Normal Heights Shaken by Racism That Forced Blacks to Flee
Seventy years ago, when Mary Wiltsie was growing up north of Adams Avenue in Normal Heights, there was a black girl her age in the neighborhood. “Nobody bothered her,” said Wiltsie, 76.
Wilbur Nutter has lived around the corner from Wiltsie for eight years with his wife, who is Japanese. “I’ve never had a lick of a problem,” Nutter said. “I’ve never locked my doors. It’s a nice, safe neighborhood.”
By almost any standards, Normal Heights is an integrated community: 28% of the residents are minorities; students at John Adams Elementary, the neighborhood school, come from a crazy-quilt of backgrounds, variously claiming 19 languages as their native tongues.
Yet last summer, racial hate drove a black family from the neighborhood, less than a year after they had moved into a Spanish-style white adobe house a few doors down from the Wiltsies’ place on 35th Street.
Within weeks of their arrival in October, 1984, George Shelton, his fiancee, Michelle Washington, and her young son woke up one day to find the smoldering remains of a burned wooden cross scarring their lawn. Two weeks later, they received a racist hate letter in the mail.
Early one morning in April, 1985, when the threats seemed to have subsided, someone set the couple’s truck on fire as it sat in their driveway, outside the little boy’s window. Only chance, neighbors say, kept the truck from exploding.
The family sold the house last June.
On the advice of the FBI, which was investigating the case, Shelton and Washington told none of their neighbors where they were going.
A year later, next-door neighbor Justin Hanes, 10, still has the Christmas present he bought for his young playmate. “We can’t send it to him,” said Justin’s father, Stephen Hanes, “because we don’t know where he is.”
Neighbors got a new jolt 10 days ago. A federal grand jury indicted Michael Maas, 27--who grew up and still lived within a block of the black family’s house--on charges that he was responsible for the reign of racial terror. The grand jury charged Maas and his father, Earl M. Maas, 51, with intimidating key witnesses in an effort to quash the investigation.
People who live in the area--along quiet, tree-lined Mansfield and 35th streets, or under the jacarandas on Mountain View Drive, atop the hillside charred last summer by the Normal Heights fire--say the events make little sense. The Maas boys may have been noisy--"All boy,” they say. But a Klan-style cross? Sure, there’s latent racism, they say. But here?
The questions weigh heavily, too, on the Normal Heights leaders who are in Washington today to pick up an award confirming the area’s status as an “All-American City,” a community that works.
“It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?” asked Stephen Temko, president of the Normal Heights Community Development Corp. “We’re working so hard to revitalize this neighborhood, and then this happens.”
In 13 years of tracking racist incidents, Clara Harris, executive director of the Heartland Human Relations Assn. in La Mesa, has never seen attacks as violent as those that chased Shelton and his family from Normal Heights last year.
“Usually, these kind of incidents start out with a simple thing, like drawing a swastika or (writing) ‘KKK’ on the driveway, and then they escalate from there,” Harris said last week. “Usually, within a short period of time, the whole thing is finished.”
But the threats in the Normal Heights case persisted for seven months--long enough, and with sufficiently heightened intensity, to convince the family to move away.
“When it first started, they wanted to stay,” said Harris, who met with Shelton and Washington during the series of attacks. “But after the arson attack, I think that was what made them decide. And they were afraid for their child as well.
“I’m sure they don’t feel secure even where they are.” (The couple declined to be interviewed.)
There are no statistics collected countywide on race-related incidents, but Harris, whose group contracts as the human relations agency for several East County cities, says racism in the area is on the rise.
Racist newsletters are being distributed in San Diego County, she said, and students parroting white supremacist doctrine are present on many high school campuses. Heartland recorded 13 incidents of racial harassment in East County in 1985; there have been eight in the first five months of this year.
“I hear people expressing their prejudice against particular groups more today than I have in a long time,” Harris said. “This is a difficult time emotionally and economically for a lot of people. And we (create) scapegoats when things get tough.”
Morris Casuto, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said incidents like the one in Normal Heights remain extremely rare in the San Diego area. But it is wrong, he said, to believe that prejudice has been conquered.
“This county is still very much of a mixed signal,” Casuto said. “There are many areas, I would say most areas, in the county where individuals live freely, without fear of bigotry. But the taint of bigotry turns up often enough so we know it’s still a problem.”
The physical threat posed by the racism on 35th Street is what distinguished the attacks from most of the cases of discrimination the Anti-Defamation League sees in San Diego County, Casuto said.
“I would have to be a moron to suggest citizens of San Diego who are black, brown or yellow do not face discrimination on a fairly regular basis,” he said. “But it’s one thing to face discrimination of the word. It’s another to face violence of the deed.”
Earl Maas’ friends and neighbors do not believe he or Michael, the middle son of three, could be responsible for terrorizing a black family into leaving Normal Heights or conspiring to cover up the crime, as the federal grand jury has alleged.
“Earl comes from Iowa,” said Bob Reeves, a friend of 25 years who lives in the neighborhood. “If he came from the Deep South, you might think something like that.”
Both father and son worked with a black man Earl Maas employed at Aero Electric, his electrical contracting business, noted Reeves’ wife, Pat. The family had a Latino maid.
“There isn’t a gentler man that ever lived than Earl Maas,” she said. A Jewish next-door neighbor, meanwhile, described Maas--a small, wiry man with curly black hair and a thick mustache--as a “good across-the-fence neighbor.”
Nonetheless, while the Reeveses and other friends and relatives of the Maases watched in shock late last month, U.S. Magistrate Harry McCue ordered Earl Maas held in jail without bond as a potential threat to the community or to witnesses in the case against him.
Asst. U.S. Atty. Lynne Lasry listed the charges against Maas: that he and Michael hid the evidence of the cross-building from federal investigators; that he otherwise helped Michael avoid capture; that he stuck a loaded, cocked gun in the mouth of a key witness, Patrick Irwin, to intimidate him; that he ordered Irwin at gunpoint to make sure another key witness, Deana Tolentino, did not testify or cooperate with law enforcement officials.
Reading from testimony Tolentino and Irwin eventually gave before the grand jury, Lasry said Maas had proclaimed his dislike of blacks, directly threatened Tolentino with harm and kept a dozen guns in his house.
His eldest son, David, she said, accidentally shot a neighborhood child April 1 and drove him to the hospital in a stolen car. Earl Maas then plotted to claim the child as a relative to collect from his insurance company for the injuries, Lasry alleged.
“I’m satisfied from what I’ve heard that there’s a pretty violent group of people living out there,” McCue eventually said. “I’m compelled to detain Earl Maas. I have no choice.” The decision is expected to be reconsidered today by U.S. District Judge Earl Gilliam.
Michael Maas already was in the County Jail. Judge J. Richard Haden of the San Diego County Superior Court sentenced him May 29 to three years in prison after he pleaded guilty to using a spiked bat to break both arms of Tolentino, his ex-girlfriend, during a fight in May, 1985.
Following the unsealing of the federal indictment May 30, county prosecutors filed additional charges against Michael Maas. He has pleaded innocent to assaulting a black man with a machete and a pistol outside an Adams Avenue convenience store in April, 1985, a couple of days before the attack on Tolentino.
A report by psychologist Thomas MacSpeiden, filed in court by Michael Maas’ defense attorney before the sentencing last month, says the son dropped out of Woodrow Wilson Middle School for several months during eighth grade.
“I wasn’t getting along in school at that time,” Michael Maas told the psychologist. “I didn’t get along with the teachers. And the ethnic groups I didn’t care for. It was the first time I was around blacks, browns and yellows.”
He first recalled being in contact with police when he was 16 and helped some friends steal a motorcycle. His mother, an educator who established a school for the disabled at Mercy Hospital, died of cancer in 1975. Maas’ first felony conviction came a year later, when he received three years’ probation for assault with a deadly weapon.
He admitted beating Tolentino in May, 1985, but said he hit her with a baton, one of her favorite sexual toys--not with a studded baseball bat, as prosecutors alleged. A few months earlier, Maas said, Tolentino had “begun requesting he physically abuse her during sex play,” according to the psychologist’s report.
Michael Maas described his father in admiring terms. “Not violent--aggressive,” he told MacSpeiden. “Very much the father figure. He and I are a lot alike. Not exactly alike, but almost.”
So far, the Maases’ defense shapes up largely as an attack on the credibility of Irwin and Tolentino.
Attorney Earl Durham, who represented Michael Maas in the state court assault case and will represent Earl Maas on the federal charges, branded both witnesses “narcotics addicts” during arguments in McCue’s court last week. Under Durham’s cross-examination, FBI Special Agent Anthony DeLorenzo acknowledged that Irwin uses methamphetamine.
According to Durham, Irwin is seeking vengeance on the Maases because Earl Maas ordered him and Tolentino to vacate a house on the Maas property after learning Irwin was manufacturing the drug. The two witnesses, Durham said in court, were conducting an affair even while Tolentino purported to be Michael Maas’ girlfriend.
“The government loves informants, and they never seem to learn,” Durham, a former San Diego police sergeant, said in an interview. “I get the idea sometimes the government will listen to anyone for any accusation.”
Room 7 at Adams Elementary School is a miniature United Nations. One bulletin board bears a picture of each of the third-grade students. A green string stretches from each photo to the spot on a map of the world where the child’s family originated. The strings land in Mexico, Germany, France, the Soviet Union, Chad, Ethiopia, Libya, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as the United States.
A vocabulary drill was the lesson just before lunch last Friday. The teacher had written the words for review on the chalkboard: differences, prejudice, discrimination, unique, stereotypes, handicapped, hatred, label.
“When we have a very narrow-minded person who does not give another person a chance, or isn’t fair with them because of race or religion or creed, what do we call that person?” the teacher asked. “Domingo, can you pronounce it?” she said to a Latino boy.
“ Bigot ,” he said correctly.
Every child at Adams participates in such “race-human relations” study programs in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to the principal, John Jones. Racism is “totally foreign” to the school, where the enrollment is 53% minorities. “I don’t know of any teacher (who has had) that experience where we’ve become a divided camp.”
Those kinds of good relations, largely, have prevailed among the adults of Normal Heights as well. Some older whites who live near the house abandoned by Shelton and Washington call blacks “colored.” Some sound a little patronizing when they say they were sorry to see “such a nice black family” leave the community.
But the reaction of many area residents to the acts of racial terrorism in their neighborhood was a desolate shame--embarrassment that such things could happen, anger they could do nothing to stop them.
“We couldn’t, as neighbors, believe what was going on, particularly coming from our neighborhood, because it’s just out of character,” Stephen Hanes said.
John Roberts, who lives across the street from the targeted house, had difficulty describing the shock he felt when he saw the cross burned on his neighbors’ lawn. “I’ve lived in San Diego all my life, and I’d never seen anything like that,” Roberts said. “I read in history books about things like that.”
Neighbors did what they could. They organized a community meeting with representatives of the San Diego Police, the Anti-Defamation League, Heartland and other groups to give support to their embattled black neighbors. They planned overnight watches on the black family’s house, so Shelton and Washington could get some sleep.
Shelton looked exhausted, recalled Temko, the community activist. “You can’t be on guard every single moment,” Temko said. “It was debilitating. He didn’t know what to do. There was stress written on his face.”
Casuto recalled his pride at the support the neighbors offered and urged against stereotyping Normal Heights as a racist bastion. “It was clear to us the neighborhood was concerned, ashamed, and wished to be as helpful as it could be in ameliorating this problem,” he said.
But the black couple--who told friends they moved to Normal Heights simply to live, not to make a point or rally a cause--chose to leave, not fight. And the overriding feeling left with their former neighbors is one of helplessness.
“By the time they tried to blow the truck up, it was clear whoever was doing this was mad as a hatter,” Hanes said. “You were just foolish to do anything but move. And that to me is tragic, from the standpoint of the neighborhood . . .
“You have this kind of thing happen next door to you and you think, ‘What can I do?’ And you realize there’s nothing you can do but sit on the porch with a shotgun, which will probably land you in jail instead of the perpetrator. It’s just very frustrating.”