When a teen lifted his baggy shorts and flashed a swastika and German army tattoos at Kenny Turner outside his high school last June, the popular black Lake Elsinore senior just kept walking.
“It was the second-to-last day of the school year,” recalled Turner, now 19. “I didn’t want to be in trouble with one day left.”
But Turner and two witnesses said the young man, armed with an ice pick, ran after him and stabbed him while screaming a racial slur. It’s an incident that, although rare, is emblematic of a growing problem in the Inland Empire, authorities say.
The number of reported hate crimes in Riverside and San Bernardino counties has risen sharply in recent years, fueled in part by dramatic demographic changes that experts say are bringing more minorities into a region that has long been home to pockets of white supremacists. Other growing Southland suburbs -- among them Santa Clarita, Lancaster and Simi Valley -- have also had high-profile racially motivated crimes and incidents in recent years.
Although hate crimes declined 10% statewide in 2003, they rose a combined 19.5% in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to the most recent data from the state attorney general’s office.
As part of crackdowns by the FBI and sheriffs in the Inland Empire, 42 people associated with white hate groups have been arrested in the last 13 months on suspicion of weapons possession, drug dealing and other crimes.
Authorities announced in January that an alleged white supremacist in Riverside County’s Menifee was recruiting players on a local high school football team. Educators and prosecutors promptly vowed to work jointly to combat hate crime on campuses.
In the last two years, incidents in that county have included teens parading with a homemade flag emblazoned with swastikas in front of Lake Elsinore High School, and the beating of two black students by four white students at Murrieta Valley High School.
Last year, a black Norco High School junior found song lyrics on her desk about gunning down blacks. In May, a melee among 200 students at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore was triggered by racial slurs. In March, Corona police arrested a dozen Centennial High School students after a racially motivated fight broke out.
In fast-growing Riverside County, experts and law enforcement officials say, rising racial hostility has been triggered by increasing racial diversity among newcomers.
Although the county’s white population rose 7% from 1990 to 2000, the number of blacks grew 61%, and Latinos and Asians increased 82% and 62% respectively, said James P. Allen, a Cal State Northridge professor who analyzes racial and ethnic data.
“Any kind of major demographic change has the potential to spark racial turbulence and hate crimes,” said Mark Potok, who monitors hate crimes nationally for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, Ala. “Very often, hate crimes are someone acting out in response to some kind of real pressure, including sprawl and economic pressures.”
Despite the disturbing incidents and high-profile arrests, some local officials urge perspective. “We handle 15,000 felony cases a year, and we’re talking about less than 100 hate crimes we deal with for the entire county,” said Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask. He said he had seen an uptick in all categories of crime because of the fast-growing population.
In San Bernardino County, tract homes are springing up even in once isolated desert areas that can be attractive to gun-toting white supremacists. A task force of FBI agents and specially trained sheriff’s deputies teamed up in November 2003 to track white supremacists. So far, the investigation has yielded 24 arrests of members of the High Desert Freak Boys and Angry Nazi Soldiers. Using routine weapons and drug charges, authorities say, they have crippled the groups.
In other cases, authorities have used anti-gang laws to charge suspected white supremacists, seeking stiffer penalties and bans on congregating.
“Anywhere in the county where we see a problem, whether it’s street gangs, outlaw biker gangs or these white supremacists, we are going to do whatever we can to combat the crime and violence that they bring with them into our communities,” said Cindy Beavers, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
Among the factors experts attribute to the rising hostility include absentee parents who commute long hours to coastal jobs, alienated kids finding “street” families in gangs, and the longtime local presence of Tom Metzger, the former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon.
“The unfortunate reality is that this [southwest] corner of Riverside County is California’s own northern Idaho,” said John Ruiz, an assistant county district attorney who successfully prosecuted young alleged Hammerskins white supremacists in 2002 for attacking a black man with beer bottles, boots and razors in Temecula wine country.
Metzger, 66, who now leads the White Aryan Resistance from his home in Fallbrook, said southwest Riverside County’s “chemistry is perfect for more racism.”
“There are a lot of white people in Temecula, people who have fled Orange County or Los Angeles County with the code phrase that they were ‘fleeing from crime,’ when in fact the majority were fleeing nonwhite crime,” Metzger said. “The growing pains of throwing kids into forced integration causes a negative reaction in this burgeoning area that’s becoming more nonwhite.”
Three black Murrieta Valley High School students last year filed lawsuits against their district and several white students for $2.8 million, alleging that they were taunted and beaten.
The suits allege that on Aug. 20, 2003, a black student was violently fouled by a white student during a basketball game, prompting another white student to yell racial slurs. Later that day, the suits allege, two of the white students confronted one of the black students outside the principal’s office and barked out more racial slurs. When the black student tried to walk away, he was knocked to the ground and severely beaten.
The school district’s attorney did not return repeated phone calls to his office. Janine Hall, mother of two of the white boys named in the suit, said her sons “keep getting crap everywhere they go,” insisting that “their story hasn’t been told straight” but declining to elaborate.
Alan Young, director of student support for the Murrieta Valley School District, said he could not discuss the case, citing the lawsuits, for which hearings are set in early March. But Young said hate crime complaints were down sharply, from about 50 last year to a dozen so far this year.
“I think there are racial tensions in every high school in this country,” Young said. “We actually see evidence that really is kind of declining here.”
Sharron Lindsay, superintendent of the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, said she was “outraged” by the stabbing of Kenny Turner in front of his high school and by the swastika flag paraded in front of school. But she said 99% of students in the integrated, 140-square-mile district got along well. The district has swelled from 14,000 six years ago to 20,000 now. Many new arrivals are minorities.
“I’m proud of our students,” she said. “This school district has rejoiced in its diversity.”
Business leaders, educators and students met last summer to discuss how to work and live together, she said. In her district and others nearby, students have formed “unity groups” and hold forums on how to break down racial barriers. More than 7,000 residents held a parade for tolerance on Lake Elsinore’s Main Street in November, she said.
She said the area clearly had “isolated pockets” of white supremacy because of its history as a rural area with Ku Klux Klan activity.
Last month, Armando Perez, 19, pleaded guilty to a felony hate crime assault for stabbing Turner. Perez could not be reached for comment.
Quinn Baranski, the assistant district attorney who handled the case, said that when a judge asked Perez if the attack was based on race, Perez replied, “It definitely was,” in a proud, defiant tone. Earlier, Perez told sheriff’s deputies that he is white, Baranski said.
Perez was sentenced to two years in prison, but between time served and possible time off for good behavior, he could be free in six months.
Turner, now a freshman at Mt. San Jacinto College, says he feels let down by the criminal justice system, and by his school.
“To think he could be out in six months, that seems to be part of the problem,” Turner said. “These guys keep getting away with things. So much of what they do, nobody notices or realizes. They either don’t want to see it, or don’t pay attention to it.... There were always racial problems at that school, and it’s something they barely have control of.”