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Anxiety in Baja : Murder, Robberies Cast Pall on Good Life Enjoyed by American Expatriates

Times Staff Writer

The elderly couple, seated near the roaring fireplace in the rustic dining room of the La Fonda Hotel, south of Rosarito Beach, admitted to some uneasiness.

“This is a peaceful little community,” said the husband, having finished his broiled shrimp, “but people are a little edgy right now.”

“Everyone’s a little goosey,” his wife added.

The comments on a recent chilly evening reflect the anxiety that has gripped the many American expatriates of La Mision, a sleepy seaside resort community about 20 miles south of Rosarito Beach, since a Newport Beach businessman was slain there Nov. 6. Claude Falkenstein, 58, was shot to death during an attempted robbery at his La Mision residence, said police, who had two suspects in custody last week.

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“I don’t want to blow this out of proportion, but people are concerned,” said Charles McClellan, 75, a retired service station operator from New York, who had just finished a few holes of golf and was found puttering about his beachside casita one recent afternoon.

The murder capped what residents from north of the border describe as a crime wave involving as many as a dozen robberies of homes in La Mision, an area of about 75 houses, mostly leased by Americans. (Mexican law prohibits direct foreign ownership of coastal property.)

While break-ins are not unusual here, several of the recent thieves--including those who shot Falkenstein--have been armed, something that residents say represents a chilling new twist.

“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of guns being involved,” said Ann Ginn, 87, a lively great-grandmother and 27-year resident who presides as a kind of doyenne of the expatriate community here. An intruder held her up at gunpoint 6 weeks ago. Ginn still shakes from the incident.

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Mexican officials, sensitive about any criticism of their handling of the Falkenstein killing, have bolstered patrols in La Mision and vowed to do all they can to apprehend the culprits. They have also urged Americans to report all crimes--something that has not been standard practice in a community where there are no telephones and many residents profess little confidence in the police.

Despite such steps, authorities reject suggestions that La Mision has suddenly become unusually dangerous. On the contrary, police maintain that the killing and the armed robberies were isolated incidents that could happen in any community in any nation.

“There’s no reason for any panic,” said Hugo Torres, mayor of Rosarito Beach, which governs La Mision. (Both areas are within the city limits of Tijuana.) “We regret this lamentable action very much, but it’s something that could have happened anywhere.”

Indeed, residents and U.S. authorities have been quick to point out that violence against Americans is probably far less common here than it is north of the border, despite the notoriously rowdy behavior of many Americans who visit Mexico.

“There are crimes of violence here, as in the United States, but there is certainly no targeting of Americans,” said Howard Betts, U.S. vice consul in Tijuana, who attended a recent meeting with the U.S. community in La Mision in an effort to placate fears.

Authorities estimate that more than 40,000 U.S. citizens reside in Baja California and Baja California Sur, most attracted by the frequent sunshine, generally mild weather and relatively inexpensive and laid-back life style. Huge satellite dishes are among the telltale signs that betray their presence.

Many Americans reside here illegally, but Mexican immigration authorities, unlike their U.S. counterparts, rarely make a fuss. Most U.S. citizens here speak little Spanish and mingle infrequently with the Mexican community, but the two populations have a peaceful and mostly beneficial coexistence: The Americans provide commerce and jobs, and the Mexicans provide cheap labor and a typically cordial welcome.

In La Mision, as is often the case elsewhere here, the U.S. community is divided into two groups. One consists of the retirees, who usually reside here more or less year-round, living in relative comfort off their pensions, Social Security checks and accumulated savings. Then there are the weekend and holiday residents, mostly professionals who have leased property here and visit regularly.

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Falkenstein, the murder victim, was a member of the latter group, a regular for only the last few months who wasn’t, as a result, particularly well-known. Residents said he was often accompanied by Trish Engles, 33, who was a witness to the murder and who Mexican police say has returned to the United States.

Physically, La Mision is also two communities, divided by the Baja toll road that heads south to Ensenada. One group of houses is along the shore, and it is sometimes referred to jokingly as Guzzler’s Gulch, an apparent reference to drinking habits in an area where parties are not infrequent and invitations are near-universal. The other section, known by some as Snob Hill, includes homes in the mountainous desert terrain east of the toll road.

Some of the homes are quite simple, while others appear lavish. Americans are generally wealthier than their Mexican neighbors, making their residences more attractive for break-ins. Police have recommended that residents of La Mision pool their funds and hire a private security guard, as a number of other expatriate communities have done. More than a dozen homes are already linked by a radio system. Peepholes on doors and guard dogs in yards are now commonplace; few residents leave their doors open, as they once did.

“We don’t have the resources to provide 24-hour protection to La Mision,” said Torres, noting that the Rosarito police force has only 38 officers to patrol about 25 miles of coastline with a population of roughly 70,000.

Residents said they are weighing a contract with a private security guard. But that approach has been tried before, with limited success.

“We had our own policeman once,” recalled Ann Ginn, who still has a sparkle in her eye despite her harrowing ordeal. “But he used to get drunk, sit on the ground and start shooting at people. We had to fire him.”

Such comments demonstrate the congenial, let-bygones-be-bygones atmosphere that prevails in La Mision and other U.S. enclaves here, where communities are close-knit and protective. No one, it seems, is too anxious to make a big fuss about the recent crime wave, although concern is palpable and is often the main topic of discussion.

“Everyone knows everybody here and everyone looks in on everyone else,” said Charlie Wild, 62, a retired commercial artist from Los Angeles who has lived here, on and off, for 25 years. On a recent afternoon, for example, he was found at Ginn’s home, delivering some medicine he had picked up for her on a trip to town.

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The hope is that the culprits responsible for the recent spate of robberies will be apprehended, and the languor of old will once again prevail.

“I certainly don’t want to leave this place,” said Charles McClellan, a 15-year resident, as he ambled down a long expanse of sandy beach with his dog, Penny. “This is a pretty good life.”


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