An ongoing war that has pitted gang members in Seattle's Central Area against rivals in Rainier Valley has grown increasingly violent over the past two years, say police and prosecutors.

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An ongoing war that has pitted gang members in Seattle’s Central Area against rivals in Rainier Valley has grown increasingly violent over the past two years, say police and prosecutors.

In the summer of 2006, Seattle gang detectives began noting a disturbing pattern of shootings attributed to gangs in those two neighborhoods. The rivalry now appears to be escalating.

Nonetheless, Seattle police are loath to label as gang-related any of the shootings that have left six teenagers dead since January, although the department’s gang unit has been involved in all the investigations. However, patrol officers, prosecutors and probation officers say teens they encounter tell them the rivalry is alive and well — and heating up.

The latest casualty appears to be 16-year-old Diaquan Jones, who was fatally shot Saturday at Westfield Southcenter mall in Tukwila.

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Police on Tuesday announced they are searching for a suspect in the shooting: 21-year-old Barry Lee Saunders, who police say has gone into hiding and has an extensive network of criminal associates.

According to charging papers, Jones and three friends began throwing gang signs at two rivals during an encounter at the mall. A fistfight ensued, and Saunders pulled a gun and fatally shot Jones in the stomach and wounded 15-year-old Jermaine McGowan, according to charging papers.

Saunders escaped in the chaos that followed the shooting as shoppers ran for cover.

McGowan was in satisfactory condition Tuesday at Harborview Medical Center.

Tukwila police said Saunders targeted Jones and McGowan, who were among the four boys fighting with Saunders’ brother and one of their friends at the mall.

Tukwila police spokesman Mike Murphy said police withheld announcing Saunders as the suspected gunman in hopes that friends and family could persuade him to surrender. But on Tuesday they pointed to him as the suspect in hopes that the public could help in finding him.

Saunders was charged Tuesday with second-degree murder and first-degree assault and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Murphy said Saunders should be considered dangerous and may be armed with a black handgun.

Murphy declined to discuss the ongoing investigation or say whether the shootings were gang-related. However, Murphy did say there has been an escalation in violence around the region in recent days that may be retaliatory.

“We hope he has gone to ground in Puget Sound. We think he’s still somewhere in King County,” said Murphy. “Obviously he’s going to be facing serious charges, but it’s better than being shot in retaliation.”

Law-enforcement officials said Jones, McGowan and two other teens shot in a separate shooting Sunday night outside a Rainier Valley convenience store had ties to a Rainier Valley or South End gang.

Murphy would not say whether Saunders is connected with a rival gang.

For police and prosecutors, the mall shootings underscore how quickly fights can escalate into gunfire, an incident made even more disturbing because it happened in a crowded mall.

“Where are they getting the guns?” asked a former Seattle gang-unit officer, who asked to not be named. “They’re everywhere.”

Assistant United States Attorney Vince Lombardi, an anti-gang coordinator, said the gun violence is frustrating to federal investigators.

“Kids in gangs is not a new thing,” Lombardi said. “Juveniles committing crime is not a new thing. What surprises me is how heavily armed they are in Seattle and how quick they are to go for a gun.”

Wyman Yip, King County senior deputy prosecutor overseeing the juvenile division, could not characterize the increase in juvenile violence he sees as being gang-related, but agreed it’s going up.

“There’s definitely been an escalation,” Yip said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

According to one girl, Jones was a friend of two other young men who were also shot over the weekend in the separate shooting on Sunday in Rainier Valley.

A teenage girl said in a phone interview earlier this week that she was hanging out with Jones the day before Jones was killed, when he reportedly said, “Real Gs don’t make it past 17.” He was referring to “real gangsters,” the girl said.

On Sunday, Terrance Paige, 17, was shot in the leg and 16-year-old Thomas Williams was shot in the forearm outside a Rainier Valley convenience store.

“I don’t know if it’s related, but all three of them were friends,” the girl said of Jones, Paige and Williams.

As the girl spoke with a reporter, a chorus of voices could be heard in the background telling the girl “not to be a snitch.” She hung up. Contacted later, the girl declined to provide any additional information.

Paige and Williams told police they did not see the person who shot them, Yip said.

Another person who did not see who shot him was the 16-year-old boy who survived a shooting behind Garfield High School on Halloween that left 15-year-old Quincy Coleman dead.

But friends of Coleman’s claimed at the time that he was killed by a Rainier Valley gang member and vowed retaliation.

According to police and prosecutors, the code of silence — which warns gang members and witnesses alike not to “snitch” to police — is severely undermining their investigation into the murder.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said Tuesday that youth violence is at the worst level he has seen in nearly 20 years. He said that prosecutors in his office’s Most Dangerous Offender Project have been running from shooting to shooting, in many cases where kids in their early teens are the victim or the suspect.

“It’s disturbing to see 15-, 16-year-old kids shooting each other for reasons only known to them. Their lack of cooperation with police is another very disturbing trend.”

Satterberg said that when he prosecuted gang crimes in the late 1980s, victims and witnesses wouldn’t hesitate to talk to police and testify in court. But nowadays prosecutors are struggling to get anyone to talk about what they saw, what Satterberg refers to as a “don’t-snitch code.”

“Now the trend has gone toward if the person has been shot, they aren’t willing to disclose that to police,” he said. “If we don’t have witnesses, we don’t have a case. That is the emerging code of the street; we don’t know how deep that runs.

“It’s very disturbing to see kids killing kids and to see the ethic on the street being promoted as protecting the kids who are perpetrating the violence.”

Satterberg said he has started working with the Seattle City Council and community members in the Central Area, especially since the attack on Ed McMichael, known as “Tuba Man.”

McMichael was jumped by a group of teens near Seattle Center on Oct. 25 and died nine days later from his injuries. He said the group hopes to somehow get a message to children. He adds, “there isn’t an easy solution.”

“People need to step forward when they know [about crime],” Satterberg said. “They have to cooperate with authorities as an act of civil duty, of courage and valor.”

He said authorities need to go into the schools and start with children as young as the first grade and “encourage kids to speak up because it’s their community in the long run.

“This is their community they are going to live in, do they want to tolerate murder?”

Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb declined to comment on the ongoing investigations into the recent shootings. He did say that despite the recent slayings, statistics show that violent crime is not on the increase in the city.

A Seattle police commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, said street officers have been warning for some time that gang violence was escalating, but department officials have focused only on statistics.

“We knew it was coming a number of years ago,” the commander said.

Top department officials haven’t wanted to recognize the problem because it “doesn’t look good,” the commander said.

But the “entire feel on the street” is that violence among gang members has escalated, along with more violence directed at officers, the commander said.

After Coleman’s shooting, Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess called on the city to “acknowledge — publicly, out loud — that we have a serious gang crisis in our city.”

Christine Clarridge: or 206-464-8983

Sara Jean Green: or 206-515-5654

Seattle Times staff reporters Jennifer Sullivan, Steve Miletich, Nick Perry and Jennifer Sullivan and news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

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