War on Drugs 'Is Just a Game' on Altadena Street

Times Staff Writer

Sheriff's Deputy John Cashion, clad in a bright green jacket and wearing a .38 on his belt, scrunched down in the bushes at the end of West Royce Street and aimed his seven-power binoculars down the block.

In front of him, a group of neighborhood children rode their bikes in lazy circles near a spot where Cashion and his partner busted a suspected drug dealer a few weeks earlier.

Farther down the street is the group of adults that Cashion is watching. At first, they don't see him, but soon they start squinting at the bushes, then smirking among themselves.

"Aw," Cashion said in disgust. "They've made us."

He watched for a few more minutes and then left.

"It's all a game, just a game," he said.

In the global war against drugs--raging in violent and tragic ways from the poppy fields of Colombia to the streets of America--the battle for West Royce has settled into a easy cadence.

The street, a cul-de-sac with just 18 homes, has been one of the hottest small-time drug-dealing markets in Altadena, accounting for as much as a quarter of the drug arrests in the area, Cashion figures.

The dealing is sporadically intense, at times bringing a steady stream of cars, and at other times leaving the street as quiet and deserted as any other suburban block.

Sheriff's investigators suspect that three or four houses of the 18 have been involved in the drug trade over the years.

But despite its unusual statistics, residents on this block, like those on many others, have learned to endure their burden with a nonchalance that belies the screaming headlines of the drug war.

"It's mellow as far as I'm concerned," said Eric Goins, the owner of a Pasadena auto body shop who has lived on the street for more than 15 years. "I don't pay attention to it, believe or not."

In some neighborhoods, residents have become defiant gladiators in the fight against drugs. One such group in Monrovia called in the Guardian Angels earlier this summer and walked the streets with them in an attempt to clean up their neighborhood.

West Royce is one of the others: a street where fear and a sense of futility have forged a cynical standoff between drug dealers and residents.

"If you don't bother me, I don't bother you," said one resident who, like many others, did not want her name used. "That's the way it is."

West Royce is a mixed neighborhood of whites, blacks and Latinos, located in a quickly gentrifying section of southwest Altadena. The street is at once placidly middle-class and violently gang-infested.

Just three-quarters of a mile north, a home was firebombed in June in a gang-related attack. Nine people escaped injury, but one woman, Cennie Brown Earby, was severely burned and died a week later.

Record Shootings

A quarter-mile to the east is a house on Calaveras Street that holds the town's record for most drive-by shootings; deputies figure that it's been shot up at least 15 times.

That type of violence has never struck on West Royce, but living so close has left a lingering paranoia on the street.

One man, who did not want his name used, said that the day he moved in, a sheriff's deputy stopped him and asked: "What are you doing in this neighborhood?"

The second day, a stranger flipped a switch-blade knife in his face. A few days later, he witnessed the first of many drug deals. "What the hell is going on here?" he thought.

After a few months, burglars broke into his home and stole a flute belonging to his girlfriend's daughter. He bought the flute back for $40 from a neighbor, but he never reported it to police, figuring that he could not prove who committed the crime.

"Everyone is fearful of being pointed out as a rat," he said, adding that many of the suspected dealers have lived on the block since they were children and are more a part of neighborhood than the angry newcomers. "I hate this block."

The man said that he still calls the police whenever he sees a drug deal but that he has learned, like everyone else, how futile that can be.

"By the time they get here, it's too late," he said. "I get discouraged. I tell you, I tolerate much more than I ever thought I would."

Special Team

Cashion and his partner, Ken Talianko--members of a special sheriff's team that targets gang and drug crimes in the Altadena area--have spent hours in the bushes trying to ambush a drug deal in progress--something most residents are unaware of.

They've seen plenty of cars drive down the block and hands flashing through car windows, but they rarely get a clear view of drugs and money being exchanged.

The department's most potent weapon in stopping drug dealers has been undercover officers who pose as buyers. But, Cashion said, there is a limited number of such officers, and they must be shared with other areas throughout the county.

Cashion figures that when he stops suspected buyers, in 90% of the instances, the drugs already have been swallowed or tossed away.

Talianko said the quantities of drugs sold are so small that a search is usually fruitless, although he remembers arresting a few buyers gagging on plastic packets of cocaine.

"You've got to be a real bonehead to get caught that way," Talianko said.

Last month they got lucky.

Talianko was hiding in the bushes at the end of West Royce around 2 p.m. Aug. 10 when he spotted a car pull up in front of a house in the middle of the block.

Unlike dozens of other times in the bushes, that time, he saw Kenneth Toby Lewis, a resident of the street, place on the car a penny-size rock of what he suspected was cocaine, he said.

He radioed Cashion, who was waiting in a car nearby. They stopped the buyer one block south of the street. The buyer hadn't swallowed the packet, Talianko said.

The buyer, whose name was not immediately available, and Lewis were arrested. Their cases are pending.

Unexpected Backlash

Cashion said that Lewis' arrest, along with concentrated patrolling of the street, has essentially closed down West Royce for the time being. "We burned it bad," Cashion said.

But the department's activities also have caused an unexpected backlash among the innocent.

One resident said officers have stopped him three or four times over the years.

Another resident has had the same experience and now feels "total contempt for the police," he said. He believes he was stopped just because he is black and is a resident of West Royce.

Cashion and Talianko's relationship with the suspected dealers, at least on the surface, is cordial.

Just after Cashion was spotted in the bushes, he and Talianko decided to drive down the block and talk awhile with the people they had been watching, who were standing by the side of the road. They stop on the street at least a few times a week.

"How's it going, Michael?" Talianko said to the brother of the man they arrested last month. "You talk to Toby? How's he doing?"

The man nods. "He's all right."

"How much time is he going to get?" Cashion asked.

"How much time you going to give him?" one woman countered.

Cashion and Talianko pull their car away and nod goodby.

Friendly Dealers

"They're very friendly guys," Talianko said.

Many residents say the dealers actually seem to go out of their way to be friendly.

The elderly woman who lives in the middle of the street tells of the time one man apologized to her for lounging in front of her house after she told him to stay away.

When problems such as traffic or vagrancy get out of hand, Goins, who lives near the corner, said he walks down the block and talks with the group at the middle of the street.

"It ain't no problem," Goins said. "I go down and handle it myself. They listen to me."

As one resident said: "Everything is fine, that's the attitude on this street."

He often feels that no one wants to disrupt the balance that has evolved on West Royce, although after two years of living on the block, he is unsure how his neighbors actually feel. No one talks to each other much about the situation, he said.

Even during heavy periods of dealing, the street is usually quiet, he said. Is it worth stirring up trouble?

"If I went on a crusade, I'd be hated on this block," he said.

Bucking the System

But still, there are flashes of defiance.

The woman whose daughter's flute was stolen last year said she was so mad after the incident that she thought of launching her own fight against the dealers, regardless of what her neighbors thought.

She is still angry. The traffic and loitering are tolerable, she said. But she thinks about the thousands of wrecked lives because of drugs and wonders if her neighborhood has been guilty of drawing too fine a line between enduring and accepting its situation.

At the back of her mind is an idea of declaring war against the dealers by slinging a banner across her yard: "No dealers allowed."

"I'm so tempted," she said. "I have thought about doing outrageous things."

So far, the sign has not gone up.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World