Is idyllic Catalina now a gangsters' paradise?

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy David Mertens walks his beat in Avalon, Calif., on Catalina Island, on July 3. He fears that gangs are getting a foothold on the exclusive island.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy David Mertens walks his beat in Avalon, Calif., on Catalina Island, on July 3. He fears that gangs are getting a foothold on the exclusive island.Chris Carlson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It seems even 22 miles of open ocean might not be keeping gangs off Catalina Island, a mist-shrouded outpost of Los Angeles County best known for its Hollywood history and crystal-clear harbors.

Deputies on the isle say a fledgling gang called the Brown Pride Locos has gotten a foothold among the beaches, coves and tourist shops. A stabbing, burglaries and graffiti are being blamed on the gang, and deputies last month surprised teenagers practicing moves with knives on a dark bluff above Avalon's crescent-shaped bay.

A swift crackdown has netted at least six arrests and led to a pair of police raids — but it has also caused an uproar in the tiny community, where residents leave their doors unlocked and putt around in golf carts.

Locals insist that LA's corrupting influences could never penetrate their paradise, where the stars of Hollywood's golden age frolicked and where dozens of classics, such as "Mutiny on the Bounty" and parts of "Jaws," were filmed.

Officer 'shocked'
Deputy David Mertens, a six-year gang enforcement veteran from Los Angeles, is trying to gain the upper hand before the violence escalates.

"Before I transferred here, I came to do my interview and I was shocked," said Mertens, who was brought in with a new commander late last year. "I could not believe all these gangsters walking around and all these drug deals going on right in the open."

Mayor Bob Kennedy, a scuba shop owner who never locks his truck and doesn't have a house key, acknowledges that some teens on the island heckle tourists, smoke marijuana and do some tagging. But he worries that overzealous policing — and the gang label — could empty the daily ferries that bring as many as 15,000 visitors to the island on summer weekends.

Catalina is accessible only by private plane or boat. A strict limit on cars means most residents cruise Avalon's 2 square miles by foot, bike or golf cart.

"I know that we have some misguided youth that think it's cute to spray paint skateboard signs in the skateboard park and do a little vandalism in the bathrooms," said Kennedy, a 26-year Avalon resident. "Do we want to get after that? Absolutely. Do we need 30 officers in flak jackets and machines guns to do that? I don't think so."

Others feel that deputies are profiling Hispanic teens who are the children of the maids, cooks and waiters who fuel the island's tourist industry.

"I've been here 19 years and there are no gangs here. It's ridiculous," said 26-year-old Evelyn Cano. "They see shaved heads and tattoos, and that's a gang to them."

SWAT team raids
But deputies insist there's a problem on Catalina, although they aren't sure exactly how it started. There are groups by the same — or similar — names in San Pedro and Long Beach, where ferries depart daily for Catalina. Mertens believes the group has quietly expanded to about 50 members since 2004.

Tensions flared when deputies launched a pair of raids in the past few weeks.

A SWAT team from Los Angeles helped deputies in a search for drugs and gang evidence at the house of an alleged Brown Pride Locos leader. No one was arrested.

On July 2, nearly four dozen mainland deputies came ashore in four boats and two helicopters and hauled away six suspected gang members for alleged probation violations. The youngest was 15.

Lt. Ed Cook said his staff has spotted suspected members of the Florencia 13 gang — a South Los Angeles gang with ties to the Mexican Mafia — with local teens. And deputies are hearing rumors that Brown Pride Locos are feuding internally and may split.

"When that happens, we'll really have problems because right now they're just one gang," Cook said. "They don't like each other, but at least they're all together."

'Like a cancer'
Some residents support the crackdown. Grocery store supervisor Brian Vidaillet, 31, said he recently turned over a possible gang member who was stealing alcohol from his store. Vidaillet, who moved to Catalina a year ago, said residents are angry because they are used to being left alone.

"I think there's a problem," he said. "If we don't do anything now, it'll grow. It's like a cancer."

The mayor and other longtime residents scoff at these doomsday scenarios. They insist the alleged gang members are a group of childhood friends who are going stir-crazy on the 76-square-mile island.

"We don't have no gang. They're the ones who created this problem. Every time they stop a kid, the first thing they say is, 'Are you a BPL?' Or, 'Tell me who is,'" said Miguel Rodriguez, whose 15-year-old son is on the sheriff's list of gang members.

Rodriguez, an information technology specialist, said his son was arrested last week and taken to juvenile detention for allegedly associating with known gang members, which violated his parole. Rodriguez, who drained his retirement account to send his son to a Nevada reform camp, said the boy did nothing wrong.

"In Avalon, you only have two blocks. Everybody walks the same two blocks, everybody sees everybody," he said. "It's not like LA, where you can go the other direction. If you see somebody and say, 'Hey Joe,' you can get arrested for violating probation."

Mertens, the gang enforcement deputy, said Rodriguez and others are in denial.

"Nobody wants to think that 'Yeah, I live in a place where there's gangs,' especially in a place like this," he said as he patrolled a cliffside neighborhood overlooking yachts bobbing in the cove below. "It's a beautiful town."