This is the second in a seven-part series looking at the six murders that were reported in the Santa Clarita Valley in 2017.
Before he was gunned down on the night of April 3, 2017, Steven Ryan Valenzuela-Hughes was a baker.
Before he was a baker, in the latter part of 2015, the 27-year-old longtime Newhall resident worked as a clerk in a warehouse.
His occupation, however, likely had little to do with why he was shot and killed a block from his apartment — the distance of a football field away — on Bottletree Lane, near the intersection of Valle Del Oro and Dockweiler Drive.
“The victim is a documented member of Brown Familia,” Det. Q. Rodriguez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Homicide Bureau told The Signal at the time of the fatal shooting, referring to the Newhall street gang.
Valenzuela-Hughes was shot at 7:54 p.m., according to records maintained by the Los Angeles County Department of Medical-Examiner Coroner.
Paramedics with the Los Angeles County Fire Department treated him on the street and then rushed him to Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, where he later died of his injuries at 8:31 p.m.
Homicide detectives who were called to the shooting scene at 9:45 p.m. that night, suspected they were dealing with a gang slaying.
The one piece of information that eluded them, however, was who did the shooting.
There had been a shoot-out that night on Bottletree Lane, and Valenzuela-Hughes’ murder was the outcome from that exchange of gunfire.
Whoever killed him, shot him in the back, a block from his home, less than six hours after he was scheduled to have appeared in court, according to the coroner’s report and court documents.
“At this point, we’re not certain as to the identity of the gang suspected in the shooting,” Rodriguez said.
When detectives began looking for clues and began delving into the young man’s past, they found a couple of run-ins with police.
At the end of 2015, Valenzuela-Hughes was keeping a low profile, until Jan. 6, 2016, when he was finally picked up by detectives assigned to LASD’s Fugitive Unit. He went to court and was later released.
There was a minor run-in with deputies about a year after that, when local sheriff’s deputies arrested him for driving with a license that had been suspended, a misdemeanor.
A couple of months after that, however, on March 24, 2016, Valenzuela-Hughes was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, not a firearm, this time a felony.
He beat someone with a weapon, causing great bodily harm to that person.
On Nov. 9, 2016, Valenzuela-Hughes was convicted of that crime and sentenced to three years of probation. The judge gave him credit for 425 days he served in Los Angeles County Jail, court papers show.
Out of custody and placed on probation, all he had to do was stay out of trouble.
By mid-February, however, he was ordered to appear in court of suspicion he had violated the terms of his parole. He failed to appear in court.
Before a bench warrant could be issued for his arrest, however, a court hearing — called a bench warrant hold — was scheduled for Valenzuela-Hughes.
“He shows up on March 9 and is back into probation,” Ricardo Santiago, spokesman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office told The Signal on Monday.
Then, on Apr. 3, 2017, at 1:30 p.m., Valenzuela-Hughes was scheduled to appear in court for a bench warrant hearing. For some reason he did not appear in court. Seven hours later he was dead.
On the morning of April 4, 12 hours after the fatal shooting, deputies responded to fresh reports of gunfire, this time showing up at the scene with members of the heavily-armed SWAT-like Special Enforcement Bureau, guns drawn, long-barrelled firearms carried to the scene.
They were looking for a shooter.
Deputies rushed to scene with guns drawn and quickly surrounded an apartment complex on Valle Del Oro, near Costa Brava and Via Canon, paying particular attention to a playground on Via Canon and a pool near the complex.
Despite the swift and overwhelming police response, however, detectives could not find the gunman.
At first, it appeared they had a suspect when four people were detained at gunpoint.
A woman and three men, with their hands in the air, responded to the demands of deputies congregated near a playground on Valle Del Oro. The four were handcuffed and questioned but each of them was released from handcuffs within five minutes of questioning, one witness to the detaining said at the time.
At the end of the day, no one was seen being taken into custody as a suspect. If there was gunfire that morning, it too remains unsolved.
Detectives looking for the person who killed Valenzuela-Hughes interviewed scores of people, and later reported being “pleasantly surprised at how much cooperation they were getting.”
At the end of the day, however, despite the help, they reported: “We still don’t know who we’re looking for.”
The only aspect of the deadly shooting they were convinced about was that it was gang-related.
And, while insight into the murder of Valenzuela-Hughes remains scant with phone calls placed to homicide detectives not returned this past week, insight into SCV’s gang activity is something shared and discussed publicly.
Anti-Gang Task Force
Captain Robert Lewis of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station met the issue head on when he dropped in on a meeting of the Anti-Gang Task Force two weeks after the Valenzuela-Hughes murder.
“Do we have gangs? Yes. Do we have gang problem? No,” Lewis told a group of about two dozen community members taking part in the task force.
Task force members shared updates on the progress of after school programs underway in Newhall and in Canyon Country and on the efforts graffiti removal programs.
Incidents of gang violence in the SCV in 1991 spurred the creation of the Anti-Gang Task Force.
A quarter century later, incidents of gang violence and incidents where gang involvement is suspected only serve to perpetuate the regular meetings of anti-gang task force members.
What’s changed for the Santa Clarita Valley, after more than a quarter century living with gangs, is how the issue has been formally and professionally addressed by community stakeholders who have demonstrated a month-to-month, year-to-year commitment.