One moment, the high-school senior boasts of spray-painting graffiti, fistfightingrivals and guzzling beers with his "home-boys." The next, he asks a visitor to avoid trampling the colorful flowers his mother planted outside their beige apartment near UC Irvine.
"My mom will kill me," explained the slight, pale youth, who would only give his name as "T.L."
T.L. is a middle-class youth who sports a black Los Angeles Raiders cap, cut-off pants, and punctuates his speech with gang-style street slang. A self-proclaimed member of a group called Los Suicycos, he is one of what authorities say is a growing number of Orange County middle-class boys who are emulating the dress, mannerisms and behavior of youths in hard-core street gangs.
"There seems to be a mini-trend for kids to get together and call themselves a gang," said Deputy Dist. Atty. John D. Conley, who heads Orange County's gang prosecution unit. "That may be harmless, but some go from the label to reality real quick."
Far from the impoverished, street-tough image normally associated with gangs, these teen-agers hail from suburban neighborhoods in places such as Huntington Beach, Orange, Fountain Valley, Irvine and Tustin.
Some Anglo boys claim membership in groups naming themselves after two of the most notorious gangs in Los Angeles, the predominantly black Crips and Bloods--bitter rivals known for their drug-dealing and indiscriminate violence. They have adopted the gangs' traditional dress codes--red clothes for Bloods, blue for Crips or just plain black.
To be sure, Orange County has its share of more traditional and violent gangs. In Santa Ana and Garden Grove, for example, warring Latino youths were suspected in a series of drive-by shootings this summer. In one on Sept. 16, two people were killed--including a 4-year-old boy.
So far, officials say, the number of affluent youths getting involved in gang-type behavior represents a relatively small portion of the total gang activity in the county.
But they are part of a phenomenon of non-traditional gangs that is being seen increasingly in Orange County. Termed by police as "hybrid" or "mutant gangs," these groups are often multiracial, non-territorial and have members from families that enjoy some degree of economic success, said Colleene Hodges, director of the Probation Department's gang violence suppression unit.
Officials say that affluent parents who think gangs are only a fixture of lower-income neighborhoods often have trouble believing that their children could become attracted to aspects of the gang life style.
"We are slowly chipping away from (parents') denial," said Gus Frias, manager of the Orange County Department of Education's Operation Safe Streets anti-gang program.
Ann Ort, who moved her family from Anaheim to a tranquil section of Huntington Beach partly because she perceived that there is less crime in the coastal city, says she did not realize that her 16-year-old son had joined a local Crips group even when he requested particular clothing.
"We bought him the BK shoes, blue shoelaces and blue hats. We were just thinking it was a fad," she said. Besides a penchant for blue, the uniform often includes British Knight athletic shoes. Some youths like to say that the "BK" initials sewned on the tops stand for "blood killers."
"We saw such a change in him, and then he got kicked out of school. So we had to do something," Ort said. The family received counseling at the Back in Control Center in Orange, a private organization that specializes in teaching parenting skills. The boy was enrolled in a wilderness program and now is staying with his grandparents in Texas.
Gang counselors say that despite the county's abundant recreational opportunities--from school bands to surfing--boys are drawn into gang-style groups by unfulfilled desires for companionship and self-esteem.
"They are looking for a sense of belonging, and they haven't found it," said Anthony Borbon, director of the nonprofit Turning Point Gang Prevention Program in Garden Grove.
Frias says gangs are glamorized in rock videos and movies. He cited the controversial 1988 movie "Colors," with its graphic portrayal of gang activity. Some music videos, he says, show gang members surrounded by money, women and fancy cars. "All of a sudden, you have white kids who want to be Crips," he said.
The kids themselves say they join the groups to escape boredom and to develop a cadre of close friends.
"It's like a hobby," said one Los Suicycos member. "You don't have to do it, but I like being something. You can't just go home and do nothing."
"Lil' T," a 13-year-old who says he was once a member of the Little Hood Crips in Huntington Beach, expressed no interest in taking part in activities offered by organizations such as the YMCA. He said he got into his Crips group because "it just happened, man. I just got into it."
But now, Lil' T, who lives with his mother and older brother near Huntington Harbour, says he has grown tired of the Crips. "I don't even really like it that much. Not any more. It's just gotten old. . . ." So far, the new groups have limited their trouble-making for the most part to drinking, fistfights with rival groups and graffiti. But police and probation officials say they fear that the trouble could escalate to more serious crimes.
"They're just party animals and then, pretty soon, they're participating in gang violence," said Deputy Probation Officer Mike Fleager, assigned to the gang unit. "You see them go from first to fifth gear in a period of six months to a year."
One Santa Ana group, including youths from both lower- and middle-class neighborhoods, decided to call themselves Bloods. Within a year, they went from throwing wild parties to selling weapons and stealing cars, said Deputy Probation Officer Jim Riley. Some of that group's 25 to 30 members are suspected of shooting at rival gang members, he added.
The rise of middle-class kids mocking gang involvement has shown up in other counties as well.
In the San Diego area, a group of well-to-do youths formed the Coronado White Boys on exclusive Coronado Island. Before the group recently disbanded, Coronado Police Chief Jerry Boyd warned parents that well-established San Diego gangs might try to violently retaliate against the island youths--known for wearing white baseball caps askew--if they felt threatened.
Los Angeles County officials are beginning to see similar developments.
"We are starting to see some gangs spreading into the middle-class suburbia (in the Los Angeles area). It's not a rash, but we've seen it," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Wes McBride, who is also president of the 500-member California Gang Investigators Assn.
In Orange County, the groups are well enough established that they have caught the attention of law enforcement officials.
Huntington Beach gang Detective R.K. Miller says his department has identified three racially mixed groups in the city using the Crips name.
Orange police detectives say that a group calling itself the Nu Boyz has sprung up in east Orange's middle-class tracts but has not been implicated in any crimes. Orange Police Sgt. Art Romo said the group consists of about 25 teen-aged boys. They mostly hang around on the streets and "like to wear a lot of blue," Romo said.
Police in Tustin and Irvine point to Los Suicycos as an example of what one officer termed a "yuppie gang" because of its comparatively upscale membership. Its members describe themselves as followers of the Venice-based Suicidal Tendencies heavy-metal rock band. Also known as the Suicidals, Los Suicycos' symbol is an S superimposed on an upside-down T, a moniker that resembles a dollar sign.
They came to the attention of police after the discovery of their spray-painted scrawls on the 60-foot-long wall at Tustin Market Place. Several youths claimed that the group has about 20 members, while police put the figure closer to 50. With a membership open to all races, group members say they are foes of the so-called white supremacist "skinheads."
Los Suicycos' graffiti has been painted over several times in the men's restroom at the Del Taco fast-food restaurant near University High School, said manager Melissa Henry. The problem of loitering Los Suicycos members is so bad that Henry says the restaurant has started offering cut-rate meals to police officers in hopes they would put pressure on the group. (Irvine police officials say they have a strict policy of refusing to accept such gratuities.)
Los Suicycos member T.L. said he and his companions are quick to paint over skinhead graffiti. "If I see a swastika--boom!--I'll cross that out. We'll put up an ST."
T.L. boasts of several run-ins with the police that resulted in nothing more serious than a citation for possession of alcohol. He contends that the group has not been involved in any serious crime.
Neither he nor three other members interviewed will talk about an Oct. 19 incident at Tustin's Magnolia Park in which a teen-ager who police believe is a Los Suicycos member allegedly shot and wounded a 19-year-old youth who was playing basketball.
A prosecutor says he is unsure whether the incident was related to the suspect's alleged activities in the group and has discovered no motive for the shooting.
Likewise, group members say they know nothing about a North Tustin residential burglary five days before the shooting in which Orange County Sheriff's deputies found Los Suicycos' distinctive "ST" sign traced in the dust on a nearby car window.
Sheriff's Investigator Chris Dunn says the burglars had strewn valuables around the bedroom and drunk bottles of liquor before leaving, apparently taking only a videocassette recorder.
"None of that has anything to do with us," T.L. said. "I know for a fact that none of us did it."
Another member, Spot, said that far from being troublemakers, Los Suicycos is "just a group of friends" who are out looking for a good time.
"We just like kicking back and partying with each other," Spot said.