Sergeant Mike Sanchez walked into a morning RCMP debriefing in 2015.
What he saw in the room stunned him. A grim-looking mugshot of gangster Sean Kelly was stuck to the wall.
“I knew this kid.”
Sanchez remembered Kelly as a 14-year-old boy he worked out with as a school liaison.
Now, he was hunting him.
Kelly was one of the RCMP’s “top targets” that day, as part of their efforts to curb the violence that was plaguing the city’s streets – during March and April of that year, the city saw an average of one shooting every 48 hours.
But to Sanchez, Kelly was much more than a mugshot. He wasn’t just another target, another criminal.
Sanchez, now a member of Surrey RCMP’s Gang Enforcement Team, fondly recalled lifting weights with Kelly when the boy was in Grade 9 at LA Matheson Secondary.
“I worked with Sean, once a week,” said Sanchez. “Every week, he wouldn’t miss a week. We’d start training together, lifting weights.”
When Kelly returned to the school in Grade 10, Sanchez was gone, having been transferred to another unit.
“When he returned to continue with those workouts, the gym doors were closed,” Sanchez said.
Fast forward to 2015, and that same boy Sanchez remembered lifting weights with was immersed in serious crimes.
And just one year after that, on July 31, 2016 at 8:20 p.m., Sean Christopher Kelly was shot in a Whalley driveway at the age of 27.
Kelly (pictured below) died in hospital, in what was the city’s 48th shooting of 2016 and sixth murder.
Sanchez said he still wonders “what if.”
“To see somebody that I knew personally, at that personal level, at that age, show up as one of our targets involved in a number of very serious files was very disappointing to me,” he said.
“If I would’ve stayed there two or three more years, would there have been a change?” Sanchez said to a group of Grade 7 Erma Stephenson Elementary students during a new gang presentation, Shattering the Image, that the gang enforcement unit is giving to Surrey children ahead of their transition year to high school.
During that same 2015 briefing, Sanchez began to realize that most of the RCMP’s targets were about the same age – and they lived in the same high school catchment that Kelly did.
All the priority targets were within a year or two of one another.
“So I asked management, ‘Has anybody gone to the high school and talked to the administrators or a counsellor or teachers and ask about their behaviour while they were in the school?’” he said. “‘Were they displaying any type of behaviour while in school that may give us an answer as to what’s going on out on the streets?’”
What was going on in the streets was frightening not only because of the frequency of the shootings, but how brazen they were, he recalled.
“It was scary,” Sanchez added, “because in that particular area and that particular time, the shootings were happening when people were out and about, not 3 a.m. in the morning… bullets were flying.”
With that in mind, a seed was planted in Sanchez’s mind the day of that briefing – a seed to begin focusing on prevention, and educating the city’s children, to help end or at least reduce gang violence.
So the gang unit, traditionally focused solely on enforcement, began to shift, dedicating a significant amount of time to education.
It’s a strategy presented to police by the late gangster Gurmit Singh Dhak in 2010, just two weeks before he was shot dead in Vancouver.
“(Dhak) volunteered, just walked into Vancouver Police Department one day, in the height of the gang violence and provided an interview,” said Sanchez. “One of the gang investigators basically asked him, ‘How do you suggest we end this violence, all these people dying?’ He said it himself, it’s all about education, providing kids in the school with education piece of what gang lifestyle is all about.
“It’s eight years old, it’s funny because we have all our managers, all our upper management saying, ‘How do we stop the gang violence?’ when eight years ago we had a well-known gangster, entrenched giving us the answer,” Sanchez added.
Video footage is still available of that interview.
In it, Dhak had these comments: “It’s all about education, it’s all it is. Most schools will turn a blind eye to the gang members there unless they do something at the school. You have to tell the younger guys, these are the guys that end up dead. Most schools should show pictures of guys seen down the street with blood coming out of their heads, or their bodies, maybe it will scare them.”
These words are ingrained in Sanchez’s mind.
“How come we, as a police agency, have not capitalized on that and gone fully on board on educating every kid in the Lower Mainland that this type of activity is going to lead to death or jail?” said Sanchez. “That’s what I told my managers.”
While the advice is being heeded by Surrey RCMP, the problem of youth gang recruitment has only become more brazen in recent years. Children being recruited into gangs in Surrey are as young as 13.
“That transition from elementary to high school is a target population. And a lot of it has to do with social media,” said Sanchez.
For the first time, a hard-hitting presentation on the cold realities of gangs and drugs is being shown to children in Grades 6 and 7.
Since its inception last fall, it’s reached an estimated 4,000 kids, but as Sanchez said, “We’re just scraping the surface.”
“With the current drug and gang climate in the Lower Mainland and kids being recruited at younger ages, we knew we had to adjust the way we were approaching gang prevention in Surrey,” he said. “We found that when we share stories of kids who have gotten caught up in dial-a-doping right here in Surrey, it really hits home with the youth.”
The presentations are a Surrey-focused version of the provincial End Gang Life program and are delivered to high schools in areas where youth are known to be involved in gangs but perhaps even more importantly, to students in elementary schools that feed into those secondary schools.
“The key here is starting young,” Sanchez stressed. “We’re hoping to deliver a message, then follow up with that generation of kids when they go into that high school.”
Wrapping up a recent talk to Grade 7 kids in Fraser Heights recently, Sanchez said he’d see them all next year in high school.
“I’m not just going to come here, deliver this, and leave. It’s kind of like what I did with Sean Kelly. We need, as investigators, to be invested in our youth. As gang cops, we need to be invested in the program that we’re delivering and there needs to be longevity there. We need to remind you of the dangers of getting into this lifestyle.”
UP NEXT: Part two will highlight the realities of the Surrey drug trade and how youth gang recruitment is happening in the city right now.