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Sunday, March 8, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Story Of A Drive-By Murder

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Four years ago this month, Brian Ronquillo pulled a trigger outside Ballard High School and killed an innocent girl. The shooting ruined lives and brought unending grief to many families. It also brought a welcome consequence: the demise of one of Seattle's most bumbling youth gangs.

WALLA WALLA - The boy who killed Melissa Fernandes has grown into a man. A small young man with a bald head. Brian Ronquillo is 20 years old, no longer the blank-faced adolescent without a clue. He knows stuff now. At the very least, he knows that lives can be undone in a single moment.

The knowledge shows on his face, the look of someone sober after a long drunk spell. The eyes suggest a kind of regret. The mouth forms a straight, penitent line. Right now, though, he's drawing attention to his shaved skull.

"Hard head," he says, raising a finger to a spot above his temple. He says he got caught up in a bad way, didn't listen to admonitions, and this - tap-tap-tap - is why he ended up here, serving 52 years in the Washington State Penitentiary.

As an explanation, it doesn't say much about why he did what he did outside Ballard High School in Seattle four years ago this month.

But what theory could explain how a bright, talented 16-year-old student with a clean record and wide-open future, who came from a loving, stable, middle-class family that provided every material thing he needed - how could someone like this wrap a bandanna around his face, point a gun at a crowd of students and pull the trigger, not once, but eight times?

Most agreed Ronquillo was immature, eager to impress and loyal to the wrong crowd. His attorney, Anthony Savage, said as much during his trial, but Savage also ascribed a tragic quality to his client: Here was a basically decent kid who made a single, disastrous mistake.

Ronquillo and his family say his 52-year sentence was too harsh for his first and only criminal offense. They say he did not get a fair trial. The state Court of Appeals, however, said he did, and denied Ronquillo's appeal last week. Now he and his family are preparing to petition the state Supreme Court to review the case.

As the trigger man in what was arguably the most notorious Seattle killing of 1994 - the only murder ever of a student on Seattle School District property - Ronquillo embodied the worst fears of a gang culture out of control. Seattle police recorded an all-time-high number of drive-by shootings that year.

Fernandes' mother, Tammy Fernandes, 39, spoke for many when she said Ronquillo got what he deserved and should be given no options, "just as `Missy' was given no choice."

At the end of Ronquillo's trial, Tammy Fernandes spoke of closure and of healing. She's experienced neither. She says she relives those last moments with Melissa every day. The memory of her daughter's face in the hospital "sits right here at the top of my brain. It doesn't go away. I can't tell you how much it hurts.

"I wonder if he hurts, too."

Ronquillo didn't testify at his trial and said nothing publicly except at the end, just before he was sentenced. He apologized to the Fernandes family and to his own family for causing so much pain. It was a short, mechanical statement. Tammy Fernandes doesn't even remember it. In her mind, and in the public's mind, Ronquillo has been mute since the shooting.

Ronquillo has told friends he's grown up in prison. He claims to be 6 inches taller and four years smarter. He squirms when asked, face to face, if he has also grown in perspective, grown enough to understand the gravity of what he did on March 23, 1994.

`I really don't think much'

Brian Ronquillo walked into the interview room wearing white Converse sneakers, blue jeans and a sweat shirt. He had a slow, loose-limbed way of walking, which in some circles translates into "cool." He seemed at home in the room, a tiny cinder-block chamber with a guard station outside the door.

He slumped in a chair and constantly ran a hand over his head, as if the questions were too hard. He bounced his knee as he did throughout his trial. The bald head made him look meaner than he was. He still had a boy's voice.

As he spoke, it became apparent he was not someone given to deep reflection, although a clear intelligence came through. When talking about subjects he liked - cars, girls, movies - he smiled and laughed.

But with questions about Melissa Fernandes or "the incident," as he called it, he grew uncomfortable and acted as if his head hurt. His constant refrain was, "I really don't think much."

"Do I understand the gravity of my crime? Yeah, I won't lie, it was a pretty bad crime, you know. But, I don't know. I guess when I got locked up, I just - pssshhhht - shut out everything. I really don't think much. I block out everything emotionally, you know, so I don't feel much. If you think too much in here, it'll wear you down and break you mentally.

"I don't want to be some ding going crazy up on the third floor (psychiatric ward). In juvenile, people were like, `Man, they just gave you 52 years, if I was you, I'd commit suicide.' I said, `But I'm not you. I'm a lot stronger.' "

Survival is something he was proud of - barely out of his teens, not quite 5 1/2 feet tall, living in a concentration of the meanest men in the state and holding his own.

He hasn't been raped, bullied, nor even been in a fight. He spends his days listening to music on the radio or on cassettes sent by his sister. He watches TV and reads entertainment magazines. "I'm not too swell on books," he said. At night he sleeps with headphones, filling his head with music, as if to block out thought.

Home is a 10-by-12-foot cell in a high-security wing of the prison. He has two cell mates with whom, he said, he's become close. His part of the cell, which consists mostly of the top-left bunk, displays signs of his professed changed life: two Catholic rosaries, three Bibles, four pictures of his family taped to his headboard.

Some things he couldn't change, like the blue dots tattooed between the knuckles of his fist - two dots here, three dots there - signifying the number 23. That was the name of his gang, the 23rd Street Diablos, more commonly known on the streets as simply The 23rd, named after a street on Seattle's Beacon Hill.

This was not a subject Ronquillo wanted to talk about. He could hardly even say the word "gang," so damaging has the word been to him. He referred to it only as "the life," as in: "I don't know what happened. Somewhere along the line, I got caught up in the life."

Infatuated with rap

Survival was not an issue for Ronquillo growing up. The picture that emerged from court records and interviews was of a stable, industrious family that had earned its place in the ranks of the comfortable middle class.

His parents, Bonifacio and Myrna Ronquillo, worked long hours, she as a toxicologist, he as a technician for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. They lived in a spacious home in Shoreline.

Bonifacio, a retired Navy man, also received a good pension. Deeply religious, he didn't drink or smoke, and required a military efficiency from his family: up at 6 a.m., showered and dressed and bed made by 6:45, breakfast together by 7 or 7:30.

Ronquillo and his sister, Maryann, seemed to thrive under the strict guidance. At St. Luke's, a Catholic K-8 school a few blocks from home, both kids were popular and got good grades. Ronquillo made a name for himself as a rap artist, winning the school's talent show in his last year before attending Blanchet High School in North Seattle, where he became an honor student his freshman year.

He was a little guy, not even 5 feet tall at the time, with a round face and a full, bushy head of hair. Friends described him as a clown, full of energy and willing to play the fool for laughs. "He was always the one to say, `Let's do this, let's do that,' " a former classmate said.

He was heavily influenced by rap music. He began to take on the walk and talk of his favorite rap artists, saying "Whassup cuz?" and "Whassup blood?" as a way of greeting friends and rivals.

In his sophomore year at Blanchet, classmates said, he started taking on "a gang look" at a time when it was just becoming fashionable - the baggy clothes, tilted baseball caps and oversized coats. But Ronquillo also seemed to acquire the attitude: the nonchalant cool and the respect-me-or-else pose of a street fighter.

That year, Ronquillo was implicated in three separate graffiti incidents and was asked to withdraw from Blanchet - the only blemish on his record.

He transferred to Shorewood High School and seemed to fully embrace "the life." He skipped classes and let his grades drop. By that time, Ronquillo and his father butted heads frequently. His father's strict ways no longer suited him and his new friends.

Ronquillo managed to keep his life with The 23rd a secret from his family and church. They attributed the boy's change to adolescent rebellion. And a lot of it was exactly that. But Ronquillo's friends had a nasty habit of carrying guns and firing them.

`Code of the streets'

If it weren't for the guns, The 23rd would be just a cluster of mischievous boys who happened to dislike other clusters of mischievous boys. The gang was not into dealing drugs (although some smoked marijuana) and didn't have a clearly marked turf.

"They were basically a social group," said Tom Nakao, a gang-intervention counselor who had close ties to the gang. "At least that's how they started. They talked tough, they acted tough, but most of these kids were not hard core."

The 23rd was a loose-knit, casual group of friends with numerous overlapping circles of classmates, cousins and acquaintances. Most were of Filipino descent, although there were whites and other Southeast Asians among them.

The gang roughly broke down into a North End group, made up of younger kids like Ronquillo, and a South End group made up of slightly older kids living on Beacon Hill and in the Rainier Valley.

Members of the two groups went to dances together and played pool or hung out at friends' houses listening to music. A few got into trouble with the law for car prowls and theft. Some had been kicked out of school for fighting.

But individually, outside the context of the gang, they often impressed people with their politeness and deference. It wasn't an act. If anything was an act, it was the gangster pose. This duality in behavior was broached several times during court hearings. Kathy Powers, Ronquillo's juvenile probation officer, testified that Ronquillo "essentially led two lives."

What held the boys of The 23rd together was a common infatuation with that other life, one immersed in the "gang culture," made up of certain strains of music and dress and codes of conduct. The boys liked to think they lived according to the "code of the streets" even though many lived on spacious tree-lined avenues in the suburbs.

They got into the life because they wanted to. It gave them camaraderie, excitement, status - a low status in the eyes of adults, but in the upside-down world of adolescent rebellion, low was good; low was cool.

The gang also gave them power. The more power, the better. And what more glorified tool of power was there for the common man, or boy, than the handgun. Only a few members had them. It became frightfully clear that most knew little about how to use them, and knew less about their deadly force.

The 23rd Street Diablos will be remembered most for this:

The victims in the gang's three most destructive acts were all innocent girls. None of them were intended victims. In each case, the shooter seemed astonished his bullets caused harm. Twice, the bullets killed.

Lethal gunplay

The first shooting happened July 3, 1992, when a car full of 23rd members dueled with another car on Interstate 5. In the other car was a member of a rival gang called the Bad Side Posse. Both groups were from South Seattle, and had had a run-in earlier in the day at Boom City, a strip of fireworks stands on the Tulalip reservation north of Everett.

On the way back to Seattle, someone in the BSP car threw a metal pipe at the Diablo car, and the BSP car sped ahead. The driver of the Diablo car, Huy Vu Nguyen Dang, shot three times at the BSP car. One bullet struck 17-year-old Carrie Tran in the back of the head. She died the same day. Tran, a recent graduate of Seattle's Ingraham High School, was not a BSP member.

Dang, 19, on the other hand was a known member of The 23rd and had the tattoos to prove it. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Because the shooting happened near Everett, Dang's trial took place in Snohomish County and was not widely reported in Seattle.

A police report stated that Dang "was shocked that he killed someone" and wanted "to express to the victim's parents how he did not mean it."

The second shooting took place in a parked car in North Seattle on Feb. 22, 1994. Jerome Reyes, then 17 and a member of The 23rd, was showing off a .38;-caliber revolver to two teenage girls seated next to him.

While playing with the safety latch, he accidentally fired the gun, shooting Erica Segalbaum, a ninth-grader from Edmonds. The girl was hit in the left arm and chest and suffered a punctured lung but survived.

Reyes was charged with third-degree assault. His father, a minister, pleaded to the judge that the shooting was accidental and that his son was "truly and sincerely remorseful." The judge released Reyes under the restrictions that he observe a curfew, handle no firearms and stay away from further trouble.

A month later, Reyes was one of 11 people arrested after the murder of Melissa Fernandes. Reyes was blamed by everyone as the instigator. It began when three members of the Bad Side Posse, The 23rd's old rivals, called Reyes a punk and chased him off the Ballard High School campus.

`Two tears streaming down'

Two days later, on March 23, 1994, Reyes returned with two carloads of 23rd friends to the exact location where he was run off - near the corner of Northwest 68th Street and 14th Avenue Northwest - on the north side of the school, a BSP hangout.

One of the people in the lead car was Brian Ronquillo.

The 23rd and BSP had a running rivalry since before the I-5 shooting. The BSP were mostly Laotian. If traced back far enough, one would probably find the conflict began with a Filipino kid getting into a fight with a Laotian kid.

In the process of calling in allies, a gang conflict was born. The hostility escalated even as the origin was forgotten. That's how it often happened. The animosity became a given. As Reyes later said during the trial: "We don't like them, and they don't like us."

The 23rd members arrived at Ballard High around lunch hour, got out of their cars and confronted a group of BSPs, but the 23rd members fled when someone said a police car was in the area. The BSPs laughed at them.

A little more than an hour later, about 1:30 p.m., two carloads of 23rd members returned to the school. In the interim, Ronquillo had borrowed a gun from a friend and put it in his backpack. It was a Mac-12 semiautomatic handgun, a weapon originally developed for the military.

It's doubtful Ronquillo had ever fired a gun like this. Former members of the gang say they don't think he'd ever fired a gun, period. When asked the question in person, Ronquillo said, "I can't talk about that."

The crowd outside the school had changed. Now there were only two BSP members standing around with other students. Melissa Fernandes was next to them. It was just after fifth period, and she was waiting for her mother to pick her up.

Fernandes was well-liked, pretty and sociable, and tough in her own way. She was known as a peacemaker and lover of animals, and told anyone who'd listen that she wanted to be a marine biologist. She wanted to see the world, and had friends who wanted to see it, too. She mingled in many circles, and knew the young men in the two approaching cars.

She was regarded as a friend of The 23rd, and had no reason to fear them. Witnesses said that, as the cars approached, Fernandes actually walked toward them. Some said she was going to try to calm the situation; others said she was just going to say "Hi." She never had a chance.

As the lead car, a red Nissan Sentra, got within 10 to 12 feet, Ronquillo, in the front passenger seat and wearing a blue bandanna over the bottom half of his face, pulled the Mac-12 from his backpack and began firing. Investigators later said that, based on witnesses' reports and ballistics, Ronquillo continued firing even after the car had passed the crowd.

Most of the people standing around, including the two BSP members, hit the ground. Fernandes stayed standing, and one witness said she had a look of incredulity on her face. She was turning away when she was hit with a bullet just above and behind her left ear.

The bullet broke into four lead fragments as it hit her head. The fragments tore through different sections of her brain. Examiners later said brain activity probably stopped immediately. She fell to her knees, clutching the back of her head, and fell face forward. Someone turned her over.

"The last memory of her will scar my life forever," said Vanessa Reeder, a classmate at Ballard. "I ran outside. . . . There was my best friend lying on the ground in a pool of blood. She had an inanimate expression on her face, with two tears streaming down."

Fernandes was taken to Harborview Medical Center where she underwent surgery. Before the surgery, "I held her toes, I held her feet, I held her arms and fingers, I laid on her chest," her mother, Tammy Fernandes, said. "She just looked at me. I'll never forget that image, her looking at me."

Tammy Fernandes said Melissa was unrecognizable after surgery. "She was different. It wasn't my daughter anymore." Melissa Fernandes was taken off life support and died 22 hours after she had been shot.

A police officer who later questioned the suspects said: "The fact that they hit her has really stunned them. Most of them didn't think anyone was to be killed or that Melissa Fernandes would be the victim."

`Even if we lose everything'

The shooting took place on a Wednesday afternoon. By the following Saturday night, Seattle police had arrested 11 people. All 11 were convicted of various charges in connection with Fernandes' death.

Ronquillo and Cesar Sarausad, the driver of the red Nissan, were tried together as adults. Ronquillo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 52 years. Sarausad got second-degree murder and 27 years. Sarausad also appealed his conviction and is awaiting a decision. Reyes pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to eight years.

The other eight defendants pleaded guilty to rendering criminal assistance and were back on the streets by Christmas. One of those boys, Lucas Gosho, 20, was convicted of a nonfatal drive-by shooting last year at the Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood. He was sent back to prison for six years.

Ronquillo's appeal was based partly on the argument that he did not intend to kill anyone, least of all Fernandes. This essentially was his defense during the trial: He'd meant only to scare his rivals and apparently was a bad shot.

His appeals lawyer, Eric Nielsen, argued that, to be convicted of first-degree murder, which requires proof of premeditation, the court had to show that Ronquillo was specifically trying to kill Fernandes, and neither the police nor prosecutors presented any evidence of that.

A conviction of second-degree murder or manslaughter, Nielsen said, would have been more fitting, and the penalty more appropriate - 20 to 30 years less than Ronquillo's current sentence. Nielsen has until April 1 to petition the state Supreme Court to review the case.

The Ronquillo family added the disappointment of last week's appellate-court ruling to a list of emotional setbacks. Traumatized by the loss of a son and the instant notoriety of their name, the family moved from Shoreline to a house north of Lynnwood. Twice a month, they drive 10 hours round trip to Walla Walla for a two-hour visit with Brian.

"I just want my son home," said a somber Myrna Ronquillo, 46. This is her constant refrain. It seems to answer every question. Myrna Ronquillo has tried to stay busy, working two full-time jobs, to keep from dwelling on her pain. "We have to stay strong. We have two kids, and we have to take care of them."

Her husband, Bonifacio Ronquillo, 48, when not working at the Postal Inspection Service, can often be found in the sixth-floor law library of the King County Courthouse. There, he pores through law books, looking for anything that might help in his son's appeal.

"Who would have thought this could happen to my family? We tried to do everything good for my son," Bonifacio Ronquillo said. "Now we will do everything we can for his appeal. Even if we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. Even if we lose everything we own."

A life lost over nothing

Brian Ronquillo once again knocked on his head. "Matigas ng ulo," he said, which in his Philippine dialect meant "hard head."

If he'd listened to his father about staying home, or to the dream he'd had two weeks before the shooting, in which a black angel warned him something terrible was going to happen - maybe he'd be playing hoops at the playground instead of sitting in a guarded room being asked whether he was sorry for his crime.

He said he prays for Fernandes and her family every night, and asks for forgiveness from God. He even recited the prayers verbatim in the interview room. Yet something about his remorse wasn't quite persuasive.

Ronquillo never saw Melissa Fernandes fall to the ground, her head punctured, never saw her being loaded onto an ambulance and driven away. Those images can't haunt him because he didn't see them. He was long gone.

The drive-by shooting may be one of the most cowardly of violent acts precisely because it's committed simultaneously with fleeing. There's distance between the act and the result. The shooter often doesn't see the damage inflicted, and doesn't have to acknowledge it, except in the abstract, like in a video game.

To many young people enamored with "the life," gangs are partly a game to begin with. And for the uninitiated, a drive-by can be part of the game - a detached, bloodless activity with no immediate risks.

After the shooting at Ballard, seen by dozens of witnesses, the two carloads of 23rd members went to Seattle's Northgate Mall to play video games. One wonders whether any thought at all was given to possible consequences.

A welcome one was that the 23rd Street Diablos died.

Tom Nakao, the gang intervention counselor, said the shooting depleted their ranks and shook up the members so much, the group stopped gathering and never resumed. "I've never seen a group so vilified by the press as hard core disappear so quickly," he said.

"They realized all of it happened over nothing really. Nothing. Now they're a whisper of the past."

Seattle police say gang activity is down on all fronts. The number of drive-by shootings last year, 36, was the lowest in this decade. The year of the Ballard shooting, 1994, there were 77.

Sgt. Steve Martin of the SPD gang unit said the explanation for the decrease is simple: Many of the hard core gangsters - the leaders, the trigger men, the big-time drug dealers - are in prison. They won't be there forever. A few are beginning to trickle out now, and Martin said his unit is anticipating "an upswing" in activity in the next year or two.

Ronquillo, in a fleeting moment of reflection, offered up a morsel of wisdom for those caught up in the life.

"All I've got to say is look at me," he said. "I was 16 when I got locked up. I've done four years. I've got 48 to go."

He raised both hands, like two sides of the scales of justice. "Over here, you're 16 and free and having fun. Over here, you're 16 and sitting in the penitentiary for the rest of your life. Just weigh that."

To be sure, Ronquillo has weighed his actions at Ballard High School over and over again. He understands the enormous waste, as only a young man facing a half-century in prison can.

As for the pain he's caused others, Tammy Fernandes doubts Ronquillo can know its depth. She tells how, four years after the murder, her 14-year-old, Nicki, "still aches for Missy," sometimes going for days without speaking or leaving her room. And how her 5-year-old, Kelly, points to every church on the road and says, "There's Missy's house."

The heart can break so many times, Tammy Fernandes says. Each time, she holds it together by force of will because she has to. Sometimes, she crumbles into a grief so private, she can't share it with anyone.

In those moments, she says she knows Brian Ronquillo will never comprehend what his one blind act has done. It is her refrain. He'll never know how far the one bullet traveled. In her mind, it hasn't stopped. Alex Tizon has written about gang culture for the Times since 1989. His phone message number is 206-464-2216. His e-mail address is: atiz-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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