The Gangs of Long Beach : Signs Are Obvious: Graffiti, Poverty, Drugs, Turf Wars, Murders

Times Staff Writer

Jose (Dreamer) Gonzales was trapped on enemy turf. The Halloween night brawl between two rival Long Beach street gangs had run its brutal course, but Gonzales was stranded when his friends piled into their beat-up cars and screeched away.

Frantically trying to escape, Gonzales scampered down an alley. It was a mistake; half a dozen toughs from the rival gang cornered the 20-year-old. They swarmed over him, landing blows with fists, two-by-fours and a shovel.

Paramedics found Gonzales sprawled on the pavement, a bloody heap of clothing and flesh. He was taken to St. Mary Medical Center where doctors found Gonzales had suffered massive brain damage. They connected him to life-support equipment and waited.

Within the antiseptic white walls of the hospital, a surreal vigil unfolded. As Gonzales lingered between life and death, dozens of his fellow gang members gathered at the medical center, paying homage to their friend. Even a few foes from the rival gang joined in the deathwatch, standing by to witness the outcome of their handiwork.

On Nov. 2, two days after the vicious beating, Gonzales' battered body gave up the fight. The sobs of his mother and new wife marked the moment--Dreamer was dead. Out in the barrios, in the ghettos, in the checkerboard of ramshackle neighborhoods that are a haven for street gangs in Long Beach, the killings go on at an unprecedented pace.

The death of Jose Gonzales was only the latest. So far this year, there have been 15 gang-related homicides in Long Beach, more than triple the four recorded for all of 1984 and well ahead of the previous peak of nine in 1983. One of every four homicides in Long Beach this year has been linked to gang activity.

Such grim statistics, however, do not tell the whole tale. As many residents see it, those numbers are merely a tangible sign of a deeply troubling trend--Long Beach has a problem with street gangs and it is getting worse.

Alongside the forest of gleaming office towers that have sprouted in the city's rejuvenated downtown lie neighborhoods rife with gang crime. The signs are hard to miss.

Gang graffiti blanket the walls of homes and businesses. Many residents, fearful of random violence often kindled by gangs, avoid certain streets in daylight, let alone after dark. On some blocks, drugs being peddled or purchased by gang members do as brisk a sale as groceries at the corner market.

Compounding the situation, some residents maintain, is an attitude of indifference shared by those in a position to do something about gangs--elected officials, school administrators, police. Sensitive about protecting Long Beach's carefully cultivated image as an "International City" of commerce and culture, many civic leaders have all but ignored the gang problem, these residents charge. (See related story).

"All you have to do is look around," said Jennifer Thompson, a central Long Beach resident who acts as an unpaid street-corner counselor for gang members. "We're having gang murders, we're having burglaries done by gang members, there's graffiti everywhere. The city needs to admit we have a problem. Until they do, we're not going to have to worry about nuclear war--we have gang war."

But many civic leaders see it differently. While most acknowledge that some sections of Long Beach are troubled by street gangs, they insist that the problem pales when compared with the toll gang activity has taken on larger urban areas such as Los Angeles.

More importantly, many officials contend that action has been taken to thwart gangs and that further efforts are under way to counter the gang-related crime wrenching portions of the community.

"I think the problem can be dealt with in Long Beach," said Councilman James Wilson, whose 6th District is home turf for several street gangs. "Right now, the gang activity is small enough to be managed. But given time, and if it isn't checked, I think it could become a bad situation. The gangs are out there. The potential is out there."

There was never much doubt that Curt Richardson would join a gang. Most everyone in the boy's central-city neighborhood seemed to be "jumping in," so at the age of 11, Curt did the same.

First came the standard initiation ritual. Curt had to walk through a gantlet of a dozen gang members, who summarily beat the boy up. "It's to let 'em know," Curt said, "that you're down"--tough enough to be one of them.

Now 17, Curt has run with a gang for more than a third of his life. A baby-faced youth, he has had problems at school, mostly for fighting in class. He has been arrested three times, most recently in October after he allegedly sold marijuana to an undercover police officer.

Curt's mother, Barbara Bealey, is at wit's end. She has raised Curt on a monthly welfare check, mostly without a man in the house. A small woman, Bealey has the stooped look of one who carries a world of problems on her shoulders.

"Curt being in a gang keeps me nervous a lot," she said. "Sometimes I won't see him for two, three days. I don't know when he'll come home. And if I hear a siren or something, I'm always worried it's him." Back in the 1940s, 1950s and even into the 1960s, violence among Long Beach gangs was relatively rare. When fights occurred, they were generally settled with fists, not bullets.

It is an altogether different situation today. Gangs in Long Beach, as elsewhere, have grown increasingly lawless, committing the full gamut of crimes--armed robbery, burglary, drive-by shootings, murder.

Long Beach police first noticed the growth of criminal street gangs during the 1960s. It was only the start. Today, there are 22 gangs with a total of more than 5,000 members, police estimate.

The trend shows few signs of abating. Norm Sorenson, a detective with the police gang detail, said street gangs seem to be attracting mounting numbers and are growing ever bolder.

Nonetheless, just how much crime can be attributed to gang members remains unclear. The Police Department has no formal system for tabulating statistics on gang-related crimes other than homicide.

Although police are unable to draw an accurate statistical picture of the situation, many officers say the number of crimes committed by gang members appears to have inched steadily upward in recent years.

The most common complaint is graffiti, a misdemeanor practiced by nearly all gang members at one time or another. In addition, police say gang members have been arrested for scores of strong-arm robberies, burglaries and assaults.

Officers speculate that such serious offenses are committed by only about 5% or as many as 250 of the city's gang members. Almost all gang members, however, are routinely involved in fights with rivals, as well as petty thefts, vandalism and other misdemeanors.

The proliferation of drugs has made gangs all the more appealing for many teen-agers, police said. Selling narcotics can be a quick way for an enterprising gang member to make a buck.

"Most of them are users," said Sgt. Jim Sutton of the police narcotics division. "There's a lot of use of PCP and heroin among Hispanic gangs, a lot of use of rock cocaine among the black gang members."

Police say gang problems such as burglaries and graffiti have begun to seep into some upscale sections of Long Beach, which are easily accessible for any gang member with a car or bicycle. Most of the gang activity, however, is in low-income neighborhoods west of Redondo Avenue and from 4th Street as far north as Willow Street. Gangs also have invaded residential areas west of the Los Angeles River and several smaller pockets in the city's northern panhandle.

Stories of gang activity in these troubled neighborhoods abound.

Gregory Webb manages a 210-unit apartment complex along Long Beach Boulevard near the border with Compton, an area police call "the DMZ." In the 18 months he has managed the building, Webb says he has seen it all.

Earlier this year, a 13-year-old gang member pulled a knife on Webb when he caught the boy vandalizing the building. Webb has witnessed shoot-outs between rival gangs holed up in apartment buildings on opposite sides of the boulevard. He has even seen two former members of the Crips gang, both wheelchair-bound paraplegics because of gunshot wounds, duel with pistols to settle an argument.

Police have tried to help, Webb said, but get little cooperation from residents, who are intimidated by the gang members. "A gangster over here could walk in your room, take your TV with you sitting there and dare you to call the police," he said. "Once the police came and left, the guys who took the set would just beat you down."

Such tactics are not uncommon. Pauline Bloomquist, who lives with her cats in a white clapboard home just off Pacific Coast Highway, fears just that sort of retaliation from the gang members who congregate almost every night in an alley behind her house. The youths make noise, drink and spray graffiti on the houses.

On a recent evening, the 40-year-old woman decided she had put up with enough. Grabbing a starter's pistol, Bloomquist confronted several gang members and their girlfriends in the alley. She raised the gun toward the sky, fired it several times and told the youths to leave. It did no good.

"They weren't even scared," Bloomquist recalled. "They just said, 'Go ahead and shoot us.' Now I'm more frightened than ever. They know me and know where I live."

Shirley Evans has had gang violence roll right onto the front doorstep of the aging Cedar Avenue apartment she shares with her two teen-age daughters and a grown son.

One night last May, her children were out front with a dozen friends, among them several gang members. The group was talking, someone was plucking a guitar, when a car loaded with members of a rival gang cruised slowly by. Suddenly a shotgun was thrust from the car window. The blast hit Martin Marron, 20, squarely in the chest. He died two hours later. Police believe it was a pay-back killing.

"Sure, I worry about my kids. So does everybody else's mothers," said Evans, 47. "This is a bad area. Anybody in their right mind would move away in a minute. We're just ordinary people who can't afford to go anywhere else."

Randolph Ware leads two lives. In one, he is a devoted father to four small children and loving companion to their mother. In the other, he is a hard-core gang member, a man who lives by what he calls the code of the street--an eye for an eye and the legal system be damned.

Ware, 29, lives with his girlfriend, Linda Robinson, and their children, ages 2, 3, 4 and 5, in a cramped apartment in central Long Beach. Ware gets work now and then driving a truck, and recently was paid several thousand dollars for a bit part as a gang member in the NBC television show "Helltown." When he is not working, he hangs out with his buddies at a local tavern, talking and drinking beer.

"In a way, being in a gang is a good thing," Ware said. "You're never worried about nobody too fast to do something to you. They hear I'm in a gang, they think, 'I'm not going to deal with him or he'll come shoot up my sister or blow up my house.' So mostly, you just get a whole lot of respect."

Robinson does not fret much about her man belonging to a gang: "He's around most nights. He's a real good father. As long as he can keep that life separate from his home life, it's OK."

Ware insists he has mellowed some since his younger days, when he took part in crimes that landed him in jail nearly a dozen times. But he still enjoys the life. "Another gang hassling you, that's just putting fun in it," he said. "Getting killed is a chance you've got to take. Hell, look at me. I've made 29." Low-income neighborhoods are the common breeding ground for gangs. All the ingredients are there--poverty, poor housing, high unemployment, one-parent families, little emphasis on education.

"It's a tradition in many neighborhoods," said John Quicker, a sociologist who teaches a course on gangs at California State University, Dominguez Hills. "They grow up and the older gang members become role models for them. Their brothers and buddies are in a gang. Gangs are at school, in the parks. It's not like they have to seek them out. They're right there."

Gangs fill a void for many youths, giving them friendship, recognition, excitement, protection and money.

"It's what I wanted to be. People have respect for you when you're in a gang," said Johnny (Downer) Romero, 17, a member of the Eastside Longos, one of the city's largest Latino gangs. "Most people around the neighborhood are either in the gang or they hang around with us."

Like a lot of gang members in his neighborhood, Romero frequents the upholstery shop at 10th Street and Cerritos Avenue run by Bernie Sanchez. In the cluttered confines of the shop, they smoke cigarettes, listen to music on a portable radio and generally fight boredom.

Sanchez, a slight man who has owned the struggling business for five years, said he plays host to the youths because they have nowhere else to go. As he sees it, most of the gang members who congregate at the shop are basically decent guys who are sometimes led astray by violent peers.

One weekend, several of the youths hot-wired the shop's van and tore off to a rival gang's neighborhood. When they returned the vehicle, its sides were riddled with bullet holes.

Sanchez was furious: "These kids, most of them really want to do better, but there's always some jerks who interfere."

In the world of gangs, the pressure to stick with the pack is intense.

Robert Guerrero, 18, runs with the Toker Town Flats, one of the most notorious gangs in the city. But Guerrero dreams of other things. The Poly High senior has a B-minus grade average, is in Army ROTC and hopes to be admitted to San Diego State University next year.

"A lot of people ask me why I don't leave the gang," Guerrero said. "But it's hard. These are the guys I grew up with."

When he joins his friends after school, the activity rarely varies. "When you're out in the streets, if you're not getting high then you're getting in a fight or doing a burglary or mugging somebody," Guerrero said. "I feel a lot of pressure when I'm out there. I know if I don't do things with them, they'll look down on me."

Or worse. It's rare, but gangs have been known to "jump out" a member who strays. The youth is attacked by the pack and sometimes is hospitalized from the beating.

For now, Guerrero is biding his time, hoping he is accepted to college--and hoping he is still alive when it is time to register.

"You never know," he said. "I could be hanging out some Friday night at the wrong place and get shot. I think about that. One little thing can end all these goals I have."

About 45% of the gang members in Long Beach are Latino, another 40% are black, and the balance are Samoan, white, Filipino and Asian, police say. The majority are between 13 and 25. While they share many habits and traditions, each ethnic band retains distinctive traits.

For Latino gangs, love of their neighborhood turf, their barrio, ranks above all else, experts say. Drive-by shootings, gang fights and murder can result when one gang tramples in the territory of another.

"The barrio is like the family and the home boys (gang members) are like the brothers," one 19-year-old outfitted in baggy khakis and a white T-shirt, the standard garb of Latino gangs, said during a recent interview. "Sometimes you're willing to do more for the barrio than your real family. The barrio comes first, the family second."

Black gangs are less preoccupied with battles over turf or neighborhood pride and more interested in economic concerns, law enforcement officials say. "Making money" is a standard phrase used by black gang members, police say. It means one thing--profiting from criminal activity such as burglary, robbery and drug sales.

But crime is a way of life for all gang members, be they Latino, Samoan, black or white. "From what I see, gangsters commit most of the crimes in the city," boasted another Latino gang member who was interviewed along with more than a dozen of his friends.

Gang violence can be sparked by the most innocent of incidents. Wars have erupted after one gang crossed out another's graffiti. Sorenson said some black gangs, who wear clothing of certain colors, varying according to their affiliation, will attack an unsuspecting victim who strolls into the neighborhood wearing a rival gang's hue.

And, on occasion, such episodes can lead to death. Of the 15 gang-related homicides this year, police say at least four were triggered by gang retaliation.

The killings probably will continue. Several of Guerrero's fellow gang members were involved in the brawl that led to the death of Jose Gonzales on Halloween night. None of them feel remorse, Guerrero said. To them, Gonzales was just a rival, just another foe.

"These guys don't feel sorry," Guerrero said. "They know the same thing would happen to them if they got caught in another gang's neighborhood. It's just the way it is. It just becomes one more guy dead."

Susan Contreras has lost two sons to gangs. Her oldest, Tony, was stabbed to death in 1979 by another gang member. He was 18. Tony's younger brother, Richard, is in Folsom prison, serving time for possession of heroin, a habit he picked up while in a gang.

Contreras, 45, understands why her boys joined a gang--their need to belong. But why, she wonders aloud, the violence?

Tony was a big kid, a weight lifter who favored tank top shirts that revealed his well-muscled arms. Contreras remembers a judge once telling Tony that he could get anything he wanted if he applied himself. "But he had the self-destruction," she says with a sigh.

Richard, now 21, never really had a chance to lead a life free of gangs, what with Tony as a role model. "I can see how he just bumbled right into it," Contreras said. Last February, he was paroled from Folsom after serving a one-year sentence. But in April he was arrested again for heroin possession and sent back.

"Sometimes I think maybe I didn't try hard enough," Contreras said. "Sometimes we just throw our hands up and say, 'What the hell can I do?' Then you feel guilty and you try again. And you try and try. I would like to have been able to just pick them up and moved. Maybe that would have helped. I can say a whole lot of maybes now. Maybe none of it would have happened."

WHERE THE GANGS ARE IN LONG BEACH

Shaded areas are neighborhoods most affected by gangs. Letters show the center of current activities by city's 7 largest gangs.

A. Eastside Longos--City's largest gang, about 600 members. Mainly Latino. Very turf conscious. Rivals are Westside Longos, Barrio Pobre, T-Town Flats. Involved heavily in graffiti, and use of marijuana, PCP, heroin. Some drug sales. Three members were homicide victims in 1985.

B. Westside Longos--Latino gang similar to Eastside Longos, but a mortal enemy of that gang. Once the largest in city, now about 350 members but recruiting heavily. One homicide victim in 1985.

C. Insane Crips--City's largest black gang, about 450 members. Mainly in central Long Beach. Warring with black gangs from Compton and Lynwood. Involved in robbery, burglary, sale and use of cocaine. Five members were homicide victims this year.

D. Boulevard Boy Crips--Black gang in area called "the DMZ." About 200 members. Many gang members arrested for robbery, burglary, assault. Rivals are several Compton gangs and the Insane Crips.

E. Sons of Samoa--About 200 members scattered throughout city. Many are Samoan immigrants or first-generation Samoans. Allied with many of city's black gangs. Heavy sale and use of cocaine, PCP--also robbery, burglary, extortion. One member a homicide victim in 1985.

F. Barrio Pobre--Carson gang that spread to Long Beach in recent years. About 100 Long Beach members, almost all Latino. Involved heavily in burglary, drug sales. As a new gang, a rival of most Latino gangs.

G. Toker Town Flats--Latino gang allied with Barrio Pobre in wars with Eastside and Westside Longos. About 100 members. Activities include graffiti, robbery, sale and use of drugs.

Information from police, community sources, city officials.

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