SAN DIEGO — Seven teenage boys from an affluent neighborhood have been arrested in a "brutal, violent and cowardly" hate-crime attack on elderly Latino migrants living in a makeshift camp in a desolate canyon, police said Monday.
The seven, ranging in age from 14 to 17, were arrested without incident at their homes in suburban Rancho Penasquitos, a few miles from where the July 5 attack occurred. An eighth suspect will be arrested when he returns from an out-of-state vacation, officials said.
There is no evidence that the suspects are part of any racist, white-supremacist or anti-immigrant group, officials said. Still, some of the suspects, while under surveillance, were seen frequenting a dilapidated shack where racist and Nazi literature and anti-Latino graffiti were later found.
The crime occurred in a series of three incidents within two hours, police said. Each time, the eight suspects allegedly drove into the encampment, jumped from their car and began chasing immigrants, beating them with fists and metal pipes. Three of five victims, all in their 60s, were shot with pellet guns; one was robbed.
During the arrests, police seized three air rifles, a .22-caliber revolver, a rapid-fire air pellet pistol and a .303-caliber rifle.
A $30,000 reward in the case was offered late last week by the city government, the Chicano Federation, Anti-Defamation League, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, a local anti-crime group and Sempra Energy, corporate parent of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
Announcing the arrests, Police Chief David Bejarano, backed by four City Council members, said the reward was important in providing information, although some suspects were already under surveillance.
"This was a very brutal, violent and cowardly act," Bejarano said. "This kind of behavior will not be tolerated in the city of San Diego."
Councilman Juan Vargas said, "Like a lot of Latinos, I'm not far from the fields. My dad worked in the fields. There but for the grace of God, one of those attacked could have been my father."
All seven suspects attend Mt. Carmel High School, one of the county's most prestigious and high-achieving public schools. Parents of the suspects were shocked at the allegations against their sons, Bejarano said.
Because ethnic slurs were allegedly made by the attackers, officials have treated the case as a hate crime, which could lead to an additional charge being levied.
The decision on whether the suspects, who were being held in Juvenile Hall, will be charged as adults or as juveniles rests with San Diego County Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst. That decision may come today, a spokeswoman said. Possible charges include robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy.
"This attack is specifically troublesome because it undermines the basic freedom that we all take for granted: the freedom to work hard and not be subject to attacks because of who we are," said Mayor Susan Golding.
Claudia Smith, director of the Oceanside office of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said she hoped the case will heighten concern about attacks on migrants.
"This is a place where alien-bashing occurs more often than we care to admit," Smith said. "I'm hopeful that finally these attacks have generated outrage."
The five migrants who were attacked are employees at Evergreen Nursery, one of the region's largest. Company owner Mark Collins said that although most of his firm's 200 workers live in homes or apartments in northern San Diego County or live in Tijuana and make the daily commute, the five victims live in a camp east of his nursery to save money to send to their families in Mexico.
The five make between $6 and $10 an hour and are longtime employees who have legal-resident status, Collins said.
The three migrants who were shot were treated at a local hospital and later released. One has returned to Mexico and the other two are at work.
"I'm relieved that it isn't an organized group out there attacking people," Collins said. "But it's upsetting that some of our local youth could be this stupid. It's disgusting."