COLUMN ONE : Skateboard Pros: Life on the Edge : Hard-core riders thrive on thrills and an increasingly rebellious lifestyle. Two recent murder cases make some skaters wonder if the rebellion has gone too far.
Joshua Swindell notched his first speeding ticket at age 14, clocking 47 m.p.h. down a hill in Diamond Bar--on a skateboard.
Fear was not in his blood. He liked to live on the edge, to push the limit. By his late teens, the gangly, towheaded youth was a rising star in the hard-edged world of professional skateboarding, traveling and hauling down $50,000 a year, plus royalties on his own line of custom boards.
In a world that pays homage to narcissism and nerve, Swindell found his niche. He liked to drink, party, chase women. He was brash, charming, funny and, when necessary, a fighter.
Swindell’s life was far removed from the thousands of youngsters who simply cruise their driveways after dinner or ride their boards to school. Instead, he moved among the hard-core vanguards of the sport, a rebel element hellbent on maximum risk and ultimate thrills, an assortment of taggers, rap singers, entrepreneurs and highly paid pros with back-yard ramps.
Barreling through that culture, Swindell was just another free-wheeling skateboard star--until he crashed. His fall from grace has raised troubling questions within a sport whose most avid followers tend to teeter on society’s fringe.
Swindell was one of many revelers at a private rap music party in Azusa last July. Late in the night, he was seen escorting a disoriented young man away from the event. The man was later found bloody and dying in a clump of bushes. Arrested on suspicion of murder, Swindell, 21, pleaded not guilty and is in jail awaiting trial next month.
The incident has echoed through California’s skate shops, streets and beachside skateboarding hangouts with an unsettling sense of deja vu. Just 18 months earlier, in a sensational scandal involving one of skateboarding’s biggest stars, Mark Anthony (Gator) Rogowski pleaded guilty to raping and murdering a woman at his condominium in Carlsbad.
The two cases have deepened the concern of critics--including some of the stars who lifted the sport to prominence. They fear that skateboarding’s antisocial elements are already too strong, and that the worst impulses of wayward youth are being fed by the sport’s multimillion-dollar marketing machinery.
Ads, magazines and videos produced by current and former stars are often directed toward dysfunctional teen-agers and do little but encourage reckless behavior, they say.
“What’s happened is that the sport’s now run primarily by a bunch of young kids who don’t have . . . (much) perspective,” said Stacy Peralta, 35, one of skateboarding’s top stars and entrepreneurs throughout the 1970s before becoming a television director. “It just seems like nobody gives a damn anymore . . . about the kid on the street.”
Skaters see it differently. To many of them, society is the enemy--a rigid, nameless grid of rules and attitudes. Those rules include bans against skateboarding in city after city. To them, being a skater means being a rugged survivor, a target of bias and police harassment, a refugee of skate parks closed because of liability lawsuits.
Skaters are not out to hurt anyone, said Christian Hosoi, 26, a superstar since turning pro at the age of 14. But they are angry. Hosoi says they have a fire burning inside them to set their own rules, to skate where they please, to grab for all they can--and that becomes their reason for living.
“Skateboarders are headstrong . . . radical and extreme people,” said Hosoi, who once appeared in one of the sport’s leading magazines smoking a marijuana cigarette. “They want to let out their aggression through their art form, and not through their fists, or guns, or destruction or self-destruction.”
Throughout its cyclic evolution, skateboarding has soared and plunged through booms and busts and periods of inner turmoil.
When the pastime first emerged in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, it was the province of generally clean-cut youngsters in California beach towns, where metal wheels were nailed onto 2-by-4s and kids called it “sidewalk surfing.” No one took it seriously. It died out, then flourished again, with a harder edge, in the mid-1970s.
Metal wheels gave way to smoother polyurethane, and top riders discovered the rapture of contoured swimming pools. A revolutionary move--"the Ollie,” a hard down-kick on the tail of the board combined with a jump--enabled skaters to become airborne. So, like primordial creatures, they ascended from the sidewalks onto curbs, handrails, picnic tables and other improbable venues.
“In the ‘70s, you had people bribing helicopter pilots with (drugs) to spot empty pools,” said writer Neil Feineman, who is completing a history of the sport. “You were talking about a group of particularly dysfunctional kids. They didn’t get their emotional security from home; they got it from their skate friends.”
The best-known pros hung out in Santa Monica and called themselves “Dog Town,” which “became slang for an aggressive, radical kind of skater,” Feineman said. “They influenced all of skating, as we know it.”
Former Dog Town skateboarder Jay Adams, now 33, recalled “sneaking in people’s back yards and draining out their pools . . . destroying hotel rooms . . . drinking and (using) a little drugs.”
Eventually, Adams drifted into the punk rock scene and one night, in a melee outside a Hollywood club, a gay man was beaten to death. “I got arrested for murder, convicted of assault,” Adams said, expressing regret over the incident. "(But) I never even touched the guy who ended up dying.”
By the time he finished serving two months in Los Angeles County Jail, Adams was out of skateboarding. The sport was changing. Dog Town died out. Another down cycle was followed by a new talent explosion--and a cleaner direction--in the mid-1980s.
Lanky young Tony Hawk of Carlsbad burst onto the scene as the Michael Jordan of four-wheeled aerials, prompting a feature in Sports Illustrated.
Peralta, the first pro to become a major entrepreneur, popularized skateboarding videos and assembled a sort of “Dream Team” of touring stars who earned $100,000 to $250,000 a year.
He took pains to keep his athletes off drugs and to develop new talent slowly, Peralta said. Young skaters spent two years, on average, competing as amateurs before being considered for lucrative pro contracts. “If you take a kid that’s 13 years old, or 16 years old, and start paying him $10,000 (a month), that can blow his mind,” Peralta said.
But after hitting a peak in the late 1980s, skateboarding started to retrench. Faced with a money squeeze, the industry began to abandon much of the mainstream to pursue mostly hard-core followers: teen-agers willing to plunk down $70 to $100 for the latest board, or willing to bloody themselves on the street emulating the miraculous moves of the hottest talents.
“Right now we’re really talking about . . . the ones for whom skateboarding is a lifestyle,” said youth marketing consultant Irma Zandl of the Zandl Group in New York. “There’s a lot of pride in getting hurt, in living (hard) and really taking it to the edge.”
For evidence of that attitude, one need only peruse the pages of Big Brother magazine, the brash, uncensored voice of skateboarding’s young iconoclasts. Among its fare: an account of the night that its publisher hired strippers for several of his pro skaters; a “how-to” guide on committing suicide, and a feature suggesting “18 Ways to Be an Ass----.” (No. 18: “Run around town dressed as a clown and kick pregnant women in the stomach.”)
The magazine’s most jarring and controversial image surfaced in December: an ad for a new company, Bitch Skateboards. In the ad, a figure of a man stands next to a figure of a woman; he raises a handgun to her head. The ad has touched off a firestorm of protest among parents, particularly in El Segundo where the magazine is published.
Bitch founder Sal Rocco Jr. says the ad was merely a joke aimed at a rival company called Girl. He said he has no regrets. Violence, Rocco said, is everywhere--in movies, even cartoons. And that is why some of the best-selling skateboards picture Charles Manson sporting a swastika or women in lingerie, bound and gagged.
“The kids today are punks. . . . They tag and smoke weed and drink and most of them get prostitutes,” the 26-year-old Rocco said. “That’s the big thing now--when they turn pro they get a whore. It’s like a college initiation.”
No one can say which came first: the bad behavior or the culture that promotes it. Either way, experts say, they feed off each other and can be damaging.
“I know one thing . . . we need to do a better job of teaching our young people to reject offensive, violent and disrespectful messages,” said Michael S. Josephson, founder of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey. “These messages go to abnormal people as well as to normal people. And abnormal people, fed the right diet and right dose, can be extraordinarily dangerous.”
In the wilder corners of the sport, skaters say the magazines are just harmless humor and they offer no apologies for their hedonistic philosophies. “With skateboarding comes the drugs and sex . . . but that’s second,” said Eddie Reategui, 26, who turned pro at the age of 16 and still skates in a $40,000, peanut-shaped pool in his back yard in Huntington Beach. “Skateboarding is the most important thing in our lives.”
Hosoi, Reategui’s partner in a shop called Focus Skateboards, grew up in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire district, smoking marijuana as naturally as others smoke tobacco. Deploring the lack of public skateboarding facilities, he spoke defiantly: “What we’ve got to do is what we’ve got to do--go skateboarding. (Teen-agers) are not going to stop skating because they’re going to ruin some marble bench. If it comes to scraping up a handrail in front of some million-dollar corporate building, I don’t think we’re going to think twice about it.”
Kareem Campbell, a 20-year-old pro from South-Central, said he has been in “20 or 30" fights in the last five years because non-skaters taunt him. They call him “an Oreo” or an “Uncle Tom” for skating and being black, he said. He sets them straight.
Since turning pro two years ago, however, he has begun savoring the best of what skateboarding has to offer--travel, women and good times. “You can party, like, 24 hours a day,” he said.
Wild times and brazen ads are one thing; murder is another. Even in a sport where petty trespassing and vandalism are often celebrated as youthful high jinks, there were lines that were not crossed--until Gator Rogowski.
High-flying Rogowski was one of the brightest stars skateboarding had produced when he raped, then suffocated, a 21-year-old friend of his ex-girlfriend in his Carlsbad condo. The crime, three years ago this month, was skateboarding’s greatest scandal, making national headlines.
Rogowski was only 25.
The girlfriend had dumped him for another man. Unable to find her, he took revenge on her close friend. He buried the body in the desert.
Eventually, he broke down and apologized in a written statement to the court, blaming his actions in part on pornography: “Smut becomes food for thought, then fuel for action, equivalent to the most entrapping of drugs.”
But there were deeper factors. “Gator . . . had something in him that would make him snap,” one former friend said.
A psychiatric report prepared during his trial seemed to support that opinion. Rogowski had been an abused child, a psychiatrist noted. A drug user at 17, then an alcoholic, Rogowski was rigid, oversensitive and manic-depressive. He also showed some psychotic symptoms, the psychiatrist concluded.
If the Rogowski case sent a tremor through the skateboard world, Joshua Swindell has triggered the aftershock that raises questions about the direction in which the sport is heading and what role, if any, it played in the troubles of its stars.
Swindell had driven up from Carlsbad with Danny Way, another top star, to attend a rap party at a rented bar. A scrawny man named Keith Ogden crashed the event, according to court records. Witnesses would later testify at a preliminary hearing that Ogden, 31, approached Way outside the bar and flashed some bills in an apparent bid to buy sexual favors.
When Ogden persisted, according to Way’s testimony, Way knocked him out with one punch--after which a club bouncer did the same to Way.
Both men were dragged inside. Later in the night, several attempts were made to send Ogden away; the last involved Swindell and a 17-year-old skateboarding friend. They were seen dragging and kicking Ogden across a street, one witness testified at the preliminary hearing late last year.
Ogden’s body was found in the bushes a short while later. He was dead before paramedics could save him. “His face was beaten beyond recognition,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Patricia Ryan.
Although no one reported seeing the attack, police arrested Swindell and his friend on murder charges. Each has pleaded not guilty, contending that Ogden--who had sneaked out of a hospital only days earlier--was dying from a blow to the head he had received before his encounter with them.
Despite Swindell’s reputation as a loudmouth and attention-seeker, he was not regarded as having as troubled a personality as Gator’s. “He’s not like a Jeffrey Dahmer. . . . He’s just a punk kid,” former top pro skateboarder Rodney Mullen said of Swindell. “He’s a little tough, yeah, but there were so many people so much tougher.”
Raised in Diamond Bar by parents who were bitterly divorced when he was in his early teens, Swindell grew up rebellious, outspoken but honest, said his father, Joe. The young Swindell liked to look out for the underdog; more than once, he fought to defend a neighbor boy born clubfooted, the father said.
Still, there were brushes with authority. The most serious made Swindell something of an outlaw hero in January of last year, when he and a friend left a skating show in San Diego, started drinking and were arrested in Mexico after firearms were found hidden in a team van.
Thrasher, another skateboarding magazine, ran a headline--"Jailed . . . first Gator, now Swindell, you’re next!!!"--along with an interview with Swindell in a Tijuana holding cell. The skater complained about a cellmate “singing Menudo songs all night long” and boasted of bloodying the mouth of a man who wanted his shoes.
Annie Swindell worked three months to free her son, by which time Swindell seemed “hardened,” according to one friend. The skater designed two new boards illustrating life behind bars; in one, his own face appeared in the cross-hairs of a guard’s rifle.
“Angry at the world,” said one friend, who asked not to be identified, in describing Swindell’s attitude. “I (thought), ‘This guy’s going to jail sometime, or this guy’s going to be dead.’ ”
Annie Swindell has a much different opinion. At the time of the Azusa party, her son was getting his life together, learning to face responsibility. He was probably trying to send Ogden away for his own good, she said. The arrest was just another act of bias against skateboarders.
“When Josh fought with the guy, the guy ran, literally stumbling across the street to get away from him,” Annie Swindell said. "(That was) the last moment Josh saw him--alive.”
In a visitor’s booth at Los Angeles County Jail, where he talked on condition that the case not be discussed, the young skateboarder seemed in good spirits, glad for company. Boyish and glib, he chatted about “the nightmare” of Mexican jail, about allegedly bribing authorities there and about the enormous dedication that professional skateboarding requires.
A story came to mind--an incident that he said shows what a bad rap skateboarders get: Swindell remembered when a friend came out with a board design, a step-by-step graphic illustrating how to make a pipe bomb. One of the boards and some apparent bomb-making materials were confiscated from some teen-ager’s locker, in New York or someplace.
“They were trying to blame (the skater) for it,” Swindell said, incredulously, grinning as a guard arrived to reapply the handcuffs and lead him back to his isolation cell.