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FEARING NO EVIL : A Town Opens Its Heart, Lends a Hand and Learns to Live with Nearby Youth Detention Camp

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<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The road to Lake Hughes winds an hour north of Los Angeles, cutting through red clay canyons and climbing, eventually, to green mountains and cool air.

The lake is small and an unsightly shade of green. The town isn’t much to speak of, with two stop signs, two gas stations and Jackie’s Country Kitchen, where ranchers and retired people meet for breakfast.

There is also a county detention camp at Lake Hughes, a few miles from town. Two hundred teen-agers do time there, at what looks like a high school campus. Instead of walls and armed guards, there are basketball courts and a swimming pool.

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“Most people in town weren’t aware of the camp,” said Jeanette Marshall, the community’s postmaster. “Most people didn’t even know it was there until it was too late.”

On a Friday morning, five years ago, a 16-year-old boy escaped from camp and gunned down a local rancher. The people of Lake Hughes suddenly realized that those young men down the road weren’t just purse-snatchers. Some of them were convicted murderers, and some were convicted rapists.

“It was scary,” recalled Al Russell, a rancher and friend of the man who was murdered. “We’re isolated out here. We have to take care of ourselves. I told the man from the county, ‘I’ve loaded my gun and if one of those kids walks up to me, I’m not going to wait to find out what he wants.’ ”

Russell paused a moment and tipped his cowboy hat forward.

“I also told that man I didn’t know how I’d live with myself if I had to kill one of those kids.”

This spring has been warm in the mountains, and some men from Lake Hughes recently spent a day playing baseball and eating barbecue with teen-agers at the camp.

A fair amount of time has passed since Philip Vodon was murdered, and such visits are becoming commonplace as the townspeople slowly grow comfortable with their unusual neighbor. The residents haven’t put their guns away, but they’re learning to put their fears behind them.

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Some families in Lake Hughes have been there for generations; others have come to retire from urban life. A welcome sign along Lake Hughes Road lists a population of 500, but there are probably 1,500 more residents in the surrounding hills.

The county detention camp, built in 1957, is home to teen-agers who are split into two groups: those under 16 reside in Camp Munz, those over 16 (up to age 19) stay at Camp Mendenhall. The average sentence at the camps is seven months.

“The majority of our kids are violent kids,” said Carl Grolle, a supervisor at Camp Mendenhall for 18 years. “We have one or two sex offenders. Most of our kids have carried weapons in the street.”

In the last few years, a handful of residents have been stopping by on weeknights to tutor these teen-agers in English and math. The local woman’s club has made it a point to bake cakes whenever there are birthdays at Munz or Mendenhall.

For their part, camp officials attend community meetings to talk about security measures. They invite residents to tour the camp classrooms and dormitories.

And the teen-agers are visible in town. They work beside the road, dressed in dungarees and orange hard hats, clearing brush and cleaning up garbage. During the storm season, they sandbag. When it snows, they shovel roads and pack supplies to residents who can’t get out.

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“When you see them out there sandbagging or doing weed removal, it makes people realize that they’re trying to rehabilitate or whatever you want to call it,” Marshall said. “People realize that we don’t have Charles Manson running around our community, like we thought at first.”

A lot of the bad feeling and fear have dissipated simply because people became familiar with the camp, its officials and its youths. That might never have happened if Keith Mosley hadn’t escaped on September 16, 1983, and snuck onto the Vodon ranch.

Mosley was 16 years old and he was scared, according to Grolle’s account. A quiet youth with a minor record of nonviolent crimes, he couldn’t adjust to institutional life. Mosley went AWOL the day before he killed Vodon, but he didn’t leave camp right away. He slept that first night on the grounds, hidden on a rooftop.

The next morning, camp officials found a scribbled note. Mosley wanted to come back, but only if officials promised they wouldn’t send him to a harsher, high-security camp as punishment.

The county Probation Department, which operates 15 youth camps in Los Angeles, prohibits such deal-making. A camp supervisor spoke over the public address system, asking Mosley to turn himself in. Instead, the young man hopped over the chain-link fence and walked to Vodon’s nearby ranch house. He was burglarizing the place when Vodon came home.

Vodon was a retired corrections officer, and people in town say that if anyone could have handled the situation safely, it would have been him. But that wasn’t the way things worked out. After the shooting, Mosley stole Vodon’s pickup truck and drove all the way to Idaho before he was caught.

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At that time, Lake Hughes had no police force, and the nearest sheriff’s station was 30 miles away. Residents, fearing that they were sitting ducks, armed themselves and formed a neighborhood watch group. Some wanted a wall built around the camp. Others wanted it torn down.

“That was a very touchy situation,” said Steve Canin, assistant to the chief probation officer of Los Angeles County. “In all the years that we’ve operated camps, that was the only major incident we’ve had. We’ve had kids escape and commit a burglary or maybe steal cars, but nothing like that.”

Probation officials and representatives from the county Board of Supervisors rushed to Lake Hughes, but residents weren’t impressed by their speeches, according to Russell.

It took something far different to get through to the community. It took the unexpected influence of a slight, religious woman who was new to town.

Ingrid Forsberg had no idea what she was getting into when she volunteered to be the chaplain at Camps Munz and Mendenhall in June, 1983, three months before the murder. The job paid nothing, other than meals in the camp cafeteria. Forsberg would have to solicit donations to pay the rent on a small house at the center of town.

To this day, Forsberg insists that she did not set out to bring the community and the camp together.

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“I’m sure it was God’s idea, because I’m not smart enough to figure these things out,” she said. “I just wanted to be part of the town.”

So the 41-year-old chaplain attended the local Baptist church and the woman’s club. She hung around at Jackie’s. She even struck up a friendship with a woman who owned a bar in town.

“Our previous chaplains never did that,” Grolle said. “She started a relationship with the community.”

“At church, I’d ask them to pray for the camp,” Forsberg recalled. “The woman’s club would ask questions about it, and I’d let them know what was happening up there.”

The relationship began slowly. Forsberg planned a Christmas party at the camp, and the woman’s club offered to help pay for presents--combs and toothbrushes and deodorant.

Next came the birthday cakes. Then a group from the town attended a celebration for several young men who earned their high school diplomas while at Camp Mendenhall.

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“Those boys were so grateful,” said Jean Mabourzeix, president of the woman’s club. “They all hugged us.”

The people who visited the camp told their friends that the teen-agers weren’t so bad. Attitudes began to change.

“When I first went up to the camp, this lady told me that whenever she’d hear that a kid was AWOL, she’d pull her blinds down, she’d pull out her rifle and load it,” Forsberg said. “She doesn’t do that anymore. In fact, she’s been up to the camp on Sunday nights to help with the religious services.”

Finally, some residents agreed to visit the camp on a regular basis to tutor. That was how Gabriel and George met.

Gabriel is a gruff-looking 18-year-old. He’s been in Camp Mendenhall the better part of a year and doesn’t expect anyone’s sympathy.

“It’s like you’re in here, and everybody thinks you’re a screwball.”

George Bishop is a middle-aged writer who leaves his comfortable home in nearby Lake Elizabeth once a week to come to camp. He didn’t expect to have much in common with the young men there.

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“I have a world and a life that is totally foreign to them.”

Camp officials say Gabriel and George constitute a typical example of friendships that form between volunteers and their teen-agers. Gabriel tells George things he would never tell county counselors.

“It began with coming here and expecting to teach ABCs,” said Bishop, whose wife also tutors. “It evolved into a much different relationship. The boys talk to us about their problems.”

“He was easy to talk to,” Gabriel said. “We talk about my life and stuff, and why I’m in jail.”

There are drawbacks. The problem, Bishop said, is that young men like Gabriel eventually leave. Once, Bishop made the mistake of becoming emotionally close to a teen-ager in camp. He won’t do that again.

“If you get too involved, nine out of ten times they get out of here, and you never hear from them again.”

Perhaps Forsberg didn’t realize how attached she had become to the youngsters and the town. The chaplain left in January because of the financial hardships of volunteer work. She now ministers and tutors English at Grace Korean Church in Norwalk while trying to arrange a mission to Korea.

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Amid new environs, Forsberg speaks sadly of her departure. She says she misses “her family.”

“That was the best part: . . . the people who prayed, the good people in town who have hearts that can forgive. There is no Christianity without forgiveness, and there’s no living without mercy and kindness.”

Camps Munz and Mendenhall still have runaways, and they always will, said Harold Garrison, Camp Mendenhall’s director. Since the murder, whenever a youth escapes, camp officials call people in town who, in turn, spread the word.

Such news doesn’t start a panic, said Paul Koslo, who owns a grocery store in town. Two years ago, the Sheriff’s Department stationed a man full-time in Lake Hughes, and that makes people feel more secure. Still, some people worry.

“If you live next to a neighbor who has a rabid dog on a chain, you think about what might happen if that dog gets loose,” Koslo said.

These fears are caused to a great extent by the way the camp is run: People don’t believe you can control criminals without guns and walls.

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Munz and Mendenhall are open camps. The youths here are to be rehabilitated with behavior modification, not force. There isn’t a single firearm or night stick on the premises. The chain-link fence stretches only halfway around the grounds. Fourteen counselors must handle 200 teen-agers.

“You have to believe in a program like this to make it work,” Grolle said.

Program is a word that camp officials use frequently. The program, they say, works like this:

The moment a young man is brought to Munz or Mendenhall, he is placed in a room with a counselor who explains the rules of the place. One of the camp’s teen-agers comes in and tells the newcomer again. Another counselor may come in and tell him a third time.

The youths divide their time between work and class. They move about the grounds in single-file lines and military march steps.

During recreational periods, no more than three youths may stand together and talk. In lines or in class, they must constantly be what camp officials call “mixed”: blacks next to Mexicans, Mexicans next to Caucasians, and so on.

The slightest infraction--talking out of turn or roughhousing in the food line--will land a teen-ager in a room surrounded by three counselors. The adults patiently, insistently question the youth about why he misbehaved.

They can also threaten an added week in camp or transfer to one of the county’s security camps, where there are guns and walls and the living conditions aren’t as pleasant.

“The kid thinks, ‘All I did was this little thing, and you’re making a big deal about it?’ ” said William Gerth, director of Camp Munz. “We make a big deal out of everything.”

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On a recent visit, the camp was extraordinarily quiet, with none of the chatter common to standard high schools. Youths who walked past adults always said “hello” or “excuse me.”

“That’s why we’re opening our doors,” Gerth said. “If the community comes in and sees first-hand what the program is like, they’ll feel much better about it.”

Last weekend, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich helicoptered into Lake Hughes to present awards to Forsberg and community members who have donated their time and efforts to the camp. There was a short speech and, afterward, a barbecue.

The event, especially because of the helicopter, was a big deal in town, but Al Russell couldn’t help remembering the day his friend Philip died.

“I still have feelings. I can’t call them hard feelings, but they’re feelings,” the rancher said. “I saw him that morning. He left this restaurant, and he never came back.”

In 1983, Russell was the first one to tell county officials he’d shoot escapees who came on his property. Today, he’s the first to admit that good has come from tragedy.

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“It opened the community’s eyes. That’s something good,” he said. “I just wish to hell it could have happened a different way.”

A few days before Easter, Russell was sitting in Jackie’s with a group of regulars. They decided to collect all the eggs after the town’s Easter egg hunt and bring them to the camp.

“One guy said, ‘I ain’t sending no eggs down there,’ ” Russell recalled. “I told him, ‘Hey, it might just take one little egg to change a kid’s life.’ Who the hell knows?”

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