To say Jerome Silvels was in the wrong place at the wrong time is an understatement.
The 27-year-old is one of 11 young men arrested in connection with a June 15 Mission Bay Park shooting that left one alleged gang member dead and two others wounded. The prosecution in the case has charged that, on that day, rival gangs from Lincoln Park and Skyline met up near Bonita Cove-considered a gang hangout-looking for a fight. Witnesses say the gunman donned a green bandana-Lincoln Park's color-just before the confrontation.
Under California's aiding-and-abetting law, though police are certain there was a single shooter, all 11 arrestees have been charged with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. If convicted, they could spend 25 years to life in prison.
Since his arrest on Sept. 27, friends, family and community leaders have rallied to support Silvels, insisting that the soft-spoken young man who coaches basketball at the San Carlos recreation center couldn't have had anything to do with the shooting, let alone participate in gang activity. They've set up a website (www.releasejerome.com); they've made T-shirts to wear to court hearings and have held two community meetings to urge anyone who knows Silvels to write letters of support to the judge.
Some of those letters have been posted on the website. “Certainly a mistake has been made,” writes a father of four whose kids Silvels supervised at the rec center. “I would like you to know that Jerome is one of the finest people I have associated with.” Another letter is from one of the kids Silvels coached: “He always made me feel special.... I am very sad that something like this could happen to such a nice man.”
Superior Court Judge John Thompson set bail for all 11 men at a staggering $2 million-up from $1 million after the judge, Silvels' mother reports, detected a smirk on the face of one of the defendants. Silvels' lawyer, Inge Brauer, managed to get his bail reduced to $750,000, but his family has been unable to come up with the bond money needed to get him out of jail. He's currently incarcerated at the South Bay Detention Facility in Chula Vista.
Silvels was once involved with the Lincoln Park gang and was documented by police as a gang member. When he was 16, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting, struck by bullets in the head and leg, though it was never determined whether the shooting was gang-related.
Interviewed at the detention center last Thursday, Silvels willingly told CityBeat that he was arrested 10 years ago, as a juvenile, on a misdemeanor battery charge. He talks about his past, though, like it was a lifetime ago. Since the 1994 arrest, his record has been clean.
Silvels' mother, Peggy, said that nine years ago, her son made a decision to turn his life around. He switched from Lincoln High School to Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley and moved to his mother's place in La Mesa. “He hasn't been active in a gang for many, many years,” she said.
At the time of his arrest, Silvels was studying to be a probation officer, attending classes at Grossmont College while maintaining his job at the rec center and spending time with his sons, ages 4 and 9. He lived in low-income housing in Bay Park in order to afford to stay in school. His busy schedule-which included taking the trolley and then a bus to get to work, left little time for much else. But, his mother said, he was working toward a goal.
“He had direction, he had a purpose,” she said.
On Tuesday, Silvels, along with his co-defendants, entered a plea of not guilty. A trial is scheduled to begin May 20, and barring successful motions by the defendants' lawyers, all 11 could be tried en masse.
Rosemary Billburg, who's been Silvels' boss at the rec center for the past five years, attended the Tuesday hearing with her two daughters. All three are big fans of Silvels and had tears in their eyes when they saw sheriff's deputies escort the young man out of the courtroom in shackles.
Billburg described Silvels as “a decent, kind person who I trust completely.” She said that at the rec center, Silvels was popular with kids and parents-so much so that one of the kids he coached pledged his $300 savings to get Silvels out of jail.
“If you meet him, you'd realize he's not capable of what the DA says he's done,” said Billburg.
In an e-mail to CityBeat, Sharon Jenkins, one of Billburg's daughters, described Silvels as a “victim of circumstance.” The District Attorney “does not see Jerome as an individual,” Jenkins noted, “as a man that has held the same job for almost nine years, who was attending Grossmont College and who is greatly appreciated by the San Carlos community in which he works. Rather, the District Attorney has painted a picture of Jerome as ‘another black gang member'.... For those of us who know Jerome, [this] description is unbelievable.”
Silvels told CityBeat he went alone that day to Mission Bay Park, where he had planned to meet up with some friends to attend the annual Puerto Rican festival, something they've done in past years, “to check out the girls,” he added. He was standing with a group of 12 or 15 guys, some he knew, some he didn't, when a larger group-30 to 40 strong by Silvels' estimate-approached.
Words were exchanged and Silvels heard someone with his group say they didn't want any trouble. Someone from the other side replied, “There's no truce,” and a fight broke out. Shots came from a single gun drawn by a kid who was trying to protect his brother. After six gunshots, Travis Thomas was dead and two others were injured.
Silvels said he had his back to the shooter and when he heard gunshots, he dropped to the ground and then ran to his car. He insists that as far as he knows, the shooting wasn't part of a planned gang battle.
“I don't think anyone would go to the beach on Father's Day and look for trouble with families and kids there,” he said.
Police arrested four suspected gang members in July. Silvels and three others were arrested at the end of September. Three more arrests brought the total number of defendants to 11. San Diego Police Lt. Vince Vallalvazo, a member of the department's gang unit, said it was the largest mass arrest for a single crime that he's seen.
A gag order issued by Judge Thompson has prevented both defense and prosecution lawyers from talking to the press. The evidence prosecutors have against Silvels, however, seems largely circumstantial. One witness who identified him as a Lincoln Park gang member later admitted in court that she had lied, Silvels' supporters said, and a videotape of the event secured by police is out of focus and doesn't capture the confrontation.
Tukufu Kalonji, a community leader and activist who has come to Silvels' aid, said that he chose to advocate for Silvels after talking to the young man's family and witnessing community support. “I have to feel in my heart-not just feel, but believe-that this young man is innocent,” said Kalonji, who publicly criticized police for ignoring the fact that Silvels' life has made a 180-degree turn since he was a teen.
“Here's a man who's doing everything right, taking care of his children,” said Kalonji. “He has this history, nine years' worth, where he's doing something different. This is a young man who's made a transformation in his life and is now caught in this web of tragedy.”
Tuesday in court it was easy to see that incarceration is wearing on Silvels; it'll be another four months before a trial even begins. Charged with first-degree murder, he's been jailed with others accused of similar crimes-“killers who don't really care about life,” he told CityBeat. “You gotta watch yourself.”
For now, Silvels, who, in person, impresses one as thoughtful, well-spoken and not the gang member he's made out to be, says he's taking things “day by day.”
“Everything's running through my head-my kids, my job. I have a lot to lose sitting in here.
“If they can just hear my side of the story,” he said.