In an old, run-down house off Thousand Oaks Boulevard near the Ventura Freeway, the Houston Hoods have set up their headquarters.
Throughout the night, they gather around a bonfire in the front yard, drink beer and listen to rap music. Sometimes they "go looking for trouble," one said, and sometimes trouble finds them.
Although many Thousand Oaks residents might not notice the graffiti scrawled on neighborhood walls, the gang is well-known among Ventura County sheriff's deputies.
And there are others.
Over the past several years, various gangs have cropped up throughout the city. Thousand Oaks seems like a strange place to find gangs, officials admit. The average household income is about $45,000, and the average home costs about $290,000. In addition, the area has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.
Part of the problem, police say, is peer pressure. In fact, gang membership may be the latest fad.
"They hear about the L.A. gangs, and they think, 'That's neat,' " said Deputy Paul Higgason of the Thousand Oaks gang squad. "Now it's just very fashionable to be in a gang."
Fad or not, police say they take these groups seriously.
Since 1988, there have been four gang-related drive-by shootings in Thousand Oaks, according to police, although no one has been injured. Fifteen teen-agers and young adults--at least two of them members of the Houston Hoods--have been arrested on suspicion of scrawling graffiti across public buildings and walls. Several others have been accused of felony assault.
So far, about 30 "core gang" members, most of them teen-agers, have been identified in Thousand Oaks. At least 40 others have been listed by police as gang "associates," people who hang out with gang members. And there are as many as 130 affiliates or gang-member wanna-bes. Many are still in high school.
In addition to the Houston Hoods, the two other recognized gangs in Thousand Oaks are the Small Town Hoods and TOCAS, which stands for Thousand Oaks California Sur.
Unlike the dangerous Los Angeles gangs, they are not suspected of selling drugs. Nor have the Thousand Oaks gangs reached the "turf war" stage, and police want to make sure they don't.
Higgason said he and his partner, Deputy Randy Pentis, cruise Thousand Oaks almost every night looking for the groups and questioning gang members. Since they have stepped up their efforts, police say they have kept the problem under control--but they wonder how long their luck will hold.
"It is going to get worse before it gets better," Higgason said.
Members of the Houston Hoods have scrawled gang symbols on the ceilings and walls of the building they call the "Hood Shack," an aging house that's been condemned and is scheduled to be destroyed.
Most of the members wear shirts and black caps sporting their gang name and symbols. They go by nicknames: Sharky, Bambam, Clumsy, Fantom and Daddy. None would identify themselves.
The group might turn some heads at The Oaks Mall or the local bowling alley. But they usually stay away from public places for fear of running into the police.
One member likes to show off his gun but is quick to point out that it is unloaded. "We're not violent," he said. "But we'll protect ourselves."
Although they talk tough, their rhetoric sometimes sounds as if they're the winning high school football team.
"We're No. 1," one member boasted.
Another member said: "We don't have automatic weapons like the L.A. gangs. We don't deal drugs. We just hang out and party."
They emerge occasionally from the Hood Shack to scrawl graffiti on a nearby neighborhood wall, which the city repaints the next day. The wall is now striped with different colors of paint.
Some of the residents in the area say they are frightened to go out at night.
"They're up and down this street nonstop," said one resident, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Another resident added: "It breaks my heart to see the gangs. You would never think something like this would exist in Thousand Oaks, but it does. I guess it's everywhere."
One way the Thousand Oaks gangs differ from their Los Angeles counterparts is in their ethnic and economic diversity, police say.
A couple of the gangs started with only Latinos but eventually expanded to include all ethnic backgrounds. Another started as a white-supremacist group but now includes all races.
Members of the Houston Hoods say they have always included members from all backgrounds. "It's not about race," one member said. "It's about brotherhood."
The gang started on Houston Drive and then branched out to other areas of the city. Most of the members have attended Westlake High School.
Some come from rich families, others from poor. "You should see where some of these kids live," Higgason says. "Some have real affluent families."
So why do they join gangs? For a variety of reasons.
"We're bored," said a 13-year-old member, wearing a black Los Angeles Raiders cap over his blond hair. "There's just nothing to do in this town."
According to another gang member, whose father is a lawyer, "It's the family some of us never had."
"It's like having a bunch of brothers," another said. "We would do anything for each other."
Councilman Larry Horner said city officials noticed the gangs about two years ago and began a graffiti-removal program. He said local officials have been working closely with the Sheriff's Department to eradicate the problem.
"They're just a bunch of thrill seekers," Horner said of the gang members. "They're not welcome here, and we'll continue to make things uncomfortable for them."
Nevertheless, some gang members said they are here to stay.
"We're a neighborhood gang," one member said. "And Thousand Oaks is our neighborhood."