Capt. John R. Wilbanks of the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division shook his head as he hung up his telephone last week. A gang member reportedly had been spotted in the troubled Oakwood section of Venice, wildly firing an Uzi submachine gun from the back of a speeding truck.
Wilbanks cautioned that he could not confirm the account. But the fact that it had any credence at all underscored an important point: When it comes to crime in Venice, especially violent crime, almost anything seems possible.
Witness the latest addition to Venice's crime sheet: the brutal stabbing of Los Angeles City Council candidate Ruth Galanter. The May 6 attack on Galanter as she slept inside her small, beige tract home shocked residents and renewed concerns about the threat of violence in the diverse community, which has become as famous for its gangs and ghettos as its beaches and bistros.
"It's a scary, scary situation," said Harlan Lee, president of the Venice Action Committee. "This has frightened people, no doubt about it."
The Galanter stabbing wounded Venice. People wondered why it happened to Galanter and why it happened there. Memories of the chilling murder of Sarai Ribicoff, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner editorial writer killed outside a trendy Venice restaurant seven years ago, flooded the community conscience.
Danger seemed closer to home. And as Galanter recuperates from her injuries, there is a sense that Venice's recovery will take much longer.
The man charged with the stabbing, 27-year-old Mark Allen Olds, lived directly across the street from Galanter. The proximity was symbolic in a community where moderate- and high-priced houses nestle next to ghetto apartments.
"This was a quiet, beautiful neighborhood," said Theresa Munoz, who lives next door to Galanter on Louella Avenue. "Now we keep our eyes open."
What many people see is a fairly dangerous community. The Pacific Division, which covers the Venice area, has the fourth highest crime rate in the Los Angeles Police Department. Five robberies were reported the week of Galanter's stabbing. Three people were raped and 10 others assaulted, according to police. Seven burglaries were reported, 10 automobiles were stolen and 20 vandalized.
'Tough Waterfront Town'
Tom Moran, a historian who lives in the canal district, said Venice is representative of urban America. Danger comes with the turf.
"This is a tough waterfront town and there are hard people who live here," said Moran, a resident since the 1970s. "It dates back to Venice's carnival days. There's a continuity to it. Despite the real estate ads and the trendy restaurants, it still exists. It doesn't wash away with the tides."
Venice has never really fit the mold of the mellow California beach town. From its turn-of-the-century beginnings as a seaside resort to it its modern-day manifestation as a bohemian beach community, it has stood apart. Since the beginning, the small area has been home to celebrities. As property values declined in the 1930s and '40s, Venice was claimed by blue-collar and oil field workers. Beatniks came in the 1950s and hippies in the 1960s.
Venice, with its 40,000 residents, is a cultural grab bag. There are poor people and rich people; former hippies and entrepreneurs who park their BMWs beside reconditioned Chevys. There are people who eat at fashionable restaurants and people who can't afford a meal. There are tourists who come to gawk at the quintessential California weirdos on Ocean Front Walk.
And there are gang members and criminals. According to Wilbanks, some Venice families have criminal histories that go back two and three generations. "These are like family institutions over there," he said.
At one point in the 1970s, some people feared that the law-breakers were taking over as a crime wave swept over Venice. There were reports of open gang warfare and rampant vandalism. Children were subjected to the sound of gunfire ricocheting off brick walls. And dozens of people were killed.
"You couldn't walk the streets around here," said Vera Davis, the head of Low Income and Elderly United--Community Assistance Program. "It seemed like someone was getting shot every week."
But it took a single killing in November, 1980, to focus national attention on Venice. Sarai Ribicoff, the niece of former Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.), was leaving a West Washington Boulevard restaurant one night when two men emerged from the darkness. One took her wallet and the other started shooting. Ribicoff, 23, died of a bullet wound to the chest.
The Ribicoff killing had a chilling effect as newspapers throughout the country ran stories that characterized Venice as some kind of an outlaw place that was plagued by chronic violence. It is a reputation the community has tried to shake ever since.