Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when juvenile delinquents were called juvenile delinquents, youth gangs stuck close to home and defended their turf against invasion by other gangs. No more. The age of the mobile youth gang has arrived. Striking out from poorer neighborhoods, they are fanning into wealthy areas and often faraway towns, breaking into jewelry stores and snatching wallets from pedestrians.
While present to some extent in a number of big U.S. cities, the mobile predators are most evident in the Los Angeles area, where police have identified no fewer than 450 gangs with more than 45,000 members. This represents a 25% rise since 1980, fed largely by the city's influx of Asians and Hispanics. Says Kelly Preseley of the Los Angeles Community Youth Gang Services Project: "It's a mobile society, and this is freeway paradise."
Police believe that some of the new roving packs may be directed by Fagin-style adults. They are looking into the possibility that one or two masterminds are behind as many as 60 jewelry-store robberies in Washington, Arizona, California, Nevada and Oregon. In other cases, the gangs strike a bit closer to home, acting on impulse. Says Commander Lorne Kramer of the Los Angeles Police Department: "They follow the money. Whoever's around will pile into cars and head off in search of victims."
The new mobility is partly brought about by greater gang wealth from trafficking in cocaine and other drugs. This translates into cars, sophisticated weaponry and access to air travel. Last October four jet-age thieves ranging in age from twelve to 18 flew from Los Angeles to Seattle and robbed a jewelry store of more than $300,000 in gems. One was arrested at Seattle's airport, but the others presumably grabbed a return flight home.
The marauders have mostly been responsible for robberies and muggings, but they have also committed far more serious crimes. In September, Brian Harris, 20, and Michelle Ann Boyd, 19, two students, were abducted near the UCLA campus and murdered by machine-gun fire. The four gang members charged with the crime were apparently after the couple's car. Instances of gang members murdering one another as well as innocent bystanders in vicious "drive by" shootings are up 90% through October, to 87.
Other big American cities have been plagued 'with similar incidents. One roving Chicago gang, the Simon City Royals, based in the city's white middle-class Avondale neighborhood, had been tied to as many as 150 robberies last spring in more than a score of suburban towns. Using six stolen four-wheel-drive vehicles, gang members pulled up to houses, emptied them of jewelry, stereos and VCRS, then sold the stolen items through a tavern owner. After 16 of the gang's members were arrested, Chicago Police Sergeant John Nalepa said, "It was the first time I'd seen anything this organized."