Happy Balloons and Homicide
On a recent Saturday night, the "party car" gets word from an undercover officer that a flier party with local gang members attending is about to start on Norris Avenue in Pacoima.
On a recent Saturday night, the "party car" gets word from an undercover officer that a flier party with local gang members attending is about to start on Norris Avenue in Pacoima.Foothill Division Senior Lead Officer Jose Torres, who coordinates the Friday- and Saturday-night party detail, is worried because the house is located on Pacoima Blood gang turf.
Within 15 minutes of getting the call, Torres and five other officers pull up to a rented white bungalow. Teenagers are milling about on the front lawn and the street. They scatter when they see the cruisers roll up. Hip-hop music and loud voices blast from the backyard. The six officers walk to the side gate leading to the backyard party and tell the more than 250 partiers, most of whom are Latino and in their teens, to disperse. After a few minutes, the kids begrudgingly file past the officers. A teenager complains about losing his $5 entrance fee. The officers continue to the backyard, which is completely dark except for the white Christmas lights around the DJs amplifiers and turntables. The cops tell the DJ to pack it up. A handful of stragglers attempt to jump the back fence, but the officers corral them through the side gate. Bottles of beer are scattered on the grass.
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One of the partiers, 26-year-old Hector, says he goes to flier parties a lot, since he cant get into bars because, as a resident of Mexico, he isnt eligible for a California ID. His friend Ricardo, the busted partys DJ, throws parties every weekend in the San Fernando Valley. Word of this party, says Hector, spread from fliers passed out at San Fernando High School.
Officer Torres explains to Hector how dangerous these parties can be. His words fall on deaf ears.
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"We will see you next time?" asks Torres.
"I guess you will," laughs Hector.
This type of intervention is relatively new. Last May, LAPDs Foothill Division, which patrols the Northeast San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of Sylmar, Pacoima, Arleta, Mission Hills, Sunland, Tujunga, Shadow Hills, Sun Valley, La Tuna Canyon and Lakeview Terrace, started a party-suppression detail, made up of overtime and reserve officers, in the hope of stemming the tide of flier-party violence that has spiked dramatically over the past year. As if to confirm the need for the detail, 27-year-old Antonio Vasquez and 23-year-old Hector Villareal, both DJ assistants, were gunned down by alleged gang members at a Sylmar party attended by hundreds of Sylmar High School students the very weekend the initiative was inaugurated.
Since its inception, LAPD officials said, the "party car" broke up an average of five parties a night. But its winning streak came to an end on October 24, when Peter Cobian was shot dead, also in Sylmar.
"They were on their way when the homicide occurred," said Foothill Divisions Sergeant Jay Roberts.
Peter Cobians demise has become all too familiar a young man looking for fun ends up on the wrong end of a gun. If he hadnt been stood up, he might still be here. Hed planned to play pool with his neighbors, but by 9:30 p.m., the 6-foot-7-inch salesman hadnt heard from his friends. When three of his co-workers pulled up at his house in Highland Park and invited him to a pre-Halloween bash in Sylmar, Cobian, 24, decided to tag along. It was Saturday night, after all, and, like most single men his age, he wanted to have fun. The flier advertising the party promised half-price drinks, indoor/outdoor partying, Jell-O shots, happy balloons (nitrous oxide) and DJs playing all the best music.
Cobian, a Los Angeles native, drove in his 1994 gray Integra with a friend while his other two friends followed behind. The night was still pretty young by the time they arrived at 12866 Newton St., a vacant single-family home on a mostly Latino residential street near the 210 freeway that the party organizers had secretly secured. The group paid their $3 fee and entered a space barren, save for the Halloween decorations hanging from the ceilings and walls. The Secret Society, the party crew hosting the bash, was selling drink tickets. Beer was $2.
The party, which started around 8 p.m., was an eclectic cross section of young Los Angeles. Partiers ranged from local high school kids to young suburban professionals. The one thing they had in common was that they had managed to navigate their way through the secret codes and cues of the latest flier party and had found themselves here. By the end of the night, they would have another thing in common: This party, like so many others over the past year, would end in bloodshed and violence.
There were warning signs that trouble was brewing. A neighbor had called police earlier in the evening to complain about the loud music coming from the vacant house and the cars driving too fast down their street. On a slow night, such complaints might have busted up the party before it turned tragic. Unfortunately, by the time LAPD dispatchers sent out the neighbors complaint, patrol officers were delayed due to a vehicle pursuit and injury at the intersection of Arleta and Terra Bella streets.
"When something like that happens, you instantly drain all your resources and end up playing catch-up the rest of the night," said Sergeant Roberts. "The pursuit created a domino effect that backed up the patrol cars." Dozens of other calls had to be attended to before police could respond to the ruckus at Newton Street.
When a patrol car finally pulled up to check on the house, it was filled with more than 200 partiers at full tilt. The surrounding streets were lined with cars. While the officers were waiting for the party-suppression detail to show up, partygoers began running from the scene. A few told officers that someone had been shot.
What happened inside was as banal as it was unfortunate. After a while, Cobian had struck up a conversation with a girl. Her boyfriend took exception and started to beef with Cobian. According to friends, Cobian backed off. It is not clear how the conflict escalated, but by the time the cops finally went into the house, there was nothing left of the party except 3-by-5 photocopied fliers and empty beer bottles littering the floor, DJ gear, kegs of beer and bottles of tequila, a broken window in the back where the organizers had gained entrance, and Peter Cobian, dead in the living room, the victim of a bullet to the back of the head. The fun-loving giant was pronounced dead by paramedics at 1:25 a.m.
"His mother told him not to go," said Cobians father, Jose, a mechanic with the L.A. County Sheriffs Department. "He knew of the dangers, but he was young. He wanted to go out and live. It was Saturday night. He took a chance and it was a bad chance."
Statistics would seem to bear out Joses sentiment. So far, 13 people have died from gunshot wounds at so-called flier parties in L.A. County this year alone. One of the worst instances yet of flier-party violence occurred just last Saturday when police tried to break up a South Los Angeles flier party. According to Captain Kenneth Garner, of the LAPDs 77th Division, police received a complaint about a party at an old pool hall at Broadway and 84th Street just before 11 p.m. Saturday. Responding officers told the DJs to shut down the party. Soon after the closure was announced, a hail of gunfire rang through the old building. Before Officer Mario Cardona shot him to death, alleged gang member Jeremy Andre Cervantes shot Cardona and three partygoers. Cardona is in stable condition after being hit in the stomach. Two of the partiers are in critical condition, and one is stable, after being shot by the 19-year-old Cervantes. Police found happy balloons, alcohol and marijuana at the party and claimed kids as young as 13 were in attendance. They said the shooting started with a fight over a woman. Last February, at another flier party at the very same location, police shot and killed 20-year-old Rigoberto Vaca, who was shooting at a kid outside the building when they arrived on the scene.
Of the 13 victims of flier-party violence this past year, 11 were Latino, six were teenagers, and one was only 12 years old. Six of the 13 deaths were at house parties. Party crews held all but four. In most cases, police believe that the shooters were gang members.
"I think [these parties] are insane," said 77th Division Homicide Detective Jay Moberly. "Anyone who would let their kids go is nuts. These gang parties and raves seem to be tied together. There are some quarrels about who is going to sell what at the parties. It often comes down to a dispute over who is going to control the happy balloons, who is going to sell the booze for $2 a shot. They are just bad news. The obvious answer is closer parental control, but that doesnt seem to be working too well. A lot of these things have a sexual overtone to them. We get wind of them. We should shut them down before they start, but they will just go to another location.
"Its a big issue. I dont know what the answer is."
In some parts of the country, the term "flier party" is synonymous with a rave. In Southern California, though, a flier party usually refers to a big party at someones house, advertised by fliers passed out at high schools, record stores and malls. Admission to the parties is usually anywhere from $3 to $5. They attract partygoers from the ages of 15 to 26.
For some teenagers, flier parties are just a part of high school life. They are a chance to hang out and meet new friends. Kids are looking for that outlaw adventure, and they go to parties for the thrill of it.
"I see students handing out fliers at least two or three times a month," said Reana Garcia, a junior at Franklin High School. "A lot of the kids are from other schools and pass them out at lunch or after school."
But not all flier parties are alike. Some are low-key and held by teenagers at their homes usually when their parents are away or in halls, usually to celebrate a birthday or graduation. The main goal is to just hang out with friends and maybe make a few bucks. The more elaborate parties, such as the one Peter Cobian attended in Sylmar, are organized by party crews who throw parties on the weekends at rented homes or in abandoned buildings and residences, usually without the consent of the property owners. The party crews operate under the radar of the police, go by names like "Sick Balling," "Mastermind," "The Incomparables" and "Los Alegres," and are open to everyone. Some estimate that there are dozens of party crews in L.A. County with thousands of dedicated fans.
Party crews can make up to $4,000 a night by charging admission and selling beer and other party favorites, including happy balloons, which give the recipient a mild, dizzy high and generally cost $3. Some party crews advertise wetT-shirt and G-string contests or hot women and half-price drinks. Whatever it takes to bring in the crowds. Basically the parties act as nightclubs, though without fire codes, security checks and that pesky doorman asking for identification.
For party crews, the parties are entrepreneurial endeavors, but they are also about gaining a reputation and bragging rights. "It is about who throws the best party," said 18-year-old Martha Sanchez. And word spreads fast.
Fliers come in all shapes and sizes but are typically 8-by-10-inch Xerox copies or 3-by-5-inch glossies. The fliers list the promoter and the date of the party, as well as a phone number to call for the location, which is generally not in service until an hour or so before the event. Sometimes the party location is not provided right away. In such cases, partygoers are sent to a central screening location, like a street corner or fast-food restaurant, where they will be sent to another spot if they pass the screening. It goes on and on until the partygoer eventually arrives at a location where there is a DJ. A flier party can easily draw 300 to 500 partiers from all over the city almost instantaneously.
These types of parties have been going on for years. In fact, a memorable mid-90s episode of Beverly Hills 90210 featured Steve Sanders hapless attempts to navigate the clues and codes needed to gain access to one. Unfortunately, the parties have become more dangerous than that shows innocent portrayal of them. LAPD detectives acknowledge that throughout the city there has been an escalation of assaults, shots fired and homicides at flier parties, which they say attract a deadly combination of underage drinking and gangs to locations where there is usually no adult supervision and very little security.
"When I was growing up, the parties werent as bad. There was a different vibe. Now the kids break up into dance circles and they do moves against each other," said Jerry Miller, a DJ who says he used to throw flier parties back in the 80s with his uncle in Pico Rivera. "That has led to fights. Sometimes the music can dictate. When you start getting aggressive and you put on gangster rap that is talking about other crews, guys will throw up gang signs. In high school, gangs will throw parties. I dont feel that is the kind of environment that is beneficial to me."
Miller said he mostly turns down offers to work at flier parties and deejays mostly at corporate or sanctioned high school events. Local DJ Richard Barry has worked the underground rave scene for the last year but said he wont accept work unless he knows the promoter. "A lot of gangs are into drugs, and what better way to sell them than to throw a party?" he said. "With computers and printers, you can make fliers look nice and professional, and there is no way to know the difference before you get there. It is a moneymaker, and with the money comes responsibility, and these people have no ethics. It is buyer beware."
The middle son of divorced parents, Peter Cobian grew up in Highland Park and attended Marshall and Eagle Rock high schools, eventually getting his GED from Franklin Adult School. While he was in high school, Cobian, his older brother and friends formed their own party crew, called 12-inch Entertainment.
"Most of the time we would put in more money than we made," said Cobians friend Bobby Diaz, who served as the crews DJ. "We never dealt with abandoned homes. We would find houses and get permission from parents."
For the last year, Cobian sold cellular phones at a kiosk in the Westfield Shopping Town. But business was slow. He was hoping to get a part-time job at Staples in the warehouse. He was also talking about joining the Marines.
"He was trying to make it on his own," said his father, Jose.
In the evenings, Cobian would hang out with neighbors on his tree-lined street. His friend Martha Sanchez said everyone could hear him coming down the street in the souped-up gray Acura Integra he called his stallion. He was the neighborhood hunk.
Cobian knew going to flier parties was dangerous. He had heard about shootings, and gang members had picked on him before. "But he was a big kid at heart," said Jose. When his family voiced its concern about going to the parties, he assured them that nothing bad would happen to him. "My son was really tall. I dont know what it was about him that would attract people who want trouble," said Jose. "I dont know what these individuals see and decide this is going to be my victim. Why him out of all the people?"
After his death, more than 25 neighbors and friends had a car wash at the Highland Park Recreation Center, raising $1,300 for his family. On the sidewalk, down the street from his home, is a makeshift memorial erected by neighborhood friends, with a photo collage, a Camel cigarette (his favorite brand) and half a dozen Jesus candles.
Party violence is rapidly becoming a countywide epidemic. Shootings have occurred from La Puente to Ladera Heights to Highland Park, in abandoned buildings, in homes with parents in attendance and in halls.
LAUSD has no district policy banning fliers from campuses, leaving it up to the discretion of individual schools. Franklin High School officials say teachers and monitors are on the lookout for fliers being passed around, especially at lunchtime, after school and during football games. The school is aware of the problems that can arise at flier parties. In the past two years, three former (including Cobian) and one current student at Franklin have died at flier parties.
"We are always concerned about flier parties," said Franklin High assistant principal Jeff Geltz. "We certainly dont condone it. We talk to the students and stress the dangers associated with this type of party. I have supervisors around campus, and one of the things they are responsible for is intercepting fliers."
On April 10, 2004, alleged members of the tagger group Out Causing Kaos gunned down 17-year-old Franklin senior Benjamin Peña at his own house party in Highland Park. The defensive lineman was set to graduate in a few months and wanted to throw a party his friends could remember. Fliers were passed out on campus and at nearby high schools.
"We talked about his party before I went to Europe," said Peñas best friend, Juan Arredondo, also a senior at Franklin. "He was looking forward to it. It was his senior year. He wanted to show his friends a good time."
The party, which was held under his parents supervision in their backyard, attracted more than 100 partygoers. Peña and his older brother took turns collecting the $3 entrance fee for guys and the $1 fee for girls. Northeast Division Homicide detectives said that shortly after 10 p.m., four OCK members made their way into the party and began flipping gang signs. Peñas older brother was trying to escort one of the OCK members out when a fight broke out and knives were pulled. Three partygoers were stabbed. Benjamin Peña attempted to break up the fight and was shot once in the right chest. He was pronounced dead shortly after at Huntington Memorial Hospital
"I said, It cant be," said Arredondo, who was on his way to the party when he received a call that his best friend had been shot. "When someone gets shot, I think of a gangster. He wasnt into that type of stuff. He was a really good guy. He didnt deserve that. He was like a big brother to me. He would always keep me motivated. I miss him a lot."
Two years earlier, 19-year-old Allan Morales, a former student at Franklin, was killed when he tried to attend a March 17, 2002, flier party on Alice Street in Cyprus Park. According to police, when Morales was stopped at the door, he pulled out a .22 revolver and fired at numerous partygoers. Morales was then chased down the street and attacked by a handful of partygoers, who shot him in the head and shoulders, stabbed him a few times, and beat him for good measure. Two other partygoers were injured and lying in the middle of the street when police arrived. "We identified nine people that were involved in this," said Northeast Homicide Supervisor John Berdin. "But because of the reported actions of the victim, there were far too many self-defense issues [to bring charges] because he was armed."
Seven months after that, Efren Diaz Jr., 19, another Franklin student, died at a birthday party he was attending on Chestnut Avenue in Highland Park. Homicide investigators say Diaz was hanging out with friends in the backyard when an alleged Avenue gang member walked up to Diaz and confronted him, pulled out a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol and shot him several times, then casually walked away. The shooter returned a few seconds later to finish him off when he realized that Diaz was still alive. Police believe that a Highland Park gang member killed the shooter, Alfred Salinas Jr., this year.
Friends and family members of those who died at these parties have not been able to make sense of what happened. Cobians best friend, Bobby Diaz, said that police need to step up their efforts to stop fliers from circulating around music stores and high schools and dispense larger fines for noise violations, underage drinking and breaking curfew.
"When I was younger, I was like, Why are the police killing the buzz? I understand the reason now, because teenagers are trying to cope with being human, and mixing alcohol with that leads to danger," said Diaz. "Party crews set it up so they can make some money and get a reputation, but nowadays people are not responsible. There werent shootings a long time ago. People are miserable in their lives, and they try to fit in somewhere, but they dont, and they will do anything it takes. They are trying to get respect from all the wrong people. They think they will get a reputation. That is how people think. It is not the right way."
Police admit that they are usually the last ones to know when there is a flier party and generally only find out about the event after they receive a disturbance call from neighbors or if someone has been shot.
"It is a rapidly changing environment. It is like trying to hit a moving target," said Sergeant Roberts. "There are a lot of them, and they come and go. You hear names of party crews once, and then you dont hear them for a while."
LAPD officers also complain that they are stretched thin, which makes party-related disturbance calls less of a priority.
"We go by priorities. There is a scale. Obviously, if a life is in danger, we go down from there and a loud party is not at the top of the list," said Sergeant Roberts. "We dont have enough people. We are so undermanned that we are sometimes putting fires out."
Often by the time police do get there, the party has broken up. Typically, those who dont split before the cops get there are reluctant to talk. "There is almost no cooperation from the gang community, and the people who are there are intimidated by the gangs and fear retaliation," said Captain Ray Peavey of the Sheriffs Department Homicide Bureau.
Many cities in L.A. and Orange counties have specific municipal codes making it illegal to charge admission for any private party, to provide alcohol for minors or to create amplified sound that carries more than 150 feet from the property. At best, law enforcement passes out fines for such code violations.
One grieving West Covina mother is doing what she can to spread the word about the flier parties. Margaret Ramirez has gone to juvenile detention centers to talk to the kids about the dangers. Last year, Ramirez filed a civil lawsuit against L.A. homeowner Maria Carreon, after Ramirezs 17-year-old son, Antonio, died at a flier party thrown by Carreons son on September 14, 2002.
At the time, Ramirez was a senior West Covina High School wrestler who was looking forward to a career in the Air Force. He told his mother that he was going to the L.A. County Fair with friends. Instead, he and his two friends ended up at Carreons La Puente home on Vineland Avenue, along with over 100 other students who were given fliers at a high school football game earlier that day. Ramirez and his friends were at the party less than 30 minutes when gunfire erupted in the backyard. According to L.A. County Sheriffs Homicide Detective Karen Shonka, four gang members showed up and started bumping shoulders with other young people, which led to a fistfight. Two gang members then fired into the crowd, wounding four people and killing 20-year-old Arturo Cisneros. Ramirez and his two friends were running down the street to escape when the shooters drove by and fired numerous rounds into Ramirez.
In the lawsuit, Margaret Ramirez argued that Maria Carreon was responsible for what took place in her La Puente home even though she wasnt home at the time of the party. Ramirez settled the case last month for $3,000.
"His life was worth more than that," she said. "Today, I sit back and look at funeral pictures and you never think it will happen to you. He never had a girlfriend. He never went out. It was unfair he had to get killed and no one wants to be accountable for it."
On November 3, more than 200 friends and family members attended Peter Cobians funeral at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Eagle Rock. He was remembered affectionately as the type of guy who on Christmas Eve would sneak out the back door and then run around and knock on the front door and pretend he was Santa Claus.
"He was big and strong," said his cousin Monica Castilla. "He was like Santa Claus."
He would also eat 21 miniSnickers bars in one sitting.
Cobians father, Jose, holds out hope that his sons killer will be brought to justice. "One day I will hopefully know. I think they will catch the guy, and if he is not caught, when he sees Jesus he will deal with him at that time. If you do wrong, you will have to reap what you sow. My son had that honesty. I trusted him completely, and I regret that I didnt spend more time with him."
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