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A Losing Battle on the Street : Crime: Oxnard police are cracking down along South Oxnard Boulevard, in the seediest area of Ventura County, but so far their efforts are going unrewarded.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s Friday night and the patrol car is driving slowly past the red-light district on South Oxnard Boulevard, where dozens of men loiter along the sidewalks and parking lots.

The black-and-white pulls into the Shadows Motel parking lot, and the street clears in seconds. A few hurry into Snooky’s and Fantasia, the exotic dancer bars. Others duck into the liquor store, and the rest retreat into their motel rooms.

The officers round up a group of Latino men standing just outside one of the rooms. The suspects are frisked and interrogated. Three of them are taken away.

As the patrol car drives away, the street returns to normal.

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“No big deal,” says the parking lot attendant at Snooky’s. “Just another drug bust.”

This is the seediest and most crime-ridden spot in Ventura County, where everything illegal can be obtained for a price. Drug pushers crowd the sidewalks, parolees make their homes in the strip’s cheap motels, prostitutes are never far away.

In October, the Oxnard police launched an all-out offensive to regain control of the street, but so far their efforts have gone unrewarded.

Cadillacs and Ford Broncos still navigate the dark, narrow alleys between the motels, with passengers looking for drug buys.

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Sailors from the nearby Seabee base patronize the bikini bars and stuff $1 bills in the garter belts of the dancers, as the women fake lovemaking to the rhythm of heavy metal.

X-rated magazines fill the racks of the Four-Day Market liquor store, open 24 hours a day. Young women in tight dresses walk into bars and leave minutes later with the bikini dancers’ best tippers.

In February, 1989, the Oxnard Police Department’s Field Tactical Unit conducted a sting operation on the strip. According to a police report, the operation was so successful it lasted 10 months.

But the crime problem keeps getting worse. Last year, 302 arrests were made in the two-block strip of Oxnard Boulevard between Date Street and the railroad tracks, including 123 drug-related arrests.

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By comparison, the entire southeast Oxnard police beat--of which the red-light district is but a tiny appendage--produced 445 arrests that year.

Almost one-third of last year’s arrests were made in November and December, police records show. Crime analysts say that detail is significant--it coincides with the closing of the Lemon-Tree Motel in east Oxnard.

Long considered the drug and prostitution hub of Ventura County, the Lemon-Tree was razed along with several other buildings on Meta Street as part of the Oxnard Redevelopment Agency’s efforts to clean up downtown.

Meta Street is now quiet at night, but the problems have shifted to South Oxnard Boulevard--the gateway to the city for the thousands of visitors who come in from the Pacific Coast Highway.

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According to an October, 1991, police report, “a large number of the Lemon-Tree’s former tenants have moved to the South Oxnard Boulevard area due to the availability of a high number of low-cost motels.”

These motels--the Crystal Lodge, the Ambassador, the Shadows, the Villa and the E-Z--are “patronized by drug dealers and prostitutes,” wrote senior officer John Ahearn, author of the report.

The E-Z Motel has a contract with the state Department of Corrections to take in parolees. The other motels, according to the report, cater to farm workers and welfare recipients.

The motels have become lightning rods for drug users from Simi Valley to Santa Paula, police say.

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“We make arrests from all over the county,” Ahearn said in a recent interview. “Everybody knows that the motels are the place to score rock cocaine.”

The bikini bars only add to the problem, Ahearn said.

“Both of these establishments tend to draw to the area prospective customers for the prostitutes and drug dealers,” he wrote in his report. “Also, intoxicated patrons . . . are easy targets for robberies and assaults.”

In 1991 the crime rate on the strip continued to rise. Between January and September, 286 arrests were made. If arrests continue at the current rate, they will surpass the 1990 rate by about 36%.

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The latest crime statistics for the area also uncovered a disturbing trend: Increasingly, drug dealers and other criminals are returning to South Oxnard Boulevard after they are released from custody.

Between March and September, one person was arrested five times, three people were arrested three times, and 24 people were arrested twice.

Moreover, arrests are just the tip of the iceberg, Ahearn said. Despite numerous complaints of prostitution, for example, police have yet to make a single arrest for sex violations this year, Ahearn said.

“The problem with prostitution is that it’s a victimless crime, and we don’t have the resources to conduct an undercover operation,” Ahearn said. “We believe that if we chase the drug dealers out, the prostitutes will follow.”

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Residents of nearby neighborhoods also complain that many of their crime problems--thefts, burglaries, vandalism--are a direct result of what goes on along South Oxnard Boulevard, police officials said.

And many more crimes go undetected because of the “signaling network” in place on the strip, Ahearn said.

“Anytime a patrol vehicle approaches, a signaling network goes into action to warn of the approach,” he said. “The persons suspected of being involved in criminal activity then seek refuge in one of the nearby motel rooms or other businesses.”

Patrol officers can hardly keep up with the growing need for their services. A Police Department policy mandates that officers from all over the city spend all the free time they can afford patrolling the strip. Patrol cars drive by at intervals of no more than five minutes on most nights, but it is still not often enough.

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In 1990, they responded to 1,663 calls from the strip. So far this year, they have rolled on 2,078 calls for help originating in the same two blocks.

On Oct. 22, Oxnard police began an undercover narcotics operation in the Shadows and Villa motels. In six days, the officers made 28 arrests for sale or possession of rock cocaine. In November, another 45 people were arrested.

The undercover operation is only one element of the Police Department’s strategy to make life difficult for the strip’s criminals.

On Oct. 8, Ahearn invited top city, county and state representatives to a morning meeting at the Oxnard Police Department. Each agency was asked for help.

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Code enforcement and fire officials were asked to inspect the motels and search for violations. Licensing officials were asked to audit the motels. State liquor officials were asked to keep the pressure on the bars.

The Redevelopment Agency was asked to come up with short- and long-term plans to renovate the area. The city and district attorneys were asked to prosecute aggressively any case related to the strip.

The parole board and welfare agency were asked to halt placements in the motels. The probation department was asked to make stay-away orders from the strip a condition of probation.

The Naval Investigative Service was asked to keep an eye on sailors. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was invited to conduct sweeps for undocumented immigrants.

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Within the Police Department, foot patrol officers were asked to work extra hours on the strip in exchange for compensation time. The undercover unit was asked to step up its anti-prostitution and anti-drug operations in the area.

Everybody agreed to cooperate, Ahearn said.

It’s a concept called community-oriented policing, and in the past it has served the Oxnard Police Department well. It was last employed in 1980, on Aleric Street in South Oxnard, now called Cuesta del Mar. The main problem back then was prostitution, but it gradually disappeared.

These days, Neighborhood Watch signs have replaced graffiti on the Cuesta del Mar’s freshly painted walls. The steel gates guarding the apartment units are now open most of the day. Children dare to play on the sidewalks.

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“We helped those residents regain control of their streets, and we’re going to do it again,” said Oxnard Police Chief Robert Owens, who still keeps an Aleric Street sign tucked away in a corner of his office.

For all their past successes, police officials are under no illusions that community-oriented policing will eliminate the city’s crime problem.

“We know that the crime element will always be there,” Ahearn said. “Our goal is to drive them out of the city. We want to let these people know that Oxnard will not tolerate the open, blatant sale of narcotics and prostitution. Let them set up shop somewhere else in the county.”

But on South Oxnard Boulevard, drug dealers hardly seem to notice all the attention they are getting.

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About an hour after uniformed police officers drove away with three suspects last week, a man named Jim--tall, blond, lanky and obviously drunk--emerged from a dimly lit Shadows Motel room.

He picked up a push broom and stood watching traffic in the middle of the motel’s parking lot, only a few feet away from where the bust took place.

“I got myself a part-time job!” Jim joyfully proclaimed at 15 minutes before midnight.

“See all this dirt?” Swish. With a violent broom shove, he pushed a cloud of dust. “The manager said he’ll throw a few bucks my way if I take care of it.”

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He paused for a second and then made his pitch.

“What are you looking for anyway? You want a $20 rock?”


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