Case Illustrates Challenges Posed by Suspected Gang Members in Montgomery County Jail

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009

When teenagers Alvin Valdez and Jose Romero were booked into the Montgomery County jail this month, their alleged gang ties hardly made them unique.

On any day, authorities say, about 125 of the roughly 730 inmates at the Clarksburg facility are gang members -- something that affects how corrections officers manage the day-to-day routine inside the walls.

"That's a huge challenge for them," Montgomery State's Attorney John McCarthy (D) said of those running the jail. "Obviously, one of the challenges they have is keeping people separated."

Valdez, 16, and Romero, 14, are charged as adults in connection with the stabbing of Henry Ortiz, 20, who was pronounced dead at a hospital a week after he was stabbed in the heart March 11 in an incident near a Georgia Avenue bus stop in Aspen Hill.

Authorities originally charged Valdez and Romero with attempted murder and were expected to secure additional charges against the two this week. Police allege the two belong to Lil' R, a gang with perhaps 15 to 18 members, based in Wheaton. The victim had ties to another gang, Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, police said.

Police allege that as Valdez and Romero ran from the scene after the victim was stabbed, they high-fived each other before hiding out in a back yard for five hours to escape a manhunt. They were arrested three days later.

Romero's uncle, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation, said that his nephew didn't know Valdez had a knife during the fight and that his nephew was not a gang member.

"He's 14. He's very scared," the uncle said of his nephew being locked up with men more than twice his age. "He is a decent kid."

Reynaldo Valdez, Alvin's father, said he moved from Guam to the mainland United States in 2002 and brought Alvin and his twin brother to Maryland in 2006. After arriving, his son told him he needed a "friend" to feel safe at school, but Reynaldo Valdez said he didn't know whether his son was in a gang.

Reynaldo Valdez said he tries to keep up with his sons but can't when he is away all day on home improvement jobs. "I tell them to go straight to school," Reynaldo Valdez said, adding that his son has told him from jail that he was acting in self-defense.

"I'm sorry, Dad," he told him, according to his father.

Arthur M. Wallenstein, director of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, declined to discuss numbers, saying that to do so might compromise larger security measures. "Any subculture group can constitute a security threat. Gangs are no different," he said. "The issue of gangs needs our attention on a daily basis."

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