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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.
“It’s overzealous prosecutors using laws that weren’t designed for the kinds of ‘gangs’ that they are going after,” said Jan Ronis, a defense attorney who has represented members of both the Bird Rock Bandits and the Shadow Crew.
The Bandits, Crew and the Club
The Bird Rock Bandits, the Shadow Crew and Fight Club have noticeable similarities: All were started in high school by groups of competitive athletes — the Bird Rock Bandits were football stars, baseball players and surfers; the Shadow Crew were wrestlers; and Fight Club started with a group of high school football players who got into injecting steroids.
All three groups seem to have contained a core leadership around whose enigmatic personalities newer members gravitated, and each of the groups seems to have sprung from fairly benign beginnings to evolve into a more complex organization over a period of time.
Unlike traditional gangs, however, the three groups did not share serious economic and social struggles. All were formed in safe, middle or upper-middle class neighborhoods by groups of teenagers who should have had opportunities galore to succeed. A member of the Bird Rock Bandits had attended a prestigious East Coast boarding school. One of the Shadow Crew was an Eagle Scout and the leader of the crew lived in a million-dollar home a few blocks from the ocean. He drove a souped-up Cadillac Escalade.
The suburbs where these groups thrived are a world apart from the troubled, crime-ridden neighborhoods usually associated with street gangs.
“What drives gang formation is large numbers of at-risk young men in difficult community circumstances, without a lot of opportunities, with marginal or worse social institutions, like education, available to them and without clear, easy paths to legitimate work,” said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
The three groups, unlike street gangs in tough neighborhoods, did not need to unite to protect themselves. Yet all three groups had a penchant for violence, according to prosecutors.
After Emery Kauanui was beaten to death, investigators in his murder case began to look more closely at the loose-knit group of men who called themselves the Bird Rock Bandits. At a hearing in September to increase bail for the defendants, prosecutors announced they had compiled evidence of a string of violent incidents involving members of the group, including a number of assaults they said had been carried out by Bandits.
In the Shadow Crew case, Scott Sepulveda, a charismatic business owner who participated in cage fighting and was addicted to painkillers, seems to have imbued his followers with a taste for violence, according to court documents. The case centers around an alleged plot hatched by Sepulveda to kidnap and kill twin brothers Jeff and Josh Gregson, whom Sepulveda owed a gambling debt of more than $13,000. The Gregsons, personal trainers who stand 6 foot, 3 inches tall and weigh almost 250 pounds, said they weren’t worried about the Shadow Crew until they learned the crew’s members owned several weapons, cattle prods, ski masks and body armor.
“If they wanted to bring it on, it, bring it on,” Josh Gregson said. “But you can’t dodge bullets.”
And the Fight Club was all about violence. Media reports about the group describe it being based on the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt. Members of the Murrieta Fight Club would routinely fight each other and beat up targets picked seemingly at random from house parties, prosecutors in the case alleged. The whole escapade seems to have been fuelled by steroids bought with funds raised by burglarizing homes or by armed robberies committed by members of the club, according to media reports.
But Kennedy stressed that a pervasion of violence, per se, in a neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a pervasion of gang activity. Indeed, Kennedy said, most violence that’s labeled as gang activity isn’t actually carried out in furtherance of a gang’s objectives at all, but is more likely to be personal in nature.
“Only about 20 percent of killings are about money,” Kennedy said. “All the rest of it is essentially about one thing — respect.”
And it’s that notion of respect that Kennedy and other experts said has seeped into almost all elements of mainstream pop culture and that probably influenced the members of the three middle-class groups.
“Gang-banging and violence and crime and especially this type of crew-based, gangish kind of crime, has become trendy,” Kennedy said.
The result is increasing numbers of what Tim Haley, commander of the Murrieta and Temecula Gang Task Force, calls “Non-traditional gangs,” in middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods. Haley said the allure of gangs is attractive to suburban, higher-income teenagers and 20-somethings from homes without a strong family bond.
Katie Salvato, William Mueller and Angel Mendoza, all 18-year-old seniors at La Jolla High School said no one at their school really looks up to gang members or respects violent criminals. Teenagers might dress a little like gangsters or repeat phrases they learn from music videos or films, they said, but most stop short of actually mimicking the actions of gang members because it simply isn’t considered cool.
Far from growing as a phenomenon, they said, the teenagers they know consider gang activity somewhat passé. “I would definitely say that a few years ago our school had a lot more fighting and stuff. Now it seems there’s nothing,” Salvato said.
But the La Jolla High seniors said there’s no question their nice neighborhoods could just as easily be breeding grounds for gang members as other, less affluent parts of town.
Increasingly, the seniors said, their friends and peers are left to fend for themselves because their parents spend a lot of time away from home. Whether for business or travel, La Jolla parents are increasingly disconnected from their children, the seniors said. And teenagers who are left home alone, sometimes for weeks on end, are likely to have parties, abuse alcohol, and get into trouble, they said.
‘No Single, Good Definition’
The defense attorneys representing members of the three groups accused of being gangs propose an entirely different reason why gang crime is apparently creeping into the region’s more affluent suburbs. They claim the incursion is driven by one simple factor — an increasingly wide definition of the very word “gang.”
Groups that previously might have been labeled differently are now immediately branded as gangs by overzealous prosecutors seeking to make the weightiest charges stick, the defense attorneys say, which is why there are now “gangs” in La Jolla, Encinitas and Temecula.
“There is no single, good definition of what a gang is,” Kennedy said. “So arm wrestling about what is and isn’t a gang turns out to be a venerable pastime for both scholars and law enforcement. It’s an unresolved and probably un-resolvable question.”
But prosecutors argue that the law is perfectly clear on what does and doesn’t constitute a gang. California Penal Code provides an exhaustive list of criteria a group needs to meet in order to warrant being called a “criminal street gang,” they said.
In essence, the gang section asks prosecutors to show that the crime has been committed by a group of three or more people and that it is part of a pattern of gang activity. The section has a list of 33 crimes that can be classified as gang crimes, which ranges from assault to theft of a vehicle to identity theft.
The Bird Rock Bandits is a gang that meets those requirements, the prosecutors allege. Seth Cravens, the member of the group who allegedly threw the punch that knocked Kauanui down and killed him, owned a host of gang-type paraphernalia that investigators found in his room. That included “a notebook full of Bird Rock Bandit symbols depicting wounded warriors tattooed with ‘BRB’ and Nazi symbols, such as lightning bolts and swastikas,” according to court documents.
On the night Kauanui was killed, the members of the group were also allegedly video-taped flashing gang hand symbols and shouting “BRB for life,” and “Bandits for life.”
The Shadow Crew also had its moniker. All the alleged gang members had a common tattoo — a Japanese symbol that marked them as a member of the group. Sepulveda, the gang leader, was actively recruiting new members, who prosecutors claim were initiated into the gang with a group beating. The group dealt drugs and robbed other drug dealers to get painkillers to feed Sepulveda’s habit, prosecutors alleged. He has been sentenced to prison for eight years.
And the Fight Club, prosecutors said, had formed an ongoing criminal enterprise that formed under a common name and that committed crimes directly for the benefit of the gang. Those are all elements of what constitutes an illegal street gang under the Penal Code, prosecutors alleged, which means the Fight Club were in reality much more than just a social club.
The fact that prosecutors have made the case that the three groups are gangs doesn’t surprise Alex Alonso, an author and editor of www.streetgangs.com, an online magazine about street gangs in Los Angeles. Alonso said the legal definition of a gang is so wide that it could include just about any group of three or more individuals involved in committing crime.
Thus, a fraternity that hazes its members could be considered a gang, Alonso said. Similarly, Dana Nurge, a researcher on gangs at San Diego State University said, the trio of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Brent Wilkes and Mitch Wade, who have either been convicted or pleaded guilty in a government corruption case, meet the strict statutory definition of a gang.
Gang allegations add tremendous weight to a prosecutors’ case, which is the real reason more and more diverse groups are being labeled as gangs, Alonso and defense attorneys said.
“District attorneys, when they overcharge, they have tremendous bargaining power,” said Allen Bloom, defense attorney for Brian McConnell, the alleged second-in-command of the Shadow Crew. “When they can add a gang allegation, you’re talking about doubling sentences and adding 10 years and adding 15 years. You’re tightening the screws and increasing your power to gain a plea bargain in a case.”
Alonso went one step further, saying there’s also a strong political element to bringing gang charges.
“It’s all politics. It has nothing to do with crime, nothing to do with helping out the community. … (Politicians) want to get reelected, they want to get reappointed, and they want to look strong on crime. And a great way to look strong on crime is to look anti-gang and to do everything you can do that’s anti-gang, whether it works or not,” he said.
A spokesman for the San Diego District Attorney’s Office said prosecutors could not comment about the Bird Rock Bandits case. The prosecutor on the Shadow Crew case did not return repeated calls and the prosecutor on the Fight Club case could also not be reached.
But Dana Greisen, chief of the San Diego County Gang Prosecution Unit at the District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors don’t care what part of town criminals come from, how much money their parents make or the color of their skin. Investigators research crimes and where they find a pattern of activity that meets the statutory criteria, they pursue gang charges.
“We look at each case on a case-by-case basis and see if it meets the statutory criteria,” he said. “I’m not aware of numerous uses of this statute in unorthodox cases.”
Fuelling the debate, Greisen said, is that in many cases the statutory definition of a gang has evolved faster than the public’s own perception of what is and isn’t a gang.
The La Jolla High School seniors knew the Bird Rock Bandits well. Salvato said a friend of hers was punched in the face by Cravens when she asked him to leave a house party she was throwing. But she scoffed at the suggestion the group was a gang.
Jessica Cardona, whose uncle Luis Cardona still faces gang charges in the Shadow Crew case, pulled out certificates and letters from friends showing her uncle couldn’t possibly be a gang member. He was one of the Shadow Crew, sure, she said, but the Shadow Crew was just a group of drinking buddies — friends who met for barbecues and went bowling together. They weren’t a real gang.
“The district attorney made Luis out to be this drug user who lived a double life and was a hard-core gang member,” Jessica Cardona said. “But he was on honor roll. How could you be on honor roll if you’re a cocaine user?”
And the parents of members of the Murietta Fight Club expressed outrage that their clean-cut sons could be considered gang members. In media reports, parents claimed their sons were upstanding members of the community. Some even counseled gang members and warned kids to stay away from the evil power of gangs.
Peter Mejico is president of a self-help group that weans gang members away from the addictions of the gang lifestyle. His father was a co-founder of the Mexican Mafia and his father and brother are both serving life sentences in prison for gang-related crimes. He said every neighborhood, from Beverly Hills to Compton, has its gangs. He’s constantly learning about new gangs, in new parts of town, with new names and new causes, he said.
“I know a lot, as far as what I’m used to, in the low-income neighborhoods, in the urban cities, but I’ve never really met anyone from Temecula, so I don’t know what’s going on out there, what’s sparking all of this,” Mejico said.
“But I do think, if it’s a true gang, it’s valid,” he said. “And what makes it a true gang? Well, I’m not really sure.”