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L.A. Merchant Dares to Stand Up to Gangs

His hunt for the men who robbed his store 10 times yields two arrests. Now he fears payback.

October 11, 2006|Hector Becerra and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

They would march into the liquor store like pirates ready to gorge on ill-gotten goods.

Ten times in the last month, the same group of robbers walked in and hauled away beer, chips and other food. Brandishing a knife, the robbers warned the store's owner: "We know where you live."

But the owner of the Washington Boulevard shop would not back down.

Instead, he installed video cameras around the store to capture images of the robbers. Then he roamed the neighborhood with the photos, getting their identities.

The culmination of his detective work came Monday night when undercover Los Angeles police officers watched as several of the young men walked out of the store with two cases of stolen beer. The detectives chased the men and arrested two of them.

But in a neighborhood where street gangs cast a large shadow, the crackdown brought more anxiety than relief for the liquor store owner and his customers.

Speaking from behind a slab of bulletproof glass that protects the counter, he said: We don't just have to work here, we have to survive. Worried about reprisals, he asked that the newspaper not publish his name or the name and exact location of his store.

"They found a solution to their problem, they found these guys, got photos and did their own investigation," Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, said of the owner and his family. "But now that they've done it, they're in fear of their lives."

It was this fear of gang payback that made the owner hesitate about going to police, Det. Rick Ramos of the Los Angeles Police Department said. When the heists began, the owner decided not to involve the authorities. But on Sunday, a group of the robbers came into the store, one brandishing a bat, Ramos said. It alarmed the owner so much that he finally told police about the robberies.

The suspects are members of a tagging crew that, like the gangs in the area, has increasingly turned to extorting merchants, Ramos said.

"They thought they could take control of this particular business," the detective added. "And take advantage because they'd robbed them several times without any consequences."

As word spread of the merchant's actions, some rose to praise him.

Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the area, said he hopes the owner's actions send a message to gang members and empower the community.

"What this owner did was very brave and calculating in a positive way. You've got to do something. Enough is enough," he said.

"The truth is you have to be proactive if you want to change things, otherwise you're a sitting duck."

But Reyes said he can also understand the fear the owner and many of his customers still have about gang activity.

Despite a drop in crime in his district over the last few years, gangs remain a potent force, the councilman said.

"The ratio of officers to gang members is just crazy," Reyes said. "There's a distinct disadvantage."

In the neighborhood south of MacArthur Park, one woman applauded the owner's actions, but declined to give her name.

She said a "bad element" kept bringing the neighborhood down.

A longtime resident who lives blocks from the liquor store, she said people were disturbed to hear that the business had been hit so many times. But they also have mixed feelings about such stores, which tend to draw drunks and troublemakers.

Still, she said, the owner was brave to stand up to the robbers.

"People have to overcome their fear, pick up the phone and call the police," said the woman, who is a Guatemalan immigrant. "The community is always in fear. They think, 'If the police take away this kid, they're going to know it was me who reported him. They're going to know it was me who complained.' "

The neighborhood is a melting pot of blacks, Latino immigrants and others. The liquor store owner is Korean.

The LAPD's Rampart Division has seen a significant drop in crime over the last four years as the department has launched a new crackdown and some neighborhoods have undergone gentrification.

But more than a dozen gangs still operate there. Last month, federal authorities accused a group of 18th Street gang members of charging "rent" to drug dealers on certain street corners.

So far this year, homicides are down 22% but rapes and robberies are up about 10% in Rampart, according to police statistics. Bucking a citywide trend, burglaries rose 4% this year.

LAPD Senior Lead Officer Iris Santin, who patrols the streets around the liquor store, said it would be naive to separate the tagging crews from the more sinister gangs.

For one thing, these graffiti vandals are operating in territories prowled by major street gangs, something that would be nearly untenable without some sort of consent.

"These tagging crews associate with gangs. The gangs allow them to tag these neighborhoods," Santin said. Tagging crews are "where the delinquency usually starts. The step before heading to the gang."

Bertha Woolridge, 63, said she could relate to the anger the store owner must have felt after being robbed so many times. The Mexican immigrant said her hardware business was robbed 19 times.

The last time, Woolridge said, "five guys came in here [with guns] and had us all laid down on the floor."

Woolridge said her experiences prompted her to become active in the local Neighborhood Watch, and to help organize events telling gang members they were not welcome.

"It made me so upset that people can come in and take whatever you build up, and they don't even have to work," Woolridge said. "They don't have to do anything to take possession of what you own. That's why I turned around and said, 'No more.' "

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