by Rebecca Fairley Raney
 
 
 

Too Violent, Too Young

This page holds excerpts from a package of stories about youth crime, and, by extension, the escalating gang problems that consumed many communities in Southern California. It was published in The San Bernardino County Sun in the summer of 1994, and it not only brought the right kind of attention to an overwhelmed justice system, but it won a lot of awards as well.

What it won:

- Top-three finalist in local reporting for the Livingston Award.

- California Newspaper Publishers Association, first place for public service. This is the top award for California newspapers.

- National Council on Crime and Delinquency of the University of Pennsylvania, PASS Award for outstanding contribution to the public's knowledge of the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

- Best of Gannett, first place in investigative reporting. Corporate competition took in more than 5,000 entries nationwide.

- Society of Professional Journalists, Inland Empire chapter, first place for a series.

- California Child Advocacy Institute, second place, for bringing attention to a children's issue. This competition, sponsored by the law school at the University San Diego, covers all circulation divisions. Two awards are given each year.

About the series:

Back in the early '90s, projects on juvenile justice were very much in vogue with newspapers, even in Midwestern towns that saw very little real violence.

Of course, the city of San Bernardino placed in the top 10 nationwide for murder and violent crime per capita, and gang killings were no small part of it. In those days, it seemed that every Monday morning, the paper ran a body count of the young men who had been gunned down on the streets over the weekend.

This project ran at more than 15,000 words, with more than a dozen stories, over the course of three days. I started at the computer, then rounded out the research by meeting some very memorable people. The statistics in the piece came from arrest data provided by the state Department of Justice. The department supplied it on magnetic tape, and after a couple of months of wheedling, I convinced the guy who managed the mainframes at the newspaper to pull it off the tapes for me.

The data showed some numbers that no other source would have provided.

The historic pattern of juvenile arrests for small-time crimes like truancy and curfew violation had been replaced by arrests for murder and assault.

I spent an afternoon talking with some kids on a street corner in Rialto, and in the course of a roundabout, incredibly chilling conversation, it was pretty clear to me that they had done something they were reluctant to even brag about.

I interviewed a woman in a fairly affluent neighborhood who was grieving at a level I had never seen. Her son had been murdered by a fellow gang member in her kitchen. Years after his murder, she visited her son's grave every single day.

And then there was George Jimenez, who at 16 described having seen several of his friends gunned down on street corners. I talked to George while he was in a holding cell at Juvenile Hall. His offenses at the time were no more serious than grand theft, battery and vandalism. But even then, this was a kid who was surrounded very tangibly by a dark cloud. A few months later, on Halloween night, he shot and killed a couple of kids from a rival neighborhood.

The project described the crowding of Juvenile Hall and the system's inability to intervene with young men before they started committing serious crimes. The Hall simply didn't have enough room to incarcerate truants and burglars. After the series ran, county officials were able to secure state funding to expand their facilities and programs for young offenders.

Too Violent Too Young: A Sun Special Report

The San Bernardino County Sun

Sunday, July 17, 1994

(EXCERPT)

They rob. They shoot. They steal. They're teenage boys -- the most dangerous criminals in San Bernardino County. They are a generation without remorse. They commit crimes. They fear no consequences. And they live in a society without solutions. A legal system designed to reform kids who skip school now scrambles to keep young murderers off the street. Juvenile Hall is full every day. The number of violent criminals inside has doubled in five years. When it comes time to lock kids up, there's room only for the very worst.

Ten years ago, teenage boys got busted in San Bernardino County for kid stuff: smoking dope, skipping school, breaking into houses or drinking a few beers.

Now, teenage boys are in trouble big time. They get arrested most often for shooting people, stabbing people, robbing, stealing cars and attacking police officers.

Arrest statistics reveal a surge of violent crime among teenagers, according to a computer analysis by The Sun of 300,000 arrest records from San Bernardino County police agencies showing a 10-year comparison.

The analysis shows that San Bernardino County's most dangerous criminals, by age and by sex, are teenage boys.

"It's terrifying," says Rialto police Officer Walt Snyder, who works on the city's gang unit.

"I don't know where we lost this entire generation. I don't know how to get them back."

The computer analysis shows substantial increases in felony arrests -- the most serious crimes -- among all age groups, but the increase in violent and serious crimes among males under age 18 in San Bernardino County is most striking.

(CUT)

The lawyers, police officers, judges and probation officers who deal with young criminals all have theories about why teenagers are drawn to violence.

But no one in authority states the reasons as well as 19-year-old Anthony Johnson of Rialto, who recently was released from jail in Riverside County. He was held for a year on a murder charge and three counts of attempted murder. The charges were dropped because of insufficient evidence.

Johnson likes to show off the scar left on his knee from a 9-mm round. Oddly, the injury led to inspiration: He was impressed by the care of the nurses in the hospital and decided to leave the gang lifestyle to become a nurse.

But the allure of gangs -- and the violence that unites them -- was the first motivation in his life. He was drawn in by the age of 12.

"You see the money, you see the cars, you see the respect. You see the respect you're not used to having," he says.

"You got a gun in your hand, you've got power. You've got power. It's like the high or something. When you don't have power, you don't have nothing."

(CUT)

Sixteen-year-old George Jimenez explains why violence and gang wars will likely escalate.

"It is no game," says Jimenez, a San Bernardino gang member who is serving time at a military-style boy's camp in Arizona for grand theft, battery and vandalism.

"The Mexican Mafia is trying to unite the gangs. They want us to get along with our enemies. And that ain't gonna work. Because they killed our friends."

Fifteen of Jimenez's friends have been killed.

"Ten years from now, it's gonna be worse," he says. "Worse guns. More wars."

Even though society has changed, and innocent childhood is often a thing of the past, one thing is the same: Children are still children.

No matter how powerless, angry or violent they become, they're kids. Sometimes, they show it.

Snyder tells story after story about taking the toughest youngsters into the police station, asking a few questions, and watching them go to pieces.

"They're still kids, and you really see it come out of them when you sit down and talk to them by themselves," Snyder says.

"They start crying. You ask why they're crying, and they say, 'I don't know.' "

(END)

On the streets: 'It's not child's play anymore'

The San Bernardino County Sun

Sunday, July 17, 1994

It's 2:30 in the afternoon, and Tom Scott is just waking up.

He was up all night. His father got sick, he says, and he had to look after him.

Tom is 17. Six feet tall, with blond, blue-eyed looks that could put James Dean to shame.

His lifestyle could put the dead rebel to shame as well.

Tom is a gang member who doesn't match the down-and-out stereotype of gang members -- and there are more like him coming up every day, criminologists say. How many, no one knows.

His buddies call their gang Southside, for South Rialto. Their membership is mixed with White and Latino kids -- youngsters who raced Big Wheels in the streets together as toddlers, then formed a street gang in their teens. They did it, they say, to defend the neighborhood from other gangs.

In the Scotts' neighborhood, basketball hoops hang over the garage doors. Neighborhood Watch signs overlook the streets. The driveways are full of motor homes. Most lawns are trim and tended.

Tom can't blame his lifestyle on poverty. His family is middle class.

The easy explanation for youth crime -- that it is committed by the oppressed -- no longer explains why so many teenagers are robbing and killing.

Tom offers a different explanation: "Maybe trouble is easy to get into, if you got nothing to hope for."

(CUT)

The trouble started when he got bored with school. He decided he had better things to do.

"I just thought I'd get on to life and stuff. We'd just go to my friend's house and play pool and stuff."

He and his lifelong friend, Andy Perez, 16, say the trouble with rival gangs has been over for a long time, but both are skittish at the thought of having their pictures taken. Suddenly, they get tense. They won't say what they're afraid of.

"Why chance it?" Tom says. "Everything is cool now, but things happened in the past. We don't want anybody to hold any grudges."

Grudges about what?

"I don't know. Stuff we don't talk about, I guess."

Andy takes over.

"It's like personal business," says Andy, with a hard, chilling, tone.

End of conversation.

(CUT)

'If I had known they were my enemies . . . '

The San Bernardino County Sun

Monday, July 18, 1994

(EXCERPT)

George Jimenez talks about the enemy and he looks away, his eyes deep and dark and stark.

Fifteen of George's friends have died now, by shooting or by stabbing or by suicide.

George Jimenez is 16 years old.

He talks about the killings quietly, carefully, in Juvenile Hall, the only place he feels safe.

He describes the enemy: the kids who live around the corner. The kids he played baseball with in the streets just five years ago.

(CUT)

He lives in a culture of fear. A culture of gang war where the choices he sees as right, society sees as wrong.

Juvenile Hall is crowded with youngsters who see things the same way. Juvenile Hall is crowded because fighting violence with violence, to youngsters like George, is the way to survive.

(CUT)

To George's family, being in jail is no disgrace for the youngster. To his father, Alfredo Jimenez, it is a matter of survival.

"At least if he's in jail, I know he's safe," Alfredo Jimenez says.

He started seeing problems with George five years ago. Attitude problems in school. Fighting. Skipping class.

Then, two years ago, the problems became deadly.

"I knew it was serious when they came and shot at our house," Alfredo Jimenez says.

(CUT)

George explains how it started.

"We started hanging out and coming up, and we got into the gang thing and it just happens," he says.

At first, getting in a gang was just part of growing up -- violent initiation and all. It's called getting "jumped in," which means at least three members beat up the initiate. George was jumped in twice, because the first time only two people beat him up. The second time, he says, there were seven.

There was a peace treaty when he entered the gang, and George says he didn't know there had ever been a war. The treaty ended when he was 13.

"After some of my friends got killed, that's when the shooting started," he says. "The enemies shot them. They killed them."

The enemies weren't enemies when he moved to the neighborhood.

"We used to get along with them. They used to go to my street. We played baseball," George says. "Then they killed some of our friends. That's when the anger came.

"If I had known they were my enemies, I would have told my father not to move there."

(CUT)

George's father tried talking to him. He tried threatening. He tried to get him in jail.

"I said, 'Because you are involved, they are going to shoot at you,' " Alfredo Jimenez says. "Nothing happened the first time they shot at the house, but they might hit the kids the second time. He didn't listen to us."

George can't envision where he might be in 10 years, or where he will be in one year. He figures he'll be dead. He talks about dying calmly.

(CUT)

His father, despite the trouble and the danger, carries the eternal hope of a parent. He doesn't think it is too late for George.

"I hope he really makes the change I was hoping for -- go back to school, make a good career. Go to college," Alfredo Jimenez says. "For him, I want him to do the best he can."

George's nickname is Little Hoodlum. He has mixed feelings about the name.

"I'm not a hoodlum, to tell you the truth," George says. "Part yes, and part no. If I'm out there all the time, that's what I should be called."

He won't be on the street for several months, and he is desperate for a plan when he is free. Maybe go to Mexico and stay with family. He shrugs.

"Go somewhere, that's just what I want," he says. "Stay away and everything will be cool.

"Living here . . . if I just get out of Juvenile Hall I just want to go somewhere where it's peaceful. Somewhere to live."

(END)

On the Streets: Dialogue

Headed back to the Hall

The San Bernardino County Sun

Monday, July 18, 1994

On a recent Thursday morning, probation officers Jimmie Jimenez and Cynthia Wallace strapped on bulletproof vests, armed themselves with radios and set out to make a surprise arrest of 16-year-old George Jimenez -- no relation to Jimmie -- on suspicion of violation of probation.

After allegations of grand theft, vandalism and misdemeanor battery were found true in Juvenile Court, George was placed on intensive probation with weeknight curfews of 6 p.m. and a requirement to attend school. If he violates those terms -- and others -- he is taken to Juvenile Hall.

Intensive probation is supposed to relieve crowding in Juvenile Hall while helping youngsters mend their ways. In George's case, it didn't work. This was the conversation between George -- after he was picked up on the street -- and the probation officers on the 10-minute ride to Juvenile Hall.

Officer Jimenez: What kind of program are you in? We're trying to keep you on the streets. And your actions are keeping you off the streets. Right?

George: I don't know.

Officer Jimenez: And then you write graffiti on the board and cross out the teacher's name. That's disrespecting, right? You're always on stage at school, George. You need to understand, your school is your support. But your school is the one you're bashing. Not too many people, George, want you working for them. But Mr. (Ruben) Campos said, "Yeah, he can do community service here." You've got two support systems out there in the community. You can do community service, and you should be out there. That's what I'm telling the court. You don't want to be out there, let me know. The weather's awfully nice in Arizona. (In Arizona are two boys' camps where troublesome delinquents are sent.)

George: Shoot, they make you hike 20 miles a day (at camp). I don't like that.

Officer Jimenez: I want to keep you on my caseload. You keep me entertained.

George: Just being on probation is messing me up.

Officer Jimenez: Why do you think you're in this program?

George: This program, the curfew's too early, I have to go to school, or you lock me up.

Officer Wallace (after a pause): What do you want to be, George?

George: I don't want to be no bad criminal.

Officer Wallace: That's what you are now. I can't believe you're dishonoring your name like that. Another Hispanic. Another Hispanic on the FBI list. Instead of being on the honor roll, it's another gang member.

George: I want a good job and everything.

Officer Wallace: There aren't any want ads that say, "Gang members wanted."

Officer Jimenez: What do you most enjoy about Juvenile Hall? The reunions with your friends?

George: I don't like nothing about it. You don't take a shower. You stink.

Officer Jimenez: They put you in holding?

George: I hate being in holding.

Officer Jimenez: I'll get you every time. I'll get you every time. You know that. You enjoy the chase, I enjoy the chase. But I'll get you.

(The admitting probation officers take George's belt, have him turn out his pants pockets.)

Officer Jimenez: OK, George, we'll see you in school Monday. If there's a problem Sunday, and your mom doesn't pick you up, they'll call me.

George: I got dressed, put on my clothes, took a shower, just to come here?

Officer Jimenez (to admitting officer): He's all yours. Get him out of here.

A day in the juvenile justice system

The San Bernardino County Sun

Monday, July 18, 1994

Most of the people who work in San Bernardino County's juvenile justice system work out of trailers in the parking lot of a 40-year-old complex.

None of the offices -- the court, the District Attorney's Office and the Public Defender's Office -- has any more staff now than five years ago, when the cases were less serious and the caseloads less intense.

The number of youngsters who are in Juvenile Hall for violent crimes increased by 129 percent in that time.

Attorneys who prosecute and defend juveniles, without exception, carry 15 to 20 cases at all times.

The county's two Juvenile Court judges hear 25 to 30 cases every afternoon.

The is a glimpse of their pressures and problems.

The race to file

Inside the District Attorney's Office -- in a double-wide trailer in the Juvenile Hall parking lot -- amid the plywood paneling and the green plush carpet, is a sign that says, "The Only Difference Between this Place and the Titanic is . . . The Titanic had a Band!"

Kenneth L. Smith, supervisor of the District Attorney's Office Juvenile Division, started out as a deputy in Juvenile in 1966.

In those days, less experienced deputies were assigned there.

Now, out of necessity, only experienced deputies are assigned. Some attorneys request Juvenile Division because they want the opportunity to try serious cases.

The stress in the office is intense; one deputy was lot to stress leave last year.

Much of the pressure comes from tight deadlines on juvenile cases: Each case must be filed in court 48 hours to the minute after the arrest, and each case must go to trial within three weeks of filing. Adults, by comparison, get trial dates 60 days away.

If the filing is late, the minor is released.

The reason behind the decades-old juvenile system philosophy: Children should not be separated long from their parents.

Deadline restrictions force priorities on case filings. First in line are murder, armed robbery, any crime involving a weapon or violence, sex offenses, residential burglaries and arson.

"If they're a danger to the community, you don't want them out," Smith says.

The serious crimes are especially difficult to prove when the office has only three weeks to prepare a case.

"That's a real burden to prepare a murder case on such short notice," Smith says.

"You need a coroner's report, ballistics test, evidence, witnesses."

The District Attorney's Office filed six murder cases in Juvenile Division in March alone.

'It's not a glory job'

The Public Defender's Office Juvenile Division also is located in a double-wide trailer in the parking lot of the Juvenile Court.

Inside, the small lobby offers six metal chairs, circa 1975, with bright orange cushions.

Massive outdoor air conditioners grimly hum, the sound vibrating throughout the structure.

Three leakage spots stain the ceiling. Occasionally, it rains on the clerks while they're working at their desks.

When someone walks across the room, the whole building shakes.

That's not to say it's a rickety operation.

Supervising Deputy Jeff Broyde has been in Juvenile Division since 1976. All but one of the deputies have been there longer. One of the clerks has worked there since 1975; the other, for more than 10 years.

"I'd like to think we know the system better than the judges or anybody else," Broyde says.

He knows the changes in the system just as well.

His evidence: two of the "Red Books" the office uses to schedule cases.

Broyde opens one book to the busy page for April 20, 1994. Every line on the page is filled, showing more than 50 cases, tracked with blue, red and green ink, some emphasized in yellow highlight.

The other book is from April 21, 1974. Four names -- just names -- are scrawled in blue ink across the lines. It was a typical day for 20 years ago. There were only four cases.

The Public Defender's Office handles nearly every juvenile delinquency case that is filed.

The rare occasions when families hire private attorneys tend to be murder cases.

Deputies usually have 30 cases set for trial at all times. They have one or two cases set for trial every morning and 10 cases set for disposition in the afternoon.

"It's not a glory job," Broyde says. "You can win a triple homicide, and no one will ever know about it. It's not going to get in the paper." (Juvenile cases are not open to the public.)

(CUT)

'Get it together'

The metal detector at the door of Juvenile Court is set so low that a brass button can set it off. That means it will detect even one bullet.

It's an afternoon session on a 90-degree Tuesday in Department One, the court of Presiding Judge Betty A. Richli.

The decor in the closed courtroom is bare bones. There's a bulletin board with Magic Markers: orange, red, green, black, blue. A first-aid box is attached to the wall behind the bailiff's desk in case someone is injured in a fight.

Behind the bench, there's the state seal dominated by California's big brown bear. State and American flags surround the seal.

And that's all. Voices echo off the walls.

In front of Richli are two stacks of paper, each a half-foot high. She must handle 23 cases between 1:30 and 5 p.m.

Next door, in Department 2, there are 28.

"It's gonna be a crazy day," says bailiff Preston Banks.

He runs through the essential instructions for visitors: "If I get into a scuffle, just stay back, or you can exit if necessary through the judge's chambers."

He points to a door in a faraway corner.

Richli moves the cases along at high speed. She has no choice.

Case 4 comes up just after 2 p.m.

A 16-year-old is brought in on a drug-related case. His attorney, Lauri Ferguson, explains how her client reported others in his Juvenile Hall unit who were making weapons.

The youngster is crying, twitching, jumpy, knees bouncing up and down, hands shaking.

Ferguson says, "He has realized with the 17 days in Juvenile Hall that this is not where he wants to be."

Richli agrees to let him return home -- as long as he enters drug treatment.

"If he's using drugs, there's an underlying reason for his using drugs, and there is no doubt in the court's mind that his is addicted, addicted to crack.

"He did the right thing in Juvenile Hall," Richli continued. "It took a lot of courage for him to do what he did. I'm hoping you can turn it around. I know it's not easy, but you have got to turn it around."

The last case of the day comes through a little after 4 p.m.

The young man is up on car theft and a drug charge. Richli has seen him before. His father is dead, and his mother's whereabouts are unknown. He has been placed in group homes seven times, and run away every time.

"You've run away from seven or eight placements," Richli says. "You're exhausting our ability to place you. You need to get some emancipation skills. You've been living on the street.

"You've had some bad breaks in life. But you need to get it together.

"When you're 18, I don't want to drop kick you out into the real world."

No justice in son's death

The San Bernardino County Sun

Tuesday, July 19, 1997

(EXCERPT)

Mark Foss was 6-feet, 3-inches tall, blond and blue-eyed, with a Clint Eastwood smile. His street name was "Tiny."

At his funeral, four or five girls told his parents they were Mark's current girlfriend.

He was shot to death in his kitchen at 17, in his parents' house in the part of Alta Loma where circle driveways, meticulous landscaping and expensive cars are part of the scenery.

Mark's 15-year-old killer got eight years for the crime. The Fosses think he should be dead.

Mark drew up with private schools, Little League and Pop Warner football.

He was a rebel.

His older brother, Troy, was the all-American kid. He graduated with honors from Damien, a private Catholic high school in La Verne. He entered the Army and is now a military police officer at West Point.

Mark was a gang member from the eighth grade.

At first, Rick Foss was entertained by the difference in his sons. He remembers a night when he put on a sports coat to meet Troy's date to a formal dance, then changed into a leather jacket to take Mark to an Alice Cooper concert.

The first signs didn't convince Rick that Mark was in trouble: Mark's grades dropped, he had wild mood swings, he was awake all day and all night, and he was steeped in the heavy-metal rock world of AC/DC and Twisted Sister -- the soundtrack for the disenfranchised white kid.

The truth came home when Mark went to his father at 14 with his first serious problem: He was having drug flashbacks.

(CUT)

Rick and Hedie were in Las Vegas when they got the news of the shooting. A neighbor paged them, and the only thing that the Fosses knew was that Mark had been flown by helicopter to Loma Linda University Medical Center. They made the six-hour drive home in two hours.

Hedie describes how she knew her youngest son was dead:

"We walked in the hospital room -- Mark had these huge hands, and he gave the best hugs. I saw his hand. I picked it up and said, 'Mamma's here.' And there was nothing there."

His father gave him a deathbed induction into the Knights of Columbus. The family's priest administered Last Rites.

(CUT)

Hedie is angry because the mother of Mark's killer will have the chance to see her son's wedding.

To the Fosses, that is no justice.

"They have to start treating them like criminals," Hedie says.

"They say they have a future and a life. What about the kids they killed? They don't have a future. They killed our kids, and we're paying for them.

"By the time they're 25, they're out. They'll go home. Their families are going to be able to hug them. We can't do that."

Rick says, "We go down to the prison, and they're having mother-son dances and renting cheap tuxedos for these idiots who murdered people."

Hedie paused, and she held up a picture of Mark's last girlfriend. She often wonders what their children might have looked like.

"Our whole life right now is based on before-Mark and after-Mark. You're not supposed to bury your children," she says.

"You will never be normal, as you know it, again."

(END)

OTHER WINNING STORIES:

1. Paradise in Peril: The California real estate crash

2. Too Violent, Too Young: Life on the street

3. School statistics, and a personal breakthrough: The secrets behind test scores

4. Winning, as an alternative to starving: Political coverage, and a miracle baby

5. Yes, traffic is funny: Life outside the carpool lane

6. Turbulent Skies: The politics of medical helicopter service

7. Nailing down the building boom

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