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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”