Monday, Nov. 26, 2007 | In February 2006, a group of young men from Encinitas calling themselves the “Shadow Crew” cruised around the clean streets of coastal North County searching for twin brothers Jeff and Josh Gregson. According to government prosecutors, the Shadow Crew wanted to kill the Gregsons to settle a score — and a debt — for the gang’s leader. When the group couldn’t find the twins, they went out for sushi instead.
Months later, another group of young, middle-class men in Murietta, calling themselves the “Fight Club,” assaulted a man at a birthday party. Eleven young men later pleaded guilty to charges ranging from burglary to assault to arson. At one point, members of the group had stolen a display case full of designer sunglasses from a local gym.
Then, in May 2007, Emery Kauanui, an aspiring professional surfer from La Jolla, got into a bar fight with another local surfer. That fight spiraled into a confrontation outside Kauanui’s home that left Kauanui’s skull cracked. He died four days later. A 21-year-old has now been charged with murder and five La Jollan 20-somethings face gang charges after prosecutors discovered the group had a name, the Bird Rock Bandits, and had been accused of a string of other assaults and robberies.
Local law enforcement officials, prosecutors and gang-crime experts said these three high-profile cases could represent a nasty new trend in gang-related crimes. Troubled young teens and 20-somethings in tony middle-class neighborhoods are increasingly turning to the gang lifestyle purely for the prestige and the intangible currency of respect, they said. That’s a marked change from the traditional catalysts of gang activity: Financial hardship and a necessity to stay tough to survive on the mean streets of a dangerous neighborhood.
But attorneys and family members of those accused of the recent gang crimes turn that concept on its head. In all three of the region’s recent “middle-class” gang cases, lawyers and loved ones have accused prosecutors of piling on gang charges with reckless abandon to extend sentences. That’s nothing more than a politicized charade of really getting tough on crime, they said. By labeling Eagle Scouts and college quarterbacks as gang bangers and sociopaths, they have argued, prosecutors have cheapened the very laws designed to protect society.
What prosecutors have called gangs, attorneys and relatives have labeled social clubs or drinking buddies. The distinction is a crucial one: Tough anti-gang laws enacted in the last few decades have given judges and juries the ability to add 10 years to sentences for crimes that are proven to be gang-related.