This South L.A. church is a gang hangout, city says. Now it's the center of a lawsuit

Pastor Kenneth Little knew the family renting out the church’s property across the street long before the violence began.

When they were younger, the tenants’ children sometimes walked over to Ebenezer Baptist Church to help out with small tasks and attend Bible study.

“They were good at first,” he said of the tenants in L.A.’s South Park neighborhood.

But over the last year there have been problems at the property, according to police, who say it has become a stronghold for the predominantly Latino Playboys gang.

Little said that shootings at the site during church services have spooked congregants, and he has had to cancel Bible study sessions.

In an effort to curb the violence, the city recently filed a nuisance abatement lawsuit against the church, alleging that the Playboys gather daily at the Avalon Boulevard property and engage in criminal activity.

Over the last year, according to the lawsuit, there have been five shootings at the site, as well as illegal narcotics and weapons sales.

In September, a person standing out front was shot and killed. In March, two people in the property’s parking lot opened fire on a truck carrying rival gang members. And from December to April, undercover agents purchased 20 illegal firearms, three silencers and 122 grams of methamphetamine there, according to City Atty. Mike Feuer.

“This is an extremely dangerous situation for everyone in the community, from church congregants to the kids that go to the neighboring schools and park,” Feuer said. “We hope to work with the church to eliminate the source of danger and make this a neighborhood where people can conduct affairs safely every day.”

The remedies, he said, include evicting the tenants and fencing off the property. The lawsuit also asks for an Internet-connected video monitoring system and better lighting on the site.

The church’s pastor expressed relief that the city was taking action. He said he had tried unsuccessfully to get the tenants to leave the property.

“I am grateful they stepped in because I didn’t know what to do,” Little said, sitting on a couch in his brother’s house next door to the church. “They can move forward in a manner that we weren’t able to do.”

The lawsuit is part of the city’s push to expand its nuisance abatement effort, which targets properties that are sources of drugs and gangs.

Since July 2013, Los Angeles has filed 53 abatement actions — 46 for sites in the LAPD’s South Bureau — and secured 58 injunctions involving nuisance properties. It has succeeded in closing nine gang- or narcotics-related sites, according to the city attorney’s office.

“This is a neighborhood that really needs our help,” Feuer said. “You can keep coming and arresting, but that’s not the same as preventing the problem in the future from recurring.”

According to Jorja Leap, an anthropologist at UCLA who has specialized in L.A.’s gangs, the Playboys formed in Central Los Angeles in the 1950s and fanned out across the city. They use the Playboy bunny as a symbol and refer to their meeting points as “rabbit holes,” she said.

“They’re a fairly entrenched group,” Leap said, adding that the gang has ties to the Mexican Mafia. “You have youth who are looking for their identity, and they are drawn by the reputation of the gang.”

LAPD Lt. Alex Baez, who heads the Newton Division’s gang unit, said that of the 30 active gangs in the area, “the Playboys are our main problem.” He said a recent search of the church-owned property, conducted with a warrant, produced handguns and evidence of manufacturing, including automatic rifles.

“It has been really ongoing here,” he said of the gang’s activities. “They’re enemies with several different rival gangs. It creates shootings… going back and forth.”

Baez said police were working to control the gang’s presence at the South Park Recreation Center, located a block from the church.

Victory Outreach Church frequently provides food and prayer services at the park. Summer Night Lights — a program of sports and other activities at many of the city’s parks that’s sponsored by the mayor’s office of gang reduction and youth development — gets underway June 28.

“You see a lot more people going to the park instead of being detoured,” said Adam Luna, an intervention specialist at Going Beyond Boundaries, a gang prevention program that has done work in South Park. Now more people show up with their kids.”

On Thursday evening, South Park was filled with families picnicking and playing soccer when gunshots erupted. A helicopter hovered overhead as parents ran to find their children. After a few minutes, some of the soccer games — briefly on pause — continued.

“Things are always hot,” said Maira Espinoza, who lives in the area.

Maria Morales, who helps run Chapi’s Place Beauty Supply, located a block from the park, said that she’s become used to the frequent sound of police helicopters. And while she thinks parents need to pay more attention to their children, she said it’s difficult when they’re focused on providing financially for their families.

“You let the youth do what they feel like in order to bring the taco home,” she said.

leila.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @leilamillersays

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