Photo by Keith MayHuntington Beach bills itself as one of America's safest cities, and for a long time, that was true. Over the past decade, Surf City consistently ranked among the top 10 safest big cities in the nationwide crime study compiled annually by Morgan Quitno Press, a Lawrence, Kansas-based publishing and research company.
But a string of unsolved murders last year knocked Huntington Beach out of the top 10. Today, the city's not even among the top 25. All of the murders took place in just one half-square-mile area called Oakview. It's a low-income, mostly Latino neighborhood between Slater Avenue and Beach Boulevard that cops and city officials quietly call the Slater Slums.
According to Sergeant Gary Meza, a community liaison officer with the Huntington Beach Police Department, the murders involved members of the South Side Gang, which police believe has 70 to 100 Latino members. That's odd in itself: as far as police know, the South Side gang is the only gang in Oakview.
Police say they have no reason to believe the murders were carried out by gang members from other cities. The only other gangs known to operate in Huntington Beach are small factions of white gangs such as the HB Skinheads and the Nazi Lowriders. But police don't believe they have anything to do with the Oakview shootings, either.
But police don't seem intrigued that both victims and assailants are members of the same gang. And the lone suspect identified in any of the shootings is not listed as one of Huntington Beach's most wanted on the police website.
Although police say South Side has been operating in Oakview for decades, the first unsolved murder tied to the gang happened at about 2 a.m. on July 25, 1999, when someone shot through the window of an apartment on Dairyview Circle. The bullet smashed into the head of 23-year-old Alberto Mendez Olmedo, who died the next morning at UC Irvine Medical Center. Police had no suspects and have yet to arrest anyone connected to the crime.
The next incident, a double homicide, took place at about 1 a.m. on May 11, 2002, also on Dairyview Circle. Oscar Gayton, 18, and Heriberto Vasquez, 16, were walking down the street when unknown assailants shot them and ran away. One victim died on the spot; the other clawed his way to a nearby apartment before dying. A month later, police came up with a suspect: 21-year-old Oakview resident Juan Jose Meza, who had apparently fled to Mexico.
The final murder occurred at about 12:30 a.m. on July 29, 2002: 19-year-old Ernesto Duarte was walking down an alley near Barton Lane when someone shot him in the chest. Residents called police when they heard the noise. "He was found dead in the alley, but we have no suspects because there were no witnesses," Meza said.
Things stayed quiet in Oakview until Dec. 9, 2002. That's when 16-year-old Eric Rodriguez Martinez was approached by a hooded figure while he was walking down an alley behind Koledo Lane. The person asked Martinez what gang he belonged to. When Martinez replied that he didn't belong to a gang, the man shot him in the leg.
There have been other shootings in the neighborhood and its outskirts, but Meza said police have been unable to find a connection between any of the weapons involved in the shootings.
Meza scoffs at any suggestion that police aren't doing everything they can to solve the shootings. He vigorously defended his department, saying that all the shooting cases are active, that two detectives are working on them, and that six uniformed officers cruise Oakview nightly while more officers patrol the neighborhood on foot during days and weekends. "That half-square mile gets more service calls than any other similarly sized neighborhood in the city," Meza said. "Our foot-beat officers know everybody by name."
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But knowing names has yet to solve a crime. And the HBPD's complicated relationship with locals doesn't help.
Relations between cops and locals were strained badly almost two years ago. At about 1:40 a.m. on May 5, 2001, two officers patrolling Ash Street in Oakview saw someone peering into a parked vehicle. Speaking in English, the officers told the person to stop what he was doing, but the person ran away.
"A short foot pursuit ensued, and when the officers were able to catch up to the subject, they saw he was armed with a rifle," reads the press release police issued the next day. "The subject pointed the rifle at one of the officers. The officer fired at the subject with his handgun, hitting the subject an unknown number of times. . . . The subject was transported to the UC Irvine Medical Center, where he died a short time later."
Police later acknowledged that the rifle in question was actually a toy gun. The district attorney cleared the officer in that shooting. A wrongful-death suit filed by the family is pending.