Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Authorities worry about the increased hate gangs skinheads. It's a growing problem throughout East County in San Diego.”
LAKESIDE –The first of three brutal attacks occurred at a roadside bar called Don's Cocktail Lounge off the Highway 8 business route.
A white man with a swastika tattooed on his chest sucker-punched a black man who had stepped outside to have a cigarette. The victim, who suffered severe brain damage, can barely speak now.
About a month after the July 7 attack, a pair of skinheads beat up two black men, one of them a Marine, at a gas station. A week later, two skinheads attacked a Latino laborer outside a liquor store.
All three assaults happened in Lakeside, a rural community about 20 miles east of San Diego that has tried for years to shake its reputation as a haven for hate.
Investigators are uncertain if the beatings were related. They are sure of one thing – they were meant to send a message:
'Be afraid. We're there, and we're going to come after you,' ” sheriff's Detective Ellen Vest said. “It's a growing problem throughout East County.”
Deputy Bo Roberson, who patrols the streets of Santee in search of white gangsters as part of a special task force, put it this way: “We've definitely been seeing a rise in stuff, especially since the Don's Cocktail incident.”
Sparked by complaints from residents, along with a rise in such things as racist graffiti and children wearing white supremacist garb, the Sheriff's Department partnered with El Cajon police and other law enforcement agencies last year to form the East County Regional Gang Task Force.
Thanks in part to a $430,000 annual subsidy from the city of Santee, the task force works hand-in-hand with a three-person gang-suppression team that tracks down suspects and reluctant witnesses. Similar teams operate in La Mesa, El Cajon and Lemon Grove.
Unjustly or not, swaths of rural East County have long had a reputation as an enclave for bigots. But as the suburban population has grown, the area has undergone great change.
Still, authorities say, white supremacist groups continue to thrive.
Gang members are recruiting teens in parks and at schools. Many now dress alike, even wearing boots with soles that leave swastikas in the dirt, authorities said. A hate anthem called “East County Stand Up” was recently posted on the MySpace page belonging to a young Lakeside man.
History of incidents
Several parts of Lakeside feel dusty and isolated. With newer homes and shopping centers, neighboring Santee seems more suburban.
Blacks make up 2 percent of the population in both towns.
Last year, a gay rodeo in Lakeside drew fierce objections from some locals. Less than two years ago, two skinheads were convicted of beating up a Latino man in a Santee park.
There have been other incidents. Some have made national news, including the 1998 beating of a black Marine in Santee. Four men confessed to the assault, which paralyzed the Marine.
Concerned with the city's racist reputation, Santee City Manager Keith Till met with sheriff's officials to get a rundown on hate crimes a month after beginning his job.
That was seven years ago, and Till decided to work with local schools to promote acceptance and diversity, an ongoing effort. “It became evident that it was in the community's interest to address this pretty aggressively,” he said.
Till said he quickly realized that groups of students, mostly high school boys, were not only ignoring the message, but also “they were congregating, and their message seemed to focus on hate.”
“But the problem here pales in comparison from what you see in many, many communities . . . We're getting in at the early end to make sure” gangs don't become an overwhelming problem. “We have one of the lower crime rates in San Diego County, and we want to maintain that.”
Donald Hamer would be the first to tell you Santee is safer than it was. Hamer, who is black, heads the Human Relations Advisory Board of Santee, formed six years ago to review hate crimes and discrimination complaints.
“For sure, there's been a stepping up in East County to try and get rid of this problem,” Hamer said.
Clayton Davis and his wife, Kim, live in Blossom Valley, about four miles north of Don's Cocktail Lounge. To them, race isn't a bigger problem here than anywhere else.
“There's bad apples out here, but you got bad apples wherever you go,” said Clayton Davis, a composite technician.
Eric Powell, a 40-year-old engineer who is black, moved to Santee from the east San Diego neighborhood of San Carlos a year ago because of a deal he and his wife got on a four-bedroom home. They're not sure they will stay.
No one has given Powell any trouble, he said, but his 15-year-old daughter has “heard some things.”
“I think a more diverse neighborhood would be better, but we couldn't pass up the deal,” said Powell, who grew up in southeastern San Diego. “The worst thing for me is I know the history of this place, so it keeps me on edge, and I don't want to live like that.”
'The least successful'
Across the country, skinheads and hate crimes typically turn up in poorer communities with conservative beliefs, experts observe.
“You're not going to find skinheads in La Jolla,” said Malcolm Klein, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and one of the nation's leading gang experts.
Klein said white supremacy is usually picked up at home.
“These are the kids whose parents aren't doing very well,” he said. “They're the kids not doing well in schools. They're the least successful of the unsuccessful.”
Figuring out who the gangsters are and what they're up to falls to investigators such as Vest and her partner, Marilu Marcq. They and others work to identify and track gangsters, or document them, a process designed to strengthen prosecutions and clean up communities.
During the past two years, Vest and Marcq have documented four gangs, all white, based in East County. They're working to document at least five more.
Only one white gang, based in Lakeside, had been documented in San Diego County when they started, and that was six years ago.
Marcq said there are more than a dozen white gangs claiming hundreds of members in East County – small numbers when stacked next to the dozens of gangs and thousands of members in San Diego, for example.
“These are dangerous individuals, and they have no fear at all,” Marcq said.
In the communities that the Sheriff's Department patrols, more than a third of the hate crimes reported in the past 3½ years were in Lakeside, Santee and unincorporated areas of El Cajon.
But the statistics don't paint a complete picture because not all hate crimes are classified as such. A beating motivated by hate, for example, can be classified as an assault. On the other hand, some cases likely wouldn't have surfaced if not for the additional enforcement in place.
Statistics mean little to the 44-year-old machinist who was knocked out at Don's Cocktail Lounge.
He was standing just outside the bar with another patron when Timothy Caban walked toward him, ripped off his T-shirt and threw a vicious uppercut, Vest said. The man's head snapped back and slammed into the pavement.
A few weeks ago he was moved from a hospital to a rehabilitation center. No matter what question he's asked, he answers by saying his name.
Caban, 40, of Lakeside, is scheduled to stand trial next month. His attorney said he was acting in self-defense.
Don McGourty, who tends bar at Don's, described the victim as an affable guy who loved to sing karaoke.
“He was a sweetheart, and I don't say that about too many guys, especially around here,” said McGourty, a 40-year resident of Lakeside. “I know this area is known for this sort of thing, but we don't have stuff like that” at Don's.
As Vest and Marcq looked into Caban's background – they haven't linked him to a gang – they learned that he and his buddies had been kicked out of more than half a dozen bars in the area. The men were forced to leave one bar on April 20 because they were singing “Happy Birthday” to Adolf Hitler