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Gripe : 'Do Something Before Someone Gets Shot?'

May 17, 1993|BARBARA MARY JOHNSON | Barbara Mary Johnson is a free-lance writer who has lived in Chatsworth for 30 years.

Ours is a hillside community overlooking the Chatsworth Reservoir in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley. The houses, ranging from renovated cabins to new three-level view homes, nestle among boulders and cliffs. Quail and rabbits scamper among the wild lilacs blooming in our Santa Susanna Mountains at this time of year. This serenity has slowly eroded into terror during the past two years.

Neighbors are sharing information about local troublemakers, many of whom have police records. A saw is stolen out of a garage. Used syringes are found on lawns. Drug dealing. Car thefts.

Some suspects live in rental units that have serious code violations. Somehow the squatters avoid eviction.

Others live in a truck or an old school bus. Neighborhood children report that they see the men relieve themselves behind boulders. A young girl, 13 or 14, has joined the group, often driving one of their trucks.

A man climbs a neighbor's fence and threatens to burn the house down. Bonfires burn in our hazardous-fire-zone mountains.

Gunshots ring out at night, with the noise ricocheting off the canyon walls. One family moves their children to a bedroom on a more protected side of their house.

When our home was burglarized on the afternoon of Jan. 21, with a loss of $4,000 worth of electronic equipment, jewelry and tools, my husband and I looked for help. Eighty neighbors came to our first Neighborhood Watch meeting.

We learned about two similar burglaries only weeks earlier. One man had $1,000 in cash stolen and $700 worth of belongings, including a revolver and automatic pistol. Evidence points to the ever-present, no-visible-means-of-support neighborhood troublemakers. They elude arrest with a combination of canniness and hollow politeness.

The day before our burglary, a polite young man with blond curly hair came to my door. "I want to call my mother," he said. "My motorcycle is stuck in the mud."

I let him use the phone in our garage, where he could see all our tools, not knowing that his description fit one of the neighborhood troublemakers. Since the burglary, we keep records of the suspects' activities and license plate numbers on suspicious-looking cars. We no longer take our dog with us on short errands (he wasn't home during the burglary). We lock our gate, although we worry that, if there should be a fire, the firemen couldn't get in.

Our recently installed Neighborhood Watch signs may be making the suspects edgy. One of the signs that warned, "If I don't call the sheriff my neighbor will," was recently ripped down.

Almost daily one of us telephones the Sheriff's Department, building and safety, the health department, or our elected officials with a report. Some neighbors have tried this approach of working with various governmental agencies for two years, with no results.

A few officials seem sympathetic but say their hands are tied. Someone has to prove that the alleged criminals are guilty, they say. The department head in one agency suggested we hire an attorney and take it to court, or hire a private investigator.

And that's the gripe: We feel that our government agencies should be able to help us. Complaints were filed long before the burglaries started. We see a strong connection between the burglaries and the government's inability to enforce zoning and public health laws here.

Can't we do something before someone gets shot? How many burglaries do we have to endure? Haven't we listened to enough threats from these arrogant interlopers--"You haven't seen anything yet"--and taunts--"You'll never get rid of us"?

The code of our canyon community has always been "live and let live" and none of us want any shootings or stand-offs. We want to bring back the reality of a safe community.

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