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War on Drugs 'Is Just a Game' on Altadena Street

September 07, 1989|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

Sheriff's Deputy John Cashion, clad in a bright green jacket and wearing a .38 on his belt, scrunched down in the bushes at the end of West Royce Street and aimed his seven-power binoculars down the block.

In front of him, a group of neighborhood children rode their bikes in lazy circles near a spot where Cashion and his partner busted a suspected drug dealer a few weeks earlier.

Farther down the street is the group of adults that Cashion is watching. At first, they don't see him, but soon they start squinting at the bushes, then smirking among themselves.

"Aw," Cashion said in disgust. "They've made us."

He watched for a few more minutes and then left.

"It's all a game, just a game," he said.

In the global war against drugs--raging in violent and tragic ways from the poppy fields of Colombia to the streets of America--the battle for West Royce has settled into a easy cadence.

The street, a cul-de-sac with just 18 homes, has been one of the hottest small-time drug-dealing markets in Altadena, accounting for as much as a quarter of the drug arrests in the area, Cashion figures.

The dealing is sporadically intense, at times bringing a steady stream of cars, and at other times leaving the street as quiet and deserted as any other suburban block.

Sheriff's investigators suspect that three or four houses of the 18 have been involved in the drug trade over the years.

But despite its unusual statistics, residents on this block, like those on many others, have learned to endure their burden with a nonchalance that belies the screaming headlines of the drug war.

"It's mellow as far as I'm concerned," said Eric Goins, the owner of a Pasadena auto body shop who has lived on the street for more than 15 years. "I don't pay attention to it, believe or not."

In some neighborhoods, residents have become defiant gladiators in the fight against drugs. One such group in Monrovia called in the Guardian Angels earlier this summer and walked the streets with them in an attempt to clean up their neighborhood.

West Royce is one of the others: a street where fear and a sense of futility have forged a cynical standoff between drug dealers and residents.

"If you don't bother me, I don't bother you," said one resident who, like many others, did not want her name used. "That's the way it is."

West Royce is a mixed neighborhood of whites, blacks and Latinos, located in a quickly gentrifying section of southwest Altadena. The street is at once placidly middle-class and violently gang-infested.

Just three-quarters of a mile north, a home was firebombed in June in a gang-related attack. Nine people escaped injury, but one woman, Cennie Brown Earby, was severely burned and died a week later.

Record Shootings

A quarter-mile to the east is a house on Calaveras Street that holds the town's record for most drive-by shootings; deputies figure that it's been shot up at least 15 times.

That type of violence has never struck on West Royce, but living so close has left a lingering paranoia on the street.

One man, who did not want his name used, said that the day he moved in, a sheriff's deputy stopped him and asked: "What are you doing in this neighborhood?"

The second day, a stranger flipped a switch-blade knife in his face. A few days later, he witnessed the first of many drug deals. "What the hell is going on here?" he thought.

After a few months, burglars broke into his home and stole a flute belonging to his girlfriend's daughter. He bought the flute back for $40 from a neighbor, but he never reported it to police, figuring that he could not prove who committed the crime.

"Everyone is fearful of being pointed out as a rat," he said, adding that many of the suspected dealers have lived on the block since they were children and are more a part of neighborhood than the angry newcomers. "I hate this block."

The man said that he still calls the police whenever he sees a drug deal but that he has learned, like everyone else, how futile that can be.

"By the time they get here, it's too late," he said. "I get discouraged. I tell you, I tolerate much more than I ever thought I would."

Special Team

Cashion and his partner, Ken Talianko--members of a special sheriff's team that targets gang and drug crimes in the Altadena area--have spent hours in the bushes trying to ambush a drug deal in progress--something most residents are unaware of.

They've seen plenty of cars drive down the block and hands flashing through car windows, but they rarely get a clear view of drugs and money being exchanged.

The department's most potent weapon in stopping drug dealers has been undercover officers who pose as buyers. But, Cashion said, there is a limited number of such officers, and they must be shared with other areas throughout the county.

Cashion figures that when he stops suspected buyers, in 90% of the instances, the drugs already have been swallowed or tossed away.

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