Clamor Over Venice 311
Last the world heard from Dawna Chaet, known around Venice as Boston Dawna, she was being crowned the "Batman of Venice Beach" by a charmed Associated Press writer from out of town. The burly, middle-aged brunette was packing up the sex-shop handcuffs and purple bike she used to carry out 40 years of citizen's arrests, and moving back to Boston.
The AP article dropped in September 2010. It depicted Dawna basking in a goodbye party purportedly thrown by Los Angeles Police Department officers (or "my cops") and ceremoniously passing her neighborhood watch duties on to a group of Venice women who fancied themselves "the Dawnettes."
Among the torchbearers: A hot 43-year-old with Urkel glasses and a nose for good business whom locals knew as Alex Thompson. (The AP misspells her name as Thomasson.)
"Like just about everyone in this neighborhood, Thomasson [sic] is Dawna's friend," reads the AP profile. "Thomasson laughs when she recalls her initial reaction to Dawna: 'I thought she was off her rocker.' "
Today, the Dawnettes have disbanded, if they ever existed at all. And Alex Thompson has taken neighborhood watch viral.
Her website, Venice 311.org, launched in February, won this year's L.A. Weekly Web award for Best Police Blog. The tech-savvy Thompson made a splash online in 1999 for founding an interactive TV company, Mixed Signals, and was named one of the 100 Young Innovators in the nation by MIT's Technology Review magazine.
Now she's focused on hyperlocalism, and her Venice 311 Twitter account has nearly 3,100 followers.
But Thompson's rise as Venice's citizen crime fighter has widened a gap in the liberal coastal community that cleaves along political and social lines that some describe as the gentry versus the funky.
It's fueled from the East Coast by Boston Dawna, who is leading a vicious campaign against her ex-protégé with help from Thompson's estranged former business partner, New Hampshire musician Justin Spencer. Spencer and Thompson are tangled in a messy court case arising after Thompson accused him a few years ago of stealing her money and identity.
In recent months, Dawna and Spencer have alleged that Thompson is an ex-felon from Texas named Amie Thompson. By spamming Venice residents, police officers and media with copies of court files and background checks, they have gained traction with the Venice coffee-shop set.
Three weeks ago,Thompson invited the Weekly into the small, dark beachside apartment that serves as Venice 311 headquarters.
A police scanner set to LAPD Pacific Division's radio is its center of gravity, perched on an instructional "makeup makeovers" coffee-table book. A neon-colored golf cart is parked just within darting distance, ready to deploy on another graffiti-destroying mission or Good Samaritan trash pickup.
Here, in her element, Thompson reveals what happened once the AP reporter went on his way.
She says, "Just after he left, [Dawna's], like, cranking through a pack of cigarettes," spewing insults, barking orders at her successors and proclaiming they could never be a legend like her.
Another of the so-called Dawnettes agrees, saying, "Dawna said to me right after that interview, 'You're too soft for this.' "
Dawna has a different version. First, she insists, it wasn't LAPD who paid for her farewell party but Sally Leboeuf, a Westside real-estate tycoon and one of Thompson's closest friends. "By paying for my party, [Leboeuf and Thompson] got to go to LAPD all the time and bat their little baby blues," says Dawna over the phone from Boston, riled up and bitter, her parrot squawking up a racket worthy of the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
Thompson has since become the LAPD beach patrol's right-hand girl. When she isn't furiously tweeting out cop-speak from her Mac (always thick on snark), she can be spotted scurrying up and down Ocean Front Walk, snapping photos of crime scenes and arrests or calling the cops about criminals or problems that may have slipped under their radar.
"What she does, it's hard-core shit," says Tony Vera, a longtime L.A. paparazzo who has since joined forces with Venice 311 to video-chronicle the Pacific Division's daily struggle.
"It's good to have the cops on your side, because we can work with them," Vera says. "We need to save Venice, man. We need more people like Alex."
LAPD Capt. Jon Peters, who heads the Pacific Division, denies any intimacy between Thompson and beach police brass claimed by Dawna. "She doesn't work for me. I'm not employing her," he says. "She's a community member on a private venture. I have no control or authority over her."
The department has no place investigating Thompson's past, Peters says, no matter how Dawna continues to heckle.
Critics of Thompson's war on grime and crime see a conspiracy between her and the LAPD to sanitize Venice of its homeless characters and urban grit. Almost all of them refuse to criticize her publicly, citing fear of repercussions within the cramped community.
But Peters insists there is "no type of relationship where [Thompson] calls me and gets special information." As for officers down the chain of command, "I can't attest to those relationships," he says. "But there are no official relationships."
Her few thousand followers on Twitter — most of whom fall somewhere on the outskirts of the town's hotheaded, overdramatic core — often tweet back their gratitude for Venice 311's timely explanations of every last siren and midnight helicopter racket.
"I know a lot of people who read the tweets, who rely on the tweets," says Michael Linder, a Venice resident and radio journalist who covered the wars in Kuwait and Bosnia, and co-created the hit show America's Most Wanted. Linder is unhappy about some of Thompson's practices, but says her readers "see it as a valuable service ... on things not covered for hours, or until the next day, by the L.A. Times."
Thompson doesn't always wait for news to come to her. On July 30, after discovering the Red Hot Chili Peppers were about to shoot their new music video on a rooftop along the boardwalk, Thompson blogged, suspicious: "Surprising for a Saturday, and also because having done many graffiti patrols this week, I didn't see any Film L.A. buck slips stating that any filming was going on."
So she took matters into her own hands. "I ran into Sgt. Vasquez ... and LAPD was not aware of any filming," she wrote. "Given the recent near-riot at Hollywood & Highland," where a few days earlier a rowdy flash mob of nearly 1,000 had jumped on police cars and blocked Hollywood Boulevard, "LAPD and especially Venice Beach doesn't need any surprises."
On Thompson's tip, a stunning deployment of 140 LAPD officers and the fire marshal arrived to regulate what turned out to be a massive crowd of fans on the boardwalk soaking up the Chili Peppers.
Plenty of fans and locals didn't appreciate the Thompson-inspired overreaction. "We had the Chili Peppers play on our roof a week before Saturday, and that lady was downstairs causing a bunch of problems," says Alex Stowelle, a resident of the apartments above swimsuit shop Bikini Land.
In the days that followed, Thompson tweeted a photo of a cop coming out of Bikini Land, captioned with the claim: "LAPD Loves BikinLAND! Ok, not shopping for bellydancing outfits, but are investigating Chili Pepper prod 4 bad behavior."
Officer Susan Nelson with LAPD Contract Services says the permitting issue "is still under investigation," but that the information printed online by Venice 311 is the only thing investigators have to go on.
This is where Thompson clashes with the funky.
Venice Beach is arguably the proudest of L.A.'s boroughs, where the widely distributed "Venice: Where Art Meets Crime" T-shirt is the local equivalent of "I
Thompson's strict, meddling approach — which serves many Venetians — has pissed off a smaller but vocal group.
"The tone of her tweets became decidedly pro-cop, against entire swaths of the Venice population, including skateboarders," Linder explains. "Suddenly there was all this fear."
Thompson once called an altercation between two Latinos a "churro fight," according to a couple of offended locals, and she makes fun of drunks and screw-ups long before they face a jury.
A woman who used to be involved with Neighborhood Watch, but is afraid of getting in Thompson's "crosshairs," says she has stopped participating in anything LAPD-related. She sees a "childish" and "toxic" culture rising — almost a race to win cops' good graces.
"Venice 311 is acting as a go-between between you and the police," she says. "So if [Thompson] doesn't like you, you're screwed."
Neighborhood Council member Linda Lux worries that Venice 311's "candid-camera atmosphere" spreads fear. "Venice has always been tolerant, caring and accepting of people, as long as you don't hurt anybody. That's been the culture up until these last couple years. Now it's, 'Get rid of people who don't look like me.' Alex has been part of that."
Some of Thompson's opposition can be tied to her media competition.
Venice is home to an inordinate number of newspapers and news blogs, for a gentrifying pocket of 40,000 crammed into just 3 square miles: The Venice Beachhead. Venice Patch. Venice Paparazzi. Venice Paper. The Argonaut. KVB.fm. Penmar Venice. Spirit of Venice. And, most notably, Yo! Venice — a popular open forum where Thompson first started raising hell, pre-311.
A guy who identifies himself only as Bret, who co-runs Yo! Venice, says that when a commenter on his site whom he knew to be Thompson posted more than 1,200 statements, "I had to ask her [publicly in the forums] to stop doing so."
Bret writes in an email, "Alex once told me she does not like people in general. I assume that I am one of those people."
Spirit of Venice recently wrote of Thompson: "The 'Grime and Crime' gentrification afficianados [sic] have made it their business to monitor on behalf of, and report to, the police, every little dent and imperfection in the facade of the Venice that they so assiduously strive to maintain."
And the Beachhead, which Thompson describes as "hippie-dippie UFO conspiracy theorist," featured its own scathing rumor mill of an article by No. 1 homeless advocate Peggy Lee Kennedy in June. The piece called Thompson's baby a "snitch website mimicking the city's 311 info number," filled with "misinformation meant to encourage hate. She is a busy little ex-con."
Thompson barely bats an eye: "The minute Venice 311 gained any amount of attention — it's sort of like little kids."
She has used her mix of charm and aggression to repeatedly brush off the allegations that, under the name Amie Thompson, she pleaded guilty to embezzling $65,000 from a Texas photographer in 1996.
After several interviews with the Weekly, during which Thompson repeatedly denied it, the Weekly determined that Thompson's denials are untrue. Dawna is correct.
At the Travis County, Texas, probation office, spokesman Donald Clark confirmed that a blond, green-eyed white woman with the same name, birthdate and Social Security number as Thompson pleaded guilty to the crime, and was on probation until April 2008. Neil Kucera, her attorney, shown a photo of Thompson, verified positively that she was his client in the mid-'90s embezzling case.
Thompson violated her probation in 2004 and a warrant was issued for her arrest. But Kucera says prosecutors "got tired of messing with her, and discharged her in a dissatisfactory manner. In other words, they were saying, 'We're so tired of messing with you, we don't even want to bother putting you in prison.' "
Yet here she is, this dashing self-described survivor of the dot-com bubble — she claims she sold her company to Sony for millions — holed up in a Venice Beach one-bedroom with a couple yappy dogs and the 24/7 cackle of an LAPD scanner.
Says Thompson, "I have absolutely no business being a CEO. I'm not personable. People and their problems, that's not my game."
But in Venice, that's always the game. Around the time Dawna departed for the East Coast, the hot-button issue was whether RV dwellers should be allowed to park their homes in front of Venice's arty, overpriced beach shacks.
In "Gentry Against Funky in Venice," a Weekly article in 2010, Dennis Romero wrote that the RV issue had "exposed a fault line in Venice, a once uniformly liberal, if not terminally contentious, community."
That's how Dawna and Thompson, both living in the Marina at the time of a huge, awful RV sewage-dumping on their block, first met.
On one side were the righteous RV dwellers and pro-homeless bleeding hearts. On the other were those who felt bad but would rather homeless people consolidate their stink to a designated parking lot nightly.
The two sides accused each other of nighttime attacks, planting dog shit in mailboxes and dressing up as bums to sneak into each other's top-secret meetings. Actually, Thompson's pretty proud of that last one, which was true.
But with a straight-laced police blog in the mix, Venice isn't just left versus far-left anymore.
"I have never seen Alex be critical of anything the LAPD has done," says Linder, the L.A. radio journalist.
He thinks the popularity of Venice 311 marks a "fundamental shift from the 'live and let live' mentality that Venice has enjoyed since its birth in 1904, to a pro-'Law and Order' sensibility that has come with gentrification."
Linder says the reaction to Thompson is "a battle for ownership of this community ... a battle for the heart and soul of Venice."
Vera, the videographer who works with Thompson, says people who see crime-fighting as going against Venice's core values "are living in La-La Land" and have no idea what it takes to create a safe community. Thompson, he feels, is "putting her ass on the line."
His personal gains have been considerable, too. Before Vera began shooting videos for Venice 311, the LAPD never gave him the time of day. "Now Captain Peters gives me interviews, calls me Tony," he says. "Why? Because of Venice 311."
Vera says quite a few cops have told him, "Thank God you're there, because it shows people we're doing the right thing."
As the Weekly interviews Thompson one day, LAPD Officer Peggy Thusing shows up in search of a Vera-made video that could help disprove a recent citizen complaint alleging she beat up a guy while detaining him on the boardwalk.
Thompson hands a burned disc of the incident to the cop, and Thusing thanks her profusely.
Thusing, who was originally quoted in the AP article as saying of Dawna, "We're going to miss her, that's for sure," now shakes her head. Dawna's crusade against Thompson "makes me sick to my stomach," she says.
Thusing, unaware of the Weekly's recent discovery that Alex Thompson is indeed the ex-embezzler Amie, says of Dawna's claim: "She was reaching. If you ask me."
Both LAPD's Peters and Thusing say that even if she did embezzle $65,000, it wouldn't affect Venice 311. Thusing says the stress off her since Thompson started the blog is "tenfold."
Her close friend Vera just settled a lawsuit against boxing megastar Mike Tyson for allegedly attacking him at LAX when Vera was a paparazzo. He'll be using part of Tyson's payout to buy Thompson a new $2,600 electric bike, in return for money and support she lent him during the litigation.
"She's moving into my building, and we're going to fight crime together," says Vera, who manages an apartment building on Pacific Avenue. He plans to install a webcam outside to monitor the crosswalk.
Lately, Thompson has been meeting with cops in Koreatown, sketching out her idea for a mirror-image police blog, Koreatown 311. While Venice offers sun-crisped kooks and celebrity meltdowns, Koreatown is about a "crazy, high-end, bouncing nightclub scene" and "all these Asian people [who] walk around with $8,000 in cash." She also hopes to start up Hollywood 311, and beyond.
Thompson glances anxiously at her police scanner, which she turned down to talk to a visitor. Somewhere in Venice, a cop is racing to a scene, and the whirlwind behind Venice 311 hasn't tweeted it yet.
Says Vera: "When she calls me, it's like Batman calling."
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