George Ubillus was stabbed to death outside the Florentine Gardens dance club last April, and Hollywood Boulevard found itself in the middle of an unusual street war.
A handful of gangs claim Hollywood as their turf. There are the White Fence and 18th Street gangs to the north, Marasalvatrucha and the Magician's Club to the south. These gangs regularly struggle over home boundaries. But police say Ubillus, 19, and his attackers belonged to rival gangs from El Monte, 20 miles to the east. And in the months that followed the stabbing, there were more fights between outsider gangs and another gang-related death in Hollywood.
Soon police discovered that the boulevard had become a favored hang-out and an impromptu battleground for some of the city's largest and most vicious gangs: the Bloods and Crips from South-Central Los Angeles and Latino gangs from East Los Angeles.
Late at night, these youths stand on street corners wearing gang colors and challenging rivals who cruise by.
"The gangs are coming in packs to Hollywood Boulevard. We're getting them from all over the place," said Officer Jess Corral of the police department's West Bureau Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit. "They're coming on Friday and Saturday nights for the cruising."
Similar scenes are being played out at other youth hangouts on the Westside. In Westwood on a Friday night, Bloods show up wearing red shoelaces and red barrettes in their hair. At Venice Beach on a Saturday afternoon, a group of Crips dressed in blue walks single file through crowds of tourists.
"They might just go to Venice to enjoy the beach like anybody else," said one police officer. "But if they run into an enemy, you're going to have problems."
And so Westside CRASH officers have had to battle on two fronts: keeping local gangs at bay and trying to drive away violent visitors. Police say they are beginning to control the outbreak of outsider gang fights, but residents remain worried. And, no matter what police do, they know that places such as Hollywood Boulevard, Venice and Westwood will continue to lure gangs.
"Every major attraction will pull in gangs . . . the beaches in summer or any major amusement park," said Detective Bob Jackson. "As far as the Westside is concerned, that's where it is."
Gang members come to these hang-outs for some of the same reasons any young person, police say.
"The word gets out, 'Good times. Come up to Hollywood Boulevard and cruise,' " said Sgt. John Preston of CRASH. "It started off with just the cruisers. But with all these people came the gang members."
Members from as many as 50 or 60 different gangs may show up on a given weekend at Venice or weekend night on the boulevard, Preston said. The mix creates a potential for violence.
Preventing random outbursts can be tricky for police. CRASH officers can keep tabs on local gangs. Officers on the street will sometimes hear of rising tensions and defuse a battle.
At hang-outs, police are left to wonder which gangs will run into each other. Will a chance confrontation pass quietly, or end in bloodshed?
Fearing widespread violence, the West Bureau CRASH unit began an assault on Hollywood Boulevard shortly after Ubillus' death.
"If they just shot themselves, that probably wouldn't be a bad thing. But there are stray bullets," Preston said. "Because of the heavy traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, anyone can get shot there."
Police have posted "no parking" signs along the boulevard, so that gangs cannot park their cars easily. Many of the youths congregate in parking lots, so police have persuaded store owners to press trespassing charges. And the street has been closed to cars at early hours on weekend evenings.
More important, Preston said, the gang unit began what it calls "selective enforcement," a sort of harassment within the limits of the law. Officers approach clusters of gang members and write tickets for minor violations such as possession of open liquor containers or public intoxication.
A similar effort began at Venice, where gang members have been blamed for an increase in burglaries from automobiles.
CRASH officers say they can recognize gang members by their colored shoelaces, clothes and hair ribbons. Those sporting the color green or a dollar sign along with gang colors are often drug dealers, police say.
In addition, gang members may wear pressed Levis with Gucci or Pierre Cardin belts and have their hair done in corn-row style.
"If we see them in a group dressed down in their formal gang attire, we have the right to stop and interview them because they are gang members," Preston said. "We run them for warrants and, more times than not, they have a traffic warrant or something outstanding that they need to go to jail for. We also take some of them in to be interviewed.
"They don't like to be subjected to this type of thing," Preston said. "We just have to keep coming up here and making sure they know we're here."