L.A. Gangs, Drugs Invade Inland Empire

Times Staff Writer

William had had enough.

The 33-year-old apartment manager moved here from Los Angeles three months ago after discovering that his teen-age son was involved in a gang and was selling rock cocaine.

But his hopes of a new life free of gangs and their influence were soon dispelled.

"A tenant told me a guy asked her how much she'd charge if he could sell rock cocaine from her apartment. It's hard, man, they're everywhere," said William, who because of his fear of retribution from the gangs spoke on condition that his real name not be used.

In fact, many gang members who are moving from Los Angeles to the so-called Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties also speak of leaving behind the violent drug trade of Los Angeles. But they move here because they figure the competition is less intense and the police scrutiny less severe.

Witness Robert, a 26-year-old Crips gang member who moved his rock cocaine business out of Watts to a small city near Riverside. Before he moved he scouted the local police.

"I counted (only) eight cars, four of them rolling mostly in the downtown area," said Robert, who asked that his real name not be used. "I said, 'I love it.' "

Robert next befriended a single woman who lived in a cheap apartment on the outskirts of town. He gave her groceries, furniture and drugs in return for the use of her apartment.

Robert figures he sold $30,000 worth of cocaine out of that apartment and others until he was shot and nearly killed by local drug dealers he was underselling.

Now, authorities have identified at least 2,000 Los Angeles gang members and associates who either live or operate in cities ranging from bedroom communities like Rialto and Ontario to the desert resorts. With them has come an increase in reported murders, assaults, burglaries and drive-by shootings, authorities said.

For example, there were three gang-related murders and 12 gang-related attempted murders reported in western Riverside County in 1987, compared to one murder and one attempted murder in 1985, according to the most recent statistics. Similarly, there were 200 gang-related cases filed with the county district attorney's office in 1987, compared to only 15 in 1985.

Most recently, an 18-year-old member of a Rolling 60s Crips gang in Los Angeles was shot in the neck on July 12 near downtown Riverside by a member of a rival gang, the Playboy Gangster Crips of Los Angeles, authorities said. The shooting followed an argument over rock cocaine.

"There are too many of them and not enough of us," said Riverside County Sheriff's Investigator Ed Harvey, one of two deputies assigned to that agency's gang detail. "We are also at a disadvantage from large cities that can make profiles of gang members who reside in their area. Here, they often commute from Los Angeles to sell drugs, and go home."

"The sophistication of these people is what was least expected," said David Tolford, a gang investigator for the Riverside district attorney's office. "The Los Angeles gang members who come to Riverside are conducting themselves in the manner of urban terrorists."

Although the problem hardly compares with the situation in Los Angeles, public anxiety here has reached near-panic levels in some of the low-income neighborhoods favored by gang members.

Along once quiet streets, residents complain of drug dealers who openly ply their trade by day and communicate with each other at night by whistling or banging on car fenders and fence posts. Meanwhile, apartment complexes, walls, homes, businesses and city parks have been plastered with the graffiti characteristic of the Los Angeles-based Crip and Blood gangs.

Neighborhoods Changed

In fact, certain street corners in Riverside, San Bernardino and Moreno Valley have become indistinguishable from gang hangouts in Los Angeles. Here too, gang-related drug dealers bark prices from porches and sidewalks at potential customers who cruise by.

"At first I was frightened--now, I'm damn angry," said Patricia Davie, 55, the fourth manager in four months at a particularly troubled location near downtown Riverside called the Broadmore Apartments. Forty-third Street Crips from Los Angeles, Davie said, have "taken the place hostage."

On July 14, a young man was shot and wounded in the apartment courtyard after tenants heard someone yell, "You owe me $10!" she said. In March, one of the apartment units was peppered with gunshots.

Now, despite frequent police raids on the 26-unit complex, "They stand at the front gate and sometimes won't even let people get through," Davie said. "When the police get here, it sounds like a heard of elephants running up the stairs to hide."

Jeanie Williams, a Riverside city park director of 15 years who recently dodged a bullet in a drive-by shooting incident attributed to a Crips gang from Los Angeles, added, "You get terrified all the time now."

Interviews with residents, community leaders and law enforcement authorities indicate that Los Angeles gang members come here for a variety of reasons.

"A main reason behind our gang problem is the Los Angeles Police Department flushing the toilet in L.A.," said San Bernardino Police Sgt. Ron Schwenka. "The gang members also find out that rent is cheaper here and that this is virgin territory for drug sales."

Seeking Safety

Other gang members, however, simply moved here with families who perceived the Inland Empire to be a place far from big-city congestion and crime, authorities said.

James Johnson, associate professor of geography at UCLA and an expert on black demographics, argues that their arrival coincides with a recent "migration" of blacks who are leaving Los Angeles for rapidly growing communities such as Moreno Valley and Rialto, which have doubled their populations in the last 10 years.

"It is important to look at this in the context in which it is occurring," Johnson said. "Many of these gang members are also members of families that have made a decision to move in search of affordable housing, jobs, and escape from undesirable living conditions and poor schools."

The median price of an existing home in Los Angeles in June was $182,364, according to the California Assn. of Realtors. By comparison, the median price of homes in the Riverside-San Bernardino area was $108,567. Similarly, one-bedroom apartments in the Inland Empire rent for as little as $200 a month.

Gangs Attracted

Instead of a working person's paradise, however, some new residents find themselves in the middle of gang-infested neighborhoods. And their children, in search of an identity, wind up emulating the gangs they thought they had left behind.

"We are finding a lot of kids wearing gang colors and flashing gang signs who are not gang members," said Ray Turner, a minister at Loveland Church in San Bernardino, one of the largest churches in the region with a congregation of about 5,000. "They don't realize the danger in doing that."

Law enforcement agencies, already strained to the limit servicing some of the fastest growing communities in the nation, lack the manpower or equipment to deal with what amounts to a new type of criminal.

Until now, authorities said their biggest problems were PCP and amphetamine labs in undeveloped rural and desert areas, and occasional turf wars between traditional Latino gangs and motorcycle clubs.

Caught Off Guard

Caught off guard by Los Angeles gang members, they are still not sure how these gangs fit into the region's social fabric, or how to combat their highly mobile rock cocaine operations.

Under increasing pressure from residents to act, the communities of the Inland Empire only this year started fighting back.

Rialto officials have placed a controversial "gang assessment" tax proposal on the November ballot that would tax homeowners to provide $500,000 for additional police officers.

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department, in conjunction with the county district attorney's office, plans to establish a gang task force to sponsor educational seminars in schools and churches. The Riverside Police Department has purchased a $125,000 computer and assigned 26 of its 271 officers to work on gangs.

Enforcing the Codes

Separately, San Bernardino has begun enforcing fire, health and safety codes at the run-down apartments, motels and even businesses used by the gangs to conduct drug sales.

Last month, health and safety inspectors raided a transmission shop that police believe had been turned into a rock house by Main Street Crips from Los Angeles. Slapped with dozens of citations for safety violations, the owners closed the business.

A similar raid was conducted July 7 on a squalid eight-unit apartment complex in San Bernardino where rooms rented for as little as $105 a month. The owner, who lives in Pasadena, received more than 100 citations for violations ranging from fire hazards to broken windows, authorities said. Rather than fight the charges, the owner agreed to apply for a city grant to have the complex torn down.

"There will be a number of these raids here and at other locations in the city throughout the summer," said San Bernardino City Atty. James Penman. "It's one way of getting rid of these Los Angeles gangs."

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