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COLUMN ONE : Skateboard Pros: Life on the Edge : Hard-core riders thrive on thrills and an increasingly rebellious lifestyle. Two recent murder cases make some skaters wonder if the rebellion has gone too far.

March 06, 1994|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kareem Campbell, a 20-year-old pro from South-Central, said he has been in "20 or 30" fights in the last five years because non-skaters taunt him. They call him "an Oreo" or an "Uncle Tom" for skating and being black, he said. He sets them straight.

Since turning pro two years ago, however, he has begun savoring the best of what skateboarding has to offer--travel, women and good times. "You can party, like, 24 hours a day," he said.

Wild times and brazen ads are one thing; murder is another. Even in a sport where petty trespassing and vandalism are often celebrated as youthful high jinks, there were lines that were not crossed--until Gator Rogowski.

High-flying Rogowski was one of the brightest stars skateboarding had produced when he raped, then suffocated, a 21-year-old friend of his ex-girlfriend in his Carlsbad condo. The crime, three years ago this month, was skateboarding's greatest scandal, making national headlines.

Rogowski was only 25.

The girlfriend had dumped him for another man. Unable to find her, he took revenge on her close friend. He buried the body in the desert.

Eventually, he broke down and apologized in a written statement to the court, blaming his actions in part on pornography: "Smut becomes food for thought, then fuel for action, equivalent to the most entrapping of drugs."

But there were deeper factors. "Gator . . . had something in him that would make him snap," one former friend said.

A psychiatric report prepared during his trial seemed to support that opinion. Rogowski had been an abused child, a psychiatrist noted. A drug user at 17, then an alcoholic, Rogowski was rigid, oversensitive and manic-depressive. He also showed some psychotic symptoms, the psychiatrist concluded.

If the Rogowski case sent a tremor through the skateboard world, Joshua Swindell has triggered the aftershock that raises questions about the direction in which the sport is heading and what role, if any, it played in the troubles of its stars.

Swindell had driven up from Carlsbad with Danny Way, another top star, to attend a rap party at a rented bar. A scrawny man named Keith Ogden crashed the event, according to court records. Witnesses would later testify at a preliminary hearing that Ogden, 31, approached Way outside the bar and flashed some bills in an apparent bid to buy sexual favors.

When Ogden persisted, according to Way's testimony, Way knocked him out with one punch--after which a club bouncer did the same to Way.

Both men were dragged inside. Later in the night, several attempts were made to send Ogden away; the last involved Swindell and a 17-year-old skateboarding friend. They were seen dragging and kicking Ogden across a street, one witness testified at the preliminary hearing late last year.

Ogden's body was found in the bushes a short while later. He was dead before paramedics could save him. "His face was beaten beyond recognition," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Patricia Ryan.

Although no one reported seeing the attack, police arrested Swindell and his friend on murder charges. Each has pleaded not guilty, contending that Ogden--who had sneaked out of a hospital only days earlier--was dying from a blow to the head he had received before his encounter with them.

Despite Swindell's reputation as a loudmouth and attention-seeker, he was not regarded as having as troubled a personality as Gator's. "He's not like a Jeffrey Dahmer. . . . He's just a punk kid," former top pro skateboarder Rodney Mullen said of Swindell. "He's a little tough, yeah, but there were so many people so much tougher."

Raised in Diamond Bar by parents who were bitterly divorced when he was in his early teens, Swindell grew up rebellious, outspoken but honest, said his father, Joe. The young Swindell liked to look out for the underdog; more than once, he fought to defend a neighbor boy born clubfooted, the father said.

Still, there were brushes with authority. The most serious made Swindell something of an outlaw hero in January of last year, when he and a friend left a skating show in San Diego, started drinking and were arrested in Mexico after firearms were found hidden in a team van.

Thrasher, another skateboarding magazine, ran a headline--"Jailed . . . first Gator, now Swindell, you're next!!!"--along with an interview with Swindell in a Tijuana holding cell. The skater complained about a cellmate "singing Menudo songs all night long" and boasted of bloodying the mouth of a man who wanted his shoes.

Annie Swindell worked three months to free her son, by which time Swindell seemed "hardened," according to one friend. The skater designed two new boards illustrating life behind bars; in one, his own face appeared in the cross-hairs of a guard's rifle.

"Angry at the world," said one friend, who asked not to be identified, in describing Swindell's attitude. "I (thought), 'This guy's going to jail sometime, or this guy's going to be dead.' "

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