For the first time, a Los Angeles judge, acting at the request of city officials, has ordered the eviction of all tenants from a gang-ridden apartment complex on the grounds that it is a public nuisance.
Gang members have made the 24 units with peeling paint and sagging balconies their headquarters for 20 years, terrorizing neighbors, dealing drugs and, since June 2002, shooting nine people, including two children, city officials charged Tuesday.
"This building has been a headquarters of death," said Los Angeles Assistant Police Chief George Gascon, standing with a seized assault rifle in front of television cameras near the three apartment buildings in South Los Angeles. City officials held their news conference half a block from the apartments at 69th and Main streets, saying it would be safer.
City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office said the tenants in a few of the apartments could be eligible for relocation assistance. The others could be excluded because they live in units used by the 69 East Coast Crips for criminal activity, he said.
But several soon-to-be-displaced residents marched over to Delgadillo's news conference and challenged that decision.
"I'm a single mother with four kids," said Tajuana Green, 47. "How can they just put all our families out on the street?"
Green acknowledged there are gang members in the building, and added, "You got to get along, try to be nice." But she said that does not mean that she and her neighbors are criminals.
Some civil liberties advocates also questioned the city's rationale for giving as much as $5,000 in relocation money to some tenants but not others.
"That's appalling," said Catherine Lhamon, staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "If residents in that apartment complex are not being charged with criminal activity, there is no basis for distinguishing relocation expenses for some residents and not others."
The apartment owners also protested the evictions. John Dudley of Sadley Properties, which owns two of the three buildings, said that the city and the Police Department gave them little support as they grappled with the gang.
In a typical nuisance abatement process, Dudley said, the owners would have had up to three years to correct the problem. Instead, they were given just months.
Deputy City Atty. Jonathan Cristall said the evictions were a drastic move, but he and other officials maintained they had no choice.
The two-story buildings hunch on a field of black asphalt. From the second-story, the San Gabriel Mountains seem to rise majestically over the streets of South Los Angeles. But from the ground, the view is of a black fence and the blur of traffic.
James Green, 51, who identified himself as a member the 69 East Coast Crips, said the gang operates around the apartments, but he insisted no gang members live there.
"You keep talking about the kids, the kids. But you are putting kids out into the street," said Green.
At the urging of Councilwoman Jan Perry, city officials negotiated with the property owners for two years to rid the complex of crime.
But for the last nine months, the city attorney's office has been building a case. In September, the office filed a public nuisance lawsuit in Superior Court.
In declarations from more than 60 police officers and community members, some of them sealed because the people involved feared for their lives, the city attorney painted a picture of an entire neighborhood at risk.
"The use of the apartments by the Crips has turned the surrounding community into an urban gang war zone and poses a clear and present danger to the community," testified Reginald Gay, senior lead officer for the LAPD's Newton Division.
In court filings, the city attorney's office said 15 of the 24 units were occupied, and alleged that 13 of those apartments were "being used for criminal activities by Crips and their affiliates."
Between Sept. 24 and Oct. 25, undercover police officers bought drugs at the apartments on six occasions.
Shootings at the property are also common, according to police. Gay said he believes there have been more people killed in front of the three buildings than anywhere else in the LAPD's 10-square-mile Newton Division.
He said the half-mile area surrounding the apartment complex had the highest number of homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes in the entire division, which covers much of the city south of downtown.
Even LAPD officers felt threatened going there on calls over the years.
Across the street from the apartments, the 2,600 students and 250 teachers and employees at Bethune Middle School were being terrorized, the city attorney's office said.
School officials sometimes moved children out of classrooms near the apartments for fear of gunfire.
Students, according to court filings, would intimidate each other by taunting: "I know people at the apartments."