HAVERHILL — Police said an employee of an organization that works to curb gang violence took it upon himself to arrange paintball games at Plug Pond between rival gangs to work out their differences without resorting to real violence.
The plan did not work out as intended, police said.
Somehow, following the Sept. 9 event at Plug Pond, things got out of hand and what police described as “paintball wars” erupted and spilled over into neighborhoods and city parks, resulting in damage to numerous homes, vehicles, and city property, police said in a report.
Police said that over the past few weeks, they have been inundated with calls about neighborhoods and city parks being struck by paintballs and that witnesses said they had seen people in cars firing paintball guns while wearing paintball masks.
One of the people charged with defacing property, Eric Cruz, 25, of 72 Portland St., Apt. 2, told police he is employed with UTEC (United Teen Equality Center). Police said Cruz has been affiliated with the Gangster Disciples gang but that his job with UTEC is to serve as a mentor and leader with the goal of reducing gang violence.
Cruz told police he had devised a plan to curb the ongoing gang war between the GDs (Gangster Disciples) and the Trinny’s (Trinitario gang) by setting up the paintball war at Plug Pond.
Police charged both Cruz and Elijah Declet, 22, of 6 Greenhill Farm Road with six counts each of defacing property and one count each of disorderly conduct.
Declet was arraigned on the charges Wednesday in Haverhill District Court and held overnight without bail so he could be fitted on Thursday with a GPS tracking device, court officials said. He was ordered to remain drug and alcohol free and have no contact with co-defendants.
Others charged last week with defacing property in connection to a paintball battle that took place on Nichols Street are Javani Flowers, 19, of 71 Brockton Ave.; Wilfredo Pizzarro, 21, of 36 Nichols St., Apt. 3, and Dante Ellen, 21, of 120 Broadway, Apt. 10.
All three were ordered to remain drug and alcohol free and must observe curfews, with exceptions for work.
Flowers was also ordered to attend UTEC five days a week.
Cruz was arraigned Thursday in Haverhill District Court and was released on personal recognizance. He must obey a curfew that varied based on his employment and have no contact with his co-defendants, Declet and Flowers.
The nonprofit UTEC organization, based at 241 Winter St., works in partnership with police to identify young men who are most active in gangs in the city. Once identified, UTEC’s “streetworkers” build relationships with those young men to recruit them into the UTEC program.
Gregg Croteau, CEO of UTEC, confirmed that Cruz is employed as a street worker for the organization.
“Any alleged actions on the part of Eric (Cruz) were done on his own and without the approval of UTEC,” Croteau said.
Asked about Cruz’ employment status with UTEC, Croteau said, “It’s now a personnel matter that is currently under review.”
Croteau said UTEC is in no way involved in these paintball wars and in fact continues to work to peacefully resolve disputes between rival gangs.
“Our whole mission is the make the community safer,” he said. “We don’t condone any type of gun violence or even the imitation of violence, no matter what the intention is.”
On Sept. 10 about 3:25 p.m., police responded to Franklin Street on a report of three men wearing paintball masks and driving a rental vehicle. The men, who police said were in possession of paintball guns and masks, said they had engaged in a paintball battle the night before at Plug Pond. Police impounded the vehicle as its driver was not authorized to operate it.
While waiting for a tow, Cruz arrived to transport the three men.
Cruz told police he had arranged for the paintball battle at Plug Pond. Police warned him to stop this activity.
Several hours later, police were dispatched to North Street on a report of a blue Honda Accord that drove by and its passengers were shooting paintballs.
Police said the Honda was registered to Cruz. Video surveillance showed a group of people congregating in the driveway of 48 North St., when Cruz’ car slows down and the two groups exchange fire with paintball guns, police said.
Police said they subsequently spoke to Cruz at his home and that he denied being involved in shooting paintballs. Police said it was apparent that Cruz had not heeded their earlier warning to cease all paintball activity.
In a Sept. 15 police report, two apartment buildings on Jackson Street Extension were shot with real guns and that was deemed gang related, “ultimately concluding that the paintball wars are in no way de-escalating the violence between the Gangster Disciples and Trinitarios,” police said.