Monrovia deals with violent surge

Times Staff Writer

Monrovia always had big dreams of remaining a small town.

For more than 30 years, it toiled to shed blight and biker bars and redevelop itself into a 21st century version of quaint Americana.

Today it is home to a number of national retailers, a cafe-lined downtown and one of the largest concentrations of high-tech firms in the San Gabriel Valley, all spread at the foot of a majestic mountain range.

"There's a feeling about this town that keeps me here," said Keith Ganley, a local resident and teacher. "People like Monrovia because it's the closest thing any of us know in the San Gabriel Valley to a small town."

But in recent weeks, the usually tranquil town of 39,000 and surrounding communities have been jolted by a surge in violence between warring Latino and black gangs that has left three dead and one paralyzed. Two of those killed -- 64-year-old Sanders "Pete" Rollins, a black man, and 16-year-old Sammantha Salas, a Latina -- had no gang affiliation.

Police said the spate of violence coincided with the release in December of parolees who returned home to the area. They were members of rival area gangs: Monrovia Nuevo Varrio, a Latino gang, and the Du Roc Crips, a black gang from a nearby unincorporated neighborhood.

Shortly after their release, a series of cross-racial shootings erupted in Monrovia, Duarte and surrounding areas. Rollins and Salas were apparently shot without provocation, and race may have been a factor, police said.

The suspect in the killing of a third victim, 19-year-old Brandon Lee, is a Latino. Lee may have had ties to the Du Roc Crips, police said.

Behind it all "appears to be knuckleheads who have gotten out" of prison, said Monrovia Police Chief Roger Johnson. These days, "every community gets affected by what comes out of the prisons."

Monrovia officials have called in extra officers from surrounding cities and gang investigators from Los Angeles. They arrested three people in connection with recent shootings, though no arrests have been made in the homicide cases.

"There's a crisis in our city," said Mayor Rob Hammond. "and this is our response."

On Friday night, 14 law enforcement agencies carried out raids on 44 locations in the eastern San Gabriel Valley in a gang sweep. Seven suspects were arrested and items were collected possibly related to the three killings, authorities said.

City officials urged people to be cautious, avoid places where gangs hang out and report suspicious activity. The city plans to hold public meetings this week to address community concerns.

"People are so on edge right now," said Robert Parry, a homeowner who blogs on life in the city.

Online, at the YMCA, at cafes downtown, and anywhere else people congregated, the violence was what Monrovians were talking about last week.

"I think it was somewhat of a surprise for [Monrovia] to realize that they have a problem that they thought existed elsewhere," said David Hall, president of the town council for the unincorporated areas adjacent to Monrovia, Arcadia and Duarte. "If gangs exist anywhere near your city, you've got the problem."

Beneath what's happened recently in Monrovia are parallel stories that go back years: one of sparkling redevelopment, the other of the ominous spread of gang culture.

Both began in the 1970s.

Back then, Monrovia, founded in 1887, had fallen on hard times and had grown grimy.

Downtown was a hodgepodge of adult bookstores and abandoned storefronts. Huntington Drive, cutting east through town, was a collection of auto shops, biker bars and liquor stores.

"It wasn't safe to be on Huntington Drive during the day," said Dick Singer, a city spokesman. "People were being robbed when they stopped for a red light."

In 1973, an activist council majority changed course. Over the next 30 years, they transformed the town through aggressive redevelopment.

Today Huntington Drive is home to several national retailers: Mervyn's, Office Depot, Expo Design. Trader Joe's opened after 15,000 Monrovians wrote to the market chain's president, saying "If You Build It, We Will Shop."

Monrovia's quaint downtown -- renamed Old Town -- boasts a movie theater, cafes, sandwich shops, jewelers, a farmers market and a Friday night street fair.

In the early 1980s, city officials began courting high-tech companies. Monrovia, they said, was safe, near the 210 and 605 freeways and dotted with classic Craftsman cottages. Xerox, Sun Microsystems and others now have operations in Monrovia.

In 1995, the National Civic League designated Monrovia an All-America City.

Sales tax revenue rose 16-fold. Three more redevelopment projects are planned that will mix housing and commercial space, including one around a proposed stop on the Metro Gold Line.

In 2003, the city celebrated 30 years of redevelopment with a report titled "The Best of Times."

"Thirty years ago nobody wanted to come to Monrovia," Singer said. "Today we're the hot ticket. Redevelopment is what did that. It is the economic engine that drives the city."

Meanwhile, in a little-noticed neighborhood south of Huntington Drive and a neglected unincorporated area at the city's southern edge, Latino and black gangs were forming.

In the 1970s, the Du Roc Crips took their name from Duarte and Rock Town, the part of Duarte where black families had settled when they moved from the South, police said. The gang's territory came to include parts of Monrovia as well.

It is also home to Duarte Eastside and Monrovia Nuevo Varrio.

Through the 1970s, the gangs got along, police and residents said. That was true even during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

When it changed is hard to pinpoint.

"I saw that change in the 1990s," said Jose Bennett, a long-time resident of an unincorporated area near Duarte. Du Roc "started feuding with the Spanish-speaking."

Others say it was five or six years ago.

During the 1990s, the Mexican Mafia prison gang extended its power to the streets, controlling Latino gangs and forcing them to tax drug dealers, police and gang members say. It also ordered Latino gangs to attack black rivals.

As a result, Latino gangs in Compton, San Pedro, Florence-Firestone, Riverside, Pacoima, Ontario and elsewhere began feuding with black gangs, police said.

It's unclear how this may have affected gangs in Monrovia and Duarte, authorities said. But by the new millennium, Duarte Eastside and Monrovia Nuevo Varrio were sparring with the Du Roc Crips in a way unknown to an older generation.

"It's irritating to see this because we grew up with Hispanics," said Earl Parker, 46, a black man who has lived in the unincorporated area most of his life. "We got along."

Tensions were the same in Monrovia. Darrian Davis, a black 21-year-old resident, said that in middle school he and his friends never walked home alone for fear of being jumped by Latino gangs.

Then about 2001, the shootings began, he said.

"If you're black, somebody Mexican's going to shoot you. If you're Mexican, same thing. It's become about race," said Davis, who is the nephew of Rollins, who was killed Jan. 13. "I never thought it would get this bad. Now it's all I think about."

The unincorporated area south of the city has long been neglected. Gang tensions were left to smolder and eventually spread north into Monrovia.

In 2003, as Monrovia celebrated 30 years of redevelopment, the gangs erupted with the worst spate of shootings up to that point. Wounded in one attack was former Duarte High School football standout Dennis Weathersby, who had just finished four years at Oregon State University as an academic All-American. He had no gang ties.

The violence shook the city.

"The problem is not something they really want to think about," said Parry, the Monrovia blogger. "They'd rather look at the 90% that's good than the 10% that's bad. But that 10% is really very dangerous."

In 2006, violence flared again. This time, officials focused more attention on the southeastern edge of the city. They launched the Monrovia Area Partnership -- a program that took block parties and bookmobiles to the neighborhood.

Things stayed quiet until the newest wave of violence, said City Manager Scott Ochoa.

Today, Monrovia adjusts to its new notoriety.

At one community meeting, a woman said her husband was a teacher in Watts, where his students were buzzing about gangs in Monrovia.

In his part of south Monrovia, Davis said his family is also on guard, especially at night.

"My 8-year-old brother can't come outside," he said.

Some Monrovia parents have kept their children out of school.

Rumors fly as fast as e-mail, and people in line at Starbucks talk to complete strangers about the killings.

The day after Lee was killed, a Monrovia bookmobile was out on Sherman Avenue and children played soccer in the street nor far from where Rollins was killed.

Farther south, candles and flowers stood in front of the apartment where Salas was shot to death. Her parents buried her Saturday.

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