17 and under, and that resulted in the 15 year old arrested Sept. 8 being released from custody after his February arrest for attempted murder.

"Those types of violent offenders belong in jail, and accountability needs to return to the state of California," Day said, adding that those who "want to point the finger" should look at the Legislature, not the folks running the local juvenile hall.

As to the spate of recent cases involving teenagers and firearms or gun violence, Day said his department was making juveniles carrying firearms "a top enforcement priority," though he said he does not believe it is an issue unique to Fortuna.

Day said he's grateful to the community member who came forward with information about the 15 year old bringing a gun to Eel River Community School, adding that he's hopeful anyone in the community with information about illegal firearms possession will do the same.

Young agreed.

"A community member stepped forward and said, 'I am concerned about this.' If that had happened in every place we've heard of school shootings, would their outcome have been different?" she said. "We are just so grateful that community member came forward."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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