THOUSAND OAKS — Three years ago today, the normally tranquil lawns of North Ranch Park were shaken by a violent racially tinged brawl.
What was expected to be a fistfight between Curtis Simmons, a Westlake High School football player, and James Lee, a student at the school, turned into a nasty melee pitting Simmons and some of his friends against a group of Asian youths who came to assist Lee. Many of the youths, who are suspected gang members, stormed the park armed with two-by-fours, baseball bats and guns.
The incident left Simmons badly beaten, three of his friends with gunshot wounds, four youths--including Lee--facing criminal charges and a community unsettled by the thought that gangs and guns had invaded one of their most exclusive neighborhoods.
"This was extremely frightening to a lot of people in the community, and something they've never had to deal with," said Deputy Dist. Atty. John U. Vanarelli, who was assigned to prosecute Lee and three others in the case. "It was something very much unheard of in Ventura County."
Three years later, Lee, who jumped bail, and a brother have vanished. Others are in prison or on their way to prison for unrelated felonies and probation violations stemming from the North Ranch fight. Still others are trying to forget the incident and get on with their lives.
And although the community's wounds appear to have healed, a civil suit brought by Simmons and one of his friends against Lee, his wealthy parents and some of his friends is still making its way through the courts. Attorneys on both sides say a settlement is near.
Nestled amid some of this city's most opulent estates, North Ranch Park has long returned to its suburban calm.
But on Feb. 3, 1994, Lee and Simmons, two students who had reportedly clashed on several occasions at school, chose the park to settle their ongoing feud. It didn't go as planned.
Simmons, who showed up with a group of about 10 friends and teammates, was confronted by Lee and five carloads of youths. They reportedly yelled: "We are the Asian Mafia." Since the incident, some of the youths have told police they were part of a Rowlands Heights Asian gang.
Simmons was beaten with a board. Two other football players, David Behling and Scott Smith, were hospitalized with gunshot wounds to the shoulder and back of the head. A third player, Jarrett Klein, whose truck was fired at, was also injured.
Lee, who was 16 at the time, faced one count of assault with a deadly weapon and one count of assault with intent to commit great bodily injury. He was to be tried as an adult.
"I thought it was a very weak case against my client, and I intended to take it to trial," said Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., a Los Angeles-based attorney who represented Lee at court hearings.
During one of the squabbles between Simmons and Lee, Mesereau said that Simmons had broken Lee's nose with a punch. "We intended to show that he was provoked by a much bigger, and stronger person [Simmons] and that he never used any weapon."
But the trial never happened.
Lee disappeared barely two months after the incident while he was out of jail on a $5,000 bond. His brother, Frank Lee--who prosecutors believe threw the first punch in the fight and recruited the Asian youths--hasn't been seen since.
Prosecutors believe they fled to their native Taiwan. They both have been placed on the FBI's National Crime Information Center computer, a network that would enable police, immigration and customs officials all over the country to detain the pair.
But no one has seen them. Not even Mesereau.
"I have not heard from him since he failed to appear in Superior Court" in April 1994, Mesereau said.
The fate of Lee's parents is also something of a mystery. They too had vanished after their son James's disappearance but returned a few months later to their gated mansion on a tree-lined North Ranch cul-de-sac.
But neighbors who have lived near the Lees for the two years say they have never met them.
Even the Lees' pastor, Curtis Lowe of the Chinese Christian Church in Thousand Oaks, said the family has not been seen at church since the brawl.
Michael Booser, the Van Nuys attorney who represents Lee's parents in the civil suit brought by Simmons and Klein, said he is in contact with his clients. But he declined to say whether they are in the United States or not.
Simmons and Klein are seeking damages for assault and battery.
"We have a tentative agreement," Booser said. "My clients' involvement in the case is resolved." A dispute remains as to whether the settlement covers all the defendants--who include the Lee family, some of the other Asian youths and their families--or just James Lee's parents, he added.
Deirdre Frank, the Oxnard attorney who represents Simmons and Klein in the case, said she could not comment on pending litigation. But she said the plaintiffs are trying to put their lives back together.
"These kids went through hell," Frank said. Simmons, she said, is now in college. "They are trying to live their lives."