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A Wounded Community : The attack on a City Council candidate, which has stirred memories of the murder of a young woman, shocked Venice residents and has renewed their concerns about crime

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Capt. John R. Wilbanks of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Pacific Division shook his head as he hung up his telephone last week. A gang member reportedly had been spotted in the troubled Oakwood section of Venice, wildly firing an Uzi submachine gun from the back of a speeding truck.

Wilbanks cautioned that he could not confirm the account. But the fact that it had any credence at all underscored an important point: When it comes to crime in Venice, especially violent crime, almost anything seems possible.

Witness the latest addition to Venice’s crime sheet: the brutal stabbing of Los Angeles City Council candidate Ruth Galanter. The May 6 attack on Galanter as she slept inside her small, beige tract home shocked residents and renewed concerns about the threat of violence in the diverse community, which has become as famous for its gangs and ghettos as its beaches and bistros.

“It’s a scary, scary situation,” said Harlan Lee, president of the Venice Action Committee. “This has frightened people, no doubt about it.”

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Ribicoff Murder

The Galanter stabbing wounded Venice. People wondered why it happened to Galanter and why it happened there. Memories of the chilling murder of Sarai Ribicoff, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner editorial writer killed outside a trendy Venice restaurant seven years ago, flooded the community conscience.

Danger seemed closer to home. And as Galanter recuperates from her injuries, there is a sense that Venice’s recovery will take much longer.

The man charged with the stabbing, 27-year-old Mark Allen Olds, lived directly across the street from Galanter. The proximity was symbolic in a community where moderate- and high-priced houses nestle next to ghetto apartments.

“This was a quiet, beautiful neighborhood,” said Theresa Munoz, who lives next door to Galanter on Louella Avenue. “Now we keep our eyes open.”

What many people see is a fairly dangerous community. The Pacific Division, which covers the Venice area, has the fourth highest crime rate in the Los Angeles Police Department. Five robberies were reported the week of Galanter’s stabbing. Three people were raped and 10 others assaulted, according to police. Seven burglaries were reported, 10 automobiles were stolen and 20 vandalized.

‘Tough Waterfront Town’

Tom Moran, a historian who lives in the canal district, said Venice is representative of urban America. Danger comes with the turf.

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“This is a tough waterfront town and there are hard people who live here,” said Moran, a resident since the 1970s. “It dates back to Venice’s carnival days. There’s a continuity to it. Despite the real estate ads and the trendy restaurants, it still exists. It doesn’t wash away with the tides.”

Venice has never really fit the mold of the mellow California beach town. From its turn-of-the-century beginnings as a seaside resort to it its modern-day manifestation as a bohemian beach community, it has stood apart. Since the beginning, the small area has been home to celebrities. As property values declined in the 1930s and ‘40s, Venice was claimed by blue-collar and oil field workers. Beatniks came in the 1950s and hippies in the 1960s.

Venice, with its 40,000 residents, is a cultural grab bag. There are poor people and rich people; former hippies and entrepreneurs who park their BMWs beside reconditioned Chevys. There are people who eat at fashionable restaurants and people who can’t afford a meal. There are tourists who come to gawk at the quintessential California weirdos on Ocean Front Walk.

And there are gang members and criminals. According to Wilbanks, some Venice families have criminal histories that go back two and three generations. “These are like family institutions over there,” he said.

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At one point in the 1970s, some people feared that the law-breakers were taking over as a crime wave swept over Venice. There were reports of open gang warfare and rampant vandalism. Children were subjected to the sound of gunfire ricocheting off brick walls. And dozens of people were killed.

“You couldn’t walk the streets around here,” said Vera Davis, the head of Low Income and Elderly United--Community Assistance Program. “It seemed like someone was getting shot every week.”

But it took a single killing in November, 1980, to focus national attention on Venice. Sarai Ribicoff, the niece of former Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.), was leaving a West Washington Boulevard restaurant one night when two men emerged from the darkness. One took her wallet and the other started shooting. Ribicoff, 23, died of a bullet wound to the chest.

The Ribicoff killing had a chilling effect as newspapers throughout the country ran stories that characterized Venice as some kind of an outlaw place that was plagued by chronic violence. It is a reputation the community has tried to shake ever since.

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The effort seemed to be working lately as million-dollar homes rose on the Silver Strand, historic buildings were restored and flocks of outsiders came to sample Venice’s fashionable new restaurants such as Rebecca’s and 72 Market Street. Some business people spoke of a Venice renaissance, and economic growth indicated that there was some substance to the claim.

Even crime seemed to cooperate. Wilbanks said unlawful activity in Oakwood, which has traditionally had the worst problems, decreased by more than 30% after he assigned seven extra police officers to the troubled area. Longtime Oakwood leaders such as Pearl White said they had never felt safer.

The entire community also saw a decline in violent crime. There were no murders between Jan. 1 and May 1 this year, compared to three last year. Ten rapes occurred this year, two more than in the same time period in 1986, according to police. But there were 15 fewer aggravated assaults--71 in 1987 compared to 86 in the previous year.

Then Galanter was stabbed.

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“It was like an earthquake had hit,” said Munoz, Galanter’s next-door neighbor. “It was as if Mrs. Galanter had to pay a price for living here.”

“A person should feel safe and secure in his or her home,” Moran said. “But this (the Galanter attack) has demonstrated that you can’t.”

‘Reasonably Safe’

Wilbanks, however, said Venice remains a “reasonably safe” community.

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He called Galanter’s neighborhood on the far eastern edge of Venice a “pretty quiet little area” that rarely has more than routine problems. Police statistics dating back to 1985 support his contention. During the past 16 months there was one report of an assault with a deadly weapon and two battery complaints on Louella Avenue, a four-block residential street. Nine burglaries or attempted burglaries occurred and there were nine car-related crimes.

Joan Cory, president of the Venice Town Council, said Venice’s reputation for danger has been exaggerated. She said that she feels safe.

“The (Galanter stabbing) was an isolated incident,” Cory said. “A crazy and insane kind of crime can happen anywhere. . . . I don’t feel that Venice is any more dangerous than Santa Monica or Mar Vista or Culver City.”

Paul Freedman, president of the West Washington Boulevard Merchants Assn., said Venice’s reputation as a hotbed of crime is undeserved.

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“I’ve lived here for four years and I have never had any crime problems,” Freedman said. “If it wasn’t somebody of prominence we wouldn’t even hear about these crimes. . . . Those are the few-and-far-between crimes.”

Campaign Issue

Yet residents may hear quite a bit more about crime in the week ahead. Both sides in the June 2 runoff between Galanter, 46, and 6th District Los Angeles City Councilwoman Pat Russell have agreed that crime is a major issue.

Russell, 63, who has been in office since 1969, is pushing law-and-order issues and said she has done everything possible to fight Venice crime. She said she has fought to get more police officers and special vehicles for the beach patrol. Russell has also supported efforts to crack down on crime in Oakwood.

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The councilwoman said both efforts have been effective. As she campaigns, Russell is telling voters that she has helped to make Venice a safer place.

“You have to tell people what the perceptions are and what the realities are and a lot of the time the two don’t match,” Russell said. “The perception that anything can happen in Venice . . . a lot of that is hype.”

Russell’s camp has also implied that Galanter’s supporters are soft on crime. Marcela Howell, Galanter’s campaign manager, denied the charge. Howell noted that Galanter has strong supported Neighborhood Watch organizations.

She said Galanter also supports plans for putting more police on the streets. If elected, Howell said Galanter would work with community organizations throughout the 6th District to make their neighborhoods safer.

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Yet most people, including the candidates, agree that Venice’s crime problems defy quick solutions. They are too deeply rooted and too widespread. The existence of crime is something that most Venice residents have learned to accept, like traffic and smog.

“Venice offers a tremendous number of benefits in terms of the quality of life,” Moran said. “On the negative side . . . is the fact that you suffer a slightly higher potential for crime. That’s part of the bargain you make.”

GRIM STATISTICS Figures are for Jan. 1-May 1, 1987.

City Homocide Rape Aggravated Assault Venice 0 10 71 Santa Monica 2 8 137 Culver City 2 4 51 West Hollywood 1 1 49

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Sources: municipal police departments


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