Tagger Rewards Create Urban Bounty Hunter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary Ries thought he had found the perfect job.

He slept in, watched soap operas, padded around in socks. Some months, the money just rolled in, and he never had to leave the house.

All he had to do was listen for the rattle of spray-paint cans, get out his camera and videotape the gang members who were painting the wall across the street from his Hollywood apartment. Ries' paycheck was usually guaranteed--courtesy of the city of Los Angeles.

Call it cashing in on a crime wave. In a city that pays its citizens $500 a pop for aiding in the arrest and conviction of graffiti vandals, no one compares to Ries, 40, when it comes to tattling on the taggers.

To date, he has received $5,000, far more than any of the 130 others who have participated in the city's graffiti reward program. He is the only one who has tried to use the reward system as a source of employment.

"I like that undercover thing," Ries said. "You know, it's fun to catch someone committing a crime."

Although Ries fled town in fear more than a year ago after someone shot up his front door and heaved a brick through his kitchen window, his profiteering has raised concerns at City Hall about abuses of the program and, more fundamentally, about the nature of good citizenship.

The question is this: Should an individual be allowed to make a living off a taxpayer-financed program intended to fight blight or should residents involve themselves simply because it is the right thing to do?

Several council members say they would like to put a cap on how much money residents can earn under the reward system in an effort to discourage "professional vigilantes."

Councilman Nate Holden, for one, is a hard-liner.

"The intent was not to have one guy make this his livelihood," he said. "We should stop paying him."

But Councilman Hal Bernson, who urged the local lawmakers to adopt the reward system, said such programs represent today's realities.

"Our intent was not to put people in business," Bernson said. "But if (Ries) is actually serving the community by doing it, then I don't have a problem with it. I wish we had more people who were actually turning people in."

Added Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg: "Any time you have a reward system, you open yourself up to bounty hunters. It's been inevitable since the Old West. So, I can't say that I'm shocked, although I am surprised that someone would see this as a method of making some money."

The city started the graffiti reward program in March, 1990, in an effort to clean up the streets. Modeled after a similar program in Palmdale, citizens were awarded $1,000 for providing information leading to the conviction of graffiti vandals. As the city sank into recession in 1992, however, the reward money was cut to $500.

Most who have participated in Los Angeles' program have done so by simply making citizen's arrests whenever they saw graffiti vandals in action.

"If I saw a tagger in my neighborhood, I would just detain them until police arrived," said Reuben Garcia, 28, a Pacoima man who over 1992-93 earned $1,500 in city rewards. "No big deal. Sometimes it would only take 10 minutes. . . . But now I just yell at them through a window and they run off."

But Ries had a richer vision.

He heard about the graffiti reward program in 1992 from a member of the Hollywood Sentinels, a neighborhood watch group. He figured he could make about $10,000 in six months.

"I thought, boy, the city doesn't know what they are doing," Ries said. "What a piece of cake."

He was already living in the center of Hollywood gang territory, struggling to make ends meet as a part-time security guard. Because of his quiet nature, Ries liked the idea of working at home in solitude. And as a big fan of cop shows, he relished the role of armchair detective.

Eager to launch his newfound career, Ries moved from his courtyard apartment in a roach-infested complex on Leland Way at McCadden Place into a corner studio with a beautiful view of a large, beige brick wall across the street--the tagging territory of the Tijuana Locos.

"I figured all I had to do was get a good apartment," said Ries, who signed a $475 lease on the studio. "With the reward money, I figured I could live there for free."

For a year, the brick wall--thick with paint from years of covering up graffiti--was the main focus of Ries' life. When he closed his eyes, he could still see it, large and looming. He avoided leaving the house, for fear the graffiti vandals would tag the wall while he was gone.

"It made me mad when someone would write on it and I would miss it," he said.

Ries kept all his apartment windows opened slightly so he could listen for the rattle of spray-paint cans. He turned the volume of the stereo and the television down low, waiting for his cue to set up his camera.

Some days, he passed the time by calling into radio contests. "I won $104 on K-BIG twice," he said. He became a fan of Erica Kane on "All My Children," which he watched almost daily while he waited.

Usually, somewhere between midmorning and the dead of night, the taggers would deliver, splattering their monikers in black ink. The next day, Ries would call his friend, Lloyd Shea, a member of the Hollywood Sentinels, and ask him to paint the wall, once again making it prime turf for tagging. Shea was usually glad to assist.

"I didn't want the neighborhood messed up with graffiti," Shea said. "I saw Gary's efforts as a real help."

If Ries ever wanted to take a break, he just asked Shea to stop painting over the graffiti for awhile. "Some days," he said, "I didn't want to watch that wall."

Ries came to know the graffiti vandals by name: Diablo, Shyboy, Cartoon. He was determined to send them to jail and take home the prize. But things are never so easy in this town. Coaxing the police to come out and arrest the taggers was Ries' first obstacle.

"They just don't have the manpower to devote to something like this," he said.

That didn't temper Ries' resolve, however. Every morning, like clockwork, he would call the LAPD's Hollywood Division and badger the officers to look at his videotapes and find the vandals.

"At 7:03 in the morning, the phone would ring," said Sgt. Hal Collier. "It became a joke. Everyone knew who Gary was."

Collier said he tried, as best he could, to help Ries. Within a year, the sergeant figured he had taken at least 50 crime reports and reviewed dozens of videotapes.

"There was a lot of work involved," Collier said. "But I was glad to do it. For one thing, a lot of elderly people live in that area. They are terrified of the gang members."

Through Ries' efforts, six taggers were arrested and convicted in separate incidents over the course of a year for vandalizing the McCadden Place wall. Their sentences ranged from only a couple of days to eight months in jail. In all cases, Ries' tapes were used as evidence.

"I think I could have gotten seven more convicted if I got more cooperation from the police," Ries said.

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Getting the police to cooperate was only half the problem, however. It took months for the City Council's Public Safety Committee and the council to consider his request for reward payments. "I wondered if I would ever get the money," he said.

But when that first check for $1,500 arrived by mail in May, 1993, it all seemed worthwhile. Six months later, the city sent along another $1,500. Three months after that, another $1,500 arrived. In July, Ries received a final check of $500, although more may be coming, depending on whether police track down more of the taggers on Ries' tapes.

Ries said he wanted to continue his undercover work, but he was not prepared to deal with the wrath of the gang members.

In an effort to protect his identity, Ries was only called to testify at one trial. Still, word leaked out that he was the snitch.

He only left the house between the hours of 4 and 11 a.m., after surveying the street to make sure that none of the gang members were around. "I became a prisoner of my own apartment," he said. "I was very scared."

Then on May 2, 1993, Ries had just set his camera up when someone threw a brick through his kitchen window. A few minutes later, a gunman fired at his front door.

Although no one has been arrested, Ries had a pretty good idea of the culprits' identities. Shea had a bit of advice for his friend: Get out of town.

So Ries packed his bags and left in August, 1993--leaving a new set of gang members to scrawl their names across the wall. Sometimes he thinks of giving up his job as a security officer in San Diego County, where he has been living with his parents, and making a comeback in another Los Angeles neighborhood.

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