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Park Shootout Leads to Police Crackdown on Lawbreakers : Violence: Witnesses say up to 100 shots were fired during El Dorado melee. Council discusses strategies to stem gang activity.

July 15, 1993|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long Beach police plan a crackdown at El Dorado Regional Park after a "free-for-all shootout" last weekend that left four people injured and shattered the tranquillity of an area where families picnic and Little Leaguers play.

Police officers will join park rangers in the city's largest park this weekend to stop lawbreakers ranging from speeders to people who bring in alcohol and weapons, city officials said.

Authorities said they are taking a "zero-tolerance approach" to avoid a repeat of Saturday's melee between gang members from Inglewood and Los Angeles who gathered for a barbecue.

"It was a fight over someone breaking into a barbecue line to get a rib," said Detective Jeff Garcia. "Some guy let a girl from a different gang cut in and (others) got angry. Words were exchanged. They got into a fistfight and then they brought out their guns."

Within minutes after the fistfight began at 6:20 p.m., it

included 50 people and escalated into a "free-for-all shootout," Garcia said. The brawl sent people diving for cover in the park grounds between Wardlow Road and Spring Street.

Witnesses estimated that 50 to 100 shots were fired, many into the air, Garcia said. Police confiscated eight guns.

"We were lucky no one got killed," Garcia said.

Four injuries were reported. The most seriously hurt was Richard Vermeil, 29, of Rialto, who was shot in the stomach and was in stable condition Wednesday at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.

In an interview earlier this week, Vermeil said he ducked when he first heard gunshots but was struck when he stood up.

Vermeil said he works in the South Bay area officiating basketball games and does not belong to a gang. He conceded that some of the friends who attended the barbecue are gang members, but said the organizers of the annual party, usually held at an Orange County beach, "don't gang-bang."

Also wounded was Marcel Clark, 23, of Inglewood, who was shot in the foot. He was treated and released from Los Alamitos Medical Center. Patrick Paxton, 25, of Inglewood was treated for multiple injuries and released from the same hospital, a spokeswoman said Wednesday. A fourth man was injured but declined treatment, authorities said.

Police arrested four men on charges of assault with a deadly weapon but later dropped the charges because witnesses did not identify the men as the ones who fired guns, Garcia said.

Before the shooting, park rangers called police because the group blocked traffic and were drinking in public, said Ralph S. Cryder, director of the city Parks, Recreation and Marine Department. Two patrol cars were at the park when the shooting began.

Several park rangers, who receive the same training as police officers, were confronted during the shootout by a couple of the gun-toting men, Cryder said. In all, 21 police cars responded to the scene.

Garcia called the brawl an isolated one and said El Dorado, a sprawling 576-acre park that includes several lakes, a golf course and a nature center, rarely has crime problems.

On a typical Saturday or Sunday in the summer, 25,000 to 30,000 people visit the park, Cryder said. Most visitors are picnickers, cyclists and children feeding ducks, he said, but incidents involving weapons and alcohol have increased in the past two years.

Councilman Les Robbins, whose district includes the park, said the park appears to have become a destination point for gangs. "The situation, I think, is damn severe," he told his colleagues at a City Council meeting Tuesday.

Mayor Ernie Kell asked city staff to check into the possibility of setting up checkpoints, similar to sobriety checks, where every fifth car entering the park, for example, would be stopped.

Councilman Thomas J. Clark, however, cautioned his colleagues to not "overreact." Noting that the shooting was an isolated incident, Clark said excessive police presence would make park visitors uncomfortable.

In an interview after the meeting, Robbins said he wants police to act aggressively. "Let's overreact," he said. "Let's let these people know we won't let them come out here and act like fools."

Robbins said he wants the city to begin billing "high-risk groups" who use the park for the cost of adding police patrols, Robbins said. Asked whether that could potentially discriminate against some groups, Robbins said: "I don't think it's hard to determine a gang member."

But Cryder, of the parks department, said he doubts the city can legally take such action. Instead, the parks department is considering whether all large groups should reimburse the city for costs, he said.

In the meantime, patrols will be stepped up in the park. Deputy Police Chief Jerry E. Lance said officers will arrest anyone in the park who breaks the law, including traffic and parking violators. And officers will talk to any large groups that appear to be gang-related, he said.

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