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Foe of tagging defends suspects

Pico Rivera mayor, who makes a priority of battling graffiti, says his employees are not guilty as charged.

June 25, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

In the last few years, Pico Rivera has burnished a reputation as a city that goes hard after tagging. And much of the credit has gone to Mayor Ron Beilke, who has made eradicating graffiti and punishing young vandals priorities.

Under his watch, the city instituted a global positioning graffiti tracking system, bulked up a vandalism enforcement team and began sending letters threatening to put liens on the homes of the parents of juveniles who have not paid restitution.

"It's a nice, monthly reminder to the parents to take care of their kid," the mayor said recently about the restitution program.

But now Beilke, 48, and the city find themselves tagged by irony. The mayor has come forward to defend the character of two young men and a woman who Los Angeles County Sheriff's investigators allege are members of one of Pico Rivera's tagging crews, the "Pico Drunk Punx."

The two accused men work for the mayor's Wienerschnitzel restaurant.

Beilke said the three were unfairly arrested for a crime they did not commit. Sheriff's gang investigators say all are taggers who knowingly got involved with a car thief and helped conceal a handgun.

The mayor's stance has caused him some flak in the predominantly Latino suburb, which was the subject of national attention last year when a grandmother who stood up to gang member taggers was slain.

The controversy began with the theft of an SUV belonging to a reserve sheriff's deputy. Authorities said the reservist, Juan Basadre, got out of his 2002 Chevy Suburban just before midnight on June 10 on Paramount and Whittier boulevards in Pico Rivera. A law enforcement source said the deputy, who has been relieved of duty, left his vehicle to argue with another man. He could not be reached for comment.

Sgt. Mark Bailey, a sheriff's gang investigator, said that whatever the reason, the reserve deputy left his vehicle's engine running and a .45-caliber handgun inside. Bailey said a 19-year-old man, Sonny Costello, hopped into the SUV and drove away.

"This Sonny guy shows up at a house, drunk, there's an argument and all these people show up," Bailey said.

Among the people who showed up at that house, the home of Arlene Cano, 19, were the mayor's 17-year-old son, who was not named because of age; 19-year-old Miguel Perez; and Cano's boyfriend, 24-year-old Ivan Marquez. Perez, Marquez and the mayor's son are employees at Beilke's Wienerschnitzel. Another young employee also showed up, but he stayed in the car.

In the end, five people were charged: Costello, Marquez, Perez, Cano and Lorraine Ochoa, 22, who allegedly ended up with the gun.

The mayor's son, who was on probation, was detained by deputies at Beilke's home but was let go the same day and not charged.

Bailey said that Costello is an associate of a Pico Rivera gang and that all those arrested and charged were involved in the tagging crew.

"These tagging crews can be just as dangerous and violent as gangs," Bailey said. "The city has been very aggressive about this, especially on the graffiti issue, working on holding some parents responsible."

Beilke knows because he's had a hand in many of those efforts.

Pico Rivera is a suburb of about 64,000 southeast of downtown and west of the 605 Freeway. For years, the city has had a reputation as gang-ridden, but in recent years violent crime and gang crime have plummeted.

Last August, 57-year-old Maria Hicks was shot to death after honking her horn at a teenager spray-painting a wall. Four gang members were arrested. Her killing outraged the community and galvanized the city to tackle gangs and tagging even more. Beilke asked the county to establish a scholarship fund in Hicks' name.

But within days of the June 11 arrests of his employees and the others, he said, he went to the Whittier courthouse to argue that Marquez, Perez and Cano should be released. He said he knew he was taking a political risk.

"My feet are on both sides," Beilke said. "I'm happy with the results we've had here in the city, but in this situation, at least with Ivan, Miguel and Arlene, I truly, honestly believe they stumbled into a wrong-place-at-the-right-time situation."

He said that he did not believe the three youths were involved in a tagging crew and that he thought authorities were casting an overly wide net in considering them taggers as well as accomplices in this case.

Beilke said Cano called his son's cellphone shortly after Costello showed up at her home about 11:45 p.m. He said his son, Perez, Marquez and another of his Wienerschnitzel employees went to her home, hoping to be helpful.

Reached at the Beilke home late Tuesday, Marquez said Costello had shown up at the house with Ochoa. Marquez said Costello had given the gun to Cano by the time he and his friends arrived.

"I took the bullets out of the gun so no one would be hurt," Marquez said, adding that it was the mayor's son who called 911. (Bailey said a 911 call was made, but that the caller did not leave an address or much information.)

Marquez said he was surprised but thankful when the mayor showed up at the courthouse.

"He said that we work for him and that we're good guys," Marquez said. "He's a good guy. That's why he's mayor."

Beilke's presence at the court hearing raised eyebrows in the courtroom. But the mayor said his son and friends should be applauded rather than punished.

"The kids got the world against them right now," Beilke said. "They're trying to say they're all in a tagging crew. There's tagging crews and party crews, and nine times out of 10, you find out it's a party crew. A few may tag, and all of a sudden, they're all called taggers."

And he said he intended to be in court today for Marquez and Perez.

--

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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