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A Wake-Up Call for a Suburban Refuge

A stabbing raises the specter of gangs in a south Orange County haven. But some disagree on which is worse for the tight-knit community, the fear of reality


It's hard to say for sure who had the knife that night in Aliso Viejo, but someone did, and someone used it.

When it was over: A 16-year-old boy was near death. A group of middle-class teenagers who had never been arrested were being prosecuted as gang members. Their mothers, most of whom are rearing their sons alone, were jolted into an unfamiliar world of jail visits, criminal lawyers and the very real possibility that their sons could go to prison.

Orange County sheriff's deputies were saying what no one cared to hear about the danger of gangs in the refuge that is suburbia: "We told you so."

And across south Orange County communities, where neighbors struggle against the sprawl to remain close-knit, residents have been forced to confront a reality they had long chosen to ignore. A move down the freeway isn't always an escape. You can move your furniture and cars and children and dogs, but it's the invisible stuff you take with you that matters most.

Almost everyone directly affected by last summer's stabbing--investigators, neighbors, witnesses and suspects and their families--has at least one thing in common: They came to live in the suburbs in south Orange County to get away from someplace else. Like countless others, they moved for the picture-perfect parks and equestrian trails, award-winning schools and clean, safe, kid-friendly streets.

They came because crime is so rare, as in Aliso Viejo, where graffiti is still a serious offense and there have been just three killings in 10 years. They came because it represented a sanctuary.

Or so they believed. The last thing they expected to hear was the word gang.

The Incident

The five teenagers met that night at a Dana Point pizza place. Members of a group they call the Slick 50's, the youths wore their trademark cuffed pants, white T-shirts and greased-back hair.

They started the evening with pitchers of beer and were soon joined by 21-year-old Josh Carlsen. Next stop was the beach, where they downed a 12-pack of Coors Light before heading off to a party in a gated neighborhood called Windsong in Aliso Viejo, an orderly place dubbed the "City of the Future" because it represents the next generation of master-planned communities.

The fight broke out in the street just moments after they arrived. It started, the Slick 50's say, when they were flipped off by Galen Thorne, a then-16-year-old from Aliso Niguel High School.

Someone cracked Galen over the head with a bottle of Coors Light, opening a cut that required 40 stitches on his left cheek. What happened next is unclear, even to the victim, who was stabbed three times and nearly died.

"I didn't see a knife or, like, feel a stab wound, but . . . it was like I was paralyzed," Galen told the grand jury. "I felt, like, an electric shock go through my body."

The Slick 50's jumped back in the car. On their way out of Aliso Viejo, the teenagers claim, Carlsen showed off a red-handled knife.

"None of us could believe it," says one youth. He insisted that Carlsen, a Dana Point resident on probation for a prior assault, threatened them. "He basically said he'd kill us if we said anything."

Within days, the five teenagers were arrested on multiple felony charges, including attempted murder. Carlsen, who is charged with attempted murder, has repeatedly declined to be interviewed.

The Times generally doesn't identify juvenile crime suspects, but in this case, the teenagers are being tried as adults. They are 17-year-olds Steve Crader of Aliso Viejo, Jesse Grist of Laguna Niguel, and Kurtis Pinedo of Laguna Hills, and 16-year-old Joshua Riazi of Dana Point. Another 16-year-old, Mario Duenas of San Juan Capistrano, faces the same charges in adult court, but is expected to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for lenient treatment, law enforcement officials say.

They have pleaded not guilty. Among the charges lodged against them: Gang membership, a felony enhancement that would not only add years to the youths' sentences if convicted, but which sent shock waves through the south Orange County communities where the teenagers live. Carlsen is also charged with being an associate of the Slick 50's.

Authorities say the "Slick 50's" meet several of the legal criteria that define a gang: They had a group name, they dressed the same, they shared a hand sign, and some even had gang monikers.

Moreover, witnesses to the brutal attack said someone kept yelling "Slick 50's!" throughout.

Prosecutor Marc Kelly would later tell grand jurors, "They're out there with their Converse shoes, their slicked-back hair, going to the parties, yelling 'Slick 50's,' claiming Slick 50's, intimidating people with Slick 50's. This is a bullying, fighting gang."

The word "gang" is so laced with meaning in Southern California that the allegation alone has nearly overshadowed the near-fatal stabbing. In the pristine new subdivisions that multiply seemingly overnight in south Orange County, the case strikes at the heart of deep fears.

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