First, burglars kicked in the door of a Palm Avenue apartment shared by twin brothers. Then two cars parked in an alley were broken into. Paul Gutierrez's new truck was stolen, another vehicle in the neighborhood was vandalized and a woman's house was burglarized.
But the crime that really angered Palm Avenue residents, Gutierrez says, came about three weeks ago when burglars came back to that woman's house, crawled through the doggie door and stole the ashes of her deceased dog.
"That was the breaking point for all of us on the street," says Gutierrez, 30.
It's also a rough welcome for Gutierrez, his girlfriend and their two children. The family moved from Gilroy to a home at the corner of Palm and Hill avenues in August. He blames most of the trouble on what he calls "a known gang house" a few doors over from his home.
"We didn't expect this at all," he says, admiring his white picket fence and the old rose bushes he coaxed into blooming. "It's definitely more than we bargained for."
In about a week, Gutierrez has done what has never happened on Palm Avenue—organized a Neighborhood Watch group.
"Everybody's pulled together," he says. Fifty-three Palm Avenue residents have joined, including several who have installed video surveillance systems at their homes.
Gutierrez says he's not afraid to take on gangsters. Stocky and heavily tattooed, he survived two bouts of cancers and served in the US military. The Taliban, he said, is much more intimidating than the Norteños down the street.
So he's become the go-to person for Palm Avenue neighbors between Brewington and East Lake avenues to report problems to. He's ordering them "Neighborhood Watch" T-shirts and safety kits for women that include pepper spray, whistles and high-powered flashlights that look like lipstick tubes.
Already Gutierrez credits the neighbors' vigilance with four arrests: a bum who took a bicycle and three taggers he caught himself while watering his roses one morning. He saw three young men spray paint "X4" on the stop sign across the intersection from his house and called the cops.
When the three were arrested, people came out of their homes to watch and Gutierrez says he confronted the taggers himself to identify them to police officers.
"We're not going to stand for gangs on this street," he says.
Although neighborhood patrols are planned, Gutierrez likes fight crime as he tends to those roses in his front yard. He warns guys walking past that their gang affiliation is not welcome on his street. An avid Dodgers fan, he wears a bright blue hat that incites slurs from the Norteño gang members, who affiliate with red and consider blue a rival color.
"These guys are punks," he says. "They drive by, yell curse words and throw gang signs. I just smile and wave."