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Under Siege : Recent Crime Wave in Balboa Park Puts Visitors and Nearby Residents on Edge

Times Staff Writer

When Teri Poteet wants to see some action, she doesn’t turn on the television or go to the movies. All she has to do is gaze out the window of her second-floor apartment, which overlooks the twisting trees and idyllic terrain of Balboa Park.

“I see drug deals constantly,” said Poteet, resident manager of the 30-unit apartment building at 6th Avenue and Elm Street. “Gary (her fiance) and I, we watch it like we watch TV.”

Muggings. Panhandlers. Car burglaries. The scenes that are visible from Poteet’s window depict yet another criminal assault--some would claim takeover--of San Diego’s civic jewel, an inner-city park filled with ornate buildings, wild canyons and lazy rolling acres of tended lawns and shrubs.

Stats Give Different Story

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Statistically, crime in Balboa Park has been declining. Numbers kept by the San Diego Police Department show that index crimes--murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assaults and property crimes--have decreased since 1984, when they peaked at 1,187 incidents.

Last year, there were 657 index crimes. Between January and August of this year, 434 index crimes were reported.

Yet those numbers don’t include the recent crime wave, which, since Sept. 27, has resulted in 10 robberies and five assaults in the park’s extreme southwest corner alone. And, despite the overall improvement in safety, people living and working on the western edge of the park, along 6th Avenue, say the recent criminal onslaught has made them even more uneasy about their security.

Turnover at nearby apartment complexes is increasing, and at least one apartment manager resorted to hiring a security guard at night to watch over the cars parked on the street.

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Some medical offices along the avenue have erected security fences to keep derelicts from sleeping, urinating and defecating in their courtyards and on their steps.

Even St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, long an unofficial overnight haven for transients on the corner of 6th and Nutmeg, appealed to police recently to roust transients from its property because of the garbage, damage and human wastes that were left behind each morning.

Curbsides around and through the park are constantly littered with shimmering bits of broken auto glass, evidence of the rash of car burglaries plaguing the area. A visitor walking by the shuffleboard courts at the Balboa Club on a recent afternoon was approached by an anxious-looking park denizen, who proposed a drug deal by taking a silent toke from an imaginary joint.

“Crime is escalating--dangerous crime is escalating--and we are very concerned about the kinds of people who are frequenting and living in Balboa Park today,” San Diego Police Chief Bob Burgreen said last week.

“There is a growing perception on the part of our officers, park employees and park users that Balboa Park is not a safe place,” Burgreen said.

Crackdowns Announced

Twice this month, Burgreen announced major crackdowns on Balboa Park crime. In the first announcement, he disclosed a plan to concentrate 12 to 15 extra uniformed and undercover officers along Marston Point, in the park’s extreme southwest corner. Burgreen said the added manpower was meant to catch a band of up to 30 illegal aliens preying on cars and visitors to the park.

The second announcement came Wednesday when Burgreen said he was expanding police coverage in the rest of the park, a plan that includes a monthlong blitz of yet another 30 officers taken from citywide tactical squads. Starting next month, Burgreen said, he will add another permanent patrol unit to the park and open a “storefront” community office at the Balboa Club.

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Past police crackdowns have been successful--for a time. During the summer, for instance, police beefed up patrols in the Marston Point area and the crime rate plummeted, Burgreen said.

But, when the extra officers were pulled off for duty elsewhere, crime surged again, leading to the recent two-week rampage of assaults and robberies.

“A lot of officers, it gets to,” said Agent Doug Pickett, who has patrolled Balboa Park and other parts of central San Diego for nine years. “You get frustrated because they can’t put people in jail and you see the same faces.”

Short of catching someone committing a robbery or another felony, Pickett said during a recent ride-along, all a cop can do is keep the mass of societal outcasts circulating through Balboa Park and hope that police vigilance will scare the more dangerous characters away.

“If you let it get to you, you’re going to die in this job,” Pickett said. “I look at it as a game . . . .”

It is 9:30 p.m. Monday. Pickett and two other police officers are crouching around a clump of brush on the hills of Balboa Park near a place they believe serves as an illegal camp for transients or illegal aliens. Now, peering through the brush, their suspicions are confirmed. They see the faint glow of a light.

On cue, Pickett and his colleagues flick on their flashlights.

“San Diego police! Come out!” shouts Officer Dan Albright.

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No one is home. But the officers have discovered a makeshift residence--they call it a “rat hole"--consisting of blankets and crates propped against the bent branch of a tree.

The hovel is barely large enough for two people to lie down, and outside one of the openings in a blanket is a trash heap, which consists of dozens of cartons, boxes and red 7-Eleven Super Big Gulp cups.

“They heard us coming,” remarked Albright, poking around the mats of newspapers and other junk that formed the hovel’s floor. “They know we know about this.”

Although the police don’t arrest anyone for illegally camping in the park, they take some prizes from their raid. They confiscate a pair of scissors, a box cutter and a kitchen knife with black electrical tape wrapped around its handle.

“I don’t think there’s a transient that we don’t contact that doesn’t have a weapon,” Albright said.

After a few minutes of digging through a purse, Albright and his partner, Ray Clark, also confiscate another staple of transient life--syringes. There are two in the hovel, which the officers take with them when the stench gets too much to bear.

On the way out, the officers make a cursory attempt at taking down the camp.

“We can tear this thing all the way to the ground, and tomorrow it will be up again,” said Albright, walking back up the hill to his car and the glow of civilization from the apartment buildings along 6th Avenue.

It is all part of the game that goes on between police and transients in Balboa Park. Albright and his partner, who have been patrolling the park for the last six months, are already on a first-name basis with many of the homeless.

Troublemakers will be cited for camping in the park, a misdemeanor, and returned to the street.

The primary police weapon is movement. Making the bands of homeless--Pickett estimated there are 150 permanent residents in the park--pick up their bedrolls and move along is the preferred solution to low-grade trouble.

Frustrating Job

It can be frustrating for the officers. One officer said Monday night: “We’re doing our job, but we’re not really doing anything.”

Rousting the park denizens is the easiest--and friendliest--solution for most occasions.

Such was the case earlier in the evening as Pickett was checking the park bathrooms near 6th and Nutmeg when an irate motorist hailed him from 6th Avenue.

Thomas Shanahan of Rancho Penasquitos was driving his 1983 Alfa Romeo convertible through Balboa Park shortly before 8 p.m. when a group of young men camped near the Laurel Street Bridge pelted him with bagels, presumably food that was distributed to the homeless in the park earlier in the evening.

In the passenger seat was a friend from New York, whom Shanahan wanted to impress with a tour of the park.

Shanahan was fuming.

“I’m going to write my congressman or someone--that’s just no good,” Shanahan said about the incident. “It causes violence. It destroys me to think that this is what my friend from out of town thinks of San Diego.”

As he registers his complaint, Shanahan is joined by a man wearing roller skates. Allen Rider had come to complain about the same group, which pelted him with bagels as he glided by on the sidewalk during his evening workout.

“What do I have to do to get some peace?” complained Rider, who lives on 4th Avenue and Pennsylvania. “They’re throwing food . . . at me.”

Pickett dutifully listened, then got back into his car and headed off toward the group near the Laurel Street Bridge, which crosses California 163 and offers a panoramic view of downtown San Diego. There, he is joined by two other officers, who watch as the “suspects” reluctantly grab their blankets and belongings before moving on into the night. The group consists of about 30 men--male prostitutes, runaways and transients, according to Pickett.

“This group here, we usually don’t bother,” said Pickett. “They are quiet. . . . We always tell them, ‘You don’t cause us any trouble and we won’t cause you any trouble.’ ”

About 7 p.m., police busted a suspected drug dealer just east of the Balboa Club shuffleboard courts. The dealer had allegedly robbed a man of $70 after threatening to punch a hole in his throat with a stick.

The dealer, who spent his time cursing and kicking his feet in the back of the police car, had just been let out of jail Monday morning after being picked up last week on a rock cocaine charge, Pickett said.

Otherwise, it has been quiet. Only once did police receive a call about a disturbance involving a purported gang of illegal aliens terrorizing people at Marston Point. By the time the patrol cars rolled into the area Monday night, no one could be found.

Blame the Aliens

Pickett and the other officers blame the aliens for the increase in crime in the park.

“Transients a lot of time get a bad rap,” Pickett said. “A lot of the crime is caused by the aliens. Or there are a lot of crooks who claim to be transients and use that as a cover.”

Pickett said the aliens, thought to number between 15 to 30 in the Marston Point area alone, are “either dealing drugs or breaking into cars. We see them literally get into groups. . . . They meet early in the morning, and then they walk off in groups of two.”

Police said the aliens case their victims by first asking for a cigarette or money, then return with several others to rob and beat the person. To escape police, they run down the hillsides and hide out under the 163 and Interstate 5 freeway underpasses.

According to Pickett, the trouble with the aliens is nothing new. The reason it has stayed out of the headlines is because most of their victims have been the homeless.

But now the aliens are starting to bother office workers and middle-class visitors to the park. “I guess they’re finally becoming the victims,” Pickett said.

People living and working on the western edge of Balboa Park, where the high-rises of downtown give way to the boutiques and restaurants of trendy Hillcrest, have long coexisted peacefully with the transients, who congregate on the lawns or line up at predetermined points on 6th Avenue for handouts from relief agency vans.

But something has happened over the last six to nine months. Office workers and apartment dwellers now say they have been forced to take steps to increase their security around Balboa Park.

Had to Call Police

Officials of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, at 6th and Nutmeg, say they had to call on police about six months ago to begin rousting the 30 to 40 transients who have routinely bedded down outside the cathedral.

“What happened was that over a period of a couple of years, we got a rougher crowd in and started having property damage and, of course, urine and defecation on the property,” said Father M. A. Collins, assistant to the dean at St. Paul’s.

“I don’t want to characterize the homeless as this,” Collins said. “It is mostly people who prey on them.”

Collins said the church sextons were so busy cleaning up the trash and fixing up the garden that they had no time for their other duties around the cathedral. “It was impacting us financially,” he said.

On Monday, Collins received a personal dose--someone broke into his car and stole some luggage.

Collins, however, said the trouble at the church and the car burglary haven’t changed his mind that Balboa Park is a safe place, especially contrasted with other urban areas.

“I’ve lived in Los Angeles, if you know what I’m saying,” Collins said. “My home has been burglarized, and in Pasadena. If you’re asking me if San Diego and the park is safer than Pasadena, I’d say yes.”

At the Balboa Club, in the park just north of Ivy, chess players and horseshoe enthusiasts have noticed an increase in car burglaries in the last couple of years. Club manager Todd H. Smith said he has hired someone to keep watch over the cars parked nearby on Wednesday nights, when the chess club meets.

Yet the personal safety of club members hasn’t been a problem. Horseshoe players, for instance, walk each other to their cars and the drug dealers in the vicinity know not to bother them, said Russ McFarland, a club member.

“We’ve been here longer than they have and they haven’t chased us off,” McFarland said.

Club manager Smith agreed that people using the city building are safe. But he also said they are mindful about the reported increase of criminal activity in nearby Marston Point.

“The last few weeks, there’s been a lot of beatings and stabbings,” said Smith. “It’s gotten worse.”

Built a Fence

Across the street, transients were creating such a mess at the offices of dermatologist Roberts B. Pappenfort that he was forced last year to erect a security fence around the low-slung building he has owned for 33 years, said office manager Joan Taylor.

Taylor, who has worked at the office for 12 years, said the staff got tired of rousting the homeless each morning and washing off the steps to get rid of the stench of urine.

Since the fence went up, things have gotten even worse, she said. “We always get somebody’s car broken into,” she said. “We’ll find wallets on our roof or down our stairs and in our hedges.”

Taylor said that, since crime has increased, she has tried to schedule the older patients to come in before 3:30 p.m. so there’s no chance they will leave the office during twilight. Office workers are afraid to sit in the park to eat lunch because of the constant drug deals and growing aggressiveness of panhandlers, she added.

“If you’re with a group, you’re fine,” Taylor said. “But, if you want to take a stroll by yourself, forget it. It’s a shame.

“They (panhandlers) are bolder. They’ll come right up to you and give you a hard time. They don’t take no for an answer. They say, ‘Come on. You’ve got some money.’ ”

A few blocks farther south, Teri Poteet and the tenants in the 30-unit apartment complex she manages on 6th and Elm noticed a change in character around the park about nine months ago.

All of a sudden, their cars came under siege from burglars. The problem got so out of hand that Poteet was forced in March to hire a security guard to watch the tenants’ cars parked on the street at night.

The first month, apartment management paid $2,000 to have the security guard baby-sit the cars for eight hours a night. But the cost was too high, and the guard’s hours were cut in half.

“The car thieves figured it out very quickly,” Poteet said. “They would wait for him to leave, then they would break into the cars.”

Meanwhile, the tenants became fed up and began giving notice, causing the apartment’s vacancy rate to jump from 2% to 30%, said Michael McGinness, director of property for the Berkeley syndicate that owns the building.

Some of the disgruntled tenants are the newer, richer ones who have moved into the building because of Horton Plaza and downtown redevelopment, as well as the proximity to their jobs and the park. “Once their Mercedeses and BMWs have been broken into, they look elsewhere,” McGinness said.

Poteet said she discontinued the guard service Monday and only told her assistant manager about the move. By Tuesday, four tenants found out and gave notice they were leaving.

Troubling Scenes

But there are other troubling scenes outside Poteet’s second-floor window, which looks across 6th Avenue and into the park. There are the people she sees running down the street at night in dark clothes and carrying things such as television sets and large garbage bags.

There’s the man in the maroon Trans Am who parks illegally in the street during the lunch hour to sell drugs to office workers and transients in the park.

“He holds his hand out and he’ll have joints or little square bags of white powder--cocaine, crystal, whatever it is,” Poteet said. “Also, he doesn’t have a license plate on his car.”

Then there’s the group of 15 Latino men that Poteet believes is the same band of illegal aliens that have eluded police on Marston Point. Poteet said she watches them gather almost every day around a large tree with several thick, twisting branches.

“They sit over there,” said Poteet, who claims to call police at least three times a week to report crimes. “One faces this way and the other faces the other way. As soon as they see a (police) car, they spread out and leave.

“Some of them, I know their faces. They wear T-shirts and they wear bandannas around their heads. I think they’re practicing fighting. They have a little guy. They beat him up all the time. Does that sound strange?”

Two or three weeks ago, Poteet said, she saw the whole gang surround a young man who was sunning himself at the park. The gang took his camera and portable stereo.

The crime that sticks in her mind, however, was the gang rape that occurred about a month ago along the western edge of the park. Police caught three of the suspects, illegal aliens who just a week before had been deported to Mexico.

“Now, when I look at this little gang here, I can’t help but think about it because she was about my age,” said Poteet, who added that she wants to quit her job by the end of the year.

“It just gives me the heebie-jeebies.”


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