Skinhead violence has soared in Ventura County in recent months, making the problem a top priority for law enforcement officials, Sheriff Bob Brooks said Friday.
Such violence is "where we see the most immediate threat to the public," Brooks said. "We're getting more violent incidents from these groups than any other."
Authorities said that incidents linked to skinheads in the county include brawls at parties, assaults, witness intimidation and homicide. These problems, in turn, have forced law enforcement officials to devote more resources to combating the problem before it gets further out of hand.
For the Sheriff's Department, that has meant sending its crime suppression unit--created to handle crime hot spots--into areas where supremacists are wreaking havoc.
"When they break the law, we are there," Brooks said. "We don't harass them, but we enforce the law. And we're getting to know these individuals."
Officials say the problem is heaviest in the Avenue area of Ventura, stretching into the Ojai Valley and Meiners Oaks. Ventura police say about five white supremacist gangs live in Ventura with a total of about 150 members. But countless more associates of the gangs--not official members, but in the same social group--live in the western part of the county, authorities said.
Such supremacist gangs and their group of loosely defined associates have become as much of a concern to police as the more dominant Latino gangs in the Oxnard and Santa Paula areas, authorities said.
Members of the skinhead culture have been linked to at least two homicides in Ventura and Meiners Oaks.
Ventura resident and skinhead Justin Merriman, 30, was indicted earlier this year on 25 criminal counts stemming from the rape and slaying of 20-year-old Katrina Montgomery. Montgomery, a Santa Monica College student, was allegedly raped, stabbed and bludgeoned with a crescent wrench by Merriman after leaving an Oxnard party with him on Nov. 2, 1992, authorities said.
Fellow skinhead gang member Lawrence Nicassio, who said he witnessed the Montgomery slaying, is serving three years in state prison for conspiracy.
Authorities also believe that skinheads were responsible for the beating death of 21-year-old Nick Dowey at a Meiners Oaks party in 1997. No arrests have yet been made in that case.
Authorities say they get reports of at least two assaults a month involving supremacists or their associates.
"We see a lot of cases where it appears the skinheads are just looking for a person to assault," said Cmdr. Dick Purnell, who oversees the department's major crimes unit. "They just pick on someone randomly to beat up."
Ventura Police Lt. Gary McCaskill said many of the attacks do not even appear to be motivated by the victim's race or religion.
"I think when we deal with white supremacists, most of the crimes seem to generate out of some kind of anger," McCaskill said. "Where that wells up from, or how race plays into it, I don't know. But it certainly seems to be a group of angry people."
"I think the things that make them so distinct is the degree of hatred for everybody who is not just like them," Brooks said. "Some gangs are motivated by monetary gains or territory. These people are motivated to attack anybody who 'isn't just like me.' "
Officials said that most skinhead members are teenagers or adults in their early twenties. And, like any gang, supremacists are hostile to authorities.
The sheriff's statements come less than a week after a shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana by white supremacist Benjamin Smith that ended with the death of two and the wounding of nine others.
Ventura County authorities say local skinhead gang members and their associates are not tied to any militia group. But, said officials, skinheads share the philosophy of distrust for anyone with a badge.
As a result, investigating their crimes is difficult because cooperation is typically very low.
Also hindering investigative efforts, authorities said, is the fact that many of the supremacists do not belong to clearly defined gangs. Most are simply "hangers on," Brooks said--members of the same social group who follow a similar philosophy.
"A lot of our investigative efforts depend on where someone belongs in the gang," Brooks said. "We look at how they fit in that organization, what their role is. But the more loosely defined they are, the more difficult that is to determine."
Authorities are not sure why supremacist activity has grown so dramatically in recent months. But Brooks credits the Internet to some degree for helping such groups spread messages of hate and intolerance.
"These groups use a lot of [Internet activity], and it tends to fan the flames," he said. "When before they couldn't reach many people, now they can reach thousands with the press of a button."
According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish humanitarian organization, about 2,000 hate sites are currently on the Internet.
But authorities hope they can curb the trend of violent activity in these groups. Brooks said a zero-tolerance attitude will eventually make the difference.
"When gangs go unchecked, they grow in sophistication and numbers," Brooks said. "We've found a successful strategy is to make their lives uncomfortable, put their leaders in jail and solve their crimes."