A Suburban War of Revenge : Officials Attribute 10 Deaths to Wave of Gang Violence : Officials Attribute 10 Deaths to Wave of Gang Violence
On June 19, 1988, two men on a motorcycle rode past Marvin (Flash) McFee, an Altadena gang member and drug dealer, fired a bullet into his chest, and disappeared.
It was, as murders go, a humdrum affair that a local newspaper described in a few sentences: “A 22-year-old man died in an apparent gang-related drive-by shooting outside an Altadena residence Sunday night. The victim was unidentified. Circumstances of the shooting were not detailed.”
But McFee’s murder was far more significant than anyone suspected.
Altadena sheriff’s deputies now believe it sparked a war of revenge between black gangs which has brought a wave of violence to Pasadena and Altadena.
Since the death of McFee, who was a member of the Altadena Block Crips, at least 10 people have been killed in shootings that have bounced back and forth between Pasadena, the stronghold of the Bloods, and Altadena, turf of the Crips.
225 Died Last Year
Although the number of deaths pales in comparison to the 255 who died last year in gang-related homicides in Los Angeles, it marks a turning point for these two suburban communities.
What was once a sporadically violent standoff on the fringes of the gang war in Los Angeles, has become a war of its own.
“There’s no such thing as a fistfight anymore,” said Pasadena Police Officer James Deal Jr., a member of the department’s four-man gang unit. “The way I see it, they’re playing for keeps.”
By most accounts, the fight has become more violent in the past two months than ever before.
Two weeks ago, a group of gang members tossed a Molotov cocktail through the window of a house on West Palm Drive in Altadena. Nine people escaped the fire.
Died a Week Later
Cennie Brown Earby, 34, was trapped in her bedroom. She was burned on more than 90% of her body and died in a hospital a week later.
Investigators believe the intended victims were Kelvin Turrentine, who they suspect is a Crip member and who was shot in the buttocks a few days after McFee’s death last year, and Wallace Brown Jr., another suspected Crip member.
Since the firebombing, at least seven others have been wounded in drive-by shootings in Pasadena and Altadena. Another Altadena house was firebombed a week ago.
“That’s what you call retaliation,” said one man as he huddled with some friends at the King’s Village housing complex in the heart of the Pasadena’s Bloods territory.
“Before, it was like this,” he said, shadow boxing with the air.
“Now it’s like this.” He formed his fingers into the shape of a pistol.
County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Underdown strapped on a flak jacket and, armed with a couple packs of cigars and a .357-caliber pistol, headed off for a patrol in Altadena.
For the last year and a half, Underdown has been a member a four-man team that as part of its duties monitors gang activities in the Altadena area.
During his tour of duty, the streets have taken a definite turn for the worse.
“This is where McFee was shot,” he said as he guided his unmarked patrol car past a house on Calaveras Street.
His partner, Joseph Key, turned a spotlight on the house across the street. “The record for most shot up,” Key said. “Fifteen reported.”
The house is for sale, as are two others within a few dozen yards.
A year ago, Key and Underdown’s tour of the streets would have been a short affair, a few stops here and there, mostly at the homes of drug dealers.
This night, it takes hours. On some streets, the names of victims blur together as the unmarked patrol car cruises past.
The increase in the number and severity of gang-related attacks has come with startling speed, Underdown said.
He chuckled when he reminisced about more peaceful days, when four years ago, Bloods and Crips faced off in a tackle football game at Charles White Park. Parents served hot dogs, deputies walked the sidelines.
As he drives past the park, Underdown points to a spot nearby: “This is where Kelvin Turrentine got it.”
The teams in this new game between Bloods and Crips have been developing for the past two decades.
Pasadena Police Sgt. Monte Yancey said there are two dominant factions of Bloods in the city: the Pasadena Denver Lane Bloods, who claim the northwestern quarter of Pasadena, and the Squiggly Lane Bloods, who largely operate in the border areas between northwest Pasadena and southwest Altadena.
Police believe the Denver Lane Bloods are related to a “set” in South-Central Los Angeles that goes by the same name. The Pasadena group also goes by the name Devil’s Lane Bloods. Why this set, one of 36 in Los Angeles, migrated north is unknown to police.
Altadena is claimed by the Altadena Block Crips, who mainly operate on the west side of the community. There is also a small group of Crips based near the northern border of Pasadena, named the Raymond Avenue Crips.
Law enforcement officials estimate there are about 300 Bloods and 200 Crips in both cities, although the violent core of “old gangsters” may number just a few dozen.
Bloods Are Dominant
Unlike the conflict in Los Angeles, the Bloods are the dominant group in this suburban dispute. Pasadena, in fact, is one of the few cities in the county that is identified as a Blood stronghold, law enforcement officials say.
Ed Turley, a member of the Community Youth Gang Services Project, a gang intervention and mediation group funded by the county and the city of Los Angeles, said Altadena and Pasadena were largely Crip territory in the early 1970s.
But he believes the balance of power began to shift in the early 1980s. Underdown said the beginning of crack cocaine sales on the street in the mid-1980s also exacerbated the conflict, not only bringing gang members out into the open, but also sparking turf wars over drug territory.
“Everyone was out on the street,” Underdown said. “It didn’t take long for things to get bad.”
There were a few shootings in Pasadena and Altadena that came with the crack cocaine trade, but McFee’s death sparked a back-and-forth style of attack that no one had seen before.
Shot Up a House
Two days after McFee’s shooting, a pair of suspected Bloods were wounded near Summit Avenue and Claremont Street in Pasadena. The next day, a carload of gunmen shot up a house on Thurin Avenue in Altadena.
Two days later, six apartments were shot up at the King’s Villages apartments in Pasadena. The next day, Kelvin Turrentine was wounded in a drive-by shooting near Altadena’s Charles White Park.
In this hazy world of revenge, police often can only guess whether attacks are related to drugs, gangs, personal fights or none of the above.
But as some gang members say, the reasons no longer matter. “We just don’t get along,” said one youth recently as he stood on the street in front of King’s Villages with a red baseball hat on his head, the symbol of a Blood.
The animosity has reached a peak this summer.
The attacks, Underdown believes, started with a traffic accident June 10. That day, he said, suspected Blood member Damion Thomas was run off the road in Pasadena by a gray Hyundai sedan that had been identified in previous drive-by shootings.
Thomas was riding a motorcycle, which burst into flames when he crashed. Thomas suffered third-degree burns on his arms, legs and face. He has since been released from a hospital.
For the next two weeks, there were shootings in Pasadena and Altadena.
The first to die was Rickey Rivers, 28, who was shot June 26 on the 2200 block of Casitas Avenue in Altadena. Investigators are not certain Rivers’ death was gang related.
Paxton Valentine III, a 19-year-old known Blood member, was killed in a drive-by shooting on Casitas Avenue in Altadena the next day. A suspect later told sheriff’s deputies that Valentine was killed “so Flash can rest easy.”
The house on West Palm Street was firebombed three days later.
The shootings over the past year have left in their wake contradictory perceptions about the violence, ranging from comfortable ignorance to a hardened acceptance of the bloodshed.
The suburban gang conflict jumps from block to block, covering residential neighborhoods where startling events like a firebombing on one street can go unnoticed three streets over.
Two blocks away from the firebombed house on West Palm, resident Michael Jackson didn’t hear the sirens that night. He knows there are drug emporiums nearby, but in his ethnically mixed neighborhood, he guesses there are many neighbors who don’t.
Situation Has Improved
At the King’s Villages housing complex, which police squad cars patrol at least a few dozen times a night, some residents say the gang situation has actually improved over the last year.
“I’ve seen a difference,” said one 65-year-old resident. “Last year, it was so bad the police wouldn’t come here. Now I can come out and feel safer.”
But she still doesn’t want her name published. “I don’t hear anything,” she said. “Don’t use my name. I’ve got to live here.”
Others agree with police that the situation has grown more violent.
A resident of King’s Villages said her niece was shot a few months ago by gunmen who mistook her for a rival gang member. “Just about everybody knows someone who has been shot,” the woman said.
Last week, her apartment was hit by shotgun fire. It sounded like someone throwing gravel against the wall, but she knew it was shotgun pellets. “You can tell the difference,” she said.
Arrested More Than 100
So far this year, deputies in Altadena have arrested more than 100 people in sweeps that involve stopping known gang members and, sometimes, youths who just seem suspicious.
Underdown said the theory is, if they can confiscate a few guns or temporarily take a few people off the streets, the conflict has a chance to die down.
But the sweeps also have thrown a disconcerting component into the already jittery neighborhoods of Altadena and northwest Pasadena.
While police officers usually recognize the people they stop, sometimes they don’t.
“I’m just standing here with my girlfriend,” said 19-year-old Anthony Dion Mann after Pasadena Police Officers Derrick Carter and James Deal Jr. stopped to question him. “I’m a decent human being.”
Mann had not been doing anything unusual, but Carter and Deal thought they recognized him. They explain it’s their job to keep a close watch on the streets.
Target of a Drive-By
In a few minutes, several adults come out of the apartment building next to the parking lot Mann is standing in. “It’s not right,” one man told the officers. “They’re not doing anything.”
Deal and Carter try to explain again, but eventually decide to leave.
“They do it to me all the time,” Mann said, glaring at the two officers as they walk away.
The officers received a warmer reception when they stopped to talk with a 16-year-old they have talked with many times about drug dealing.
The youth was the target of a drive-by shooting a few days after the Altadena house was firebombed.
“You’re lucky,” Deal said to the boy.
He asks him whether he knows who did the shooting.
The boy shakes his head.
Does he know why he was shot?
He shakes his head again.
“He crept up and started shooting,” the boy said.
The first bullet caught him in the leg, cracking a bone in two. He hobbles around the sidewalk on crutches. A bright red pair of warm-up pants covers a long leg cast.
“It’s always like this in the summer,” the boy said.