At the beginning of the big wave season last December, Sef Krell began his descent down a steep pathway from a coastal bluff to Palos Verdes' Lunada Bay, one of Southern California's most storied — and notorious — surfing spots.
Suddenly, Krell found himself being pummeled by dirt clods thrown from above by men yelling at him to go home. They didn't want a stranger using a public beach they considered off-limits to outsiders.
Krell had braved a beach that for decades has been known for its hooligan-enforced insularity. Surfers who are not local proceed at their peril, while authorities look the other way.
This year, however, as Lunada Bay once again enters prime surfing season, Palos Verdes' new police chief, Jeff Kepley, is promising a change.
"I'm not so naive to believe that we can solve this instantly or overnight," Kepley said. "It took 50 years to get here. Hopefully, it won't take that long to resolve, but I think it's very important to get the word out as aggressively and enthusiastically as we can that the status quo is going to be mixed up around here."
Patrols are being added to the coast. Officers are working overtime. And Kepley said he hopes to make the first arrest in years of one of the assailants.
"We will make an example out of anyone who behaves criminally down there," he said.
Krell wishes the police had been that vigilant last year. Undaunted by the harassment, he kept going, walking past kayaks the locals leave unlocked because they have no fear of intruders, not with the "Bay Boys" there to drive away visitors.
Krell put his surfboard in the water and paddled out, leaving a bag of belongings on the shore. The Bay Boys emptied it into the ocean. They began throwing rocks.
"I'm in the water alone and there are people yards away throwing dangerous missiles at me," said Krell, a criminal defense and personal injury attorney. "I don't have any way to protect myself because that culture is allowed to continue without the type of law enforcement that I would expect."
Beaches often breed territorial tensions, but here, amid homes that routinely sell for millions of dollars, the tactics are unusually fierce. Too many surfers want to ride too few waves. Newcomers seeking entry have retreated in the wake of flattened tires, snapped antennas and slurs scribbled with surf wax on their cars.
The police have repeatedly pledged to rid their coast of bad behavior, but critics say enforcement is weak.
Earlier this year, a dispatcher at the police station was caught on camera by The Guardian newspaper saying: "We know all of them. They are infamous around here."
"They are pretty much grown men in little men's mind-set," she said. "They don't like anyone who isn't one of the Bay Boys surfing down there. It literally is like a game with kids on a schoolyard to them, and they don't want you playing on their swing set. It is what it is. If you feel uncomfortable, you know, then don't do it."
For some, the tape seemed to confirm a view that the police take a hands-off approach to the Bay Boys and might even share some of their disdain for outsiders.
In 1995, protesters demonstrated against the harassment. Police responded by checking the protesters' cars for expired tags and broken headlights before later clearing the entire bluff, citing a bomb threat, according to the Easy Reader newspaper.
Two years later, police ordered a television news crew out of the area, according to the Easy Reader.
"Those Bay Boys are a lot more sinister than people know," said Geoff Hagins, a longtime activist who lamented that a video camera aimed at the water was removed a decade ago by the City Council after community opposition.
"It is a bully system, and it is supported by the community and the police," said Hagins, who alleged that he and his elderly parents reported death threats from members of the Bay Boys in recent years.
Kepley, who arrived in Palos Verdes over a year ago, said he couldn't be held accountable for the past, but "if we did discount a claim, and I'm not saying we did, we are going to make sure we do the right thing."
Kepley said a recent spike in residential burglaries has "residents up in arms and is the real headline down here," but officers are still making frequent visits to the bluff above Lunada Bay to look for trouble.
And Kepley pushed back against the perception that the Bay Boys — who are largely white and middle-aged — are representative of the city's people.
"People say this city is a bunch of snobs," Kepley said. "I have to tell you, I have not met that person yet. I don't see any snootiness in the people I come across."
Krell said he will wait and see if the police are serious — but he has his doubts. He filed a complaint last year and his case remains unsolved, in part, he says, because detectives didn't follow up adequately.
"Doing a drive-by of the bluff when there aren't any waves isn't going to do anything," said Krell, an avid surfer from Encino who has traveled to Oahu, Hawaii, Baja California and Fiji in search of the world's best waves.
"The chief needs to put detectives on the cliff in plainclothes when there is going to be [a] swell," he said. "And they need to do what any other police departments do: real field investigations with suspect descriptions and names and phone numbers."