The backyard of the white, stucco house has been transformed into a packed dance floor. Teenage girls wearing snug jeans and tank tops are freaking with teenage boys who grind away to the rhythm of the reggaeton beat. The smell of marijuana is thick, and a small line to fill balloons full of nitrous oxide forms in front of a large tank of the gas. A balloon’s worth of “nozz” is good for a 20-second, dizzy high. A group takes turns krumping, the spastic, body-contorting form of dancing that originated in South Los Angeles, while two bald-headed boys watch and nurse bottles of Budweiser.
On the upper deck, a girl flails and gyrates like a go-go dancer. She wears black daisy dukes and black Converse sneakers. On the back of her tank top is written “Vicious Ladies.” “Bucky,” her party-crew name, is written on the front.
“We come and have fun and battle,” says Bucky, 17, about competing with other krumpers. “I just want to party. Teenagers need a life too. Some parents think it is bad. I am really open with my mom. I didn’t kiss a boy till I was 17. I don’t drink or do drugs. I like to dance.”
It’s a crisp December 1 night, and the mostly Latino teens crowding this small house on Poplar Street in El Sereno — a working-class Eastside neighborhood yet to feel the effects of gentrification — are dedicated followers of the underground flier-party scene, a scene in which the Vicious Ladies have gained considerable notoriety in a short time. It is a world where prestige is earned by throwing the best party and bringing in the biggest crowd. It is a world where puberty, drugs, alcohol and even gang politics are joined at the hip.
Tonight’s “Make You Holla For $3 Dollaz” party is about the Ladies reaffirming their status as one of the best all-girl party crews in East L.A. It is not easy to stay on top. There is lots of competition. In East L.A. alone, there are at least a dozen all-girl party crews. There are even more all-male party crews. Most throw parties regularly. It doesn’t help that the Vicious Ladies have had some major setbacks this year. A handful of crew members dropped out. Most left over “drama.” Others became bored with the scene or were thrown out for being “hos.” Attendance at flier parties in general has been subpar lately. Crew members blame the drop on rival interference, police pressure and the possibility of gang violence.
Since 2004, more than 20 people have died at flier parties in L.A. County alone. In 2006, there were eight flier-party-related deaths in East L.A., among them Emmery Munoz, a 14-year-old Vicious Ladies crew member who died last January. Her decomposing body was found in a warehouse district in Boyle Heights — a popular location for underground parties. Police suspect that someone close to the party scene is involved in her death, though her friends say Munoz was pulling away from them and, had she stuck closer, she’d have been safer. The party scene is alive with gossip, and finger-pointing. A small group blames the Vicious Ladies for Munoz’s death.
But tonight the Vicious Ladies are amped. It’s their first party since their one-year-anniversary event ended in disaster two months earlier. Within the first hour, a fight almost broke out, then the middle-aged owner of the house, who was promised $100 for the use of his backyard, shut the party down at 11 p.m. after he found a drunk teenage girl passed out on his front lawn. He was afraid that the spectacle might cause a neighbor to call the police. Tonight, the pressure is on for the all-girl party crew to make this party last.
Wonka and Rose stand in the driveway and collect entrance fees as if they were door staff at a nightclub. Wonka, 19, is the head of Vicious Entertainment, the male party crew closely associated with the Vicious Ladies. His girlfriend, Cherry, is the Vicious Ladies’ founder. Rose is a 36-year-old, voluptuous platinum blonde Latina wearing a tight T-shirt and jeans. The fee is $3 before 10:30 p.m. and $5 after that. Girl crew members get in for free. Two large teens check for weapons and bottles. Rose appears to be in charge.
“I go to all their parties,” says Rose. “I have security everywhere. I have been to 10 parties. Kids have nowhere to go. They just like to dance.” And, apparently, do nozz, drink alcohol and smoke weed, but it is not as if Rose is lobbying for mother of the year or anything.
In the backyard, any lawn furniture has been removed, and in its place is a large vat of jungle juice — a mix of vodka and grape juice — on sale for $1 a cup. The surrounding 8-foot-high fence is modestly decorated with small white lights. The railing leading to the empty, kidney-shaped pool is decorated with pink birthday balloons in honor of Binks and Titi, two Vicious Ladies. Binks, 15, is Rose’s youngest daughter, and a recent addition to the party crew. The girls wear badges around their necks, a variation of star earrings, and glow-in-the-dark rings on their wrists, waists and necks.
“Some crews aren’t supervised,” says Bucky, Rose’s oldest daughter, as she stands next to the pool, which is now littered with a handful of broken beer bottles. “Ours is the most secure place. We have security checking people. There are no guns. There is no drama.”
Then, as if on cue, the music stops suddenly. Rose, the designated chaperone, winds her way through the crowd of 150-plus kids, rushing toward a teen who is frantically waving her over. Rose and the teen quickly run inside the house, which is off-limits to partygoers. Some in the crowd look anxiously toward the DJ, while others make their way to the upper deck. A couple of teens try to scale the backyard fence. Word spreads quickly that shots were fired. It is unclear at this point whether the shooter is among the crowd. The majority of the teens don’t seem bothered at all. The atmosphere is a strange mix of anxiety and resignation, like this was almost expected.
It turns out shots were indeed fired when a local gang got pissed it wasn’t invited to the party. In a show of power, gang members shot into the air and banged on the front window of the party house. Two teens in the crowd responded by firing back into the air. “They are haters,” one of the teenage partygoers says of the local gang.
In an attempt to restore order, Rose quickly gets on a microphone and tells everyone the party is over. It is midnight.
“Most of the time the shooting happens because of the neighborhood,” says 20-year-old DJ Walt, a student at IT Tech in Sylmar, as he begins to pack up his equipment. He also works for the LAPD, teaching martial arts to kids. “Some gang members don’t allow this. You have to get their permission. It [the shootings] scared me but I have been through worse. I have seen people shot in front of me.”
As the crowd slowly leaves the party, three police cruisers pull up. A helicopter hovers above, beaming its spotlight down on the party. Rose downplays the incident, telling the cops that the shooting had nothing to do with the party.
No one’s been shot, so the cops move on. The Vicious Ladies begin to clean up as the last of the party stragglers head on into the night.
“I’m not scared,” says 22-year-old Denise as she walks away with a friend. “If I die, I die.”
Seventeen-year-old Cherry sits on a mustard-colored couch in the living room of the two-bedroom Alhambra apartment she shares with her mother, stepfather and half-sister. As Cherry breaks down the flier-party scene, she engages in a time-honored teen tradition: devouring pizza.
“Some people’s parties get raided at 10 or 10:30 p.m.,” she says. “Really successful is 1 a.m.”
In the past year, the crew has thrown at least eight parties, including “Roll Call,” “Vicious Secret,” “Cuties Gone Deliciously Mean” and “Viciously Delicious.”
Their recipe for success?
“We try to find a good house where we know won’t get raided,” Cherry says matter-of-factly. “We ask them what the neighbors are about. It is hard. You don’t want to use the same house over and over again. If the cops know about it, they will raid it.”
Cherry started the all-girl party crew in November 2005 with the help of her boyfriend Wonka, co-founder of Vicious Entertainment, which operates out of Highland Park. Like other girl or boy crews, Vicious Ladies is structured like a gang, but without the guns and violence. Its goal is to throw the best party.
Most of the 17 Vicious Ladies crew members, who range in age from 15 to 19, were recruited by Cherry and go to local high schools like Alhambra High, Benjamin Franklin Senior High and Woodrow Wilson Senior High. Cherry, who will graduate in May, goes to Options for Youth, a charter school for at-risk teens.
“You have to be pretty and not trashy,” says the attractive teen. “I don’t like hos. You have to dance, go out and be around the 323 area. You also have to show that you are down with the crew.”
A skill or a certain look can be advantageous when your goal is to become a member. Paris was recruited because she is Caucasian. Most of the girls in the scene are Latina. Peaches became the first gay male member. China is the only Asian girl in the scene. Cherry spotted her at a flier party last summer. Bucky, who joined the crew a week before the December party, was recruited by Cherry because the teens are childhood friends, and because Bucky knows how to krump.
Cherry pauses between bites to explain how she got involved in the party-crew scene in 2004, when she was 15. At the time, she was a ninth-grader at Alhambra High School. She met Beauty, the main head of the Dough Girls, at a flier party and was asked to join. She quit after six months.
“No one ever goes to their parties,” says Cherry with a scowl that shows off her braces. “They are a bunch of hos. They are whacked. Nobody likes them because they are dumb. I said I will make a crew better. I wanted to start something that people will like.”
Cherry has since filtered in and out as the “main head.” A few months ago, she passed the reins to Glamour after she broke the curfew she was given after getting into a fistfight with a girl at school. The girl called the cops. Cherry spent a week in juvenile hall, followed by 50 hours of community service cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash in Lincoln Park. She was put on probation and given a curfew. She can’t go out after 8 p.m. without special permission.
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 someone’s house, advertised through fliers passed out at high schools, record stores and malls.
In the past few years, crews have been using Web sites like MySpace to get the word out and to keep friends informed of upcoming events, who is throwing the best parties and who is in need of a nozz tank or a DJ. Another popular spot to promote parties is famouzclub.com. The Web site, which is run by a college student and boasts more than 4 million hits, includes a message room where you can rate past parties and a page dedicated to the hottest girl on the party scene that week. Last month’s “Hottie of the Week” was Sarah, who is pictured lying on a bed wearing red-and-black lace lingerie. It is unclear just how old she is. Cherry received the dubious honor last year.
Another way to remain in the know is to call (323) 960-LOVE, an underground chat line that keeps ravers updated. It also serves as a quasi radio station, where callers can listen to main heads and DJs wax poetic about the latest crews to join the scene, who is getting busted and who has a bad reputation or is a ho.
For some teen followers, flier parties are just a part of high school life. They are a chance to hang out and meet new friends. For others, it is a chance to belong. To some, it is a status symbol to belong to a crew. For girls, it is considered the edgier version of being a cheerleader.
Some crews are stricter than others. You need to follow the rules to remain a Vicious Lady. On the day of the event, Vicious crew members are required to be at the location one or two hours beforehand to help set up. Members must also promote the crew at other parties, pass out fliers at local high schools and occasionally chip in financially. There are some definite no-nos. Cherry won’t allow her girls to join other crews. Dating male crew members will get you kicked out. One Vicious Lady recently got the boot, says Cherry, because “she was a whore sleeping around with guys. Guys in the party scene will tell everybody. It is like high school. Everyone knows everyone’s business. The whole thing will be on the underground newsletter. I don’t want my girls to be known as hood rats. I care about them and don’t want them to look retarded.”
But most of the time, it is about having a good time.
“We just go out and have fun,” says China, who is featuring two black hoops pierced through her lips and a mane of light brown hair with blond highlights. She is one of Cherry’s best friends. The two girls are hanging out in Cherry’s bedroom, getting ready to see reggaeton star Don Omar.
“It is like a social club, a group of friends who are close. But not everyone gets along. There is a lot of drama because people don’t like different party crews. People think most of us are hos. Sometimes there are fights. Recently two people quit because they didn’t like me.”
Unlike Cherry’s mom, China’s parents have no idea that their 17-year-old daughter is a member of the Vicious Ladies and attends parties weekly.
“My parents would be shocked and disappointed in me, mainly because I am Asian,” she says as she sits on Cherry’s queen-size bed. “I should hang out with my own race.”
High schools are the perfect breeding ground for new recruits. Alhambra High has the Vicious Ladies. Lincoln High has the Dough Girls. Crew names are usually flashy and sexy. The boy crews in East L.A. include Hot Boys, Bomb Squad, Ghetto Stars, the City Stars, the Clover G’s, Rock Stars, Eastside Boyz, Uncontrollable Fellaz and Outstanding Players. Girl crews include Hot Girls, Outstanding Playmates, Eastside Girls and Famous Outlaw Ladies. Crew-member names are just as cleverly cutesy. The Vicious Ladies have Paris, Glamour, Precious, Giggles, Mini, Hooters, Binks, Bubbles, Smiley, Bootyful, Hennessey, Ms. Sweets and Charms. Some estimate that there are hundreds of crews in L.A. County alone, with thousands of dedicated fans.
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 are organized by crews who throw them on the weekends at rented homes or in abandoned buildings and residences, often without the consent of the property owners. The crews operate under the radar of the police, and can make up to $1,000 a night by charging admission and selling beer and other party favorites, including nozz or happy balloons — three balloons will generally run you $5.
“Nozz is a very popular thing,” says one crew organizer who didn’t want to be identified. “It makes the party fun for the people who like it. Most people in the underground like nozz, and if you don’t have it then your party is not happening.” Usually it’s those new to the scene, between the ages of 14 and 16, who go for the nozz. Most crews provide alcohol. But it is usually no frills. A can of beer will cost $2. Proceeds go toward funding the next party: A deejay can cost $250, house rentals up to $150, and fliers anywhere between $200 and $300.
Some crews advertise wet-T-shirt and G-string contests or hot women and half-price drinks on their fliers. Vicious Ladies fliers use cartoon characters to advertise. Their “Vicious in Wonderland” party flier depicts a large-breasted Alice alongside a lusty White Rabbit dressed in a waistcoat and standing next to a field of magic mushrooms. It is also considered an honor to be mentioned on the flier of another party crew.
Although most fliers are written to discourage trouble — No haters, tanks [nozz]?, granny panties, in and outs [multiple entries] and drama are allowed — crews are still competing with each other for supremacy, and it’s common for a rival party crew to call the cops. Too many parties busted up by the cops can drag down your rep.
“Parties have been going on for years,” says Cherry. “No one is going to stop it. Even if the cops raid it, they [crews] will keep throwing parties till one won’t get raided early. They will keep having parties till they are back on top.”
Gang protocol can further complicate things. Crews acknow-?ledge that the scene can be dangerous if gangsters ?show up.
“Gangsters just want to party, too, but they snap because they want free entrance, free nozz, because it is their territory,” says Cherry. “None of the guys from El Sereno [gang] trip, because they know me.”
Most experienced crews actively seek out the local gangs where the party is being held and ask their permission beforehand.
“If you are true to the scene you just want to go out there and have fun,” says a crew organizer. “There is a fear that gangs will show up. You try to control it as much as you can. You try to know the area where you are going to throw the party, and you clear it with the gang before you throw it. It is better that way. They know it is there, and they know not to come and start shooting. As long as you show respect, they are cool with it. They are usually hooked up, and generally get in the party for free.”
In December 2005, rival tagging crews got into a fight and one of them passed a rifle over the wall and shot in the air at the Vicious Ladies’ “How Vicious Stole Christmas” party.
“I got on the floor,” says Peaches, a former Vicious Lady. “That is what everybody does. We had security, but a gangster was able to have a rifle passed over a wall. Vicious Ladies know a lot of crews, but we don’t usually have drama with gangs because they like our parties. It is easy to tell when something is going to happen. It is a small world. It is the same group of people that go to the same party.”
Despite whatever nominal precautions a crew may take, violence is a reality at flier parties. Shootings have occurred from La Puente to Ladera Heights to Highland Park, in abandoned buildings, in homes with parents in attendance and in halls. Two of the victims last year were close friends of Cherry's. In addition to Munoz, 20-year-old Russell Connine, an alleged gang member, was killed on December 24 outside a party in Highland Park held by members of the Avenues gang.
“He was doing good,” says Cherry as she points to his memorial photo on her bedroom wall. “He was changing. He was more committed to school.”
Over the years, police have made attempts to crack down on parties by enforcing local municipal and penal codes. Teens have been cited for curfew violations, disturbing the peace, public intoxication and possession of nitrous oxide with intent to inhale for the purpose of intoxication. Heads of households can also be cited for loud music, serving alcohol to minors and charging an entrance fee. DJs can get their equipment impounded.
However, penalties are rarely enforced. “The police department has a difficult time getting into the party. We aren’t walking down the street busting down every door because three people are associating. Something has to bring the police there,” says LAPD spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vernon. “Where we would get involved is a recurring event. They are smart because they move around. When someone dies, it is a serious thing, but outside of that, people think it is a bunch of kids having a party, so don’t bug them. But people don’t recognize the potential danger. The big onus of this is on the parents because when we do make arrests of juveniles, we take them to the parents. I always turn first to the parents and say, ‘Where are you?’ and ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Police also acknowledge that they don’t have the personnel or time to chase down every party, especially when most are advertised on the Internet.
“The Internet is so prolific,” says Mike Coffey, supervising detective at LAPD’s North Hollywood Division. “It is like dropping fliers out of a helicopter. It is easy to get the word out with the Internet. This isn’t a police problem, it is a citizens’ problem. We aren’t going to check the Internet to monitor the parties. We have units that can’t keep up with radio calls. The citizens who are initiating the parties, I think they should be legally or morally responsible for what happens at the party. Like at a bar. They should be liable for what happened. It should be on the family of the victims to sue and try to get some kind of compensation for injuries where someone created an atmosphere where someone got shot. There is a lot of liability there. Those parties are just time bombs. You have no idea what will happen, and when it explodes it is too late.”
Emmery Munoz was a typical teenager. She liked to sing, dance, hang with friends, talk on the phone, text message and play around on MySpace. The headline to her MySpace profile read: “Emmery Roxxx This Shit.” Though she was just 14 when she died, she listed her age as 17.
Munoz lived with her mother, two siblings and grandparents in City Terrace. Like many teens, she was a regular in the underground party scene. Her Vicious Ladies crew name was “Tears.”
Munoz’s death brought the dangers of the flier-party scene to the forefront for Hollenbeck Division detectives, whose purview includes the area where Munoz lived and died.
“It is not the first underground party where someone got hurt by any means, but Emmery is the one that really brought it to our attention,” says Hollenbeck homicide supervisor Dwayne Fields. “I am not trying to ruin a kid's good time. The attitude of ‘Whatever happens happens’ is an attitude that will get you dead. I am trying to prevent someone from being shot and killed.”
Munoz’s first party as a full-fledged member was on November 18, 2005, at the crew’s “Vicious and Spice and Everything Nice” party. She went to the party with her best friend Brandy and a male friend. It would be one of her last.
On the day of her disappearance, Munoz attended Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School as usual. She made tentative plans to go to the mall that night with a school chum. She also made plans with a male friend who wanted to meet up after school.
When she arrived home, she did her chores and changed into blue jeans and a white, hooded sweatshirt with “Tinkerbell” written across the front. Her mother last saw her at 4:30 p.m. in the front yard of their home, chatting with the male friend. Munoz asked her mother if she could hang out with Brandy that night. Her mother told her she could, but had to be home by 8:30 p.m. The male friend, who was later identified by police as being a member of a party crew, told authorities that Munoz walked him home. They chatted for a while, he said, and she left his house around 5:30 p.m.
When her mother returned home at 6:30 p.m., Munoz was gone. The only things she had taken with her were her cell phone and school identification.
Police said that Munoz used her cell phone to talk to a friend at 8 p.m. that night. A text message was sent from her phone at 10 p.m., though police don't believe it came from Munoz. When she didn’t return home that evening, family members began to worry. The following morning, Munoz’s mother called the police. At the time, the police suspected that Munoz was a runaway. Her mother, Maria Mejia, disagreed.
“I never believed she was a runaway. If she had an intention of running away, she would have taken her [phone] charger, clothes. She didn't take anything,” says Mejia. “Someone killed my daughter.”
On the morning of January 25, six days after Munoz disappeared, two workers who stopped by an old factory to pick up lumber discovered the 10th grader’s body next to a loading dock in the heart of Boyle Heights’ warehouse district — a well-known spot for underground parties because of its desolate location. A handful of used syringes, some garbage and a couple of beer bottles were strewn about.
When police arrived, they discovered a large hole in the chainlink fence that surrounded the property. Munoz was wearing the same clothes she was last seen in. The bottoms of her shoes appeared clean. So were her clothes. Police believe that she died somewhere else and her body was dumped. There were no signs of sexual assault. Her school identification was found in her pocket. The eight gold and silver rings she usually wore on her fingers were missing. So were her cell phone and the gold hoop earrings she received as a Christmas gift.
“Whoever placed her there is probably someone she knows,” says homicide detective Joe Preciado. “They could have dropped her body from the four-foot drop. Someone laid her down and then climbed down on the loading dock and placed her on the ground.”
At first blush, detectives weren’t even sure that her death was a homicide at all and thought it could possibly be a nitrous-oxide overdose. She wasn’t shot or stabbed. Ligature markings around her neck, though, raised the possibility that she’d been strangled or smothered. The coroner’s office first ruled the cause of death as inconclusive — pending toxicology results. Months later, when no drugs were found in her system, coroner officials ruled her death a homicide.
“I just want to know who did this and why,” says Mejia.
Because Munoz was dumped in a site where flier parties have been held in the past, detectives believe the answer to what happened to her will have to come from within the party scene.
“A person who may have done this and wasn’t connected to the underground party world wouldn’t have come to this location to dispose of the body,” says Preciado. “That is the connection to rave or underground parties.”
Her party-crew friends deny the flier-party scene had anything to do with her death.
“She was someone who was ours,” says a crew organizer who didn’t want to be identified. “There wasn’t a party that day. If there was a party that day, we didn’t know about it. Everyone is tripping out. We even went as far as to ask the gang [in the area] what happened and they didn’t know.”
Her friends in the Vicious Ladies claim Munoz began to pull away from the party scene and started to hang around with another crowd about a month before her death. She had a crush on a boy. She was spending most of her time with members of another crew.
“Emmery was doing her own kind of thing at the time,” says the crew organizer. “If she had kicked it with us more often, she would have been safe with us. She had different friends we didn’t really know and frankly we didn’t really like.”
Last September, detectives held a press conference in the warehouse district and offered a reward for information that could help solve Emmery’s case.
“These party crews have a kind of gang mentality,” says Preciado. “That is why we offered a $50,000 reward. So someone would step forward and tell us what they know.”
As she sits on the edge of her bed, Cherry picks up a shoe box filled with old fliers of past parties. She pulls out a flier with the words “Hello Pussy” written in pink. On the front of the flier is a picture of Hello Kitty. On the back are photos of Munoz and the words “Forever in Our Hearts.” The underground party, which was held last March, was in honor of the teen. The flier promised strawberry-flavored happy balloons. The $700 profit the crew made that night was given to Munoz’s family to help pay for funeral expenses.
Cherry has taken the past year in stride. Two of her more popular crew members, Paris and Peaches, quit the Vicious Ladies. Paris left because she found a boyfriend. Peaches dropped out because he wants to get a part-time job. Besides her friends Munoz and Connine, Cherry also lost her godfather and great grandfather. Cherry gets visibly sad when she talks about Munoz’s death. Munoz was in the next room when Cherry lost her virginity. The teens had a falling out, but they began to speak again at church on Sundays. They had things in common.
“Emmery never saw her dad,” says Cherry. “He was always too busy. I never see my dad either. My dad went back to Mexico.”
The pretty teen is at a loss over what happened to her friend, and she says the Vicious Ladies are just as clueless as everyone else about Munoz’s death.
“I grew up with her,” she says. “She was my best friend.”