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Ventura County

Santa Paula Struggles to Quell Gangs

Violence: Police seek reinforcements as poverty and delinquency continue to push local youths toward crime.

June 16, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tipped off that two rival gangs were planning a combined attack on their downtown headquarters, Santa Paula police went on tactical alert, hunkered down and waited for what might come.

An informant told police that gangs wanted to firebomb the city's small station and spray it with machine-gun fire--an act of revenge for the shooting of one of their own by federal agents during a drug bust.

"I wouldn't put it past them to come by in the curtain of darkness and crank off some rounds," said Police Chief Bob Gonzales, explaining his decision to declare an alert and request the help of 10 sheriff's deputies.

"Had I not taken the threats seriously I wouldn't have been doing my job."

There was no attack that April night. But the fact that the threat was taken seriously underscores the magnitude of Santa Paula's gang problems and its inability to break the cycle of poverty and delinquency that has stalked this city for three decades.

Santa Paula, a farming town of 30,000, was once a thriving business and cultural center, but the city fell on hard times after the oil industry pulled out.

And repeated efforts by city leaders to recapture past glories have failed. The city's picturesque Main Street, still used as a backdrop for Hollywood movies, is now lined with thrift shops and noisy bars.

Crime surged nearly 13% last year because of sharp increases in robbery and theft. So far this year, there have been two homicides and three drive-by shootings.

"Crime is starting to take over, and if we don't get ahold of it, it will be out of hand," Det. Daryl Koranda said. "We're at the border right now.... If people would help us out in Santa Paula, we could change things a lot. Eighty percent of the people who [witness crimes] will say nothing because of gang retaliation."

The city has five street gangs and about 200 members. With 22 patrol officers, there is only so much that law enforcement can do to stem the tide of violence, Det. Jamey Maclellan said.

"We don't have enough officers," said Maclellan, a seven-year veteran of the department. "Six more officers would be ideal."

Earlier this year, the city received assistance from a special team of agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, whose mission is to assist police in drug-plagued communities.

A dozen agents participated in a joint undercover operation with police.

Authorities announced the results last month: 21 people arrested--most from three local gangs--and several pounds of drugs and nearly a dozen stolen guns were seized during the four-month investigation.

But not everything went smoothly. On April 17, agents went to arrest 22-year-old Edward Barron on suspicion of selling drugs out of his home. When authorities arrived at his residence on Santa Barbara Street, Barron allegedly pointed a revolver at a DEA agent, who then shot Barron in the head. Barron, who police said had well-known gang ties, remains paralyzed.

Gonzales said police will continue working with federal and state authorities to combat crime and drugs. Still, he acknowledged that he needs more patrol officers.

With a department budget of $3.5 million, the chief said he has managed to hire additional officers by tapping into revolving federal and state grants.

But he notes that this is a temporary solution and that his officers remain among the lowest paid in the county.

City Councilman Donald Johnson said the city is struggling financially and doesn't have the resources to hire additional officers. Besides, Johnson said, Santa Paula's crime "is not out of the ordinary."

"I think you have to look at it over the long haul," said Johnson, who is also publisher of the town's newspaper. "This is a pretty safe city. I'm not afraid to walk in this community. I tell people to look at the community overall, and don't take the issue and paint it with a broad brush. We need to look at ways to generate dollars for the city."

One way to do that is with new development, Johnson said.

He is among those who support a plan to expand the city's boundaries to allow for more residential and commercial development in Adams Canyon, northwest of downtown.

In November, voters will be asked to approve an initiative that calls for construction of 1,980 single-family homes, 180 condominiums, 90 apartments, two schools, hotels and a retail shopping complex on the canyon floor and along its hillsides.

Johnson and other supporters say the project would bring much needed tax revenue, jobs and amenities to help pay the city's police officers, maintain its roads and keep businesses alive.

They say it may be the best chance at securing a strong economic future for the cash-starved city.

"Until we can clean up our town visually and have enough fire and police to protect our citizens, [investors] are not going to come," Councilman Rick Cook said earlier this year.

But opponents say the new development would bring more traffic, stretch city services and change Santa Paula's rural character.

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