WHEN THE STORY HIT the nightly news on July 16 that four local teenagers had been arrested for numerous attacks upon the homeless, it sounded like another senseless urban crime of human upon human.
Local media dutifully reported the arrests, but because children under 18 accused of crimes are granted anonymity by law, the public was left to fill in the blanks about the mysterious motives of four kids seemingly bent on mayhem.
But now a picture is emerging of a small knot of Latino boys — not hard cases, but students from Fairfax High School — armed with cell phones and home computers who cooked up a creepy plot to harm defenseless citizens, all for the dream of gaining fame on the Internet.
Their aim — to get on YouTube.
Police say they have confiscated vicious videos that the boys recorded on their cell phones as they inflicted their small-time terror, throwing smoke bombs at sleeping drifters, causing one man’s blanket to catch on fire, and wielding a very realistic-looking “gun” to shoot another man at close range with hard plastic pellets as he lay under his blanket.
Los Angeles Police Department officers arrested three of the boys on July 15 near Olympic Boulevard and Broadway downtown, after cops came upon a homeless man enveloped in smoke — with the youths still gloating over him.
Police say the three were doing nothing to help the stricken man, and in fact two of them were recording the scene on cell-phone video cameras, as the victim’s blanket burned. The homeless man, who authorities say is developmentally disabled, was not seriously hurt.
Once the boys were hauled into Central Division downtown, detectives found each boy had a cell phone containing recordings of what appeared to be a series of prior assaults on homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks of Hollywood, Skid Row and the industrial area south of downtown. The assaults date back to July 3.
The four unidentified Fairfax High School students, three 17-year-olds and one 15-year-old, are being charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
Lieutenant Paul Vernon, head of detectives at LAPD’s Central Division, warns that “This is a wake-up call for parents to know where their children are and what they are up to at all times.” Vernon says the department does not plan to release the series of video images because “that’s just what the boys wanted to achieve.”
Vernon says the parents of the boys have all been “very cooperative” since the investigation began. But he says the boys, who lived on the Westside, and in Hollywood and Westlake near MacArthur Park, and knew each other from school, all had the freedom to roam unsupervised.
The unidentified parents willingly gave up to police the home computers the boys had been using, and were said by police to be “very upset” about what their sons have been up to. Says Vernon, “All families gave consent to search homes and seize property.”
Alice Callahan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a Skid Row program that reaches out to immigrants and their children, worries that the four students were committing “copy cat” attacks, and may have gotten the idea from other assaults on the homeless in Los Angeles.
Callahan, who often defends the rights of the homeless against police roundups and other issues, and who has helped hundreds of homeless people on Skid Row, points to an incident several months ago when two men beat up a homeless person — and videotaped it. In addition, she alleges, Los Angeles police were involved in early June in a “beating on a homeless woman in Skid Row.” Vernon says that incident “involved a woman who had a warrant for her arrest,” but when police tried to arrest her she “assaulted them by biting them.” Detective Russ Long, of the Central Division, says “the incident is still under investigation.”
BUT ON THE LARGER QUESTION, of how four boys could find such bullying an avenue to fame, she says, “It is a cowardly act, instead of, say, picking on kids their own age who might fight back. And why they thought this would make them look cool if it got on the Internet is beyond me.”
Many bullies think of the weak, such as the homeless, as “fair game” because “the homeless don’t fight back,” she adds. “They are a group of people some don’t think of as humans. People who aren’t like us. Whether it’s the police attacking them or teenagers, it’s a thing a coward would do .?.?. Maybe these kids thought if the police are going to beat up a homeless woman, then maybe it’s okay.”
Fairfax High was once one of the city’s better schools, but has struggled for years with a high dropout rate and low test scores. The campus itself has been relatively quiet since a bizarre case in 2004, when a 15-year-old girl attending night classes claimed she went into a bathroom in the late afternoon and was raped by four 16-year-old boys who followed her inside.
The case roiled the school campus, but was dismissed five months later by a juvenile court referee at the request of a defense attorney after prosecutors presented their evidence.
David Sieldelman, Fairfax High School’s summer principal, had no comment on the current case. But a student at the school, who would identify himself only as “Michael G.,” says he was appalled by the attacks. “I didn’t even want it to be on the news and [have] people know they were from Fairfax,” says the student, who was attending a summer-school session. Showing such bad judgment, he says, “Those students will probably end up being homeless themselves.”
Many of the homeless in Hollywood and downtown who spoke to the L.A. Weekly were unaware of the attacks by the teens.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” says a man on the corner of Trinity Street and Washington Boulevard, near the scene of one of the attacks. The man identified himself as “Wind,” then broke into a frantic scratching frenzy before beginning a tirade against the city for the way authorities deal with the homeless.
“They have these shelters, but they don’t take care of people in the shelters and that’s why we stay on the street,” he says. “The government needs to do more, but nobody really cares.”
One homeless man who did know of the attacks was outraged. “It bothers the shit outta me,” says Albert Tarrant, 59, a homeless man who suffers from lung problems — tuberculosis, he claims — and stays near Melrose Avenue and Vine Street in Hollywood, the scene of one of this month’s attacks.
Tarrant, who claims that in better days he was once a caddy for golf great Arnold Palmer and comedian Bob Hope, said he knew one of the victims. “It’s just not right,” says Tarrant. “Why beat on someone already down? They need to throw them in jail.”
Lieutenant Vernon says that jail time is fairly unlikely for the four boys.
The students are awaiting an August 1 preliminary hearing at Eastlake Juvenile Court. If convicted, they could serve time at the California Youth Authority — basically a prison for children. But, because the Fairfax High students have no prior criminal history, that’s a long shot.
Rather, Vernon says, it’s more likely that a judge will sentence them to perform community service.
“For each of these boys, there are dozens more whose school and parents bring them down to Skid Row to serve meals to the homeless,” says Vernon. “It is experiences like that that help the youth put a human face on what other parts of society see as inconsequential. These kids need to know the Golden Rule: to treat others as you would like to be treated.”
For Vernon’s money, he says the most appropriate sentence a judge could mete out would be to assign the four youths to work with some of those the most in need — the homeless.?