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Youth league must change name, hire deputies to return to park

The East L.A. Bobcats, booted from Salazar Park after a fatal stabbing among adults not associated with teams, say the county's requirements aren't fair.

March 18, 2013|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • A Bobcats supporter sports a team shirt. The East L.A. league is one of two that have lost practice privileges at a county park because of a fatal stabbing not directly connected to them.
A Bobcats supporter sports a team shirt. The East L.A. league is one of two… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)

The East L.A. Bobcats will have to change their name and pay as much as $774 a day for added sheriff's patrols if they want to come back to Salazar Park with the blessing of Los Angeles County officials.

The Bobcats were booted from the park, where the youth football and cheer league had practiced for decades, after a fight at a pizza parlor involving adult fans escalated to a fatal stabbing. Jose De Jesus Ruiz, 23, of Bakersfield is charged with stabbing to death a Los Angeles man, Patrick Raymond Ortega, 25.

Ruiz was at the restaurant with a Bobcats team of 9-to-11-year-olds and their parents after a game in Bell Gardens. Ortega was there with another group of restaurant patrons. He had family members who were part of the Bulldogs, a newer East L.A.-based youth football team, sheriff's officials said. (The teams that make up the two leagues do not play each other.)

Authorities said the victim and suspect were also affiliated with rival gangs, and that — although neither man was directly involved in either of the football leagues — there was a threat of more violence if the youngsters continued playing.

The county suspended the Bobcats' permit to practice at Salazar Park. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes East L.A., backed the ban despite protests by the Bobcats and their supporters.

With sign-ups normally beginning in March, the ban put the league's future in doubt for about 250 young athletes and cheerleaders.

The county parks department eventually gave the league a list of conditions that could lead to getting their spot back and are slated to meet Monday.

Among the demands: The Bobcats must change their name and their sky-blue-and-white team colors.

"We are hopeful that changing the team name and colors will help stop any retaliation against the Bobcats and break down some of the association between gang history and teams," said Kaye Michelson, a spokeswoman for the county parks department.

Capt. James Wolak of the East Los Angeles County sheriff's station said the Sheriff's Department did not recommend requiring a name change but that it could alleviate some of the tension, particularly because the incident involved gangs.

"In the gang culture, colors and symbols mean things to people," he said.

The request did not sit well with the Bobcats, who have maintained that the stabbing had nothing to do with the league. The league's former president and a coach who were at the Shakey's Pizza parlor the night of the stabbing have left the organization.

"We have a long history. We've worked hard to get to where we're at, and we didn't have anything to do with the incident," said league president Sylvia Romero, who said she disagreed with the requirement that the league change its name.

But perhaps more prohibitive would be the requirement to have four sheriff's deputies on site half an hour before and after all practices and other league activities at county parks. During the height of the season, children practice two hours a night, five nights a week.

With the cost of one deputy on overtime running about $64.50 an hour, that would amount to more than $3,800 a week the organization would have to pay.

The normal cost for youth organizations to use county fields is $15 an hour for staff time, along with a $300 to $400 security deposit, Michelson said.

"There's no way we could afford the sheriffs. They're tying our hands," Romero said.

Sol Andujo, 32, whose 6-year-old daughter cheers with the league and 9-year-old son plays football, said between registration, uniforms and other supplies, a season already costs parents at least $500 or $600. If the league were to raise its fees to cover the added security, many families could not participate.

"This is a community that doesn't make that much money," she said.

County officials insisted the measures were needed to address a "continued viable risk of retaliation."

The county also would require the league to hold events only at county-approved sites and to hand over a roster of team members, coaches and board members. Wolak said the purpose of that was to ensure that no one on the coaching staff or board has gang ties. Volunteers already go through mandatory criminal background checks, but those checks would not necessarily weed out gang members who do not have serious criminal records.

Jerry Real, president of the San Gabriel Valley Junior All American Football Conference, said he had not seen the county's conditions and could not comment on them but hopes the league will be able to play again.

"This organization is one of the oldest in the conference and has, as far as we know, performed stellar service for its community," he said via email.

The Bobcats and Bulldogs both put in a request to the Los Angeles Unified School District for a permit to practice on school grounds next season. The Bulldogs had been practicing at Garfield High without a permit but were booted from the spot after the stabbing.

A spokeswoman for the district said no decision would be made on the request until after May 15.

Meanwhile, time is running short. The deadline to begin sign-ups for the coming season is May 1, but some parents, wanting to ensure that their children have a chance to play somewhere, have already transferred them to other leagues.

Andujo said that although taking her son and daughter elsewhere would be more difficult and expensive, she is beginning to consider it.

"It's something I really don't want to think about," she said. "But I have to have them play somewhere."

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