Crime rates are collapsing, perhaps leaving police with more time to track troublesome teenagers in suburban neighborhoods across the United States. The sum of that labor in Orange County has produced at least one likely gang conviction in the suburbs of South County.
The incident in question, an Aug. 11, 1998, assault at a party in Aliso Viejo, left 17-year-old Galen Thorne near death. It quickly produced five arrests. In a trial that will begin next month at Santa Ana's Superior Courthouse, the suspects-a 21-year-old and four juveniles whom police are calling gang members-will be jointly tried for attempted murder.
The Orange County district attorney's office says all five suspects are members of a South County gang called the Slick 50's. Their profile: white, middle-class kids who listen to rockabilly music, put grease in their hair, and wear huge cuffs in their unfaded, fresh-from-the-factory blue jeans.
None of the juvenile suspects had been in trouble with the law before Aug. 11. Their troubles started that night, when the four arrived by car at the party, with 21-year-old Josh Carlsen. A few minutes after their arrival, Thorne allegedly flipped off the entire group.
Carlsen allegedly stabbed Thorne repeatedly, and witnesses said someone else-allegedly a member of the Slick 50's-cracked a beer bottle over Thorne's head. Officials say at least one witness heard someone shouting, "Slick 50's" over and over during the attack, but it is unclear exactly who did the shouting or why.
Two youths charged in the crime, Steve Crader and Curtis Pinedo, say they were standing a block away from the scene of the attack when it happened and thus could have played no role in it. Moreover, both have said they felt intimidated by Carlsen.
Yet when sheriff's deputies arrived at the scene, a female bystander pointed out Carlsen's four teenage companions as being members of the Slick 50's. Based on that information, all five were immediately arrested as accomplices in the attack. Carlsen remains in jail awaiting trial; the other four were released on bail earlier this year. (As of last week, one of the four juveniles, 17-year-old Jesse Grist, was back behind bars, charged with violating his parole by allegedly fighting at another party. Grist's attorney claims witnesses who saw the fight have said Grist wasn't involved.)
Crader's mother, Yolanda Radig, says her 17-year-old son had never met Carlsen before the night of the party and was "extremely remorseful about what had happened." She explained that the South County anti-gang task force apparently had come to the conclusion that the Slick 50's was a street gang because it was a well-known term in her son's neighborhood and high school. "These boys were very popular with the girls," she explained.
Radig said Slick 50's was one of several names Crader had chosen for a rockabilly band he had started with Grist.
Whatever its origins, she claimed, her son had first uttered the name in junior high school. "It was a handful of boys," Radig claimed. "There was no initiation or club or anything, just a bunch of kids and their music. I never thought twice about it. After junior high school, they got more interested in girls and dropped the name. But people knew it."
Another suspect's mother, who asked to not be identified by name, claimed her son, who had no police record, had been pulled over and photographed by police while on a date with his girlfriend only a few months before the Aug. 11 stabbing. She said she called the Orange County Sheriff's Department and spoke with a female investigator with the department's South County gang-prevention unit. "I told her that I had had no problems with my son and that his rights had been violated," she recalls. "I asked her, 'Are you trying to tell me that my son is in some kind of trouble?' . . . The next thing I know, I get a phone call saying [my son] has just been arrested for attempted murder."
Thorne recovered from his wounds, but all five suspects continue to face charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and "street terrorism," which is the official crime of gang membership. Suspects convicted of the assault would automatically face an additional three years in state prison for being tied to a gang. To make their case, prosecutors must convince the jury that the presence of each of the four juvenile defendants at the party contributed to the attack by Carlsen-that while none except Carlsen was armed that night, the four teenage "gangbangers" were nonetheless with him at the party specifically to cause trouble.
The DA's strategy may have been compromised by a massive April 18 profile of the Slick 50's in the LA Times. The article, which ran under the ominous headline "A Wakeup Call for a Suburban Refuge," raised but didn't answer the question of whether the Slick 50's was actually a gang. Because they are being tried as adults, Times editors decided to identify the four juveniles, who appeared and were named in a series of color photographs. Rather than looking like candidates for state prison, the Times' photographs offered up a quartet of teenagers who could pass for busboys at Planet Hollywood.
On the other hand, the newspaper's Sunday edition included a photograph of Radig helping her underage son sip a beer while he played the guitar at a party-an image that didn't exactly convey a clean-cut image. A Saturday-night preview edition of the story that didn't include the offending photograph was seen as evidence by Radig that Times editors had purposely sought to portray her son as a troublemaker. "Someone had a clear intention when they did this," she charged.
Times staff writer Bonnie Harris is caught in the middle. "I've had the police accuse me of ruining their case, and the mothers think I'm on the cops' payroll," she said. Harris conceded that the families of the youths had expressed concern about the newspaper's decision to run some of the photographs, which showed the boys enjoying their freedom by smoking cigarettes and showing off their music. But, Harris pointed out, the Times also "got letters from people threatening to cancel their subscriptions because we were treating these 'gang members' like movie stars. . . . We got the discussion started, and people are talking."
In fact, Harris' story did more than spark a dialogue about suburban violence. Before the Times got wind of the story, deputy district attorney John Conley had offered the three of the four juveniles an Orwellian plea bargain: admit that the Slick 50's is really a gang and escape with just a year in prison. After the Times reported that the three boys were grudgingly willing to accept the offer by confessing to something-membership in a gang-that they still denied was true, the DA's office withdrew the deal.
All five suspects, who are adults in the eyes of the law, now face trial as equal participants in Carlsen's Aug. 11 assault simply because witnesses at the party had identified them as Slick 50's. And that, the county's gang experts and prosecutors will argue to a jury, is a "gang." It's a tale remarkably similar to the one involving six Latino youths from San Clemente who were railroaded in the infamous anti-immigrant 1994 Steve Woods/paint roller murder trial. Their futures dutifully sacrificed in the name of the fight against gangs, these wrongfully accused teens will be forced to endure several years behind bars-side by side with the hardcore criminals, rapists and murderers who make up the California prison system.