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Assault Was Hate Crime, Police Say

Arab American, 18, was beaten in Yorba Linda. His family criticizes pace of the probe.

March 04, 2003|William Lobdell and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

Police have arrested two teenagers and are seeking other members of a mob suspected of beating an 18-year-old Arab American man in Yorba Linda while shouting white supremacist slogans.

Rashid Alam, friends said, was pummeled Feb. 22 on a residential street by as many as 20 teens, some of whom carried bats, a golf club and beer bottles. Witnesses said the attackers -- at least one with a swastika tattoo -- stripped off their shirts and yelled "White power!" as they descended on him and seven friends.

Although police and the victim's supporters agree in calling the attack a hate crime, they offer sharply different views of what led to it. Brea police, who patrol Yorba Linda under contract, described it as an arranged showdown between rival groups.

Police said they have determined the rumble was set up to settle a score between the two groups, whose members had been occasionally involved in smaller scrapes over the last six to eight months. Investigators do not know what initiated the clash between the two sides and said there is no evidence of racial epithets being used in the previous disputes.

Alam's friends and family, however, call it an unprovoked attack. The recent high school graduate was left with a fractured jaw, his eyes swollen and shattered facial bones that required surgeons to place two metal plates in his cheeks.

News of the assault and investigation surfaced Monday after Arab American activists and the victim's family accused authorities of trying to minimize the incident. Muslim leaders, who plan today to ask the FBI to take over the case, said they are puzzled that local police have given the incident no publicity and say they fear a new wave of hatred because of the looming war in Iraq.

But police say they did not announce the attack and the arrests because they feared publicity would stall their investigation.

"There were so many people involved. [The two sides] tend to like to hide each other. So, by working the case without making a lot of information public, it made it easier for us to identify the suspects in the case," said Sgt. Jack Conklin, pointing out that the first arrests were made within two days. "It wasn't like we were dragging our feet. We took it very seriously and moved forward on it quickly."

While Brea investigators said they wanted to control the spread of information, students at Esperanza High School in Anaheim, where some of those involved attend class, said the incident was the talk of the campus the Monday after the attack.

Police say witnesses reported that some youths were carrying baseball bats and a golf club. But there is conflicting information over who brought the weapons and whether they were even used. Police did not recover any weapons from the scene and said participants were gone when they arrived.

"There was no evidence that there were any weapons besides hands and feet," Conklin said.

Two juveniles who police said had minor roles in the attack were arrested two days after the incident on suspicion of misdemeanor assault, police said. Four others have been identified but not yet arrested, police said, including one they believe is responsible for the worst of Alam's injuries.

Conklin said there is no information that either group was a gang, but that some members of the attacking group do have white supremacist ties, and did shout slogans including "White power," and called their targets "camel jockeys."

Alam's parents and Muslim leaders said Monday that the Brea Police Department has moved too slowly in making arrests and has provided little information to the family about the investigation.

Ahmed Alam, the victim's Lebanese-born father, said a detective told him that the incident needed to be kept quiet until a thorough inquiry could be conducted.

But after he learned late last week that his son needed facial reconstructive surgery, the frustrated man said he decided his son's attackers needed to be brought to justice more quickly.

"Inside, I was burning," said Ahmed Alam, who owns an Arabic- and English-language newspaper based in Anaheim. "I don't understand why people can attack us just because we're Muslim or Arab."

Leaders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said they see a nationwide increase in attacks on Arab Americans as the U.S. gears up for war in Iraq.

"We believe this recent increase in attacks on American Muslims is a direct result of the barrage of pro-war and anti-Islam rhetoric coming from right-wing and evangelical leaders," said Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the council's Los Angeles chapter. "The FBI needs to take these incidents seriously to help provide a sense of security for ordinary American Muslims."

Mohamed Alam, the victim's 18-year-old brother, said he had gotten into a fight with one of the assailants last summer, but that police calling the confrontation a planned fight was "a lie."

Michael Tinio, another neighbor of Alam, said he saw Rashid tackled by one of the assailants, then surrounded by the group.

Tinio said the final blows came from an attacker who jumped up in the air a couple of times and landed with both feet on Alam's head.

"I was thinking, 'I hope he's not dead,' " Tinio said.

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Times staff writer Mai Tran contributed to this report.

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