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COLUMN ONE

A Culture of Violence and Denial

The havoc wreaked by white supremacist high school athletes is downplayed by an Arizona town's elders. Then a drug bust finds the teens acting as muscle for a former Mafia hit man.

October 26, 2000|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

City Councilman Steve Urie, who is Mormon, acknowledged that this happened at times. "It was easier to call the [LDS] stake president to handle it than bring in the police. It was [the Taco Bell employees'] decision. The stake presidents did talk to the youngsters and try to straighten them out."

Wilbert Nelson, president of the Arizona NAACP, said the influence of the Mormon church is "an extremely touchy subject."

"It is the heart of the problem--we can't dance around that," Nelson added. "The heart of the matter is that church leaders in the Mesa-Gilbert area have tremendous influence. The issue is not discrimination. The issue is the institutional foundation upon which the discrimination is founded."

Such influence, Urie said, "may be the perception. . . . One may perceive that because someone is LDS and knows people across town, then they may have a higher status. What I can say is that we have higher standards of moral conduct for ourselves than we expect for others, and when one of our kids does something that is not right, we are very disturbed."

Wilford Andersen, spokesman for the LDS church in the Phoenix area, said church officials meet regularly with young members to discuss social issues. Whether there is a gang problem in Gilbert or not, Andersen said, the problem lies not with the teaching of the church.

"I hope that the youth members of our church are not participating in racism of any kind," he said. "If they are, they are doing so against the teaching of our church.

"I am not suggesting that every member of the church is without fault, but as a church and as an institution, we teach that all men and women are brothers and sisters. If there are members of our church [involved in gangs]--and I'm certain there are, as there are in other churches--it's not coming from the church."

Walter Delecki, the superintendent of schools, said that he has heard "rumors" of white supremacists in Gilbert schools, but he dismissed the notion that Devil Dogs are racists, noting that many of their victims are not members of minority groups.

"White supremacists don't beat up white people, to my knowledge," he said.

Delecki, who is not Mormon, is aware of pending NAACP action against the district. He says charges that Mormon children are given special handing are completely unfounded. As for disparity in meting out discipline, he bristled. "We've had that accusation, and I haven't seen any facts. That's not how I run this district or work with people. There is a lot of religious bigotry here: In my opinion, it's from the people who are anti-LDS.

"This town has been accused. I haven't seen it. Be factual. In my 22 years here, no one has been treated better or lesser because of their religion or ethnicity."

The Gilbert school district held a series of public meetings over the summer to address hate speech and intolerance in schools with a goal to come up with written guidelines. Those guidelines were distributed to teachers, students and staff when school started Aug. 21.

The city is working with a race-relations mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice. At a Summit to End Hate and Violence, Mayor Cynthia Dunham spoke against "blatant misinformation" that she said exaggerated the numbers of gang members in Gilbert. Her own Police Department identified about 45 active Devil Dog members last year.

After listening to the forum, Steve Thom, the federal mediator, noted that before hoping to solve a gang problem, Gilbert needed to acknowledge that problems existed.

Still Targeted, Family Says

Jordan Jarvis requires still more surgery to repair the damage that Devil Dogs inflicted on his face. Recently, a surgeon planned to harvest cartilage from his ears to repair his nose, but he encountered too much damage to do the procedure.

He and his family say they remain a target of the group. While Jarvis was in the hospital, the family's answering machine was filled with the sound of barking dogs.

His mother received threats: "Watch your back." Their home was vandalized.

Jarvis has been attending community college in another town, hoping to lose himself in the anonymity of campus life, but he believes that students notice him because of his reconfigured face.

"Sometimes I feel like a big-headed monster," he said, slumped on a couch while his girlfriend patted his back.

His mother, Cheri, has picked up the habit of scanning the street and searching through windows, ever vigilant for danger. Still, she attends meetings and speaks out, although at a recent school meeting a detective from the Gilbert Police Department stood guard outside the door. Parents of jailed Devil Dogs say she and her son are ruining the lives of good boys from good families.

"Before this happened, I was totally clueless about what's going on," she said. "I certainly feel differently today. People here take the attitude, 'We live here, let's not talk about this.' I take the opposite approach, 'I live here, let's clean it up.' It's getting swept under the carpet with big-time denial. Gilbert needs to know about this."

The Jarvises recently settled a civil case against those involved in the beating. After investigations and court cases recede, Jordan and Cheri Jarvis hope they can get on with their lives, but they know better. Recently, they were informed that in jail, the word is that when the Devil Dogs are released, they will come after Jordan.

"We just can't let them get to us," Cheri Jarvis said, checking the window. "We have to do what's right."

*

Times researcher Belen Rodriguez contributed to this story.

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