Dressed in civilian clothes, Police Lt. Felix Osuna looked like any other shopper moving through the aisles of a Santa Ana market. There was no way to tell he was a cop.
Nevertheless, someone had spotted him, a youth whom Osuna recognized as a member of a local street gang. The youth drew closer and closer.
"We eventually got to a checkout stand," Osuna recalled. "I was wondering what he was going to attempt."
Osuna turned. Their eyes met.
The youth spoke first: "Are you Blu Magic?"
"I said 'Yeah.' "
"Hey," said the youth, "you guys are hot!"
The young gang member wasn't an enemy. He was a fan.
Blu Magic is the name of a rock and roll band, but not just any rock and roll band. The lead guitar player is a Santa Ana police officer. So is the lead singer. So is the drummer. As a matter of fact, only one of the six band members is not a Santa Ana cop. And he used to be.
These moonlighting police officers, who range in age from 35 to 43, specialize in old-time rock and roll, giving new life to old favorites such as "Johnny B. Goode" and "La Bamba." They perform their very loud, garage-band sound at bar mitzvahs and weddings, Little League fund-raisers and even senior citizens' balls.
But their best gigs may be the ones they play for kids who weren't even born when Chuck Berry introduced the duck walk, or by the time Ritchie Valens died.
No one claims Blu Magic's free concerts at Orange County schools have stifled gang warfare, turned youngsters away from lives of crime or even dissuaded teen-agers from breaking curfew. But no one can say they haven't, either.
Blu Magic, at the very least, has given the community a new way of looking at the Police Department. It has also given police a different view of the community.
Osuna recalled his encounter in the market with the gang member. "Our initial feeling is he's part of the criminal element," he said. Instead, Osuna came to see the youth as an admirer with a shared appreciation of music.
"Music is a real good communicator and motivator, especially with young kids," said Sgt. John Teutimez, the band's bass guitarist. "It breaks down the negative side of things about a cop."
In a particularly rowdy Santa Ana neighborhood called Mini Street, gang warfare erupted one day about four years ago as it periodically does there. A gang of Asian youths was doing violent battle with a band of young Latinos. In the midst of this arrived Sgt. Joe Kahapea, a hard-nosed, burly patrol sergeant and ardent Elvis Presley fan.
As the uniformed Kahapea dashed from his squad car through the crowd of onlookers, the first thing he heard was: "Blu Magic is here!"
"The fight just quieted down," Osuna said. "It changed the tempo of the incident and kind of took their minds off the battle."
But in the beginning, the Blu Magic cops weren't even certain they would be warmly received on stage, let alone on the streets.
All had played in rock and roll bands as youths before becoming police officers. They discovered their mutual love for music at a Police Department-sponsored retreat in 1983. Their tastes were compatible, if not identical.
The Righteous Brothers and Jose Feliciano used to sit in with Kahapea's band when he was 21 and 22, playing in Costa Mesa clubs. As a young man, Sgt. Jim McDaniels played his drums with country-Western bands in the San Bernardino area and while in the Army with USO bands in Stuttgart, West Germany. Osuna got his first guitar when he was 12 and also leaned toward country-Western. Teutimez played in the backup band for 1960s stars Wilson Pickett, Chris Montez and Cathy Young.
For those who doubt the staying power of rock and roll, consider that Patrol Officer Tony Moreno, the band's lead guitarist, will soon be a grandfather and that his favorite rock and roller is 60-year-old Chuck Berry.
McDaniels' favorite group these days is Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, because, he says, their big hit, 1965's "Wooly Bully," is "the only song they let me sing."
After discovering one another's hidden talents, the men began gathering off duty to play music and sing in their garages, just like when they were kids. When the music began to sound good, the Police Department brass took an interest, eventually drawing on the group as goodwill ambassadors in the community.
"We're not in it for profit," Osuna said.
The band frequently has donated proceeds from its appearances to charitable causes, such as fund drives for officers killed in the line of duty or stricken with catastrophic illnesses. Blu Magic often performs free for groups such as the American Cancer Society and the Red Cross and for programs such as COPs (Community Oriented Policing)--Santa Ana's version of Neighborhood Watch.
"It's not only good for the community, but also good for the Police Department," COPs chairman Norman Roberts said. "I think it's very important and they enjoy it and the people enjoy it.
"They were very good, too."