O.C. Summit to Target Growing Gang Menace : Youth violence: With killings at a record pace and spreading countywide, even members say it's 'out of hand.'

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When they bring to order Orange County's first comprehensive anti-gang summit Tuesday in Anaheim, officials won't need to spend much time discussing whether gang violence is getting worse here.

Orange County is now a place where a neighborhood priest, Father Joseph Justice, conducts 14 funerals in three months' time and 10 of them are the result of youth gang strikes.

Where Dr. William (Rand) Hardy, a trauma surgeon at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, spends Saturday nights stitching up three times as many teen-agers suffering from gunshot wounds than he did five years ago when car accident victims were his usual fare.

Where even gang members themselves detect that the pendulum of youth violence is swinging the wrong way: "It's getting crazier and crazier," says Ricky, 17, a member of Santa Ana's 17th Street gang. "There's more drugs than ever before--speed and crack. Things are out of hand."

Though Orange County is hardly Los Angeles when it comes to gang violence, a review of state Department of Justice records reveals ample reason to sound the alarm, no matter what part of Orange County you live in. Beyond the sobering numbers and this year's tide of mayhem lurks the unsettling sense that a problem that wrings the innocence, if not the life, from thousands of children is here to stay.

An analysis of state Justice Department records reveals:

* The number of gang-connected killings in Orange County has jumped 566% since 1988, while the population has increased 13%.

* An Orange County resident is nearly five times as likely to be a victim of a gang killing today than in 1988.

* At present, roughly 2.3 people per 100,000 die in gang slayings in Orange County. While that means an Orange County resident is still much more likely to die of a heart attack or in a traffic collision, the number of local gang homicides is three times that of San Diego County, which is slightly larger and, historically, has had a bigger gang problem. That number also approaches the rate of three residents per 100,000 killed in gang-plagued Los Angeles County just five years ago.

* Although gang violence this year has encroached on communities largely untouched by such tragedy in the past--such as San Clemente and Newport Beach--nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in Santa Ana this year, where, according to state records, 14.3 residents per 100,000 are being killed by gangs. That, too, is more than twice the current rate in Los Angeles County, long thought to be the nation's most gang-riddled region.

* For the fifth year in a row, Orange County is on the verge of setting a gang-killing record: The 60 gang-related murders tallied to date represent a 40% increase over last year's 43 killings.

Said Orange County's Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno: "I worked in homicide with the district attorney's office for years. I went to Vietnam with the Marines. And I'm amazed at what kids are doing to each other today in Orange County. This should be treated as an emergency situation. We need all hands on deck."

Symptom of Social Ills

It's unclear what is to blame for this explosion of gang violence, and youth violence in general. As they survey the mutating landscape of Orange County's spreading gang problem, police officers, prosecutors, school, probation and juvenile court officials and youth culture experts say they can only speculate: the proliferation of guns; the lack of jobs; the decline of the family; an acute feeling among today's youth of isolation; drugs; alcoholism; kids without consciences--or perhaps a combination of all of the above.

What is clear, experts say, is that the gang problem is merely a symptom of several of society's modern-day ills. Curing it will require an effective combination of prevention by parents, school and church officials, suppression by law enforcement and prosecutors, and diversion by probation officers and counselors.

By all accounts, a common theme has emerged among many of Orange County's gangs in the past 24 months that has led to the rash of violence: the cavalier use of deadly force.

"Ten years ago in this county," said Hardy, the trauma specialist at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, "children weren't shooting each other, period. Five years ago, things were settled by knife. Then we had some .22s. Then .38s. Now there's these military assault-type weapons."

Said Douglas Woodsmall, supervisor of the district attorney's gang unit: "This is a critical time in the growth of gangs in Orange County. Once the gang subculture has become entrenched, it cannot be eliminated absent major structural changes in society itself."

But the obstacles to launching and waging a successful anti-gang campaign over the long haul are numerous: funding shortages, crowded court dockets, overworked social workers, jammed prisons, lack of commitment by public officials who don't believe it's "their" problem, and, perhaps most troublesome, a deep-seated mind-set among many of today's new breed of 11- and 12-year-old gang members who seem resigned to their fates.

Scores of gang members, ages 11 and up, were interviewed for this report. Hear what some of them had to say:

About guns:

"Everyone has to have a gun."

"The cops have them so we do too."

"They are easy to get, people sell them all around."

About why they join gangs:

"I didn't want to be lonely no more."

"Because we have enemies and we need backup."

"The thing I don't want is a boring life."

"A lot of them don't have love from their families. We give them love, respect. If I have a problem and I can't go to my mom, I can go to my homeboys. I don't have a dad, but I have my older homeboys."

About dying and killing:

"Is it worth it to get killed for your street? If you love your homeboys and your neighborhood it is."

"If I get shot, I ain't going to blame anybody, because it's my fault."

"Pay-backs are mandatory. If they hurt one of us, we have to hurt one of them. We have to satisfy our anger."

About Tuesday's county gang summit and the prospects for peace:

"I think they are wasting their time. It's too late."

"Everybody would have to stop all at once, just stop, for it to last. And even then, one guy would be all it took. Blam! He'd take out some old enemy and it would all start again."

A County in Denial

At least part of the blame in the growth and spread of gang-sired violence in Orange County can be attributed to denial on the part of public officials.

"We have had people sitting on their hands in this county, who are influential, who are thinking, 'That doesn't apply to us,' " said Judge Briseno. "And it does."

The judge will join more than 625 government officials, community leaders and students attending the first gang violence summit in Orange County at the Inn at the Park Hotel in Anaheim. Among the agenda items: the showcasing of local prevention programs.

"Fortunately," said Woodsmall, "more and more people and organizations are coming to recognize" the problem "and are taking action."

But for years, as traditional, turf-oriented gangs slowly rooted themselves in pockets of the county, some officials have refused to accept it would ever amount to much of a problem here.

In 1984, Anaheim officials issued a report asserting that gangs "do not exist" despite testimonials from police, social workers and gang members to the contrary.

Currently in Anaheim, 4.55 per 100,000 residents are killed in gang violence. By comparison, the rate in Los Angeles County is 6.2 per 100,000 residents.

Countywide in the last two years, authorities have tracked a dramatic 35% increase in gang membership to nearly 17,000 young people. They belong to 275 gangs and can be found in nearly every one of Orange County's 31 cities--from San Juan Capistrano to Mission Viejo to Orange to Westminster.

So diverse and spread out are Orange County's gangs today that the district attorney's office has taken to creating a color-coded countywide map, indicating by name where gangs call home. The map needs frequent updating; a sign of the times, authorities say.

In addition to the longstanding turf gangs, whose existence centers around the defense of predominantly Latino neighborhoods, and which have continued to flourish, Asian gangs are beginning to emerge in force, police say. Unlike their close cousins, the turf gangs, Asian gangs are driven by the desire for money, authorities say. They rob, commit burglaries, peddle drugs and they don't confine themselves to any specific region.

Filling out Orange County's changing gang terrain: white supremacist gangs; bands of graffiti vandals or "tagging crews"; and, to a lesser extent, African American gangs with ties to Los Angeles County-based groups.

"L.A. County's kids say, 'You've got to die sometime,' " said Janet Addo, principal of Yale High School in Santa Ana, one of a handful of county-run court schools where students go when they are expelled from regular schools.

"I hear and I feel that with Orange County kids now. The attitude is, 'I don't have anything to live for, so if I die, oh well, life is cheap.' "

Among the members of Orange County's gangs are youths of all ages and ethnicities. Tagger groups, in particular, have become popular with middle-class kids, authorities say.

"There is no profile (of a typical gang member) anymore," Addo said. "It used to be where you could say a low socioeconomic, ethnic-type kid, but now it's middle-class, it's white, it's everything."

Fear Level Grows

On the streets, all of this has translated into an escalating level of fear and despair among people who've already experienced more than their share, and a wake-up call for people who are unaccustomed to such feelings.

From Art Tejada, funeral director at MacDougall Family Mortuary in Santa Ana, where funeral arrangements for victims of gang and other violence have increased by at least 50% in the past year: "There is no time to sweep the floors today."

From Father Joseph Justice at St. Anne's Church, who has buried 14 people since Sept. 1, 10 of them victims of gang violence, "including a 64-year-old grandmother who died on her driveway on a Saturday at 1:30 in the afternoon."

His last funeral?

"A young man was just stopped at the sign and someone pulled up and unloaded the gun into him. He was not a gang member. He had some friends who were, but no one's quite sure why he was killed."

Not long before that?

"We had two funerals on the same day--a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old. The 17-year-old was killed by the gang of the 20-year-old, and the 20-year-old was killed by the gang of the 17-year-old. We had to schedule the funerals far enough apart so that we didn't have a rumble."

Sitting in his office at St. Joseph's church, Father Christopher Smith recalled by name each of the four victims he's buried recently, including a 2-year-old: "Let's see . . . there's Stevie and Alex and Carlos and Christian."

Then there's Jeff Lott in Lake Forest, whose 17-year-old son, Phillip, was wounded in a drive-by shooting last November while walking home from El Toro High School: "I never thought there was even the remotest possibility that a drive-by shooting could occur in this area.

"If I had known there could be, I never would have moved here."

And then there are those--an increasing number of them in an increasing number of places--who are forced to live amid the violence daily.

"I have thought of moving out, but where do I go to?" said Lucia Esquivel, 26, who lives in Anaheim's gang-heavy Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood. "What can you do? Is there a place without any gangs?"

No Remorse

Adam Ortiz, a former gang member-turned youth pastor, said recent gang activity reflects an "evil" that does not compare to the years of madness he lived as a youth.

"Now, it's not so much shooting in the air to scare somebody or chasing somebody just to see them run," said Ortiz, 32. "What we're seeing now is an aggression I haven't seen before.

"We knew things were getting really bad early last year," he said, recalling a visit to Santa Ana's 6th Street gang. "When we got there, we talked to the president and he brought over five other leaders.

"Within a month, we found out that all six had died in one way or another."

Woodsmall, the gang prosecutor, said the cycle of violence, the number of young people involved, and even their nature has changed dramatically in just the past few years.

"From what I'm seeing, these gang members are expressing very little remorse for what they are doing," he said. "A lot of these people are just dead inside."

Of the hundreds of new cases flowing into the district attorney's gang unit, Woodsmall said, much of the increased violence can be attributed to firearms. In some cases, the prosecutor said, powerful weapons can be made available to youths within an hour.

Dr. Hardy, the trauma specialist, agreed.

In the last two years, Hardy said, the number of kids being treated for bullet wounds at Western Medical Center's trauma unit has more than tripled, and now makes up a third of its cases.

"They're just doing it on a lark," Hardy said, "like when we were kids and we ran around in other people's orange groves."

Others wonder if the violence has increased because gang members don't fear repercussion.

Of 43 gang homicides reported last year in Orange County, charges were filed in 16, the rest remain unsolved.

Out of 2,599 gang members sentenced last year for crimes, 150--6%--received what is called "hard time"--sentences at a state prison or a California Youth Authority institution. The remainder were sentenced to local jails, Juvenile Hall or probation.

"There just aren't enough people to investigate all of these cases, and some are very difficult to solve," said Woodsmall.

And with good reason, said Father Justice.

"It's dangerous to get involved in being a witness," he said. "We have some people here who have seen what happens and they talk to the police. The next thing they know, every time they leave their house someone follows them in a car.

"Even parents end up telling their kids, 'Don't tell the police anything.' "

Seeking Solutions

All that said, Orange County officials can take solace in the fact that its gang problem appears years away from that of neighboring Los Angeles County. What Orange County has had in 5 1/2 years--188 gang killings--Los Angeles County has in 123 days, on average.

But authorities here believe the time has come to take action countywide. Obviously, the outlook is more grim in some places than others--Santa Ana and Anaheim, to name two. But the gang situation has grown so much and gotten so violent, the most action-oriented reformers say, that just because you don't have a gang on your street doesn't mean you're immune.

To wit, few communities have been spared acts of violence in the past 12 months:

* In Newport Beach, the city's landmark pier was the scene of two deadly shootings this summer.

* On the serene Chapman University campus in Orange earlier this year, a student walking from her dormitory was the target of an unsuccessful drive-by shooting.

* In Irvine, two teen-agers, both innocent bystanders, were wounded last November in that city's first drive-by.

* And while San Clemente reported its first gang homicide only in 1990, the flash point in that community came last month when 17-year-old Steven Woods was speared through the head with a paint brush roller after a run-in with a group of youths police said had ties to a local gang.

Woods' death almost a month later spurred a recent church meeting where an Orange County Sheriff's official compared gang activity to a spreading "fungus." Some of the same officials who are leading Tuesday's summit in Anaheim said the outrage expressed in San Clemente and for the summertime shootings in Newport Beach--both places thought to be relatively gang-free--have helped promote a sense of intolerance countywide.

"It's one thing to have L.A.-type gangs shooting at each other," said David Hartl, a USC professor who has helped organize the county's anti-gang efforts. "But then came along the kind of thing that happened in San Clemente. That was the two-by-four. That's what said, 'You can't get away from this kind of activity.' "

Said Colleene Hodges, the county's supervising probation officer who attended the San Clemente town hall meeting: "I heard people saying, 'How did we get to this point? How did this happen?' Well, I think they need to look at themselves. It's the responsibility of each one of us."

"If you wait till it's 'your problem,' " said Father Justice, "then it's too late."

There are traces of hope:

A year-old Westminster police program known as TARGET has resulted in the successful prosecution of 50 out of 50 gang members. And workers at Templo Calvario, a church in Santa Ana, make regular forays into the county's meanest streets, taking food and, on occasion, a rap singer, to spread their anti-gang and religious messages from one neighborhood to the next.

"In order to eat the elephant," said Ortiz, the ex-gang member and Templo Calvario worker, "we are taking one bite at a time."

Hartl, the USC professor, said: "Society has to respond in a thousand little ways. We need to experiment with anything and any way we can think of. We need to get people in the room. You just have to keep searching."

For their part, two people who have been searching for answers are Elena Mercado and Eva Martinez.

Mercado recently moved to Huntington Beach, where she has waged a desperate if unsuccessful bid to keep her 15-year-old son from joining a gang: "I feel like crying. I don't know what to do. I always talk to him and everything, but he still does it anyway."

And Martinez?

She doesn't step out of her apartment without wincing with the memory of her 2-year-old son, Steve, who toddled around in her yard, carefree, until last February when he was struck down in a drive-by gone awry.

"We've suffered a great deal," Martinez, 28, said. "My dream is to one day have the person who killed my son in front of me so I could ask, 'Why?' "

Starting Tuesday, Orange County officials will begin trying to address just such questions.

This special report was compiled by Times staff writers Jeff Brazil, Alicia di Rado, Greg Hernandez, Kevin Johnson, Davan Maharaj, David Reyes, Jodi Wilgoren, Eric Young and correspondent Geoff Boucher.

SPECIAL REPORT

* Gangs have become a growing concern throughout Orange County and a priority for police. A look at the areas they claim as their "turf." B2

* The number of known gang members in Orange County has increased by more than a third in just two years, and the crimes they commit are increasingly violent. Gangs by the number. B3

* TimesLink: 808-8463

What advice would you give to officials meeting at Orange County's first gang summit? To record a brief comment for possible publication, call TimesLink and press *8110.

Cuales son los consejos que Ud. daria a los delegados que van a asistir a la primera reunion que se hace para combatir a las pandillas en el condado de Orange? Para dejar grabado un comentario breve, que posiblemente se use para un articulo del diario, llame la linea telefonica TimesLink y marque la tecla * y los numeros 8300.

Special Report: Troubled Turf

Today: The countywide growth of gangs and its toll.

Monday: Street talk about living in the line of fire.

Tuesday: Leaders, residents, gang members seek answers.

Wednesday: Coverage of Orange County's first anti-gang summit.

Thursday: What works in fighting back against gangs.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°