White Punks a New Puzzle in Gang Scene

Times Staff Writer

One youth wears a plaid wool shirt and a small clenched fist that dangles from a chain pinned to one ear. Another has a butch haircut and half a dozen crosses around his neck. A third wears baggy shorts and a white T-shirt.

A little cholo, a little punk, a little surfer. Offbeat, mildly intimidating. When they want to be really intimidating, they switch to all punk.

The boys belong to a gang, but not the usual gang. It's made up of white kids who grew up in suburban homes. Now in their teens, they're turning an unexplained anger on their neighborhoods in the form of vandalism, graffiti and street violence.

These three have gathered on the steps outside North Hollywood High School, the center of their turf, to talk about it.

Attacks on People

They call the gang Fight for Freedom, or FFF. No one knows exactly what that means except that it comes from the name of a defunct musical group and has something to do with fighting authority and doing whatever you feel like. It is said to reflect the philosophy "If it feels good, do it."

What they like to do most, the three youths say, is take drugs and get crazy.

When they're crazy, they say, they beat up people on the streets, attack homosexuals in North Hollywood Park, rumble with other punk groups in Hollywood and Burbank and go to parties where they sometimes smash up the place.

They call them "bring your own sledgehammer" parties.

"I went to this one party and sliced up this girl's water bed," says the one with the earring.

The hourlong recitation of their adventures takes on a legendary tone: In street fights they have subdued rivals as diverse as the nearby Burbank Punk Organization to the east and the football team of Notre Dame High School to the west, they say.

Because they have cars, their turf extends beyond the San Fernando Valley. They spend a lot of time in Hollywood, where other white punk groups hang out into the early hours. They have enemies as distant as La Mirada.

They are allies with some of the Valley's Chicano gangs--the Mexican-Americans who call themselves cholos-- and allies with a Hollywood gang called Los Angeles Death Squad, but enemies of other white and Chicano gangs.

They brag that they are the biggest and most powerful of the dozens of white gangs now springing up with names like Mother Malicious and Mickey Mouse Club.

They like the feeling of flirting with physical harm.

"I keep a loaded gun in my bedroom 365 days a year," the one with the crosses says. "I'd say everybody in FFF owns a gun. What's going to keep BPO from driving by and shooting up the house? You don't want somebody hurting your mom for something you did."

Lore is New, Baffling

Much of this lore is new and baffling to the authorities whose job it is to keep track of gangs and try to control them. At best, they can only guess where white gangs came from, where they are headed and how serious a threat they pose. What little evidence has turned up about the groups suggests their actual adventures have been nowhere near as terrible as their lore would have it.

But it is also generally agreed that something new and potentially dangerous is happening in the world of gangs.

At one time in Los Angeles, gang violence was the sphere of Chicanos. Later, in the 1970s, violent black street gangs emerged, presumably spawned by poverty, frustration and links to prison gangs.

Now, with no obvious roots in ethnic alienation, poverty or tradition, gang culture is sprouting up in the predominantly white and economically healthy neighborhoods of the southern Valley, from Burbank to Woodland Hills.

The white gangs are not simple copies of their predecessors.

Their origins are in punk rock and heavy-metal rock. In part, these groups bear the stamp of the Satanism, Nazism and nihilism found in much of that music.

A Fight for Freedom member's sketch that was confiscated by police, for example, shows a swastika crossed out, a pistol shooting a bullet through a detached head and a punk rocker choking someone so hard the skull pops out of its skin.

That's pure punk-rock fare, the experts say. But what concerns them about the new Valley gangs is that they also reflect traditional street gang influences.

Gregory Bodenhamer, a former Orange County probation officer, has made a study of punk rock and heavy-metal music through the program Back in Control, which he started to help parents regain control of incorrigible children. Bodenhamer said the Valley's FFF gang emerged about four or five years ago like dozens of other punk rock groups.

'Throwing Out a Gauntlet'

But most punk rock groups don't become gangs, he said.

"What really sets the kids off in the Valley isn't that they're punk," Bodenhamer said. "It's that they're a punk gang that's operating as a gang. They're organized more after the traditional Chicano street gangs. Most of the punk groups are not nearly so organized or focused in what they are doing. Most punks don't tend to go out looking for fights that much. FFF is going around and choosing off street gangs, writing over their graffiti, which is a no-no, because that's a challenge. It's like throwing out a gauntlet."

Police officers who monitor the Valley's gangs say that, so far, the gauntlet has not been picked up by the Valley's many Chicano gangs, even though in many places their graffiti have been crossed out by the new white gangs.

The Chicano gangs, they say, don't even consider the upstarts to be a gang. In many cases the officers agree.

"If those guys ever met a real gang, there wouldn't be any of them left," one North Hollywood gang unit officer said.

Rival Burbank Group

Violence apparently has occasionally broken out, however, between Fight for Freedom and its rival, Burbank Punk Organization.

In separate incidents this spring, two Burbank homes were hit before dawn by bullets from passing cars. Police said teen-agers in both homes mentioned Fight for Freedom as the possible attackers.

No one has been identified as a suspect in either shooting, Burbank Detective Randy Pastor said.

In spite of these incidents, the new white gangs have yet to cause the kind of documented damage that would prompt a major police response. The police aren't terribly impressed.

"I don't know," Pastor said. "They're a bunch of dumb white kids. They're patsies' answer to cholos."

Many officers in the Los Angeles Police Department's North Hollywood gang detail, called CRASH, consider the new white gangs a minor irritant contrasted with the expanding network of Chicano and black gangs in the Valley.

Called 'Wannabes'

They call the white gangs "wannabes," meaning someone who dresses and talks the part because he "wants to be" a gang member, but is actually tame.

"We're dealing with a whole bunch of people who are doing this or that drug and alcohol and write 'fff' on the wall while they're getting stoned," said Detective Ray Davies, CRASH supervisor.

"The only reason the FFF has come to our attention is that they write their names up on the wall," said Juvenile Court Commissioner Jack Gold, a Studio City resident who said he was shocked when he saw the graffiti appearing in his neighborhood.

In the past year, their writings have appeared in the pleasant residential neighborhoods near Ventura Boulevard in North Hollywood and as far away as Chatsworth.

No place is immune. The writing appears in dark and neglected spots such as freeway underpasses and on walls along residential streets south of Ventura Boulevard in Encino.

It takes a variety of forms, either "fff," "FFF," "3fs," or "Tres Fs" and usually is accompanied with the street names of the writers. These are often Chicano-like names such as Ducky and Sparky.

'Excuse to Get Crazy'

What's the point? The kids in the gang give many reasons.

"It's just an excuse to go out and get crazy," one says.

"Most of what we did was for our own selves, for our neighborhood, for the white crowd," another says.

"Holding your own. Backing yourself up," the third says. "You've got your jocks. You've got your preppie group. You've got your cholos. You've got your Crips," a notorious South Los Angeles black gang.

"I want to get my backup."

Another said in an interview that he got involved because he was afraid of black gangs who came to his school by bus. But he soon came to relish the feeling of power the gang provided.

"Don't mess with me or I'm going to do something to you." he said. "It's that power feeling. You like that feeling of people being scared of you. See, you don't know. Sometimes when you get in a fight and hit somebody till it's killing them, something happens. It's a high."

Spray painting is a high, too, he said.

"It's weird. You sign your graffiti signature. Anytime you drive by, you say, 'I did that.' I think it's a high. It's fun to spray-paint."

Gold, the juvenile court commissioner, saw no humor in it. He has become a crusader on the subject. He regularly speaks to community and business groups, urging a counteroffensive.

File Opened on Gang

"The people of the Valley have got to stand up and fight it," Gold said. "Hollywood gave up to the street punks and its gone."

The community got aroused. Partly as a result, the North Hollywood CRASH unit opened a file on Fight for Freedom. It has identified about 40 members. In the last year dozens of them have been arrested and charged with minor assaults, drug and weapon violations, vandalism and theft.

In the latest case, police arrested Richard Yapelli of Sun Valley, who at 19 is now an adult, on a weapons charge after a North Hollywood woman complained that he brandished a gun and took a punch at her when she turned him away at the door of a private party in June.

According to a police report, the woman said Yapelli left shouting obscenities and threatening: "I'm going to get you. I'll be back in one or two days."

Yapelli, regarded as the gang's charismatic leader, has been arrested before on suspicion of illegal possession of weapons, but never prosecuted.

He now faces trial later this summer.

Clean-Cut in Court

If they had not been identified as gang members, most of the Fight for Freedom members probably would have received light treatment by the court. They appear in court with fresh haircuts, conservative clothes and parents with good addresses, Valley Probation Officer Tom Le Valley said. They don't look like gang members.

Because of the gang designation, the Juvenile Court in Sylmar now has put dozens of FFF members under close supervision by Le Valley, who works strictly with gang members. Le Valley has sketched a profile of the gang member that helps explain the unusual social ingredients of the new gang.

"Family dynamics pretty screwed up," Le Valley said. "They're not from the All-American families. Not affluent. Not middle class. Lower-middle class. Not on welfare but working for hourly wages. Every single one of them from a split family.

"Also some unusual family dynamics. They only have one parent. They don't supervise them properly. A lot of them go to some schools where affluent kids go. They do have contact there with kids from affluent families. They like the money and being seen with these kids in their cars."

Le Valley also has pieced together a history of their crimes. Generally, it consists of low-grade mayhem, nothing like the group's boasts but nothing to be scoffed at, either.

'No Motive for It'

"They go around and they can be very assaultive for no apparent reason," Le Valley said. "They'll pick somebody out in the parking lot. They'll get a baseball bat or a golf club out of their car and they'll beat them up. Really no motive for it. The only thing I could figure out was they got loaded and said, 'Let's go get a queer.' "

Le Valley said several gang members have told him about an incident in which one of the group waited outside a Ventura Boulevard restaurant until closing time, then used a golf club to beat up a man he thought was a homosexual. There was never an arrest because the victim never came forward.

Many other reports of violence have surfaced. A Ventura Boulevard store owner, for example, said a youth was beaten and stabbed in his parking lot last fall after a film ended at a nearby theater. He said the victim attributed the attack to Fight for Freedom.

Bob Weinberg, dean of students at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, said he also believes some students have been involved in gang violence.

In one case, Weinberg said, two students showed up at school with stab wounds. Another time, two Taft students were caught shooting a BB gun at a departing school bus. And two other students came to school one day with severe bruises on their faces. They told Weinberg that they were accosted outside a Woodland Hills theater by about 15 youths.

Church Break-Ins

No one was arrested for these attacks, either.

FFF also has attacked property, attacks that included a series of break-ins at North Hollywood Presbyterian Church last fall.

In one of them, the Wachs Senior Citizen Center in the church building was defaced, the Rev. John Moody said.

"There were graffiti on the wall. They dumped records out onto the floor and, at one point, they took the fire extinguishers and let them loose over the floor, and they threw instant coffee over the water," Moody said.

The gang member who did that left his signature inside in the form of his graffiti and was caught. Today he is serving time in the California Youth Authority.

The gang's most dangerous eruptions, however, have probably occurred in Hollywood.

Last year, several members--including Yapelli--were arrested there on suspicion of illegal possession of weapons when the police heard reports of a coming rumble. Although they confiscated several knives and baseball bats, a hatchet, a tire iron and an ax, no one was prosecuted because no fight broke out.

'Excitement Is Gone'

Some observers think the police attention has white gangs on the wane. They believe that the gang activity, after reaching a peak late last year, is subsiding.

"The excitement is gone," said one gang counselor. "A lot of guys have stopped the graffiti because it brought heat to them. Right now, they're taking a low profile."

But there are those who think the white gang is still a growing phenomenon.

"I've been seeing a waning in punk for seven years," said former probation officer Bodenhamer. "I keep telling my partner it's ending. She says, 'No it's not.' She's been right every time."

A counselor from Project Heavy, a juvenile-delinquent diversion program that works with gang members to paint over their graffiti, said he thinks the gangs are here to stay. "After five years, I'd say they're established," he said.

Graffiti Reappears

There have been persistent signs of this. Only a couple of weeks ago, Project Heavy whitewashed hundreds of graffiti on a large concrete wall under the Ventura Freeway in North Hollywood.

A few days later, the graffiti reappeared.

One measure of a gang's power to survive is whether its turf has the pull to prevent older members from drifting away. The FFF may not have a turf in the traditional sense. But it does have pull. One former member, who said he reformed and moved away, said he still stays in touch by telephone. He said he knows everything that's happened since he left.

"Once you join a gang, you're always in it," he said with a shrug. "I know FFF is here to stay."

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