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Trouble in the Country : Crime Spree by Teens Rocks Rural Ramona

February 08, 1988|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

"Well ya got trouble, my friend--right here, I say trouble right here in River City." --From the Broadway musical, "The Music Man"

Country living has gone haywire in Ramona. Something glitched.

It's not a problem of boys hanging out in pool halls, as itinerant con man Harold Hill chimed in River City, Iowa. Ramona, it could be argued, should be so lucky.

This is a problem of teen-age skateboarders bored out of their gourds in Ramona, population 23,000, lashing out at authorities and getting into mischief. Serious mischief.

By Friday afternoon, 26 local children between the ages of 11 and 17, as well as a 20-year-old, had been arrested for a three-month-long felony crime spree costing more than $50,000--and an unknown toll in family life.

Bizarre Episode

It's as bizarre an episode as one could expect to find in a country town where one of the main hangouts is McDonalds, along eucalyptus tree-lined Main Street.

It began with a distressed father searching for clues to the whereabouts of his runaway 14-year-old daughter. He found more than he bargained for when he discovered and read her diary--which contained references to "frying" on the psychedelic drug LSD in study hall at Ramona High School.

He read further, tore out some of the pages and turned them over to Sheriff's Department Detective Mike Mercurio, a boyish-looking cop who would serve Miami Vice well and who specializes in juvenile crime in this neck of the woods, where Californias 67 and 78 meet, 30 miles northeast of San Diego.

"This might make for some real interesting reading," the father told Mercurio in understated fashion. "It might help you solve some cases."

Indeed it did.

Bomb Threat Link

The diary's most incriminating entry--aside from references to LSD--mentioned only the first name of a boy who phoned a bomb threat to Ramona High School several months earlier.

"We contacted him at school, admonished him as to his rights and he agreed to talk to us," Mercurio said. "We said, 'You know why we're here.' And he said, 'Yeah, I guess so--but I only did two of them.' And then he started talking about all these burglaries."

For his part, the boy--independently contacted by The Times--said he was set up by detectives into believing his name had already been given by others, and lured into spilling his guts. His mother said he will contact an attorney to press her concern that the 16-year-old did not realize he had the right to remain silent.

In any event, Mercurio realized that he had fortuitously stumbled upon more than just clearing up the bomb threat and was about to unravel the biggest crime spree in the history of Ramona, dramatically overshadowing problems of smoking behind the barn or overturning outhouses.

The boy's confession led to other suspects, who then named still more. The scoreboard by Friday showed 22 cases believed solved, and 27 persons--26 juveniles and one 20-year-old--arrested. The district attorney's office is awaiting the police report before deciding which cases to prosecute.

Life in the Country

The unraveling story has exposed more than the crime spree. It has exposed one of the fallacies of supposedly idyllic country life: That it is a panacea for families seeking to escape the cliche pitfalls of the big city.

"We moved here to get out of the city," sighed the mother of one of the teen-age boys suspected of the crimes. "This is a nice place to raise a family, but it turns out the same kinds of things happen here that can happen in El Cajon."

Observed Rob Oliphant, a juvenile probation officer for the county, "Ramona is becoming a bedroom community to San Diego for people who think moving out to the country would take care of problems they're trying to leave behind.

"But they're just taking their big-city problems with them. You've got kids with nothing to do, no place to go, and mom and dad don't come home from work until evening. The kids are bored, and idle time takes over," he said.

Admitted Crimes

Among the crimes to which the youngsters have admitted:

- Breaking into the Ramona Lutheran

Church on three separate occasions--and taking flags, a robe, a schoolteacher's desk-top brass bell and other trinkets to serve as souvenirs of their mischief. Yet they passed over computers and more valuable items within their grasp.

- Breaking into Olive Pierce Junior High School and emptying a dry chemical fire extinguisher into a computer, at a loss estimated at $5,000.

- Breaking into a liquor store and taking only a six-pack of beer.

- Breaking into an unoccupied house for a party that lasted for three days and ended with an estimated $15,000 in destruction to its interior. Walls were bashed, windows and mirrors shattered, dry wall busted, cabinet doors torn off hinges, light fixtures ripped free and appliance doors skewed.

- Breaking into vending machines on the high school campus for candy, and breaking windows on several Ramona school campuses.

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