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Saga of a star riding for a fall

A documentary recounts the ruin of celebrated skater-turned-murderer Gator Rogowski and reflects on fame's consuming cost.

January 26, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

In the pivotal scene of Helen Stickler's new documentary, "Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator," skateboard legend Mark "Gator" Rogowski lounges in a lawn chair in the mid-1980s, looking like a "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" cliche in his Vision Street Wear duds, beret and Ray-Bans. He's the epitome of teen success: a six-figure income, blond girlfriend -- and all he has to do all day is skate. But it's not enough. In what were clearly meant to be ironic remarks to an off-screen videographer, the teen star reveals his utterly non-ironic relationship with bad behavior.

"Not only am I one of the most unique, dynamic ... and versatile skaters on the circuit," he says, "but also I am one of the most blatant and outspoken jerks in the industry." It's a statement spoken with the clarity and charismatic flourish for which he was famous.

Right from the start of "Stoked," with Gator's voice crackling over the phone from a state prison in California, you know this is not an upbeat reprise of Stacy Peralta's 2001 big-budget documentary hit, "Dogtown and Z-Boys." Stickler's film, which debuted at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, has a theme never tried before in the skating genre, where every film has to stack up to the heroic antics in popular skate videos: It's a murder story, told by a murderer who was the public persona of skateboarding. In it, the world's most famous skaters talk about something bigger than themselves, something bad for their image that they'd rather not confront. The results are gripping, and this video sequence in the lawn chair is where the tone first turns dark.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 527 words Type of Material: Correction
Skater's gender -- An article in Sunday's Calendar about the skateboarding movie "Stoked" referred incorrectly to skating star Stacy Peralta with the pronoun "her." Peralta is male.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 02, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Skater's gender -- An article last Sunday about the skateboarding movie "Stoked" referred incorrectly to skating star Stacy Peralta with the pronoun "her." Peralta is male.

"It's really easy to say what's on your mind and get away with it when you work for a company like Vision," Gator says smugly. "You can always get a bad write-up in the gossip columns ... and receive some kind of promotion or exposure from it. I love getting arrested. I'm one of the most illegal skaters in the circuit, too."

From its earliest days as a culture and an industry, skateboarding has celebrated the outlaw. Peralta detailed the genesis of this mythic ethos with "Dogtown," in which a bunch of punk rockers and surf locals in Venice turn to skating in the late '60s as means of artistic and spiritual redemption. "Stoked," however, plays against that myth, using it as a foil for a probing psychological investigation of one man's complete submission to the dark side of fame. As skateboarding is embraced by the mainstream in the 1980s, Gator ultimately finds his validation not in the skating, at which he is unsurpassed, but in the accolades it brings.

Unlike the Z-Boys, who have each other and their street roots, he has no other identity. And when he snaps, it has nothing to do with skateboarding, yet takes the whole sport -- and Stickler's film -- down an ugly, lonely path where the ego is unleashed as pure id.

A grisly urban legend

On March 20, 1991, six years after he boasted of his bad-boy image on video, Gator Rogowski brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend's best friend, 21-year-old Jessica Bergsten, in his Carlsbad apartment. He beat her over the head with a steering-wheel lock called the Club, raped her for three hours while she lay half-conscious and bleeding, then put her inside a surfboard bag and strangled her. He then buried her naked in the desert 100 miles away, outside San Diego. He confessed to the killing, and is now doing 25-to-life.

For years, rumors circulated that seemed to defend Gator's reputation. The most common version said the crime had been the result of kinky sex, initiated by Bergsten, that got out of control. Gator helped fuel this story, even after he confessed. But, as he later admitted, it wasn't true. For Stickler, now 30, a filmmaker and longtime skateboarding fan, Gator's real story demanded telling.

"My number-one motivation wasn't that I wanted to do a story about the '80s, or that it was a cautionary tale," says Stickler. "It was really that this was an urban legend that I heard over and over in skating. And I'm really attracted to those types of stories."

The story Stickler found, and the skateboard community's reaction to it, was a stark portrait of fame gone sour. She began researching in 1996, and immediately met resistance. It wasn't so much that she was an outsider, and a woman, though that did contribute. Skaters simply adhere to a loose, unwritten code that prohibits talking dirt about one another in the media. For years she doggedly sought interviews.

Feelings about Gator ranged from pity to hatred to disbelief, and that was uncomfortable territory. Trickiest for Stickler, however, was keeping easy conclusions from impinging on a complex story. Gator's personal struggle with his talent, identity and, as it turned out, severe and undiagnosed bipolar disorder was inextricably entwined with a mass culture phenomenon of the '80s that made his story hard to isolate: the full-blown marketing of skate and surf culture to mainstream America.

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