Busted for surfing against a judge's order, David Ortega is spending Christmas in jail. His time behind bars actually started before Thanksgiving, but he hopes to be out by Easter, if he gets credit for good behavior.
Sentenced to six months in jail, the 22-year-old Ortega received what may be the toughest penalty ever handed down for the intimidation tactics embraced by some Oxnard and Port Hueneme surfers.
They heckle, vandalize cars and throw rocks or an occasional punch in pursuit of a "locals only" credo to chase away visiting surfers who might compete for waves.
Ortega admits he engaged in such bullying, particularly when he was a teenager spending more time with his buddies in a group of Port Hueneme Beach surfers called the Rockside Locals.
Then he ran smack up against a police officer, a prosecutor and a judge who were prepared to draw a line in the sand against such behavior on a public beach.
"It's not worth it," Ortega said, issuing a message to other territorial surfers. "I'm spending six months in jail for trying to protect a beach. If you really love surfing, just ignore those other guys."
Hazing and surfing have gone together for decades, like surfboards and wax. It's a phenomenon related to overcrowding, as increasing numbers of testosterone-raging teenagers and youthful men compete for a limited number of waves.
Only select beaches, or surf "breaks," on the Southern California coastline are positioned in such a way that incoming waves peak and peel down the beach, offering a long and demanding ride.
Given how it's tricky, not to mention dangerous, for more than one surfer to ride a wave, some search the globe for uncrowded surf. Others stake their claim at their favorite local break, establishing a pecking order that can sometimes get out of hand.
The politics of intimidation, or "localism," in Ventura County has been particularly fierce at Silver Strand Beach and at times at Port Hueneme Beach.
Just how fierce is often difficult to tell, because some surfers are notorious for exaggerated claims and rumors, hoping a reputation for hostility will be enough to keep outsiders at bay.
Localism exists at many other places too, most notably at Windansea Beach in La Jolla and Lunada Bay on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Earlier this year, a group of South Bay surfers went to court and won a restraining order, restricting a group of Palos Verdes surfers, known as the Bay Boys, from threatening outsiders.
Most incidents fall short of physical violence. Rather than risk a fight, the harassers resort to vandalism: scratching the paint of a car, stealing surf gear, slashing a tire, or scrawling obscenity-laced messages in wax on windshields.
The most brazen, often emboldened by their friends, will challenge an outsider--though it's usually limited to heckling, threats or a contemptuous glare, known as "stink-eye."
Ortega's legal troubles began in the Port Hueneme Beach parking lot about 9 a.m. Sept. 30, 1995, when he challenged Mark Aaron, a 41-year-old Santa Monica high school teacher and novice surfer.
As Aaron tugged on his wetsuit, Ortega demanded to know where he was from and then, in so many words, told him he could not surf at Port Hueneme.
"I had been angry with my girlfriend and I was talking trash to this guy," Ortega said.
When Aaron refused to retreat, authorities said, Ortega tackled him and in the process cracked one of Aaron's ribs with his head. The two wrestled on the ground, until a small crowd gathered and Aaron and his friend, fearing an escalation of violence, decided to leave.
Ortega pleaded no contest to battery and was initially sentenced last May to five days in jail and three years' probation.
Urged by prosecutors to get creative with the sentence, the judge added a rather unique condition of probation: No surfing at Port Hueneme Beach.
"The intent was to allow Mr. Ortega only to surf where he was not a local," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Arabian. "It seemed to fit the crime. And I wanted to keep him from hanging around the Rockside Locals."
Two days after the sentencing, Port Hueneme Police Det. John Brisslinger said he spotted Ortega walking up the forbidden beach. His wetsuit was peeled down to his waist, his surfboard cradled under his arm.
"Water was dripping off him," said Brisslinger, who was patrolling the beachfront road on a bicycle. "He admitted to me that he had been surfing. When I told him he couldn't be surfing there, he said, 'That's ridiculous. They can't keep me from surfing on a public beach.' "
Brisslinger sent a report to the district attorney, and Ortega was hauled back in court for violating the terms of his probation.
Ortega says he was not surfing that day and contends that Brisslinger and another officer on bike patrol lied about the encounter. He brought character witnesses to court in an attempt to shore up his credibility.
"David is one of the mellowest guys I know," said Ryan Imiry, a local surf shop owner who testified on behalf of his friend. "He's no neo-Nazi bad-ass. He's mellower than me."
But Superior Court Judge James P. Cloninger, who took over the case, slammed Ortega for violating the no-surfing order and trying "to prevent people from using public property."
Since then Ortega has lost his job, his girlfriend and his freedom.
After several weeks in jail, he is still struggling with how he got into this mess.
"I never intended to start a fight," Ortega said in a jailhouse interview. He blames Aaron for escalating the verbal confrontation by refusing to leave and counter-challenging Ortega to "shut up or do something about it."
Aaron disputes this account, describing it as an unprovoked attack rather than a fight. "It was a sucker punch," he said. "He was out of his head. We wrestled around on the ground. He succeeded in pulling out a large amount of my hair. I ended up in the sand, humiliated, and left."
Ortega thinks he is being unfairly singled out.
"The judge thinks he's making an example out of me in hopes that localism stops," Ortega said.
He doubts it will work, although he said that his territorial days are over. "I'm never going to get involved in it, ever again."
Brisslinger said that Port Hueneme Beach has grown quieter since Ortega's stiff sentence.
"I've heard from surfers too," said Arabian, the prosecutor. "The word spread like wildfire. They say, 'It has gotten better, just don't tell anybody.' "