The Back Gate
The area around the Oceanside pier and boardwalk glistens, picture perfect: palm trees, silver sand, blue water, and crowds of people. It’s easy to see how this town got its name. But there’s a lot more to Oceanside than its ocean side.
To the north is Camp Pendleton, a border that marks Oceanside as the unquestionable end of San Diego County. North of that is frontier.
You can drive east, away from the ocean, covering five long miles on Highway 76, deep into the San Luis Rey Valley, past an indoor shooting range, an airstrip, an old drive-in theater, greenish fields, various neighborhoods, and countless shopping centers, and you’ll think you’ve entered another city. But you haven’t. You’re still in Oceanside.
Turn left on College, right on North River Road, and you’ve reached the last civilian outpost before the back gate of Camp Pendleton. The maps call this neighborhood Mesa Margarita, but everyone knows it as the Back Gate.
The people who live in the $400,000 houses of the Back Gate will tell you that it’s basically a good neighborhood. The place looks average enough and quiet enough to a casual passerby, with careful landscaping and green lawns.
Although…there are an awful lot of high front-yard fences…
Joanne Rush has called the Back Gate home since it was built in the late 1960s. She works as the community assistant at San Luis Rey Valley Resource Center, a little storefront operation on Vandegrift Boulevard, right at the front gate of the Back Gate. Rush, who is white, has been at the center for over 14 years.
Her husband is a Vietnam veteran. The history of the neighborhood dates to that war, when the mostly L-shaped, single-story houses of the Back Gate were built for the wives of soldiers. “We have 32 houses on my street,” Rush says, referring to Ann Street. “And when I moved in, there was only one man who lived here.”
Today, the Back Gate has earned a different reputation altogether, as a hotbed of gang activity.
But Rush, and many other Back Gate residents, suck their teeth at that. “The press always portrays it as such a bad neighborhood,” Rush says. “But we’re good people and we work hard. We’re just waiting for someone to take notice of that.”
Samoans, Part 1:
A Cultural Connection
Everyday Samoan language sounds like spoken song, pouring out like liquid: an ongoing flowing flooding of open vowels.
Samoan traditional clothing is showy and colorful, everything reminiscent of bright flowers.
We’ve all seen Samoans playing football in the NFL. Their body type lends itself to athleticism. As a people, they are generally huge and implausibly agile.
With nearly 5000 Samoans, Oceanside is home to the second largest concentration of Samoans in the United States. The majority of these Pacific Islanders live in and around the Back Gate area.
Many of the Samoans here are descendants of U.S. Marines who were stationed at Camp Pendleton. The first wave came in the 1940s, during World War II, and now four generations call Oceanside home.
At the annual Oceanside Samoan Cultural Celebration last summer, over 200 attendees listened to traditional music, participated in traditional and not-so-traditional dancing, and watched and competed in cultural activities such as banana-peeling contests.
It was a festive scene, and many seemed to connect deeply with the activities. For example, all of the traditional contests pitted grandparents against grammar-schoolers; sometimes, a younger kid won.
Samoans, Part 2:
“Samoan kids are just the most respectful kids,” says Joanne Rush. She’s seated at a plastic indoor picnic table at the Resource Center. “They help clean up, even without being asked. And if they’re vacuuming, after playtime is done, they don’t just drag the vacuum around. They move the furniture and they make sure to do a really good job. I’ve never had a Samoan kid talk back to me or use foul language. And they seem to be pretty much like that with the other kids as well.”
Wayne Godinet, a senior advisor for the Oceanside Samoan Cultural Committee, agrees. “These fourth-generation kids are getting so good at riding the fence,” he shakes his head. “When the sun goes down, they can hang with the bad crowd, and in the morning, they’re real good at meeting their family duties. I mean, some of these kids change into their colors on the bus on the way to school.”
Perhaps the biggest and most high-profile gang in the Back Gate — the Deep Valley Bloods — is over 90 percent Samoan.
One may be led to wonder how such a God-fearing, respectful, and tradition-minded people could also make up a criminal organization like a gang.
A school bus driver took an unofficial survey of Back Gate kids, asking his young commuters what they could ever want with gangs and gang life. The overwhelming response? Protection, protection, protection.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
Dereck, 13, attends Jefferson Middle School. Next year he’ll go to Oceanside High.
“I don’t need protection from a gang,” Dereck says. “God’s my protection.”
But what about the pressure from your peers?
“If someone says, ‘Hey, take a smoke,’ or something like that, and if I don’t want to do it, then they call me names and make fun of me,” Dereck says. “But it doesn’t bother me. They want to call me names, they can call me names. But I’m not going to go that way.”
Why do other kids go that way?
“I think because of the way they grew up,” Dereck says. “Maybe the people they look up to are involved in gangs.”
Jonathan, 20, is in the Navy and lives in the Back Gate.
“I usually stay inside, so I don’t see much,” says Jonathan. “I’m not really an outgoing person. I like playing video games, so…but I’ve heard gunshots before. And sometimes I’ll come home, and I’ll see cops around, with their lights flashing, and then I read stuff in the newspaper. But that’s not very often. It’s not, like, all the time or anything.”
Chad, 19, graduated from Carlsbad High School and has friends in Oceanside.
“I think it’s the drugs that messes up kids’ heads,” Chad says. “Drugs make people do crazy things, and they start going against each other. It creates competition. When I was 13, a lot of my friends started using PCP and acid, and they started giving it to me for free. And then after, like, half a year, once I was already hooked, then they wanted to start charging me for it. So that’s how they got me. And how are you going to get money when you’re 13? So I had to start stealing and stuff. I did what I had to, because I was just up in my head. I wasn’t thinking about anyone else at the time. So I actually went with the skinhead crew for a little while. It messed up a lot of my relationships with friends and my family. But I got out of that a couple years ago, and I’m trying to change some of my buddies around now.”
At the mention of gangs, one kid runs his hands back and forth over the top of his head and says, “I don’t feel right talking about that.”
Another kid won’t give his name or age but does say, “My friends have mugged people right in front of me, but I don’t get involved. We’ll be walking, and they’ll pull out a knife and try to take someone’s money. Whenever that happens, I just want to get out of the scene.”
Israel, 16, goes to El Camino High School. He lives in the Back Gate.
“I don’t really go out that much,” Israel says. “My parents insist on me staying inside. Especially at night. Back when that cop died, that was crazy. And when they killed that kid. That was bad, too. But otherwise, I guess I hear cop cars and gunshots sometimes from my house, but not all that much. I’m pretty used to how it is here, though. This is where I live. I don’t feel unsafe. This is my home.”
Back Gate Shootings
The main street running through the Back Gate is Vandegrift Boulevard. Many of the other streets in the area, including Arthur, Gold, and Charles streets, either cross Vandegrift at some point or run closely parallel to it.
ON VANDEGRIFT BOULEVARD:
Aug. 19, 2006 — A man in his 30s is shot near Camp Pendleton’s back gate about 3:00 a.m. and walks into a hospital 12 hours later for treatment.
March 14, 2004 — A 23-year-old man is shot at a convenience store around 1:30 a.m. He survives.
ON ARTHUR AVENUE:
June 10, 2006 — Two men, aged 23 and 24, are shot after arguing with men in a sedan while in front of a home near North River Road. They survive.
Oct. 15, 2005 — Jimmy Malo, 27, shoots at and misses three Oceanside police detectives as they patrol a street in an unmarked vehicle. Authorities call Malo a gang member, but a jury disagrees. He’s convicted of attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm and faces up to 26 years in prison.
July 23, 2005 — Jonathan Cobb, 19, of Menifee, fires three shots at the home of a rival gang member, hitting no one. Cobb pleads guilty to shooting at an occupied home and is sentenced to eight years in prison.
April 22, 2005 — A 17-year-old is shot in the leg while crossing a parking lot in the 600 block of North Redondo Way. The teen goes to a friend’s house on Arthur Avenue and calls for help.
March 14, 2004 — Shortly before 6:00 a.m., shots are fired into a garage door, hitting a 41-year-old Oceanside woman. She survives.
ON GOLD DRIVE:
Dec. 20, 2006 — Officer Dan Bessant is fatally shot while on an unrelated traffic stop. Gang members Meki Gaono, 17, and Penifoti “C.J.” Taeotui, 16, plead not guilty in adult court and await trial.
June 9, 2005 — Rusty Seau, 16, is fatally shot in a fight with a rival gang. Tony Lessie, 17, is convicted of murder, as an adult, and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.
March 16, 2004 — Lacy Charles Black, 26, fires at a former gang member and his sister in front of their home. The brother is hit four times and survives. The sister is unhurt. Black is convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 65 years to life in prison.
ON CHARLES DRIVE:
March 16, 2004 — Shots are fired into a house, missing a 34-year-old man inside.
Sources: Oceanside Police Department and the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Salilo Moimoi is a huge fellow with a recognizably Samoan body type: round yet jutting face, thick neck, broad shoulders, enormous arms and legs, and big hands. He wears his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. His goatee has begun to show strands of dignified gray.
“It all started out for me in the deep valley, looking for a place of belonging, you know,” Moimoi says. “I never hung out with my parents much. So I ran the streets and found people that were lonely like me, I guess.”
Moimoi sits at a cement picnic table in John Landes Park. It’s Saturday morning. He’s here to participate in a public antigang event called Victory Outreach. But now he’s gazing off into the green trees with a look of reminiscence.
“And then I got into a gang, the Deep Valley Bloods,” he says in a tone that implies he knows how stupid that decision was. “I was about 13 or 14. And me and my other friend, I’m not going to say his name, but we were the youngest out of the whole crowd. The jump-ins were crazy. On Arthur Street, we used to make two lines. And you’d have to run down the middle. You’d have to make it to the other end to get jumped in. And there was, like, 18 of them every time, to jump you in, to become a gang member. They’d kick you, punch you, and you’d be crawling through the line, and the best thing to do, I learned, was just run. Keep your hands up, and fight back, and run. Because once you fall, you’re not going to make it.”
He manages a pained smile. “It was pretty raw. It was so raw that my uncles were in it, you know. And me and my other friend, we were the youngest ones there when we got jumped in.”
Moimoi is telling about his time as an OG, an original gangster. He’s one of those OGs who went away and then came back to the neighborhood where he used to bang. Only Moimoi’s come back with a definite goal and purpose.
“After I was jumped in, we moved to Vista,” he says. “And that’s where I live now, which is ironic. We used to do beer runs at the 7-Eleven right there in the valley. Now I’m sober and I’m drug-free and I’m living there again, you know. It’s like God brought me back to the place where I started. To help the people in the community where I hurt so many people.”
Moimoi continues his story, as ten or so volunteers set up chairs and tables for the Victory Outreach. Moimoi has volunteered to help by emceeing the proceedings.
“So I went to Vista,” he says, “and ended up seeing one of my friends that I hadn’t seen in a while, and he was a Blood. And me and him were, like, the only two Samoan gang members at Vista High at that time. And he’s doing life in prison right now, without possibility of parole. Anyways, I went the wrong way. I was playing football for Vista High School, and I was pretty good. I guess I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do. So I had my status as a gang banger — we were called the Valley Bloods, but it’s the Deep Valley Bloods now — even though I was in Vista, and the Bloods were in Oceanside, I was still affiliated with them, but not as much, so I made some new friends too. And I got caught up doing drugs, violence, you know, and then I started going to jail.”
Moimoi mentions going to jail as if it were just another after-school activity.
“I ended up doing home invasions,” he says, with a sigh. “We were robbing Pizza Huts and stuff like that. Because we had drug habits now, and none of us worked. We did crystal meth. And if it wasn’t that, we were drinking beers. But we had to support our habit. And none of us had jobs, so we had to go do some licks, you know.”
Moimoi says there was little planning involved for his law-breaking activities.
“It was just off the top,” he shrugs. “Well, we’d always have some inside scoop about who did what at where, you know. We knew that they were counting the money at night, and they’d come out the back to take out the trash and stuff like that. And a lot of us got busted for things like that. I didn’t, but…”
They had one gun that got passed around, and anyone could use it for a lick if they needed it.
“But not everyone would use the gun, because some guys were scared, you know,” Moimoi says. “But we were desperate, because we had to support our drug habit.”
Just in case the sensational things Moimoi has been saying have started to sound a little too gangster-glamorous, he checks himself.
“I’m not proud of any of the things I did, by any means,” he says. “I thank God that He intervened and changed my life around. I give that testimony not to brag about what I did, but to indicate how powerful God is. Because nothing could change me. I did all sorts of programs, and nothing worked. I did 7 years in prison for attempted murder. I got 14 years, but I served 7. And I know it was all a part of God’s plan. He had a job for me to do, and that’s what I do now. When I got out of prison, I went to Victory Outreach Ministry in Escondido. They had a recovery home, 24-hour supervised. I finished it. And that place restored me. There was just a lot of hurt and pain that I was going through, you know. And they restored my family. My parents didn’t want anything to do with me no more at all. They’d taken all my pictures down and thrown them in a closet.”
Moimoi’s father is a matai, or family chief. In Samoan culture, all family business is directed and facilitated in a hierarchy beginning with the matai.
Moimoi says, “My dad’s a talking chief for our family. So I’m next in line to take his standing. But that was all out the window. And my son didn’t want nothing to do with me no more. When I went to do my seven years, I got arrested right in front of him. He was, like, 3 years old, you know. Just the whole ordeal was traumatic.” Moimoi was 25 when he went to jail. “It just went on for such a long time. And I think I went to prison because it was part of God’s plan to get my attention.”
Now Moimoi is a minister for Victory Outreach himself.
“I’m restored now,” he says. “My morals, my family, my goals, one hundred percent. I’m back on track. And the program at Victory Outreach, they teach you how to get plugged into things that help you not go back to your old ways. And the main thing is God. God’s got to be number one. And number two is family, and number three is your ministry. Ministry, meaning, what are you doing now that you’re out? And this is why I’m reaching out to the community at any cost, you know.”
It turns out that Moimoi has a real gift with a microphone and a sense of humor about his own past.
At the beginning of the outreach, after 30 people have shown up, he enthusiastically takes the mike and bellows, “Give it up for the Oceanside Police! Come on, everybody. Give it up for these guys. They’re the ones who kept me from jumping through your back window when you were on vacation.”
He will tell a part of his compelling story to the assembled crowd, before he passes the speaking duties to others.
Victory Outreach Church is a ministry made up mostly of recovery homes, for people recovering from drugs, alcohol, prison, and gangs. The ministry has been organizing outreaches for gang members and potential gang members about every month for the past year.
Over the course of the next two hours, there will be testimonies, announcements, educational skits, informal talks, children’s activities, and both live tunes and music from a deejay.
Everything at the outreach — food, equipment, live music, everyone’s time — is donated.
After being the center of attention for a while, entertaining and educating the crowd, Moimoi returns to the picnic table at the corner of the park to talk some more.
Does he keep in contact with any of the OGs from his day?
“Oh, yeah,” Moimoi says. “All the time. There’s very few left, though. Most of them are spending life in prison, and, gee, I could say about nine died already. From my era, I’d say about five are good family men now. And there’s probably five more who are in and out, in and out.”
He means in and out of prison.
“My nephew was somehow linked to this shooting of [Oceanside Police Officer] Dan Bessant,” Moimoi says. “And he’s in prison for that right now. He called me after that happened, and he told me, ‘Bro, we really need to do something about this.’ And that’s my nephew, that’s my sister’s son, who got caught up in that stuff, you know. And that’s what really gave me the oomph to do what I’m doing now, you know, helping out. It’s what really opened my eyes. Because it was so close. It’s in my backyard now. And what are you going to do? You just going to throw dirt over it and pretend like it never happened? Or are you going to react?”
Another thought pops into Moimoi’s mind.
“The thing that’s really sad,” he says, “is these kids are looking to find a place. They want a place where they can be loved and where they can feel wanted. That’s the main thing. They want to feel accepted.”
So, to feel accepted, they walk through a line of “friends” who try to beat the crap out of them?
“That’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?” Moimoi agrees. He laughs, a rumbling through his great barrel chest. “But you know what that means. That means you’ll take anything to be a part of what they are.”
Moimoi waves his arm across the park, toward the volunteers for the outreach, who are now breaking things down, and toward some of the kids who have shown up that day, many of whom are now playing basketball. On Moimoi’s forearm is a tattoo, the word “Uso.” Uso means “brother” in Samoan.
“One thing these kids need is another idea in their heads,” Moimoi says. “They need to think about what they want to be when they grow up. It’s like Junior Seau. We all grew up the same way, but he always wanted to play basketball and football. And instead, we went over there and did whatever we were doing, acting dumb. Stealing beers from 7-Eleven.”
Moimoi sighs again.
“The problem,” he concludes, “when you’re out in your madness and running amok — no one’s saying anything to teach you different. I admit I probably wouldn’t have listened when I was a kid, but at least if someone was saying something — like this Victory Outreach message — it might have made me think twice.”
How Do You Prioritize?
Is it God, country, family, self?
What if you don’t believe in God?
What if you’re displaced from your country? Then is culture second, or even first?
What if you have no family?
Where do strangers come in? When, in our prioritizing, are we supposed to consider the needs of others?
And what about the earth?
What is a person supposed to think of first?
“It has to be God first to beat this gang thing,” says Wayne Godinet. He couldn’t have more conviction in his voice. “With the Samoans, blood is thicker than water. And, perhaps unfortunately, blood is also thicker than the truth, sometimes. It’s family first, then culture, and then God. But it has to be God first.”
Godinet himself is Samoan. There are seven kids in his family. And he, like most Oceanside Samoans, is the descendant of a U.S. Marine.
“Often,” says Godinet, “the tendency among Samoans, when something bad happens, is to say, ‘Oh, they’re from that family and that church and that village.’ But then when something good happens, it’s like, ‘That’s my cousin,’ or, ‘He goes to my church.’ But all that has to stop. We have to realize that as a community we’re part black, part white, part Mexican, part everything, and we have to try to love everybody.”
Samoans, Part 3:
A Cultural Disconnect
Wayne Godinet never lets it be forgotten that the subjects he’s talking about are touchy ones. “Keep in mind, I speak only for my immediate family, and for the Samoan Cultural Committee, that small group that I’m affiliated with. These are only my own opinions. I don’t speak for the Samoan community at large or for the culture at large.”
Godinet is careful with his words because of the high stakes and high sensitivities involved.
“This is such a sensitive situation because we live so close to all of this,” he says. “We have to drive by OGs every day on our ways to work.”
That being said, Godinet is bold enough to paint an interesting cultural picture from his own experience.
“Samoa being traditional,” he says, “you don’t see so many of the problems there with the youth. Especially in Independent Samoa, but also in certain parts of American Samoa. Because over there, it’s more of a communal mindset, like an extended family. Everybody supports each other. Now, they do the same thing here, but it’s hard here because in a village it’s more controlled, and church is an everyday venue there. You’re connected to your family.”
Godinet, 54, has been involved with the Oceanside Boys Club for 18 years.
“Over here, our kids are going to public schools, many of them, and it’s a capitalist society,” he says. “You snooze, you lose. So it’s pretty aggressive. And you have all the high-tech instruments here, and you’ve got the television. We don’t have the kind of programming in Samoa that you have here. And then you have the peer pressure. And the lure of a gang for some of the young kids that I see is extremely strong. And a lot of our kids are confused.”
There’s a sadness to Godinet’s voice and his demeanor, not exactly hangdog but close. But there’s also fire behind the sadness, and hope.
“For the kids who are still caught up in the traditions,” he says, “that lure is not as strong. The church and the family and the community can work almost as well here as it does back there. And that’s why I give a lot of credit to some of the churches.”
Godinet himself grew up in east Oceanside and always resisted the temptations of gangs.
“Our Samoan community has a lot of problems anyway,” he acknowledges. “And where I see most of the problem is in the third and fourth generations that we have here. Because there’s such a disconnect with the old traditional values of the first generation. So I think it’s incumbent upon my generation, the second generation of Samoans here in Oceanside, to bring the elders and the youngest members of our community together onto a common ground of understanding.”
Hail, Hail, the Gangs Are All Here
“It’s not just Samoan gangs that we have here in Oceanside,” Lieutenant Joe Young says. “In fact, they make up only a very small percentage of the gang activity in this town. We have Hispanic gangs and black gangs as well. And then we also have gangs that consist of different races.”
Lieutenant Young heads the Oceanside Gang Unit: nine dedicated officers whose expertise is this one specialized area of law enforcement.
He launches into a daunting list.
“We have Posole, which is a Hispanic gang,” he begins. “We have Mesa Locos, which is Hispanic. We have Tri-City Thunder Hills, and that’s a combination of different ethnicities. We have a gang called Deep Valley Bloods, which is mostly Samoan. We have Deep Valley Crips, which is mostly black. We have another Crip set, which is called the Insane Crip Gang, which is mostly black. We have a gang that goes by the letters CMG, which is Crook Mob Gangsters, and that is mostly black also. We have Center Street, which is a Hispanic gang. We have Krook City Bloods, which is mostly Samoan, but there’s others in there also. We have South Oceanside Posse, which was the original name, but they go by South Oceanside now, and they’re a combination of races also. And lastly, we have another Crip set, the Westside Crips, and they’re majority black. That’s 11 gangs that are currently active in Oceanside.”
And how many members are in those gangs?
“If you were to combine all the numbers together,” Lieutenant Young says, “for all the gangs, we are looking at roughly 600 members. The smallest gang, South Oceanside, has only 3 known members, and the largest, Posole, has about 200. The Samoan gangs, the Deep Valley Bloods, have about 50 members, and Krook City has less than half of that, maybe 20.”
Lieutenant Young reports that some factors seem to contribute to gang activity in an area. “Low-income housing, because there is a socioeconomic impact on it; failure in schools; broken homes; and, in some cases, that type of gang activity is firmly entrenched in their families, so it’s what the kids are used to seeing, and they carry that on.”
What are the police doing in the Back Gate in particular to keep the gangs at bay?
“We have three injunctions now, against Posole, Center Street, and Mesa,” Lieutenant Young says. “And we’re very happy with how well those injunctions have worked. Injunctions are court-ordered, issued and signed by a judge, and they prohibit documented members of a specific gang from doing a laundry list of things in their own neighborhoods. So these individuals were served papers that prohibited them from doing things like hanging out together within the boundaries of that injunction. And we’ve severely hampered the ability of those gangs to function in the ways they used to. Now, we haven’t done this with the Samoan gangs, because they’re a little more spread out and transitory in nature. But Posole is firmly entrenched in a particular neighborhood.”
He goes on. “In the Back Gate in particular, we have done some different things. We’ve done wiretaps, for instance. But I have to tell you, wiretaps are very labor-intensive. Because once you go down that path, you have to monitor phone lines, and in some cases there’s multiple phone lines that you have to monitor for hours on end. And when you devote resources to those types of things, it takes away from your ability to get out there on a daily basis and be more proactive at the street level. So wiretaps are done, but not very often. What is done often out in the Back Gate are probation checks and parole checks. We might look for something as minor as curfew violations or violations of other conditions. We’re also striving to maintain a high-visibility patrol. At any given time, we have at least five officers in the Mesa Margarita area and maybe two or three in the Back Gate patrolling at any given time.”
Then Lieutenant Young changes his tone. “Everybody knows that the responsibility of law enforcement is to suppress crime,” he says. “But to really make an impact in law enforcement, you have to do more than suppress. You have to intervene, and you have to prevent. So that’s the triangle of community-oriented policing that we swear by up here in Oceanside: suppression, intervention, prevention. Before, maybe five or ten years ago, we were relying on other agencies for intervention and prevention. But you can’t do that and have successful community-oriented policing. So now we’re going into the schools, we’re going into the neighborhoods, and we’re showing them a different side of us. And we’re making a difference. I think you’re going to see very little gang influence over these Oceanside neighborhoods anymore.”
Lieutenant Young also stresses that there is something the average citizen can do to curb the influence of gangs.
“We’ve instituted a hotline,” he says, “so people can call us anonymously with tips about gang activity in their neighborhoods. That number is 760-435-4985. That’s the Oceanside Gang Police Hotline.”
What Are Bloods?
Detective Gordon Govier has worked in the Back Gate since 1999 as a gang-suppression officer, neighborhood-policing officer, and gang detective.
“Prior to having the Deep Valley Bloods, the Deep Valley Crips were already established,” Govier says. “The Deep Valley Crips are primarily an African-American gang. And it’s just a normal progression that the Samoans (who were defending themselves against these Deep Valley Crips, who were African-American) would become Blood gang members, because they would be the opposite gang. So that’s basically how they came about.”
Govier has given expert testimony on the Bloods and Crips in superior court.
“Originally,” says Govier, “and this is going back to the mid-’80s, the Samoan gang members called themselves the Valley Boys. That evolved, once the Crips became prevalent, into the Deep Valley Bloods.”
How did they “become” Bloods? Did they just start calling themselves Bloods?
“More or less, yes,” Govier says. “They began calling each other ‘Blood.’ And they started to adopt the traditions associated with Blood gang sets: wearing of the color red and the typical way of how Bloods speak to each other. Bloods will usually avoid use of the letter c, as a form of disrespect to Crip gang members. So, rather than saying that they’re ‘kickin’ it,’ when they’re hanging out, they’ll say ‘bickin’ it.’ Instead of saying ‘that’s cool,’ they’ll say, ‘that’s bool.’ It’s very common that they adopt that language. I know that from wiretaps that I’ve listened to, jail calls, and things like that. When they write, they will either avoid use of the letter c completely, so, for instance, they’ll call a movie a ‘flick,’ but they’ll spell it ‘flikk,’ or, what they’ll do is they’ll use a small letter c and a big letter K, because that represents ‘Crip killer.’ And they’ll take any opportunity they can get. Bloods will often wear a red Calvin Klein T-shirt with the small c and the big K, because, first of all, it’s red and they’re Bloods, and second of all, it says cK and they’re Crip killers.”
The Not-So-Mean Streets
Lieutenant Joe Young doesn’t wear a police uniform to work. He doesn’t drive a standard police car. He’s a plainclothes officer. It allows him to operate “a little more under the radar.”
Tonight, Young’s in jeans and a pullover, driving his white Chevrolet Grand Prix. Underneath, the pullover hides a badge, gun, handcuffs, and a radio. Inside the car are a police radio, siren, and “wig-wag” colored police lights on the passenger’s windshield visor.
Lieutenant Young spends most of his worknights in the office of the Oceanside police station on Mission Avenue. But tonight he’s out patrolling through the Back Gate.
At dusk, the streets of the Back Gate look like any other suburban streets. A carpenter unloads the back of his truck after a hard day’s work. Three kids throw a football in the waning light. A woman walks along, alone, holding a few DVDs under her arm.
There’s no graffiti anywhere and little garbage. Winding around the sleepy streets of the Back Gate, all you might see are a couple of abandoned shopping carts and a candy wrapper or two. And even those might not be there the next time you drive through. This community obviously takes pride in its appearance.
“You look at the condition of a lot of these houses,” Lieutenant Young says, “and you can really tell how much these people take care of their yards. It’s not that run-down look that we used to see. And that’s encouraging to me.”
Lieutenant Young himself is half Samoan. His hair has receded somewhat, and his face has an inherent friendliness, as though he’s always ready to smile. The only thing that might give Lieutenant Young away as a police officer is his mustache.
“I guess we’re looking for any suspicious activity,” Lieutenant Young says, sailing along Vandegrift Boulevard with both hands on the steering wheel. The street lights of the Back Gate have just come on for the night. “Really, what I’m looking for is someone I’ve never seen before. Maybe that’s the person I’d stop and talk to, just to get to know them and let them know who I am.”
Lieutenant Young makes it clear that he knows more about what he’s looking for than he can legally say. “By now, I know a lot of the gang members, and I know where they live.”
And where do they live?
“I’ll tell you what,” Lieutenant Young says. “I’ll drive really slowly down this street, and you tell me which houses have gang members living in them.”
But not one house stands out. There’s no garbage in any of the yards, no show of gang colors, and no driveways with souped-up Hummers or lowriders.
Lieutenant Young makes a few slow tours around the neighborhood. Night has fallen fully now, and Young’s Grand Prix turns off Vandegrift Boulevard, making a right onto Gold Drive. Then it’s an immediate left on Arthur Avenue. He eases along at cruising speed. Right on East Parker Street, across Leon Street, and down toward Melba Bishop Park.
The streets are quiet. Very quiet. But not eerily so. There’s a kid on a bike who just bought something, and he’s riding home with a white plastic bag draped over his handlebars. There’s a couple putting some boxes into the trunk of their car.
What about all the horror stories? What about the stories of police officers driving around here and being shot at in their cars?
Easing down Arthur Avenue at 20 miles per hour, Lieutenant Young reaches a dead end. As he turns the car around, he says, “As we speak, we’re right at the point where officers have been shot at. We just passed it. But you didn’t see any hesitancy on my part. I’m okay with driving down the street, and I’m okay with waving at everybody. Do they know my car? A lot of these guys know my car. But it’s not about trying to be sneaky or anything. I just don’t think it’s like that anymore. That’s stuff that has happened, but it’s more the exception than the rule.”
Then, pulling slowly away from the dead end on Arthur, he says, “It’s really night and day around here. And that’s a cliché, I know, but it really is just night and day, the difference between what it’s like now on the streets of Oceanside and what it was like back in the ’80s and early ’90s. I mean, it’s not like the radio is silent nowadays; there’s still stuff going on. But nothing of the magnitude or depth of what it used to be. It all goes back to our model of community-oriented policing: suppression of crime, yes, but also intervention and prevention.”
To be sure, the police radio isn’t silent, but few calls interrupt Young’s words. “Car on fire with no one in it,” for instance. But over the course of many evening hours, that’s about it. A minor drug arrest in downtown Oceanside. “Those are my vice guys,” Young says, proudly.
Whenever a police car passes, Young says, “There goes a good guy.”
Four marked patrol cars and as many more unmarked ones are pounding the Back Gate beat, even as Young speaks.
Passing by Luiseño Park, Lieutenant Young stops and says, “That’s a great example of the city’s commitment to providing positive things for the kids.” He’s gazing at tennis courts with bright lights, a couple of ball fields, and a playground. “Ten or 15 years ago,” he says, “this was nothing but weeds.”
The parks around the Back Gate are indeed large and impressive, with good facilities and excellent upkeep.
Later in the evening, the lieutenant heads to Melba Bishop Park. This huge green network of fields, playgrounds, and courts has a state-of-the-art gymnasium at one end. Young parks the Grand Prix outside the main building and walks inside.
The gym is heated, well lit. Dozens of tiny kids are having basketball practice on the lacquered wooden courts. Lieutenant Young smiles as he looks across the sea of little dribblers and shooters. He utters a single word: “Prevention.”
One of the leaders of Victory Outreach Ministry, Tommy Romero, isn’t Samoan. But he is from the Back Gate. And he knows about gangs.
“I arranged a few years back to have my son’s apartment raided by gang members,” Romero says, indicating quite a twist on the theme of concerned parenting. “I wanted to scare him away from the gang life, and I decided to try to educate him in my own way.”
But when Romero showed up at his son’s apartment an hour after the planned raid, he was more than surprised.
“They were all partying together.” He shakes his head. “My son and the gang were drinking and laughing like old friends. And I was, like, ‘What’s going on?’ And they told me my son was already connected. He sold them their dope. I had no idea he was so far gone.”
Romero’s son was eventually arrested. Three times. After a prison stay, he reformed himself.
Today, Romero’s boy is on a Victory Outreach mission in New Zealand.
“You’d be surprised,” Romero says. His smile lifts his graying mutton chops.
“They’ve started copying our ways in New Zealand, copying our rap videos,” he says. “Now they have motorcycle gangs and Crips and Bloods and the whole thing. My son’s down there helping out.”
Romero knows about the gang life because he’s lived it himself.
“I was a gang member once,” he says. “And now I just want to give back. We took so much from the neighborhoods, and now I want to give some of that back.”
Roy Vallez, 58, grew up in Oceanside, and he helps out a lot of kids in the area.
“I moved away for about 19 years,” he says, “and when I came back 2 years ago, I decided to get involved, because this wasn’t the Oceanside that I knew. It was just a mess when I came back. The Oceanside I left was a community of one. Not a community of different races destroying each other’s lives.”
Vallez moved away to travel around the country doing prison ministries. He’s a devout Christian. And now he’s returned to Oceanside and has started up Gangland Ministries.
“It’s just something I thought God wanted me to do.” Vallez smiles. “I was over in the ’hood, dealing with a lot of the kids, and they kept asking me who I represented. And I kept telling them, ‘Oceanside.’ But then I was in prayer one night, and God said, ‘No, you represent Me.’ So I came up with Gangland Ministry, and I printed up shirts that said, ‘Who do you represent?’ And I listed all the areas: Posole, Crown Heights, the Deep Valley, the Tri-City, the Bloods, the Crips…or Jesus. And then I’d go out and ask the kids questions. You know, do you believe in God? Do you know any of the Ten Commandments? And every gang banger knew one commandment, and that was ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ And then I’d ask them, ‘Well, why do you kill then?’ Mostly I’d just get real dumb looks.”
Now Vallez is trying to make a difference in Oceanside. It seems to be working.
“We just enrolled our first boy in Palomar College,” he says, proudly. “He was involved in a stabbing about a year and a half ago, but he wasn’t carrying a weapon, he was with two guys who were. So we worked with him and got his head on straight, and he graduated from high school last year. He’s a real good kid. But he doesn’t have a family, no mother and no father, and he actually had to raise his own eight-year-old brother. So he’s a real good kid, and we helped get him into Palomar College absolutely free.”
Rest in Peace:
Officer Dan Bessant
“The most incredible thing, I think, about the night Dan Bessant died was all the police cars,” Joanne Rush says. “It was just incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were hundreds of them. Hundreds.”
Wayne Godinet remembers the days leading up to Bessant’s murder in December 2006.
“When Officer Bessant was shot and killed,” Godinet says, “he had just been named as a liaison to work with the Samoan community. But the thing was, his wife was pregnant, he was going to have a baby, so he was taking some time off to be with his wife. So in that interim period, we were anxiously waiting for him to join our effort in the Back Gate, you know. And then when he did get back, I remember it was on a Wednesday, and I’d been waiting to talk with him, but I decided to wait till Thursday. I wanted to give him one day to get acclimated back to work. And that Wednesday night, his first night back, was when he was shot and killed.”
Godinet remembers his cell phone ringing off the hook.
“I didn’t know it was him that got shot,” Godinet says. “But then I heard who it was, and I was, like, ‘Oh, man. He just had a baby.’ And then I got down there, and they were trying to go into homes in Back Gate. Some of the homes were Samoan. I knew some of the families and was able to call in and peacefully get them to come out and deal with the SWAT situation on that night.”
Bessant’s murder turned out to be the catalyst for the recent thrust to eradicate gangs from the Samoan culture in the Back Gate.
“After that, some of the guys I grew up with who were involved in faith-based organizations and outreach had contacted me about how they could help and what they could do. We just decided we had to do as much as we could. But we also realized we had to do it locked arm in arm, culture to culture. And bring faith and a message and resources into these neighborhoods. We had to become like street soldiers fighting against the whole gang mentality. So Dan Bessant’s death was a terrible, terrible thing. But we’re trying to make something positive come out of it.”
Rest in Peace:
Joanne Rush was just a short jog from the spot where Rusty Seau died in June 2005. She’d known him since he was a little boy.
Rush has witnessed an awful lot in her 14 years at the San Luis Rey Resource Center. Shootings in the parking lot. Dramas that have even spilled in through the doors. She’s never feared for her life, she says, but she’s also grown accustomed to some pretty harsh things.
“I’ve heard gunshots over 50 times in my life,” Rush said. She’s jolly-seeming, but in a quiet way, with big, thick glasses and short gray hair. She’s a grandmother with grandkids who are often afraid to go to the bathroom at their own school.
By now, when Rush hears the reports of guns in the distance, she does one thing: she prays.
“When Rusty died,” Rush says, “someone ran in and told us what was going on. And we shut the center down and ran around the corner. It was right here on the corner of Gold and Vandegrift. I don’t think Rusty was shot there. I heard he ran after he was hit, but that’s where he fell. At first, a lot of us thought he’d been hit by a car. It was the middle of the day, and it was all so visible. We were all standing there, but Rusty’s family couldn’t even approach him, because it was a crime scene. Can you imagine watching your son die in front of you and not being able to go to him one last time to tell him that you love him?”
Rest in Peace:
Most people trace the current gang violence to the 1990 murder of Michelle Tate, a 14-year-old black girl shot in the very same parking lot where the Resource Center now stands, on the corner of Redondo and Vandegrift. Tate was killed by a Samoan gang member.
A year later, Akeli “Junior” Kelly was convicted at age 21 of second-degree murder and sentenced to 22 years to life in prison.
“That started the whole tit-for-tat,” Wayne Godinet asserts. “We’ve never been on an even keel since that day. And it was almost 20 years ago!”
Rest in Peace:
Murdered in the Back Gate
Pearl Seau, killed 11/12/02; Jessie Watson, killed 8/31/04; Joaquin Pruitt, killed 6/29/05; Timothy Edward Lindsay, killed 11/3/95.