Fathers of slain 16-year-old Jason Bowen and 17-year-old Samuel Salinas cleaned up a billboard just west of Tracy this week. A polished sign with the teens’ pictures may remind the public that the case remains unsolved and that the people responsible for the shootings are still out there, said Jason’s father, Gary Bowen.
“We’re still victims of this,” he said. “Nothing was accomplished, nothing gained. Where is justice for me, for the families, for the children who were killed?”
Jason and his friend Samuel met up late one summer night to hang out in their central Tracy neighborhood. The next morning — July 29, 1999 — police found the pair shot to death, their bodies 30 yards apart on a grassy embankment about 40 miles west of Tracy. Shell casings from semiautomatic handguns littered the ground around Samuel’s body, indicating that he may have been shot on the spot. Police believe Jason, and maybe Samuel as well, was killed elsewhere and then driven to the scene.
News of the slaying sent the teens’ families into a physically sickening depression.
“That was our summer of sorrow,” said Gary Bowen.
“We became ill,” added Samuel’s father, Herminio Salinas, who moved to Fremont with his wife, Rosa, a few years after their son’s death because they couldn’t stand to live in the city where they last saw their son alive.
“We could not get out of bed,” Herminio Salinas said. “We just did not want to live without our son.”
The Salinases let their home-based house-cleaning business fall by the wayside. The emotional problems from their son’s death led to the Bowens’ divorce. To enjoy life for both families became a struggle.
Justice could have helped alleviate the sadness by bringing a sense of closure, the two families said. But still, investigators know too little about what happened that night and have too little evidence to point to a suspect.
Detectives turned to the public for help as the family raised reward money payable for information leading to an arrest and conviction. The California Governor’s Office eventually contributed $50,000 to the fund, bringing the reward to $100,000.
In 2002, three years after the slayings and thanks to a tipster, Hayward police arrested three men on suspicion of killing the boys.
Michael Ybarra, of Tracy, was accused, but never actually convicted, of acting as an accomplice to murder. Roneel Pillay and Robel Fusum — both just a couple years older than the victims — were released after sitting in the Alameda County Jail for four months. Another man, a 45-year-old from Tracy, was suspected at one time of destroying evidence. He was never charged in the case.
There wasn’t enough proof to convict any of them, according to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
“When those men were released, it was like a betrayal,” Herminio Salinas said during a rare visit to Tracy with his wife. “And all those feelings of loss, of anger, they all came back like a fresh wound.”
Only Ybarra was locked up, but just for a couple of years. He, too, was released in February 2007 after spending two years in jail awaiting trial as an accomplice to the Bowen-Salinas murder. Just months out on probation, the one-time Tracy resident was rearrested and convicted for having sex with a 15-year-old girl.
That is some measure of justice for Bowen, but not much.
“At least one is behind bars,” Gary Bowen said, “but not the shooter. It’s torture to know that.”
The bereaved father said he knows who killed his son and where it happened. He insists that police arrested the men guilty of the crime, and that prosecutors had the right suspects, but dropped the ball by setting them free.
The families of the slain Tracy teens want to remind the public that the case is still open.
“Many times cases are presented and they don’t come up to that level of proof you need to prosecute it,” said Assistant District Attorney Richard Klemmer, who declined to elaborate.
The case was sent back to Hayward police and stagnated. As a cold case, police no longer actively pursue the investigation.
“In a homicide case — they are always considered open until they’re successfully prosecuted,” said Lt. Chris Orrey, an investigator for the Hayward Police Department. “But in this case, right now, we don’t have any active investigative leads to pursue.”
It will take new information — a fresh tip, evidence or testimony — to strengthen the case for trial, she said.
“We still hold on to that hope,” Gary Bowen said. “Someone out there knows something that could bring justice to our family and Sam’s family.”
Until then, however, the two families said they can’t help but harbor some frustration toward the prosecutors who handled the case.
“There’s nothing that makes us feel more powerless than to know that our sons’ killers are living life,” Herminio Salinas said, his eyes welling up with tears. “And our boys barely had that chance.”
n Contact Tracy Press reporter Jennifer Wadsworth at 830-4225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.