Ace of Spades--Unlikely Clique of Militaristic Teens : Crime: Group engaged in thefts, vandalism and assaults, police and members say. But did it also murder?
It all seemed rather innocent two years ago when several gung-ho Junior ROTC members, bored with mundane drills and color-guard duty at their Long Beach high school, set up a militaristic club of their own.
The Ace of Spades dabbled in war games and tough talk but soon evolved into a mischievous band of self-styled daredevils who said they occasionally stole cars, vandalized property and even committed assaults.
“We loved the way the military works,” said one 19-year-old member, who spoke on the condition he not be identified. “All of us just wanted to take it a little farther.”
On the night of Feb. 1, at least one member and three would-be members took it too far, police say.
Four teen-agers from Polytechnic High School are accused of committing the most horrific act ever linked to the Ace of Spades: luring a 16-year-old “snitch” to a San Pedro park where they garroted and stabbed him to death, tossing his blood-soaked body over an oceanfront cliff. Police said Alexander Giraldo made the fatal mistake of cooperating with police in a car burglary investigation.
Investigators on June 12 arrested 19-year-old Schuyler MacPherson, two 17-year-olds, a 16-year-old and the youths were charged with the murder.
“You hate to think people that young would do something so vicious to someone they know,” said Ray Chess, assistant principal at Polytechnic High. “Everyone is just hoping it isn’t true.”
The picture of the Ace of Spades--gleaned from interviews with club members, students, police and school officials--is one of an unlikely clique of teen-agers united by little more than an obsession with things military and a defiant live-and-let-die attitude.
Club members said the multiracial all-male group brings together white supremacists, kleptomaniacs, honor students, campus troublemakers, traditional street gang members, would-be military enlistees, ROTC leaders and dropouts in a close-knit assemblage that places a premium on personal bravado and fraternal loyalty.
“They wanted to learn the tricks of the trade and graduate as some kind of warrior,” said Maj. Mike Carpenter, who heads the school’s 73-year-old Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps unit, the oldest west of the Rocky Mountains. “They were not interested in doing it with me, because they wouldn’t get to do what they wanted to do.”
Police and club members said the group’s name and insignia derive from an unverified tale about the Vietnam War. According to the club members, some GIs carried the playing card to symbolize a reckless disregard for life and death, often leaving an ace of spades on the corpse of an enemy soldier or carrying it boldly in their belt or helmet.
“No one’s actually said: ‘I don’t care if I die,’ but it shows in the things (we) do,” said the club member.
Club activities range from the simple, such as breaking into school grounds at night and rappelling from the bleachers, to the destructive, including an attack with “paint grenades” on a Long Beach gay bar, members said. “It was not a hate crime,” a 17-year-old senior said. “We would have done it in a regular bar but we couldn’t get in.” Not all activities are highly organized; in some cases, only a handful of members participate.
Last year, some members took a camping trip to the High Desert equipped with an assortment of semiautomatic weapons and explosives. Several members said one highlight of the excursion was blowing up a car near Twentynine Palms.
One rainy night in January, two members stripped 50 Toyotas of their radios, at one point breaking into a car in front of passing motorists on Long Beach Boulevard to “increase the risk factor,” members said.
Polytechnic Principal H.J. Green characterized the renegade club as a lawless street gang and said it was best known around school for its reputed criminal doings, not its professed passion for the military. Club members said most of their 15 or so members--including current and former students--carry firearms, sometimes on campus.
“It is a group that bands together to do illegal activity,” Green said. “I looked at it more as a formation of a gang than a club. It seems they are bent on vandalism and thefts.”
Los Angeles Police Detective Carolyn Flamenco, among those investigating the case, also likened the club to a street gang, pointing to what she called the group’s strict loyalty oath--which she said Giraldo apparently violated--and its tagging of school grounds with the Ace of Spades logo.
Club members deny any involvement with the murder but said there is a general understanding that club members don’t inform on each other to police. Unlike many street gangs, Ace of Spades members reject the gangster label, do not claim any particular turf and represent a cross-section of ethnicity, race and class.
“We have no particular neighborhood,” said the 19-year-old club member. “The only basic idea we are defending is the American way of life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.”
School officials suspect Ace of Spades members in several car burglaries on campus and believe that the club played a role in an explosion last year on a field near the Junior ROTC building. No one was hurt in the incident, but at least one student arrested in the Giraldo murder is suspected by school officials of taking part in the early morning bombing.
Although largely secretive about its doings, the group has made no attempt to hide its existence on campus.
Some members sported jackets emblazoned with the ace of spades, while others dangled laminated playing cards from their necks. Last year, school officials banned such clothing--saying it could be construed as gang attire. The club brazenly announced on the first day of school last fall that it was still around with a series of eight large ace of spades painted on a gymnasium wall beneath the tag: “We Are Not Forgotten.”
At the center of each ace of spades was an emblem representing an individual club member, from a human skull to a bomb and fuse to a collection of bullet holes. Each club member has a unique version of the playing card--his identifying insignia--tattooed on his back or an ankle.
The club has an informal initiation process, with would-be inductees requiring unanimous club endorsement before being entitled to bear their own stylized Ace of Spades tattoo. The group’s exclusivity has spawned a following of wanna-bes and copycats.
Police have stressed the connection of club members to the execution-style murder, but last week acknowledged that at least two of the four arrested students may never have belonged to the group. Some club members blame the murder on the would-be members, insisting that three of the four suspects--including MacPherson, the only suspect whose name has been released by police because he is not a juvenile--were never admitted to the organization.
“They were a separate group that used to go out and rob cars,” said one Ace of Spades member. “They were trying to show us that ‘we do that too.’ ”
Police say the distinction is not important because the suspects who were not members were either good friends with the Ace of Spades or heavily influenced by them. Detective Flamenco said Giraldo and one of the arrested juveniles were bona fide Ace of Spades members although Giraldo’s father disputes his son’s involvement. A second suspect was in the induction phase of membership, and MacPherson and the third arrested juvenile were associated with the club, the detective said.
The three juveniles are scheduled for a hearing July 13 on whether they should be tried as adults.
“I have four suspects in custody that are all being charged for the same crime,” Flamenco said. “We will let the courts decide through a jury who is more culpable.”
Most important, Flamenco said, Giraldo was murdered because of his Ace of Spades connection, specifically, for violating the club’s loyalty oath by betraying a club member to police. Giraldo and another club member--one of the arrested juveniles--had been arrested last November on suspicion of breaking into cars. Police said Giraldo admitted to the crimes, but his fellow club member did not. The two were scheduled to appear in court two weeks after Giraldo’s death.
“I think when it came down to it, Alex was probably a kid whose conscience did bother him, and he would maybe tell on someone that had been involved in a crime, even if it meant implicating himself,” Flamenco said.
In the months after his November arrest, Giraldo was beaten up at least twice, police said, and his family felt so threatened that they disconnected their telephone and ordered the youth a bulletproof vest. Luis Giraldo, the boy’s father, said that in the weeks before Alexander’s death he drove his son to school every day instead of letting him ride the bus or catch a ride with friends.
The senior Giraldo also said the family car was vandalized several times with escalating damage. First, one tire was slashed, then two. Then three tires were slashed, then all four. Then eggs were thrown against the car and finally, he said, its windows were smashed.
“And then he was killed,” Giraldo said of his son. “Every time I gave a report to the police. And what did they say? Vandalism.”
In handwritten notes to school officials, Alexander Giraldo twice reported being threatened by youths, including the Ace of Spades member he implicated in the car burglaries. Last Dec. 28, Giraldo told of being attacked with a stick and Mace and having his watch stolen. In an incident on Jan. 7, verified by two witnesses, he quoted the implicated Ace of Spades member as saying: “Don’t worry. I’m not going to get you here. I’ll get you on the street if I see you.”
Police have disclosed only sketchy details about their case against the suspects. At least one student--MacPherson--had been arrested by police shortly after the murder but was released because of insufficient evidence. Search warrants indicate that police initially tied MacPherson to the murder through his cellular telephone and a Sony compact disc player in his late-model sports car.
A witness told police that Giraldo visited a friend’s apartment the night he was killed to use the telephone, according to the warrants. The witness said Giraldo was carrying a cellular telephone, which he said belonged “to his friend Schuyler.” Giraldo told the witness he was going to the movies with MacPherson and others but needed to use the phone because the batteries in the portable phone were dead, the warrants said.
According to the search warrants, the witness overheard Giraldo ask: “Has Schuyler left yet?” After a pause, he replied: “OK!” About 45 minutes later, he announced: “They’re here!” and got up and left.
MacPherson confirmed to police that he intended to take Giraldo to the movies that night but said Giraldo was not home when he went to pick him up. MacPherson also denied ever lending Giraldo his cellular telephone, which police found in MacPherson’s bedroom during a search of his Virginia Country Club-area home less than a week after Giraldo’s death, according to the search warrants.
MacPherson also told police that he discovered late during the night of Feb. 1--the night Giraldo was killed--that the remote control to his car’s CD player was missing. In the early morning hours of Feb. 2, MacPherson and a friend returned to MacPherson’s house and cleaned his sports car in the hope of finding the remote control, the search warrants said.
“A Sony CD player remote control . . . was found in (Giraldo’s) left front pants pocket at the time he was examined by the coroner’s investigator,” detectives wrote in the search warrant report.
At Polytechnic, school administrators and teachers last week continued to express disbelief that MacPherson and the others were involved in the killing. MacPherson was described as a close friend of Giraldo. Luis Giraldo said the arrests have also shocked his family.
“It’s painful for us to see friends suffering, and we really feel bad about their families because we’re suffering as they are,” said Giraldo, whose family still lives in fear and is in hiding. “The difference is that they can see their kids. We cannot.”
This story was reported by Howard Blume, Dean E. Murphy and Leslie Berger. It was written by Murphy.