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NEWSMAKERS '90 : The Year's Triumphs, Tragedies : Crime Won Rounds, but So Did Progress, Humanity

December 30, 1990|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, Long Beach and Southeast cities stood with the rest of the world on the brink of a new decade and talked about a new beginning.

A couple of dreams came true--a 19-mile light-rail line hurtled Long Beach to the forefront of modern transportation, and two Latino council candidates broke a racial barrier at Huntington Park City Hall.

But many more hopes were crushed under the weight of a thousand problems one decade seemed to bequeath the next. Crime soared, graffiti exploded, business slumped and war loomed.

It was a year when a homeless man in Compton named Eddie Randolph was given a poignant burial by employees of a city that couldn't help him. When one woman overcame a desert and a dictator to return safely home to a town where another woman--eight months' pregnant--couldn't survive the gang violence on her own street.

As ever, it was a year of laughter, absurdity, sorrow and despair. The homeless rose up, the sailors shipped out, a big building fell down.

Some La Habra Heights homeowners spent a year fighting over a couple of pigs, and a mouse named Mickey spent thousands of dollars planning a $2-billion amusement park it might never build.

So, in case you missed it, here's what happened:

If there was one group that seemed to succeed above all the rest, it would have to be the criminal element. Crime rates shot up in nearly every city, gangs bred like bugs, taggers splattered graffiti all over lampposts, brick walls and freeways.

So common were murders and other violent crimes that only the weird, the comical and the unthinkable made the news, and there was never a lack for those.

Such was the case of Kentzie Pope, who was eight months' pregnant when a gang bullet police believe was intended for somebody else struck her as she stood in front of her Long Beach apartment. Doctors kept her alive long enough to deliver a baby girl. Twenty minutes later, Kentzie Pope was dead.

There was Joseph Brian Socha, the man police say declared himself St. Peter, then went about town raping Long Beach prostitutes, slicing off their hair and carving inverted crucifixes into their backs. He has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.

There were Charles and Lena Mae Brantley, the Las Vegas couple police dubbed Bonnie and Clyde after they allegedly took $50,000 from 10 banks in 15 months.

Not a community escaped the explosion in violent crime this year. But in Long Beach, it took a quantum leap, greater than that recorded in any other major city in California. At the same time, state officials reported Long Beach police had the worst record for solving serious crimes in 1989, particularly rape, robbery and burglary.

The dubious distinction trained an embarrassing spotlight on Chief Lawrence Binkley, who some officers said was greatly to blame for low morale and wasteful deployment of officers. The chief responded that he has spent three years trying to shape up a department that the city has neglected for more than a decade. "We're catching up and catching up is a bear," Binkley said, adding optimistically that "help is on the way."

Police departments around the county complained they were wracked with more complaints than their officers could handle. So crowded were the courthouses that some cases were tried in hotel rooms. In some communities, citizens took matters into their own hands.

Hawaiian Gardens turned for help to the Guardian Angels, a self-styled group of crime busters who patrol the streets wearing red berets and tough expressions. "We can't afford to pay any more for law enforcement," Mayor Pro Tem Domenic Ruggeri said after the tiny city, one-mile square, was hit with a crime wave. "We thought this would be a good idea."

In one Long Beach neighborhood, a young father dressed himself in bum's clothing and carried a walkie-talkie in search of kids scribbling graffiti. Little old ladies adopted the code names "Cagney and Lacey" and set out on patrol for suspicious activity.

In Naples, a neighborhood of islands where gondolas glide past picture windows, the rich considered hiring their own security guards to buy protection if the city couldn't provide it. The idea was later abandoned.

The year 1990 came and went without anyone finding a solution to crime, homelessness, poverty, gangs. But a handful of otherwise anonymous people made a difference.

Two days before his 11th birthday, a boy named Terrell walked up to the Long Beach City Council and said he was tired of being harassed by gangs. Jeanne Corbett, a Downey housewife, filed one civil rights complaint after another and helped force the county to take costly steps to give handicapped students a decent education.

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