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COLUMN ONE : Gangs in Affluent Black Turf : Parents who thought they had escaped urban horrors by entering the middle class find their kids lured by gangs. Though their numbers are small, the youths are increasingly violent.

November 13, 1992|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The future had never seemed brighter for Salmon Paul Daniels Jr. At 18, the son of a successful internist was living in a fashionable condominium just outside Beverly Hills, working a full-time summer job as a grocery store clerk and preparing to go off to college.

Then, one Sunday afternoon in August, after returning home from church, he left to go on a date on the Venice boardwalk. At 6 p.m., Los Angeles police officers found the youth lying in an alley off Speedway, not far from the beach. He was mortally wounded by a gunshot in his back. Witnesses told police he had been attacked by 15 to 25 gang members. Taken to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, Daniels died minutes later.

Detectives at first thought that Daniels had been killed by mistake, an innocent middle-class victim of the violence that wracks the city's poor neighborhoods. But the investigation soon revealed that he had been slain by members of the Sex Jerks, a gang made up of middle-class black teen-agers like him. And more ominously, Daniels' parents were told by police, Daniels had been associated with the Mobsters, a rival middle-class gang.

"It's tragic," said Detective Mike Berchem, an anti-gang expert investigating the Daniels case. "How do you tell a doctor that his son is a gangbanger?"

Even as a tenuous truce has held throughout the summer among South-Central Los Angeles' omnipresent street gangs, police and youth workers have seen mounting evidence that some children of Los Angeles' more affluent black families have come under the sway of gang life. Parents who once believed that they had escaped urban horrors by climbing the ladder of success now find those horrors lurking at their doorsteps.

This new wave of "preppy" gangs has become increasingly violent, authorities say. One gang was responsible, police say, for a shooting last month at Westchester High School. Other gangs have been tied to shootings in the Crenshaw area. And similar middle-class factions have been tied to thefts of merchandise at shopping malls scattered from Sherman Oaks to Crenshaw in raid-like operations known as "racking" or "mobbing."

These youths are lured into gang life for many of the same reasons that poorer teen-agers fall prey to crime--peer pressure, adolescent rebellion, an abiding fascination with gang culture and the lack of supervision by working parents, experts say. Just as gang members represent a small percentage of the teen-age population, middle-class gangs are a nominal fraction of the city's gang population, according to police.

That is little consolation to Dr. Salmon Paul Daniels Sr., who insists that his son may have known--and befriended--gang members, but was not one of them.

"If the police had their way, they would say everybody is a gang member," Daniels said.

His son, a Hamilton High School graduate, died Aug. 2, a week before he was to leave for Cuesta College, a two-year institution in San Luis Obispo. When the youth and his 17-year-old date arrived at the Venice boardwalk that day, the strip was alive with its usual carnival atmosphere.

His timing could not have been worse. A group of Sex Jerks was roaming near the beach. One of them apparently spotted the couple and recognized Daniels, Detective Berchem said.

Realizing that her date had been spotted, the girl "pushed him and told him to run," Berchem said. Daniels vaulted a car as 15 to 30 gang members pursued him. But they grabbed him, dragged him down and started beating him, witnesses told police. One youth pulled out a gun and shot him, police said.

Witnesses were able to identify the gang as members of the Sex Jerks. But they were unable to identify specific culprits, Berchem said. One 16-year-old who lives near Inglewood was arrested, but he is not believed to be the triggerman.

Berchem said investigators believe that Daniels was attacked because of an earlier dispute with the gang--and because of his affiliation with the Mobsters, another preppy gang.

"He didn't die because he was out walking on the beach," Berchem said. "He died because he had ties to a gang."

The elder Daniels was notified about the shooting by a friend of his son. After years of experience as a doctor dealing with South-Central's human tragedies, the father knew precisely what it meant when a Freeman hospital official on the other end of the phone refused to give his son's condition.

"I knew right then and there that he was dead," the doctor said.

Daniels said his son did know gang members--many of them younger teen-agers. He said his son even considered himself something of a mentor to them. "He was very strong on school and talked a few of them into going back to school when they were thinking of quitting," Daniels said.

The youth loved basketball and cherished a 1990 snapshot of him shaking hands with former Los Angeles Lakers Coach Pat Riley during a trip to Riley's basketball camp. "He was a very good basketball player," said Daniels. "But he didn't play for the school team. He was more interested in dancing."

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