By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
At night, the neighborhood becomes a dark maze where drug peddlers operate and one wrong turn can lead to a confrontation. It’s a place that unfortunately knows too much crime—and not just coming from the South Side Huntington Beach gang that has ruled its streets with near-impunity for decades. In 2001, Huntington Beach officer Mark Wersching killed unarmed 18-year-old Antonio Saldivar while pursuing another suspect. Although the district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against Wersching, Saldivar’s family sued and won a $2.1 million judgment against the city.
Oak View residents have never forgotten that killing, despite years of outreach by the department and the Orange County Human Relations Committee. They still complain that police harass them for no good reason while turning a blind eye to actual crime in the neighborhood.
“I’ve called the cops so many times about drug dealers on the streets, but they never seem to come,” says Lucio, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in the Slater Slums for 15 years. (He declined to give his full name.) He was standing on the corner of Slater and Keelson, where day laborers gather daily under a sign reading, “No Solicitation.” “But if they see boys hanging around? They stop them, harass them and take off.”
Others in the group agreed. “You hear sirens all the time,” says a younger man who refused to identify himself but sported a shaved head and an MMA-style T-shirt. “They like to fuck with us. Maybe if they stopped fucking with us and actually went after cholos, this barrio would be better.”
Few outside of Oak View even call the community by that name; its countywide designation is the Slater Slums, an epithet that dates back to the 1980s, when Latinos and Vietnamese began moving into the community and its traditional working-class white residents left. Press coverage of the area invariably veers toward the negative; a 1991 Orange County Register story headline simply called Oak View a “scary Huntington neighborhood.”
But those who live in the Slater Slums nevertheless take pride in their barrio. Its home school is Oak View Elementary, which made last year’s California Distinguished Schools list. The humble Oak View Community Center brims with teens playing basketball and adults dutifully taking English classes and participating in free workshops. A host of nonprofits offers services to residents.
“Yeah, there’s crime here,” Lucio says. “But we’re good people here. We want a better life. We want services. We want attention. We want good.”
Although he lives across the street from where Jose’s assault happened, he claims to know nothing about it. “I read about in [the Register’s Spanish-language weekly] Excelsior a couple of months later,” he says. “I’m just surprised the police didn’t arrest the Mexicans.”
One guy who claimed to know about the assault is Justin, a young man in his 20s. “I wasn’t there, but some of my homies helped kick their asses,” he says. He wouldn’t offer any more details other than this: “We were surprised the police didn’t arrest us, too. But I think they were probably as happy as us that the Nazis got their asses kicked.”
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July 3 wasn’t the first time Jose’s assailants had run afoul of the law. Powell was already awaiting trial for stabbing someone last year in Huntington Beach, while Hanson served four years in state prison earlier this decade for assault with a deadly weapon and robbery. Brooks received three years’ probation in 2005 for being in a car driven by infamous neo-Nazi hitman Billy Joe Johnson that carried the corpse of a man Johnson had just murdered. Hicks had done prison time for attempted murder, car theft and assaulting a peace officer. All were associates of Public Enemy Number One (PEN1), the white-supremacist gang that local and federal prosecutors have been trying to shut down for years. Detectives say Powell is a member of the Orange County Skins, while Hicks claims to be a member of the Golden State Skins and has on his neck a valknot tattoo, three interlocking triangles associated with the United Society of Aryan Skinheads prison gang. Brooks, the mother of an infant, has “White” and “Power” tattooed on her legs and was formerly married to a PEN1 member.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the crew’s ties to white-power gangs, detectives and prosecutors openly wondered whether this was a premeditated hate crime or a random act of violence. The original Huntington Beach police log of the attack noted the four “came to buy drugs” in Oak View that night. Police reports mentioned in pretrial motions state that some witnesses placed Brooks in the front seat as the driver; others said she never left the back seat. The motions also note that one of the witnesses admitted to drinking five Tecates.
On Sept. 25, prosecuting deputy district attorney Andrew Katz gathered the defendants’ lawyers into a room and offered deals if they pled guilty to assault: six years for Hanson, Powell would get four, Hicks seven, all charges against Brooks dismissed, and hate-crime enhancements against the four dropped. Rather than take the deals, though, the attorneys jockeyed for more leniency. Katz pulled the deal two weeks later, much to the chagrin of Brooks’ lawyer, Rey Ochoa. The DA’s maneuver, the Seal Beach lawyer wrote in an Oct. 26 motion, “egregiously interfered with the effectiveness of defense counseling in advising and representing their clients in this litigation. This is clearly an impingement on the defendants’ rights to effective assistance of counsel.”