Series of Assaults Called ‘Wilding’ : Crime: At least 50 people have been robbed and brutally beaten in North Park and Hillcrest in confrontations with groups of young black men.
His face covered with blood, his left arm swollen and scratched, Steven Elliot felt himself being pulled from a gutter by several pairs of arms, only to be shoved into a vortex of angry men on El Cajon Boulevard.
Five to eight men had approached a few minutes before midnight and demanded money. Elliot refused. One of his attackers smashed a walking stick against his head. The others punched him until he dropped to the ground. Then the kicking began.
As quickly as they appeared, they were gone.
Elliot is 34 and white. He described his assailants as young black men, about 18 years old, in blue jeans. A witness told police he saw five black men racing from the scene.
Since June, it has happened an alarming 50 times, mostly along University Avenue in North Park and Hillcrest. Young black men estimated to be between ages 18 and 22 have been attacking an array of white victims, all after dark.
All but four victims have been men and many have been gay. But, according to police, straight military men have also been beaten. So have husbands walking with wives. Boyfriends with girlfriends. Women by themselves.
The beatings come from pipes, baseball bats, sticks, hands and feet.
San Diego Police Detective Steve Baker does not hesitate to call it “wilding,” the word coined in April, 1989, after a spree of robbery, assault and rape in New York’s Central Park. Wilding has become synonymous with attacks in which robbery is almost an afterthought to assault.
“You’re talking about getting $2 or a pack of cigarettes: nothing-burger stuff,” Baker said. “The beatings are coming from people with nothing better to do.”
Many in the area initially believed the crimes were part of a “gay-bashing” series, but in none of the cases have the assailants spoken any words that would suggest the attacks were motivated by hatred for gays or whites.
“To have it be a hate crime, you have to have the magic words,” he said. “Here, there’s nothing more than ‘What time is it?’ and then they strike.”
Roughly 12 to 15 people in all may be part of the group, Baker said, but they break off into smaller numbers for the attacks.
The series began June 3 on Richmond Street, followed closely by an attack on Meade Avenue.
On June 10, Ronald Holm, a 41-year-old transient was approached by a group and savagely beaten with a 3-foot piece of plastic pipe. He was rushed to Mercy Hospital, where he was placed on life-support systems. Today, he remains alive by artificial means in Gardena Memorial Hospital.
The beatings continued throughout the summer, averaging about one a day until August, when 15 officers were assembled to flood the area for two weeks on foot, in undercover cars and in marked squad cars. The attacks stopped temporarily, Baker said, and have since increased in September, October and November to a rate of two or three per week.
“It’s time something is done to end this,” said Gary Cheatham, executive director of Auntie Helen’s, a free laundry service for people with AIDS. “Everyone I talk to is scared to death. It doesn’t matter, whether you’re a fag, an old person or a business person. You don’t walk alone after dark.”
Just this past weekend, a man reported being held up and beaten on a dirt road extension of Bachman Place near UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest.
On Monday night, a man walking in the 3500 block of 5th Avenue was approached for cigarettes. When he reached for a pack, he was punched repeatedly. This time, the attackers were described as one black and a group of Latino men, the one and only variance in the series.
The preponderance of crimes have taken place along University Avenue, the main drag of shops, gas stations and restaurants stretching from 1st Avenue in Hillcrest to Interstate 805 in North Park.
Especially hard hit is a North Park park area, bounded by 32nd Street to the east, Meade Avenue to the north, Alabama Street to the west and University to the south. Nearly half of the 50 attacks have occurred along University Avenue.
Most of the victims have been knocked unconscious and ended up in the hospital. All of the attacks have occurred between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Daniel Wilhite, 31, was robbed of $35 10 days ago as he stood at 8th Avenue and Washington Street in Hillcrest about 9 p.m. Three men asked him for money and he handed each a dollar from his wallet. One person struck the left side of his head. A second hit him on the right side. He dropped his wallet and blacked out.
When he awoke, he walked to a hospital, called his mother and walked out again to flag down a police officer.
Wilhite’s face was a mess, police said. His left eye was black and blue. The left side of his forehead, cheek and nose were injured. The right side of his face was swollen.
Like many of the victims, Wilhite does not want to pursue charges or even think about the case any more.
Detective Baker said his investigation has been hampered by a lack of cooperation from victims who don’t even want to identify possible suspects from photos kept at the Police Department.
Meanwhile, the fear is very evident in Hillcrest and North Park.
On Monday night, at North Park Coffee Co. on University Avenue, 18 people crowded the shop’s loft to register their complaints to a member of Councilman John Hartley’s staff.
Around the tables, there was general agreement: More police officers are needed in the area, and if they cannot be provided, the residents will have to protect themselves by establishing escort services or neighborhood patrols.
By next week, Hartley is expected to announce a plan to add more officers to the area as well as a community patrol, Hartley spokesman Nick Johnson said Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Police Chief Bob Burgreen said he was aware of the problem and would address it shortly.
“Some people are hurt and it could get worse unless we can jump in there and stop it,” he said.
This week, Baker said he had permission for special details in the area, much like the extra patrols that hit the area in August.
What is lost in the so-called “wilding spree” of blacks on whites is a larger grouping of assaults taking place, said Fred Scholl, the director of legal services for a gay and lesbian community center is Hillcrest.
Scholl said he has recorded a number of other attacks, in which the assailants are groups of whites, Latinos or are integrated.
“Just talking about the 50 victims is understating the level of the problem,” said Scholl, who lists attacks in the Update, a weekly gay publication. “Yes, we have this one group making vicious attacks but there have been others and I’ve been writing about them prior to June.”
During Monday’s meeting, which is to be repeated at North Park Coffee this coming Monday, Scholl advised his friends and neighbors to be ever vigilant in taking down license plate numbers and keeping aware of those around them when they walk the streets.
“The community cannot say, ‘Let the police do it,’ ” Scholl said. “We’ve got to get more involved and become more responsible for this. We’ve got to become better witnesses.”