The fast-food restaurants and strip malls around the "Welcome to Lancaster" sign at the Avenue K exit of the Antelope Valley Freeway present an image of safe, homogenized suburbia.
But last month, the Carl's Jr. restaurant at that intersection was the scene of a fatal shooting that has sparked allegations against Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies of excessive force and racial bias.
To many, the incident and three other recent shootings by law enforcement officers reflect the Antelope Valley's transformation from a cluster of sleepy desert communities into an urban area with urban problems.
"It was shocking," Lancaster Mayor Lynn Harrison said of the Carl's Jr. shooting. "We're not used to things like that here. Residents are feeling the pressures of change, and I'm sure law enforcement officers are feeling the pressures as well."
Harrison said she thinks that the deputies saw a "life-threatening situation" and acted accordingly.
On April 11, deputies confronted Betty Jean Aborn, a 50-year-old black transient armed with a butcher knife, at the Carl's Jr. after responding to an armed robbery call at a nearby business. When Aborn lunged at them, three deputies opened fire, authorities said. She was hit 18 times.
Ensuing protests by the Antelope Valley chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People included a march last month by black residents around the sheriff's station. And a federal mediator from San Francisco has met with authorities and about 35 black residents to discuss Aborn's death and the fatal shooting by a deputy six months ago of Robert Moriya, an Asian student. State NAACP President Jose De Sosa helped set up the mediator's visit and attended the meeting.
Like all deputy-involved shootings, Aborn's death is being investigated by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office in conjunction with Sheriff's Department homicide investigators.
In January, the district attorney's office cleared Deputy Terry Rice in the Nov. 4 shooting of Moriya, a 19-year-old Lancaster resident who had crashed his car into a freeway underpass after a night of drinking. Rice shot and killed Moriya after he charged Rice and attempted to wrestle away his gun, investigators concluded.
But NAACP member Mike Kirkland said: "I don't think either of those two people could have mustered enough force to seriously threaten the officers, especially with the expertise, backup and guns they have available to them."
Capt. Gary Vance, commander of the Antelope Valley sheriff's station, predicts that the investigation of the Aborn shooting will conclude that deputies acted properly. He said he is willing to work with black leaders but sees no need for outside intervention and rejects the racial allegations about the two shootings.
"I can understand why that jumps to their minds," Vance said of the black leaders. "But no way is that a connection. I don't see any racial tensions at all."
As further evidence that race had nothing to do with the Aborn shooting, Vance said, one of the deputies involved is Latino and another is white and married to a black woman.
But Harrison said she thinks that, regardless of whether the Aborn shooting was justified, the involvement of an outside mediator may be a good idea. "If the members of the minority community feel there is a problem, then for them there is a problem," she said.
The federal mediator, Ada Montare, said she can recommend--but cannot require--police-community forums or human relations training for officers. But Montare said it is unlikely that she will suggest such action since the Sheriff's Department has made itself accessible to NAACP leaders.
Montare works for the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has no investigative powers.
"It seems the area is in an era of change with people moving from the Los Angeles area," she said of the Antelope Valley. "It could be that tensions are beginning to take place."
Palmdale's population grew 17% last year, and Lancaster's grew 10%. But there were grim accompanying numbers: Overall crime went up 33% in the Antelope Valley in the first quarter of this year, with the crime rate per 1,000 people increasing 8%.
The three shootings this year contrast with only one deputy-involved shooting in each of the previous two years in the Antelope Valley. All three occurred within the past six weeks; the most recent was Wednesday when deputies shot and killed a man who charged a deputy with a rake after a two-hour car chase in which the suspect rammed a police car.
The Rev. Samuel Hooker, president of the Antelope Valley's NAACP chapter, said his group requested outside help because the Aborn and Moriya shootings show that deputies are quick to use deadly force against minorities. The NAACP chapter has located Aborn's daughter, 19-year-old Mona Aborn, and are consulting with lawyers about filing a wrongful death suit on her behalf, Hooker said.