Can a Cop, a Model and Two Lawyers Break a Surf Gang’s 45-Year Grip on Lunada Bay?
Cory Spencer always felt like an outsider at the beach. He grew up in La Mirada, 18 miles from the nearest ocean. As teenagers, he and his friends would carry their surfboards onto the Orange County Transit bus and ride all the way to Huntington Beach. The locals were "towheads," kids with long, bleached-blond hair. They were all on the Huntington Beach High School surfing team, and they knew Spencer and his friends weren't from around there.
"You got heckled if you got in somebody's way," says Spencer, now a 44-year-old El Segundo police officer, his cadence a perfect hybrid of cop and surfer. "And that's just the natural progression of things when you're learning, you know?"
He says outsiders often are unaware of the local law out in the water. "You don't know the rules about taking off in front of somebody or who has priority on a wave or whatever," he says. "But you learn that. You wait your turn in the water, you watch these guys, and before you know it, they're waving you into some waves. That's just the way surfing culture is.
"But that just doesn't happen in Lunada Bay."
Tucked away on the southeast end of exceedingly affluent Palos Verdes Estates, Lunada Bay is a crescent-shaped rocky cove surrounded by 100-foot cliffs dotted with trees and mansions. On a winter's day, its pristine, emerald waters routinely get 15- to 20-foot waves, perfectly shaped — not breaking in one big wall but peeling slowly down to the right, offering surfers a long, continuous ride. It is, according to The Encyclopedia of Surfing, "Southern California's premier big-wave break."
"It's just a treasure," Spencer says. It is also a closely guarded one. For nearly 50 years, the rocky cove has been controlled by a clique of territorial surfers known as the Bay Boys.
As The Encyclopedia of Surfing also points out: "Visiting surfers since the early 1970s have had rocks thrown at them while walking down the cliffside Lunada trail, and returned from the water to find their car windows broken and their tires slashed — the work of local surfers, the sons of millionaires, determined to keep their break free of outsiders."
"It's one of the most beautiful spots on the entire coast," says surfer and environmental attorney Mark Massara. "But you literally take your life into your own hands when you visit, because you will be monitored and harassed. I don't take surfboards with me when I go there, I'll tell you that."
Now a movement is afoot to finally pry open the Bay Boys' grip on Lunada. In March, a pair of surfing lawyers filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Lunada Bay Boys. The two lead plaintiffs are Spencer and 29-year-old photographer and model Diana Milena Reed. Their complaint calls the Bay Boys a "criminal street gang" and accuses them of "assault, battery, vandalism, intimidation, harassment, extortion and, upon information and belief, the sale and use of illegal controlled substances."
The suit seeks to impose a gang injunction against the Bay Boys, effectively barring them from visiting their prized beach. It also names as defendants the city of Palos Verdes Estates and Police Chief Jeff Kepley, accusing them of acting with "deliberate indifference" toward the bullying on the water.
"In California, the beach belongs to the public," says plaintiff's attorney Vic Otten, who used to build surfboards. "It's a public asset. You can't have a bunch of trust-fund bullies take away an asset that belongs to the public. It's not right. You see it in Malibu, with billionaires that block access. This isn't any different, except these guys are using violence and intimidation."
Spencer always wanted to be a firefighter, but he couldn't get hired. So when he was 24 he joined LAPD, working Newton Division in gang-infested South L.A. and, later, Rampart as a uniformed narcotics officer. In 2000, he transferred to El Segundo Police Department. The pay was better, and it was closer to the ocean.
He'd first been down to Lunada as a kid, but he got so many stares from the locals that he was too scared to get out of the car. Then, early this year, he heard about Chris Taloa, a surfer from Hawaii and onetime actor (he appeared in the film Blue Crush as a surf bully), who'd started a Facebook group, the Aloha Point Surf Club. Taloa was urging fellow surfers to start showing up at Lunada, in numbers — a sort of civil disobedience against the Bay Boys.
"[Taloa] really got this movement going," Otten says. "He was bringing the public down there, and that really pissed these guys off. They've [since] become more aggressive and more organized."
Spencer and Taloa showed up one day in January, at the height of Lunada's winter swell, along with a security guard ("well versed in jujitsu," according to Spencer), whom they paid $100 to watch their car. Spencer says that before they even began walking down the steep, slippery goat trail, they were being screamed at.
"What the fuck you doing here?"
"You can't surf here, kook!"
Cory Spencer is one of the plaintiffs in the class action suit against the Lunada Bay Boys.
Photo by Ryan Orange
Spencer ignored them, put on his wetsuit and paddled out. He waited patiently and finally caught a wave, about 15 feet high, he guesses.
"Just phenomenal," he says. "A few turns, down the line, rode it to the end, kicked out." As he started to paddle back out into the channel, he noticed a surfer on the next wave turn his board and make a beeline for Spencer's head. Spencer rolled off the side of his board just in time to dodge the incoming board, though he didn't emerge unscathed — its fin sliced Spencer's hand, leaving a half-inch gash.
None of the surfers identified in the suit as Bay Boys returned L.A. Weekly's phone calls. One surfer, approached in person at Lunada Bay, simply shook his head and said, "I wish I could give you some perspective. ... Every day there's some new horrible article." Another smiled and said: "Season's over. No issues today."
Another regular at Lunada Bay who's not named in the suit, Joe Bark, said only: "I'm really surprised. I have no comment. I haven't seen what I've seen in the papers. I don't believe it."
Randy Meistrell, a 57-year-old who's surfed at Lunada Bay since the 1970s and grew up with some of the Bay Boys, says he's seen harassment and doesn't condone it but adds: "To call them all a gang and sue them all is ridiculous."
But numerous outsiders who've dared to surf Lunada disagree. Jordan Wright first worked up the courage to venture down to Lunada's rocky beach on his 27th birthday, in 2012. He took his dad, an L.A. County Sheriff's deputy.
"Every single person, probably 20 people, were screaming at us, yelling, hassling, intimidating us," Wright recalls. Both he and his dad noticed this was no ordinary rabble.
"They use walkie-talkies, they whistle, they have spotters, they delegate duties about who does what," Wright says. "It was run like an organized gang."
"It's a remarkably sophisticated harassment network that's been successful for decades," says Massara, the surfer and attorney. "It's a conspiracy. It was a long-running, well-orchestrated conspiracy."
Geoff Hagins grew up in Redondo Beach, at the very edge of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. His friend Mark Koehler was a regular at Lunada Bay, and on one spring day in 1969, he invited Hagins to come along.
"On the way back, we started getting pelted with rocks," Hagins says. "[Koehler] started screaming, 'It's me! It's me!' Big old boulders coming at us, some of them the size of softballs. I was worried as all hell about my board."
Hagins' sister died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1990, when she was 33, on a beach in Bali, where she had taken her two sons, then 8 and 11, on a surfing trip. Her husband had died three years earlier, also from a heart condition, and Hagins stepped in to help raise the two boys, who were talented surfers, especially the oldest, Hagan Kelly.
Photo by Ryan Orange
Kelly was 12 or 13 when he discovered Lunada Bay. Even though he was barely a teenager, he was hassled just like any other outsider.
"They got up in his face, threatened to kick his ass," Hagins says. "He had rocks thrown at him." When Kelly kept returning to Lunada Bay, the Bay Boys' harassment escalated. "They started calling my house, my parents' house, threatening to kill us."
By then, the media were well aware of the Bay Boys — though that term wouldn't be used for years (they were sometimes referred to as the Lunada Bay Pirates). In 1991, the Los Angeles Times quoted 30-year-old Peter McCollum defending the Bay Boys' harassment: "It's not just a barbaric thing, it is done for a purpose. ... The crowds are so intense these days, you can't have your own little sanctuary. But we do."
Four years later, Hagins convinced Channel 13 news to do a story on Lunada Bay. As cameras rolled on the cliffs above the water, McCollum began screaming at the reporters and, at one point, pushed Hagins. McCollum was arrested and convicted of misdemeanor assault charges — one of the few, if not only, times a surfer has ever been charged for an incident at Lunada.
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Twenty years ago, Hagins and six other plaintiffs sued the Bay Boys, including McCollum and four other named defendants, as well as the city of Palos Verdes Estates. According to the suit, "The District Attorney publicly indicated that the police department interfered with his ability to prosecute Mr. McCollum." It added: "The Palos Verdes police department was fully aware of the Bay Boys' years of improper and illegal conduct but acquiesced, willfully ignored, and condoned same."
"I've had Bay Boys say to me they own the police," Hagins says.
The suit was settled in December 1996, about a year after it was filed. McCollum agreed to pay $15,000, and the city of Palos Verdes agreed to issue a public proclamation that "localism" will not be permitted.
According to the plaintiff's attorney, Mike Sisson, localism died down for at least a couple of years. Police tore down an unpermitted shack that the Bay Boys had built, as well as an official-looking sign that read "Unlocals will be hassled." In the 2000s, the city even put up a camera to live-stream the goings-on in the bay. Months later, however, the city council voted to remove the camera, bowing to pressure from the community.
Since then, Sisson says, the city has reverted to the norm, turning a blind eye to the Bay Boys' antics. At some point, the shack was rebuilt (without a permit) with rocks and cement (the media sometimes refer to it as a "fort").
"It's the culture there," Sisson says. "[The authorities] see it as, 'These guys are our guys.' They went to high school there. They passed this way of life down to the next generation."
The Lunada Bay Boys' beach shack, also known as "the fort"
Photo by Ryan Orange
In a 1991 interview with Surfer Magazine, Frank Ferrara was asked about the Bay Boys' systematic harassment and intimidation of outsiders.
"Look what's happened to Malibu, Trestles, Rincon," he said. "There's five or six guys on every wave. The guys who surf out in the Palos Verdes area — guys who've been there 20 years — they've seen what happens. One guy comes and surfs it, and then he brings two or three guys, and they bring three or four of their friends, and it snowballs and gets out of hand. That's exactly why we want to protect it."
He added later: "I've got two little boys who are 7 and 5, and I hope one day they'll be out there shralping and tearing it up without a crowd."
Ferrara's hopes seem to have come true. His sons, Charlie and Nicholas, are also named in the class action lawsuit, along with their uncle Angelo.
"I grew up with Angelo and Frankie Ferrara," surfer Randy Meistrell says. "They're ... I don't want to say kings, but they're the guys all the young guys look up to."
"I have no respect for the younger guys who beat people up and throw stuff in the water," Meistrell adds. "Angelo and Frankie, they're not about that. They go out and surf and do their thing. If you get in the guys' way, they're gonna say don't get in my way. If you can't surf, get out of here."
"There's no gang there, there's no, like, Bay Boys," Frank Ferrara told The Daily Breeze in April. "It's so far from the truth." His brother Angelo told the paper: "We're all just a family that works and surfs, and that's the spot we grew up in." (Neither brother returned L.A. Weekly's phone calls.)
But those who've dared to surf the bay describe things differently; they claim that the harassment they've encountered follows a pecking order.
"You got the young guys that are the enforcer type, that go out and do the dirty deeds, because they're juveniles," Spencer alleges. "They're the kids and the friends of the older guys, who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s — who are, in the hierarchy, kind of in control."
Plaintiff's attorney Otten estimates that there are around 40 Bay Boys. "We could easily name 40 defendants now," he says. "I don't know if we will." Some are minors, he says, while others are as old as 64.
In addition to the Ferraras, the other Bay Boys named in the lawsuit are Sang Lee, Brant Blakeman, Jalian Johnston and Michael Rae Papayans. In February, Papayans was arrested for punching a 50-year-old man at Dodger Stadium, leaving him in a coma. According to prosecutors, Papayans and his mother had been yelling at a group of people, one of whom was wearing Mets clothing. The New York Post noted that Papayans was friends with Backstreet Boy Nick Carter and that the two had been arrested in a bar fight in Florida.
In May 2015, reporters for The Guardian went down to Lunada Bay with surfboards and a hidden camera. The hostility they filmed was shocking. Most of the comments, according to Spencer's lawsuit, came from Sang Lee: "You shouldn't fucking come down here," a man the suit identifies as Lee can be heard saying on the video. "Stay away from this area. ... The reason there's a lot of space is because we keep it like that. We fucking hassle people. ... We'll burn you every single wave."
When the reporters climbed back up the bluff, they found their car had been egged and the word "kook" written on it in surf wax.
The reporters then went to the Palos Verdes Estates police station and left their camera recording. The officer seemed unconcerned.
"We know all of them," the officer is alleged in the suit to have said. "They are infamous around here. They are pretty much grown men in little men's mindset. ... It literally is like a game with kids on a schoolyard to them, and they don't want you playing on their swing set. ... If you feel uncomfortable, you know, then don't do it."
Diana Milena Reed says she encountered that same blasé attitude when she went to the police. The suit alleges that the Bay Boys taunted and intimidated her when she visited Lunada Bay and that Jalian Johnston sprayed her with a can of beer and exposed himself to her.
Initially, the cops appeared helpful. But according to the lawsuit, the detectives "showed no interest or ability in following up." One, according to the suit, told her something to the effect of, "Why would a woman want to go to that beach and the Rock Fort anyways? There are only rocks down there."
In March, Reed and her lawyer met with Police Chief Jeff Kepley.
"Is it safe for me to go down there?" she asked, according to the suit.
"I wish it was safe, but it's not," Kepley replied, according to the complaint. "I wouldn't even tell a man to go down there."
Kepley, who was appointed police chief in June of 2014, has promised to crack down on the Bay Boys. “We will make an example out of anyone who behaves criminally down there,” he told the L.A. Times late last year.
Yet no arrests have been made at Lunada Bay or stemming from incidents there, even though more than a dozen police reports have been filed since January 2015 concerning surfer localism in Palos Verdes Estates.
"The current police chief seems to have done more than the last few," Otten says. "He told me he has financial constraints. I think if he could make some arrests, he would. But it doesn't seem like he's doing much to try. Why not put some officers in the water? They didn't find the person that assaulted my client; I did."
The chief declined to comment due to pending litigation, instead offering a brief written statement that read in part: "Our Police Department takes seriously its public safety mission and has and will continue to monitor and enforce the laws in Lunada Bay and everywhere in the community."
Lunada Bay also falls under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission.
Photo by Ryan Orange
The California Coastal Commission, whose mission it is to protect coastal access, has expressed an interest in working with the city to make Lunada Bay more welcoming to outsiders. As it is now, the bay has no signage, and the two trails leading down to it are steep and slippery.
"The commission can help the city make [Lunada Bay] more like a public park," says Andrew Willis, an enforcement supervisor for the Coastal Commission. "If you have more people in the park, more eyes on the ground, it will counteract this negative activity."
Some of the surfers and homeowners in Lunada Bay say the problem has been blown out of proportion by the lawyers and the media.
"I'm really disgusted with the media," says Frank Ponce, who's lived in Lunada Bay since 1998. "They're a bunch of prostitutes. There are no gangs down there, I can tell you that right now. You get a couple idiots who cause trouble. But for the most part, everyone there, they're older people, they just have fun and surf."
When Frank Vanderlip first laid eyes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, he was floored. "A beautiful empire," he later described it, according to the book Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930. He'd recently bought the 16,000 acres, sight unseen, for $1.5 million, in 1913. "Miles of seacoast," he wrote, "gleaming crescent beaches ... picturesque rolling hills and occasionally more picturesque canyons." It was, he thought, "an unspoiled sheet of paper to be written on with loving care."
If the city of Los Angeles was already a mess of factories, tenement houses and railway cars, Vanderlip dreamed of something different: an idyllic, unspoiled bedroom community — an American Amalfi Coast.
Vanderlip hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (whose father designed Central Park) to design what was one of the first planned communities in the country and one of the first cities to use zoning laws to limit what could be built on any parcel of land. There would be no factories, no bars, no cemeteries. It also limited who could live there: no nonwhite residents.
To this day, the city of Palos Verdes Estates — the first 3,200 acres of Vanderlip's master plan, most of which never got built — looks like some kind of otherworldly small-town fantasy. The town's population of around 13,400 is roughly the size it was in 1970. There are no sidewalks, streetlights or traffic lights, and only a handful of businesses. According to Forbes, Palos Verdes Estates has a median home value of $2.2 million, comparable to Beverly Hills or Palo Alto. Nearly all of its registered voters live in single-family homes and make more than $100,000 a year. Republicans outnumber Democrats roughly 2-to-1. And the town is about three-quarters white, according to the 2010 census.
On weekends, the streets are awash with cyclists, joggers and dog walkers. There are a number of beaches and walking trails, but they are essentially hidden.
"I've never [heard] people say we don't want outsiders," says Monique Leahey Sugimoto, the Palos Verdes Library's archivist, who lives in Lunada Bay. "On the other hand, I have heard, within [the] city government, there is a reluctance to promote the trails, because it would bring people in."
Novelist Joy Nicholson grew up in Lunada Bay in the 1980s. "It was a really insular place," she recalls, "really closed off from the rest of Los Angeles. It has its own police force. It basically was its own entity, where outsiders didn't come in. And [people] didn't leave much, either. Life was lived there on its own little island."
Nicholson didn't surf, but her brother did, and they both knew the Bay Boys. In fact, her first boyfriend was Sal Ferrara, brother of Frank and Angelo, who has since died.
"I saw [that] if people from the surrounding areas would pull up and park, windows would get broken, air let out of tires, rocks thrown at people," Nicholson says.
Nicholson's first novel, The Tribes of Palos Verdes, is based on her experiences growing up. The book, which was recently made into a movie for a second time, centers on a group of territorial surfers who disdain visitors, especially those from the San Fernando Valley — or "Vals" — who wear multicolored wetsuits, sport mullets, carry surfboards with "wimpy rubber bungee cords" and drive cars with rusty dents and bumper stickers.
"The police don't mind if the guys punch a few Vals out, as long as they do it fast," she writes. "The citizens wink and say it's better to keep the riffraff out. No one wants tourists or Vals parked in front of the million-dollar view."
As Nicholson recalls of the real Lunada Bay: "A lot of the property owners felt like they just didn't want outsiders parking there and drinking beer. Everybody wants their own slice of paradise, where there isn't crowds and garbage.
"Everybody would want that."
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