In the harsh sunlight of a late summer afternoon Joe Connolly slowly drove through an alley near Pico Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. He spotted two men breaking into the trunk of a car.
One ran away, but his partner angrily marched toward Connolly.
"You leave me alone, you crazy fool," the man screamed, jabbing his finger in Connolly's face. "You're harassing me."
Connolly smiled, unperturbed.
"The best way for me to leave you alone is for you to leave the neighborhood," Connolly said.
The man--who had been convicted of drug dealing and burglary in the neighborhood--continued to spit curses at Connolly, but walked away.
For Connolly, 38, such confrontations are commonplace in his "war" to keep the neighborhood clean.
He spends a lot of time driving through the area in his gray van, painting over graffiti and confronting gang members, transients who hang out in front of convenience stores and drug addicts. He threatens them with "eviction" from the neighborhood.
The LAPD says every neighborhood watch group seems to have a Joe Connolly, someone so fed up with crime or blight that they take matters into their own hands--sometimes ignoring the rights of others and endangering their own lives.
"Joe's out there doing things he's not trained to do," said Los Angeles Police Officer Tony Jett. "If he doesn't watch it, Homicide is going to be investigating his murder.
"He's a vigilante. He's been told to be careful."
Connolly said he has received death threats from gang members angered when their tags--graffiti scrawls--are painted out. Some neighbors see Connolly as too strident and some city officials say he's just another eccentric loudmouth.
But the sometimes affable, often irascible carpet salesman has a host of supporters in the Carthay Square neighborhood--Connolly's private battlefield where he lives with his wife and two children, ages 8 and 6.
Since he began patrolling a year and a half ago--he got started after the 1992 riots when he joined volunteer cleanup brigades--graffiti has all but disappeared, residents and business people say.
"This area would look terrible if it weren't for him," said Tami Bennett, owner of Mo' Better Burgers--once a frequent graffiti target--on Pico Boulevard. "It's like he has this attitude, 'This is my neighborhood, and no one is going to mess it up.' "
Connolly and other members of the Carthay Square neighborhood patrol have cut down shrubs which shielded the activities of drug dealers and prostitutes. He has also forged truces between himself and tag crews and rival gangs.
"They know the deal. They can't paint. They've come up when I've been out painting. I talk to them like I talk to my kids. We have an unspoken deal, they can't tag. I tell them it's against the law, and it's unsafe, and if you're gonna stay in my neighborhood, you can't tag. And the nicer the community is, businesses will come in, and you can get jobs."
But just in case some didn't get the message, Connolly said he left a note on the back of a billboard that had been repeatedly scrawled with graffiti. "I put a message. . . .'The next one of you bastards who tags here, I'll push you off,' " Connolly said. "They never tagged that billboard again. This is war."
Being careful is not part of Connolly's approach. Day and night, he patrols the neighborhood, his tough demeanor his only weapon.
He has had his share of trouble.
A few weeks ago, Connolly's van, which was parked in his driveway, was rammed by an 11-year-old named "Chucky" who had stolen a car.
Connolly was trying to "evict" him from the neighborhood. "He had been threatening me because I was cutting off his income, having his drug suppliers arrested, making his crime spree a little less easy," Connolly said.
When he heard what sounded like an "explosion" outside, Connolly ran from his home and chased the boy. His neighbors, who also heard the car crash, followed in hot pursuit. The neighbors caught the boy's partner, called police and had him arrested. Chucky was arrested a few days later.
"I'm still here, and Chucky's gone," Connolly declared. "That's what happens when you don't comply with the long-term community objectives."
What does his family think of such exploits?
"On the one hand, I feel like I'm putting my head in the sand, thinking nothing would happen to him," said his wife, Jeri, who figures Connolly's zeal developed over the years through his job as a salesman.
"Then I thought," she added with a laugh, " 'This would make a great 'Movie of the Week' if something did happen to him."
Still, she admitted she was angry when he first started patrolling last year. "I thought, 'Why is it only him doing all this stuff? And why isn't he taking his family into consideration?"
But now, she said, others in the patrol--there are roughly 70 members--are doing more, meaning Connolly is not out as much as he used to be.
Said Debra Grobman, another member of the neighborhood patrol: "I wish we could clone Joe."