ARCADIA — It looked more like a child's birthday party than an event to show neighborhood unity in the face of crime.
At precisely 7 o'clock, Ravelle Kozak gave the signal, and all the neighbors standing in front of her house released their balloons. "There goes seven hours of work," said Kozak cheerfully, as the multicolored lighter-than-air cluster dispersed upward, joining similar balloon bunches from about 80 other neighborhoods.
All told, Arcadians released about 2,000 helium balloons into the sky above their city Tuesday night to make a statement against crime. "We want to show the criminals out there that we have a chain of communication as strong as theirs," said Kozak, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who heads the city's Neighborhood Watch program. "We want them to know that we're watching them."
18 Million Observed Event
The event was part of National Night Out, an annual nationwide observance originated by the National Town Watch Assn. in Wynnewood, Pa. The 5-year-old organization said that about 18 million people observed the event in different ways, in 7,000 communities from California to Maine.
The idea was for the forces of safety and security to seize control of the night, said project coordinator Matt Peskin from his home in Pennsylvania. "The original concept was: What would happen if everybody went outside and turned their outside lights on?" Peskin said. "There would be no crime."
He said communities all across the country were holding nighttime block parties, cookouts and neighborhood meetings--"all centered around the crime prevention theme."
Kozak and Officer Don Alcorn, the Arcadia Police Department's community relations officer, were concerned especially about building interest in the Neighborhood Watch program. It has suffered from lack of interest since a suspect was arrested in 1985 after two Arcadia women were murdered in their homes.
"As with any Neighborhood Watch program, the problem is motivation, keeping interest alive," Alcorn said. Neighborhood Watch participants serve as block watchers, alerting police to suspicious people in their neighborhoods. The program also provides home security checks, with police experts going to residents' homes on request to advise them of precautions to take to keep intruders out.
In the summer of 1985, Arcadia residents Patty Elaine Higgins, 32, and Mary Louise Cannon, 75, were murdered within a week. Both were thought to be victims of the Night Stalker. Richard Ramirez, the alleged Night Stalker, has since been charged with 13 homicides, including that of Cannon.
"At that particular time, I did 102 security checks in less than two months," Alcorn said. "When the suspect was arrested (two months after the Arcadia murders), that dropped to three or four a month."
The most persistent crime problem in Arcadia, which has a population of 49,350, is burglary, Alcorn said. "In a predominantly bedroom community like this, with middle and upper income residents, burglary is the most worried about crime."
In recent years, there have been more burglaries in Arcadia than any other serious crime except theft, a catchall category that includes pickpockets, purse snatches, shoplifting and bicycle thefts, police clerk Judy Reinholt said. Last year, there were 566 burglaries in the city, a rise of almost 8% over 1986. In the first seven months of 1988, there have been 342, a slight drop from the 352 committed in the first seven months of 1987.
Doers and Don'ters
National Night Out began for Kozak, an enthusiastic woman with an air of determination, Tuesday morning, when she and other volunteers gathered at a local armory to fill the balloons with helium.
"There are doers and don'ters," said Gloria Alerich, another volunteer. "We tell the don'ters that we'll watch out for them too."
After 80 block captains had picked up their allotment of balloons, Kozak headed toward her own home on San Luis Rey Road in her pickup truck, with 10-year-old son Nicholas and 8-year-old daughter Courtney clutching the strings to several hundred balloons.
After "zero hour," she and neighbors hobnobbed on the front lawn, with coffee, sodas and homemade deserts. Neighbors who had never met before introduced themselves by pointing out their houses.
'More Than Balloons'
"I'm in the second house from the corner," one woman said.
"Oh, I live right there," said another.
"I wave to you on the street," a third said.
"I think it's more than balloons," Skip Fiske said when asked about the significance of the event. "It's a chance for everybody to get around and see each other. You feel more committed to helping your neighbors when you know them. This is a pretty solid little community."
A few miles away, another community grieved the loss of a 7-year-old apparent murder victim. The body of Carlos Adame of Azusa had been found earlier that day in a plant nursery near his home.
"That's what this is all about," Kozak said afterward. "To show that we know there's crime out there."