ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Twenty-four shootings in 23 days: That’s how many shooting incidents the Orange County Sheriff’s Office has investigated since Sept. 1.
Authorities say there have been 14 victims as a result of the gunfire and four have been younger than 18 years old.
“In less than 24 hours, earlier this week, two innocent children in our community were gunned down in acts of targeted violence,” Sheriff John Mina said.
Mina addressed the deaths of the most recent victims, 3-year-old Daquane James Felix Jr. who was shot in the head Tuesday night and 14-year-old Joshua Atkinson who was gunned down Monday. He said they were caught in the crossfire of retaliatory attacks from two prominent gangs within the county.
“We are going to be taking those bad guys off of our streets to keep our community safe," Sheriff Mina said.
“But those are just two of the four drive-by shootings that have happened within that this past week. Each one we believe, our detectives believe, is an act of gang retaliation,” he said during a Wednesday news conference.
Accompanied by sergeants from OCSO’s peoples and homicides units, the sheriff said the gang violence was rampant and growing more dangerous as it continued to spill into the community. The shootings have increased since this summer, according to Mina.
“We’ve seen an increase in violence and retaliation that is intensified since the drive-by shooting on Powers Ridge Court in July. At least for shootouts in public places took place between then and Aug. 7,” the sheriff said.
He turned to Sgt. Paul Volkerson to draw the connection in the latest string of shootings that the sheriff’s office believes is likely to be directly tied to gang activity. Deputies noted, however, that not all of the shootings this month were gang related.
Volkerson said the trail begins July 7 with the drive-by shooting death of Jeremiah Robinson, who killed by a rival gang member, according to investigators. The shooter was eventually identified as Vanshawn Sands, but he was not immediately arrested.
“The following three weeks after the shooting, we had three drive-by style shootings that were retaliatory shootings that were related,” he said.
Volkerson noted a 12-year-old bystander was shot at Rolling Hills Apartments Aug. 2. The child survived but no arrests have been made.
A few days later on Aug. 7, deputies were trying to arrest Sands on a warrant regarding the July 7 drive-by shooting as well as Christopher Bennet at the Florida Mall. This is when events escalated and an OSCO deputy shot 22-year-old Salaythis Melvin in the back. Melvin, who the sheriff says was a known gang member and carrying a stolen handgun, died from his injuries.
Deputies say they recovered a stolen gun from the Florida Mall incident.
Volkerson said shortly after, a gang member was shot at while picking up his children from day care along Pine Hills road on Aug. 10. Authorities said people from a rival gang drove by, firing shots that struck the day care and the vehicle -- both with children inside.
“Several rounds penetrated the car with his small children inside the car as he was loading them in. Some of the rounds missed his car, struck the day care center and went through the walls of the day care center,” Volkerson said. “Children were put in danger by the rounds going into the day care center.”
Volkerson then addressed Monday’s drive-by shooting along Glendale Road, the sheriff adding 14-year-old Atkison was not involved in gang activity. A 15-year-old was also shot and taken to the hospital in critical condition. As of Wednesday, he was listed as stable but still critical, according to authorities.
Later that same day, another home on Pine Hills Road was shot up, according to investigators. Volkerson said over the last month, the home has been fired at several times in drive-by style shootings.
He said on Tuesday when the home was targeted, 3-year-old Felix was shot and killed in another drive-by.
“If you go back and look at it, this is constant over and over violence that these gang members are retaliating with each other,” the sergeant said.
The sheriff said as a result of the increased violence, his office has assembled an internal task force and is cooperating with the Orlando Police Department to stop the rash of shootings in their area as well. Mina said beyond law enforcement, he’s also working with the State Attorney’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office to adopt cases federally when possible.
“So because of our efforts, so far, we’ve been working these cases, going back to July, we have made 20 arrests and recovered over two dozen firearms, many of them stolen, some of them high powered rifles that can shoot through buildings, and shoot through the body armor that our deputies wear,” Mina said.
He said he also plans to increase patrols in the neighborhoods that seem to be consistently caught in the crossfire of these shootings. He told the community that his deputies will wear plain clothes more often and likely be in unmarked patrol vehicles as they do surveillance.
“Because these gang members, they don’t stop for our cars, they don’t stop for our regular deputies. So we have to be a little smarter than and do a lot of surveillance and use a lot of different techniques to catch them off guard,” Mina said.
For the strategy to be successful, the sheriff said he needs the community’s help especially from those who have children or family members in gangs.
“They know their young sons, and in some cases, daughters are involved in gangs or are gang members and are carrying guns," he said. “Watch who your kids are hanging out with, watch what they are doing.”
He advised neighbors to get used to their presence as they work to mitigate the gang violence across the county. Addressing concerns about over-policing in underserved communities, Mina said the increased presence was to potentially save lives and keep families safe.
“Let me make this very clear, we are going to be in that community to prevent a three year old from being shot killed-- we have to be in that community," he said. "And I expect that community will demand that we be in their community, putting these violent offenders behind bars, where they belong.”
Sheriff Mina said gang violence is the number one priority in the community right now.
“We are going to catch them, we are going to catch them and we are going to put them all in prison," he said.