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
Slater Slums Smackdown
What do you get when four skinheads stab a Mexican in Huntington Beach’s Oak View barrio? Four beat-up skinheads facing hate-crime charges
Beatriz called the Huntington Beach Police Department dispatch center at 11:55 p.m., as July 3 turned into the nation’s birthday and the city prepared for a weekend of drunken revelers.
“Por favor, la policia,” she cried to the officer on the other line. The police, please. A red truck had circled a couple of times around the city’s Oak View barrio where Beatriz (her name, as well as those of the other victims on this night, have been changed to protect their identities) lived, arousing the suspicion of residents. Four people sat inside—all white. No way a group of gabachos was visiting Oak View late at night unless they wanted trouble.
Suddenly, the truck roared into an alley connecting Queens and Keelson lanes. Three men jumped out and began pummeling Beatriz’s husband, Jose, who was standing outside with friends. As she talked to the dispatcher, Beatriz began screaming: They had pulled a knife. They sported white-supremacist tattoos—swastikas, life runes, SS-style lightning bolts—and shaved heads. Skinheads.
“Motherfucking Mexicans!” one yelled, while a woman inside the truck shouted, “Stab him! Stab him!” Another stabbed Jose three times in the chest, and the three men began kicking and punching him once he slumped to the ground. Beatriz was hysterical; she had stopped making sense to the dispatcher.
A squad car arrived at the scene within two minutes. But the residents of Oak View had already taken justice into their own hands. The moment the three white supremacists attacked Jose, Johnny ran to his apartment, where friends and family relaxed. “Jose is getting jumped!” he hollered. They rushed out and poured into the alley. Others heard the commotion and rushed the skinheads. No weapons were needed for this, a good, old-fashioned ass-whuppin’.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Punches and kicks and body slams and scratches. The skinheads tried to cram themselves back into the truck, but two didn’t make it. Another did, but some of Johnny’s friends pulled the attacker out of the window and thrashed him anew. Sirens wailed in the distance, but the skins somehow broke free and sped off into the night.
Patrolmen stopped the truck about 10 minutes later, two miles from the crime scene, at the corner of Golden West Street and Little Harbor Drive. Jose was taken to UC Irvine Medical Center to treat his wounds, but the skinheads were nearly as badly injured. One had a dislocated shoulder; another, a black eye. All had cuts, bruises and torn T-shirts.
Police arrested the men—Michael Powell, 21, of Anaheim; 30-year-old Riverside resident Bret Hicks; and Brian Hanson, 26, of Santa Ana—for assault with a deadly weapon. Also processed was 24-year-old Erin Brooks, of Huntington Beach, who lustily cheered on her friends as they brutalized Jose. The Mexicans who had beaten them up? Surf City’s finest didn’t give any of the Oak View residents so much as a warning over the incident.
Hicks, Hanson and Powell now languish in Orange County Central Jail, while Brooks is free on $100,000 bail. All face felony counts of attempted murder and hate-crime enhancements; each faces at least a decade in prison if found guilty of the latter count. The four maintain their innocence against the charges, but they don’t deny they assaulted Jose that Fourth of July weekend. Instead, their lawyers and supporters are trying to portray the quartet as the victims. Furthermore, their lawyers are trying to convince a judge that their clients deserve a plea bargain once offered by the district attorney’s office—offered before evidence emerged suggesting that the assault on Jose wasn’t a random fight but a brutal, premeditated crime.
No one involved with the case will speak to the Weekly. The scene described above was taken from police logs, pretrial testimony, and statements by attorneys and prosecutors in open court. Those sources, plus interviews with Oak View residents, hundreds of pages of public records and hours of recordings uncovered by the Weekly, reveal at least one truth: This crew of skinheads picked the worst possible neighborhood in Huntington Beach to wage their racial holy war.
* * *
Even among the barrios of Orange County, the Oak View community is notorious, a modern-day Hell’s Kitchen just 10 minutes from the beach. Bordered by Warner and Slater avenues to the north and south, Beach Boulevard to the east and Nichols Street to the west, plopped in the middle of abandoned businesses and car shops, it’s roughly 1 square mile swarming with more than 6,000 people, the overwhelming number of them immigrant Latinos.
Only a few single-family homes dot the neighborhood; the vast majority of dwellings in Oak View are apartments, with dozens of different complexes in various states of disrepair owned by absentee landlords. No street spans the length of the neighborhood inside its boundaries, leading to a tangle of cul-de-sacs and dead ends occasionally connected by alleys. A 2006 study by UCI’s Department of Policy, Planning and Design found the average household here consists of 5.5 members with a median income of $32,000. Twenty-five percent of residents older than 25 have a high-school diploma.
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.”
* * *
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.”
“The attorneys rejected them and sought better deals, so it wasn’t binding,” Katz wrote in a rejoinder the following day. “The hateful and dangerous nature of the crime necessitates a more demanding penalty than the one previously offered by the prosecutor. It would be a travesty of justice to allow these defendants any leniency.”
What changed Katz’s mind? Recordings of a radio show featuring Hicks that spelled out his desires to kill Mexicans.
For months, Hicks had co-hosted a program on Radio White, an Orange-based Internet-radio service that calls itself the nation’s longest-running white-power station. His partner was Martin Cox, who now lives in Idaho but is a legendary figure in Orange County’s skinhead scene due to his hatecore band Extreme Hatred. The two were close—Hicks openly called himself a “brown noser” of Cox and, years ago, was set to join Extreme Hatred but was hauled off to jail.
Their show, 88 Degrees, featured the duo playing white-power songs while gossiping, telling stories of their checkered pasts and railing against minorities. On the April 10 episode of the show, for instance, Hicks talked about “a little spic” at his construction job, then opined that “these Mexicans want [the United States] to be an overrun, fucking Third World piece of shit, these fucking pieces of shit.”
Later in the program, while reminiscing about seeing Extreme Hatred in various Orange County venues over the years, Hicks said, “It was good times. We’d go; we’d get drunk; we’d listen to good bands; we’d fill ourselves full of hatred. I know myself . . .”
At that point, Hicks caught himself and slowly stated, “Well, allegedly, we’d all go out and commit hate crimes. Allegedly.” He laughed and continued, “It’s not a hate crime if you love doing it.”
A week later, Cox and Hicks were ranting about the state of this country under President Barack Obama, about how it was time for whites to become conscious and get ready to retake America. “It’s kill or be killed, in my opinion,” said Hicks. “And I think it is time to actually go out and kill.”
“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” Cox replied. “It’s coming.”
But Cox emphasized to listeners that the true enemies weren’t blacks and Mexicans, but rather the Jews and other internationalists who ruled the world. Minorities, he said, were “like a side project. They can be cleaned up in a weekend.”
“Exactly,” agreed Hicks, who had recently moved to Huntington Beach from Riverside. “That’s, that’s personal shit. That’s stuff to do in your own personal neighborhood; take care of that yourself.”
Hicks continued to rile himself up a couple of minutes later. “Let’s make a difference,” Hicks growled to his audience. “If we don’t stand up and take care of what we need to do right now, I think we’re going to lose. We need to do this now. NOW. It is the time.”
Just a month before the Slater Slums smackdown, Cox and Hicks were discussing the times when Cox assaulted African-Americans in Los Angeles County Jail, laughingly referring to them as “nigger fights.”
“We’re a pretty hateful couple of guys,” Hicks said with pride.
* * *
Ochoa defended Hicks’ recordings as an “exercise in free speech” in a legal motion. But he quickly went on the offensive against OC Weekly: This writer had broken the story about Hicks’ show on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog (see “Did a Candy-Ass Gang Member Plan to Murder a Mexican Months Before Their Slater Slums Smackdown?” Oct. 5). He claimed the Weekly had “provided information to the prosecution, and it appears that the prosecution is relying upon this rank hearsay to fortify his case or to trade information,” and therefore, the charges against his client should be dismissed.
“The news media should get its facts from the authorities,” Ochoa continued. “The authorities should not base their cases on published media. Communications with the Weekly by this prosecutor raise great ethical issues in this case. The prosecutor has an affirmative duty to independently pursue his own investigation and not to curry the favor of the press or the populace, nor to give the appearance of doing so.”
“These defendants are a menace to society,” Katz said in a response to Ochoa’s rejoinder. “If the offers withdrawn by [the district attorney’s office] are reinstated, our society’s repugnance and absolute intolerance for this kind of behavior and confidence in our judicial system would be gravely undermined.”
Katz was unavailable for comment regarding his decision to offer a plea deal, but DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder says there was nothing remarkable about such a move. “We continue to investigate our cases, and after filing, it’s not unusual to either increase or decrease our offer based on newly discovered evidence,” she says. As to Ochoa’s allegation of collusion between her department and the Weekly, she remarks, “It’s not unusual for criminal defense attorneys to make allegations against the prosecutor because they want the public to turn their attention away from what their clients did.”
Ochoa has already scored a legal victory for Brooks by convincing presiding Judge Steven Bromberg to let her go free on $100,000 bail because she is a loving, responsible mother who couldn’t possibly be a racist because she’s now married to a man with a Hispanic surname. Ochoa claims in court transcripts that the defendants were the victims, that the Mexicans tried to drag his semi-conscious client out of the truck, and that one of Brooks’ associates had suffered a stab wound, although no such injury was reported by Huntington Beach police at the time of their arrest.
Bromberg delayed his decision on whether to force the district attorney’s office to reinstate the plea offers to the defendants. The next hearing on the case is scheduled for December in Westminster’s West Justice Center.
A week after the foursome’s arrest, a subdued Cox would say on 88 Degrees only that Hicks was “indisposed of until further notice—he ran into a little bit of trouble.”
On July 17, he offered a bit more information: “They’re getting railroaded. [They face an] uphill battle; we all wish [them] the best. It’s a case of self-defense.”
The assault wasn’t made public until August, when the Register reported that police were looking for Brooks and Powell. Friends of the white supremacists went on the Weekly’s blog and other newspapers to claim it was the South Side gang who had assaulted their friends, that the arrest of the four was a racial conspiracy against whites.
But after the Weekly’s unearthing of the 88 Degrees recordings, Cox told a different story. On Oct. 9’s 88 Degrees, Cox and new co-host Jeremy Moody devoted almost two hours to trashing the Weekly. Cox said the blog post was “full of slanderous bullshit” but never told listeners exactly what part was slanderous. He shrugged off Hicks’ previous boasts of racial violence as “idle gossip,” but Moody worried that Hicks’ statements were “incriminating” and that a judge and jury wouldn’t take kindly to the defendants after hearing Hicks’ recordings.
Nevertheless, Cox insisted this writer “really [hasn’t] pissed me off 1 percent,” even though he titled the episode, for archival purposes, “Gustavo the Gay Mexican.” Throughout the show, Cox called me a “bastard,” a “whining bitch,” a “prick,” a “faggot communist,” a “dirty beaner,” “queer,” a “piece-of-shit Mexican, a “faggot,” a “douchebag,” “gay,” a “homosexual Mexican,” a “piece of shit,” a “bitch,” a “fricking reporter for a newspaper that comes out once a week and it’s free,” “scum of the bottom of the barrel,” “nothing but a joke,” the “spic version of Jared from Subway,” a “loser,” a “worthless piece of garbage,” a “stupid Mexican,” a “Mexican homosexual beaner,” an “amateur journalist,” and a “border brother” who “dresses funny” and has “fucked-up teeth.”
And then, he got personal.
Cox threatened to “crush [Arellano] like a weak little grape” in a debate and said his friends should invite me to a barbecue but remembered “they can’t barbecue refried beans.”
“You pissed off one big-ass skinhead,” Moody laughed at one point.
“Now, it’s on,” Cox said, constantly mentioning he’s now “through the door” to start attacking me. “Now, I know who he is, where he works. I know everything about this dude. . . . We have his home address. We have everything we need to know about that dude.”
“He needs to be careful about what he says,” Jeremy added.
Despite Cox’s downplaying of Hicks’ violent urgings on 88 Degrees, Radio White removed all archives of the programs featuring Hicks from their website after the Oct. 9 broadcast. Cox has refused to speak with the Weekly unless we pay him $3,500.
* * *
The streets of Oak View are calm, almost serene on a bright fall morning. Mothers stroll their children down quiet streets; men wash trucks. Every so often, someone jaywalks across Slater to line up at Tacos El Chavito, a lonchera selling delicious 50-cent tacos and offering free pineapple juice.
About 20 men hang out next to the alley connecting Queens and Keelson and watch a group play poker. This is where the Nazis assaulted Jose. This is where the Slater Slums united to beat the Nazis out of town.
All of the men know about the incident, they say. None wants to talk about it.
“The only white people who come here want to buy drugs,” offers one man. “If you try to mix with them, the police will follow you.”
Another, who calls himself Carlos, says he lives in an apartment complex down Keelson and remembers sirens that night, but he didn’t think anything of it. “We hear those all the time, but it’s usually because of cholos,” he says.
Still, they can’t help but smile. They know of Huntington Beach’s reputation for skinheads—one claims he was called a “beaner” by a group at the Main Street Pier, while a younger guy talks about the harassment he faced at Huntington Beach High for his accented English. But racists coming to their neighborhood to assault one of their own? That thought provokes laughter.
“Racists are just the dumbest people,” an older man says. “You can’t expect them to do anything smart. They don’t scare me. They’ll always get caught.”
“The Nazis should know better than to come here,” Carlos says with a laugh. Then he turns serious. “There’s too many of us.”
Portions of this story originally appeared on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog.