Public meeting on gangs draws 300 in Ojai

By Chris Stolz, Ventura County Star
Friday, June 19, 2009

More than 300 people crowded Thursday night into the auditorium at Matilija Junior High School for an emotional discussion about gang violence in the Ojai Valley.

The valley has seen three serious gang-related crimes in the past two years, most recently the fatal stabbing of Seth Scarminach, 16, of Ojai at an unsupervised Meiners Oaks party in early May.

Authorities have linked the killing to a conflict between a gang called the Old School Latinos and a motorcycle gang based in Ojai and along Ventura Avenue known as the Demons.

On the stage Thursday were representatives from the Sheriff’s Department, Ojai Valley Youth Foundation and the Substance Abuse Free Environment Coalition, along with new Ojai police Chief Chris Dunn, Pastor Paul Bergmann of Ojai Valley Community Church and Joe Jaramillo of Bikers for Christ.

Emotions ran high. The meeting was called by a group of local nonprofits known as Heal the Community and overseen by Bret Bradigan, publisher of the Ojai Valley News, who asked speakers to ask themselves what they could do to help before blaming others.

Many of the speakers nonetheless alluded to being harassed or threatened by gang members, and some blamed authorities for failing to control the gangs.

One young woman, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation, said that when friend Joshua Powers, 28, was stabbed and nearly killed in a gang-related incident in Ojai on New Year’s Day, she had hoped that would wake the community up to the seriousness of the problem, but her worst fears were confirmed when Scarminach was killed.

“You’re putting a little Band-Aid on a huge, gaping wound,” she said to the panelists on the stage, to loud applause and cheers from the crowd.

Sgt. Bill Schierman, who leads the anti-gang Major Crimes Unit for the Sheriff’s Department, said three groups in the Ojai area have been identified as criminal street gangs: the Hell’s Angels, the Oak View Gang and the Old School Latinos. When another anonymous speaker blamed the Old School Latinos for the problems and called for the Sheriff’s Department to “get on them,” Schierman pointed out that investigators thoroughly investigated the Powers stabbing, identified a suspect and later arrested him. They have also arrested a suspect in the Scarminach killing.

“Ojai has the lowest amount of gang crime in the entire county,” Schierman said. “All the gang-related crimes in Ojai in the last two years have been solved.”

Not all speakers blamed the authorities. Elizabeth Memel made a passionate plea for better early childhood education.

“If we want children to grow up to respect other human beings, then they have to be given respect in the first two years of their life,” she said.

Speakers also called on youth groups to provide more recreational activities for young people, called on parents to do a better job of overseeing their teens, and called on school authorities to track down truants and bring them back to class.

Dunn reminded the crowd of the anonymous tip line at 800-78-CRIME and encouraged anyone who had been harassed or attacked by gang members to report the crimes.

The new chief said that since September, authorities have stepped up probation and parole searches on known gang members and markedly increased the arrest rate.

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