Monday, March 5, 2012

Dont Raise Your Kids In The West Valley: A Retrospective Review of Young Adult Crime In The West Valley

[Update June 5, 2013]: Elliot Rodger of Woodland Hills/West Hills, son of a Hollywood director, killed six people in Isla Vista on Mary 23, 2014 near Santa Barbara continuing the trend of murders from kids born and/or raised in the West SFV. You can read more here

[Update November 6, 2013]: I forgot to add the story of Lyle and Erik Menendez who murdered their parents in Beverly Hills on August 20, 1989 which became a national sensation. Although the murder occurred in Beverly Hills, they had a home in Calabasas under renovation and had attended Calabasas high school. You can read more here

[Update October 30, 2013]: Jason Schumann was convicted September 19, 2013 for first degree murder for the January 11, 2012 killing of 17 year old Francisco "Pancho" Rodriguez discussed below which finally brings closure to this sad and unfortunate story. I dont know what happened to his girlfriend, Elizabeth Ibarra, but I am assuming there was some sort of cooperation because she was not charged with any crime. 


Ibarra on the left, Rodriguez center, and Schumann on the right. Images courtesy Facebook via LA Weekly
[Original Post]:
If you have ever driven through the residential streets of the West Valley (primarily Calabasas, Hidden Hills, West Hills, and Woodland Hills), you will find endless neighborhoods of tract homes with perfectly manicured lawns. The roads are generally empty with kids safely playing catch or riding their bicycles. Industrial facilities are non-existent as city planners carefully subdivided this area as the suburban mecca for what has become the roadmap for the rest of America as documented by Kevin Roderick in his 2001 classic, America's Suburb: The San Fernando Valley. Whatever space that is not residential is limited to a handful of retail stores with the Fallbrook Mall perfectly situated at the major intersection of Fallbrook and Victory with its usual variety of Big Box anchor stores. But not too big to cause traffic jams and headaches (except for Christmas) like the expansive Topanga Mall.

You cannot forget every Parent's critical checklist item, education. This area is home to the award winning decathlon machine known as El Camino Real High school, the highly rated Hale Middle school, the Blue Ribbon Pomelo Drive elementary school, the Blue Ribbon and California Distinguished Welby Way elementary school, and the exclusive Chaminade High School to just name a few. 

Overall, crime is extremely low except for the occasional theft (keep your balcony doors locked!) and the random vandalism. Another item to check off the list for reasons to live in this area. 

Essentially, this is the perfect area to raise your kids. You cant go wrong and your child is set for life. Consequently, this area boasts higher real estate prices due to the success of these various schools as demand is always strong for newly formed households. This area is prime for Realtors who grin with every successful transaction. 

However, something is odd with this area that I cannot explain. Please consider the following which I recently read in the headlines:
  1. Dead Star Football Player Was Injected with Narcotics.  This tragic death occurred on October 30, 2011 when Griffen Kramer, a Thousand Oaks High School QB, died of a drug overdose at a friends home in Agoura Hills home. Although not part of the West Valley, close enough. 
  2. Clark Gable's Grandson Gets Jail For Pointing Laser at LAPD Copter. The 23 year old Clark James Gable of Canoga Park was sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years' formal probation for pointing laser at LAPD helicopter on Hollywood Boulevard on July 28, 2011. Once again, not part of the area I am talking about but close enough again.
  3. El Camino Real High Soccer Player Slain in Shooting at His Home. 17 year old El Camino Real High soccer player, Francisco Javier Rodriguez Jr, was shot at his home in Winnetka after a soccer game believed to be shot by a Calabasas man, Jason Schumann and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Ibarra, (see image below) over a romantic relationship (This case is still pending). The story is simply tragic and devastating and I feel for that family. Words probably cannot describe the pain they are feeling especially when that person was so close to home, literally. 
The above three events got me wondering about the West Valley youth and the heinous acts of crime that they commit. Naturally, teenagers will challenge the status quo during their critical formative years. Nothing wrong with that. There will of course be drugs, sex, rock and roll, the hunger for power and money, and various ways to seek attention. These are all common human desires which all age levels can relate to.

So having been a West Valley resident since the 80's, I distinctly remember key events of a criminal nature that either occurred in the West Valley or were carried out by individuals from the West Valley that made it to the national headlines and even turned into major films that really put the West Valley on the map.

I have listed three examples below going all the way back to 1992 where the guilty individuals were born and/or raised in the West Valley.

1992: Dana Ewell and Joel Radovcich Murder of Ewell's Parents and Sister
Dana Ewell, Image courtesy California Bar Journal
Joel Radovcich, Image courtesy Livedash.com
On Easter Sunday 1992, Dana Ewell's parents and sister were murdered at their home in Fresno. Dana, 21, hired his best friend from Santa Clara University, Joel, also 21, to murder his parents in order to inherit an $8 million fortune from his father's aviation business. Joel was from West Hills and graduated from the exclusive Chaminade High School. Take note from an LA Times article published in 1995:
Radovcich grew up in the suburban comfort of West Hills. His mother played organ at the family's church. His father, an engineer, was president of the grade-school parents' association. A brother made it as an Air Force pilot. His twin sisters, younger by 10 years, are the neighborhood baby-sitters.
As a boy, Radovcich rode his skateboard and lifted weights. At the prestigious Chaminade College Preparatory School in West Hills, he kept to himself.
"This is not a negative description: He blended in," said Father Mario Pariante, principal at Chaminade through Radovcich's junior year in high school. "He was very nondescript."
Joel Radovcich grew up in this West Hills Home.
Eventually, Ewell and Radovcich were sentenced to life in prison in 1998 without the possibility of parole after an eight month trial. The key witness that brought the duo down was Jack Ponce. He revealed where the gun barrel used to kill the Ewells was hidden in a Reseda empty plot of land. I would love to know which plot of land this was and if it still exists. One thought that immediately comes to mind is the land next to the Karate Kid apartment building on Saticoy. According to Wikipedia
Ewell resides in the Protective Housing Unit of California State Prison, Corcoran, with Charles Manson, Juan Corona, and other murderers who require "extraordinary protection" from other inmates.
The Ewell murders have been featured on American Justice, Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice, Forensic Files, Discovery Channel's "Solved" and Behind Mansion Walls. 
The case was covered in a one-hour show of Dominick Dunne's investigative show Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice. Also two series of the truTV network aired episodes on the case; Forensic Files episode 282 titled "Two in a Million" and American Justice episode 170 titled "Millions Of Reasons To Kill". The case was briefly covered in "E! Investigates: Rich Kids Who Kill." New Detectives "Family Plots"
Joel Radovcich in prison today, Image courtesy Inmate.com
I briefly covered this story but there is a list of referenced articles at the bottom of this post. A good article to read is Fresno Murder Probe Leads to Key Evidence in Reseda on May 16, 1995 by LA Times and The E! show Rich Kids Who Kill transcript at Livedash.com. You can view trial images by Getty Images.

 2000: Nicholas Markowitz Murder by Jesse James Hollywood and Gang




If you watched the movie Alpha Dog (filming locations discussed here) starring Justin Timberlake, then you know this story already. From Dateline NBC:
In the West Hills section, there are million dollar homes. But amidst the swimming pools and tidy lawns of this well-kept neighborhood, a devoted mother got the worst possible news.  "When I was paging him, and he wasn’t answering I knew something was definitely wrong." (From Susan Markowitz) Like the stream of expensive cars cruising down the Boulevard, a dark undercurrent had been flowing beneath West Hills’ glossy views. A group of seemingly nice kids had become caught up in a lifestyle where life itself was cheap.  An entire city was shocked when these same kids stood accused of an unspeakable crime
Nick Markowitz (view dedicated site here), 15, was murdered by Jesse James Hollywood over a drug money dispute (roughly $1,200) between Markowitz's older half-brother, Benjamin. On August 6, 2000, Hollywood decides to visit Ben regarding the drug money dispute when he happens to run into Nick who just ran away from home. Instead of confronting Ben, Hollywood and his gang kidnap Nick who is chased, assaulted, and abducted in broad daylight escaping in a van in West Hills.

Nicholas Markowitz grew up in this West Hills home.
Nicholas was captured on Ingomar street near Taxco Trails Park
With Nick panicking, Hollywood offered him drugs and alcohol to essentially calm his nerves which made Nick feel part of the group. Afterwards, they drove directly to Santa Barbara and partied like nothing happened bouncing from motels to house parties. Nick was in his comfort zone as he was nicknamed "Stolen Boy" while up to 42 witnesses knew he was "kidnapped." Why didnt anybody call the cops or even Nick for that matter? I am speculating that people thought it was sort of a practical joke and eventually Nick would be returned considering that he was partying freely and wasnt being harmed. However, things turned for the worse when Nick was taken to the Santa Ynez Mountains instead of heading home and was bound with tape around his hands behind his back and over his mouth. He was hit in the back of the head with a shovel that was used to dig a grave. He was then shot 9 times by Ryan Hoyt who owed Hollywood $1,000 as a way to forgive the debt. Eventually the body was found on August 12, 2000 near Lizards Mouth Trail since the grave was too shallow. 
Jesse James Hollywood grew up in this home.
Jesse James purchased this house where he heavily partied.  
All members of the Hollywood gang; Ryan Hoyt, Jesse Rugge, William Skidmore, Graham Pressley, and Jesse James Hollywood were all convicted of some crime depending on their involvement. The most severe punishment was handed down on Hoyt for 1st degree murder and sentenced to death who is currently on Death Row at San Quentin. Hollywood escaped authorties but was later found in Brazil with his pregnant girlfriend in 2005. He was convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping in 2009 and sentenced to life in prison.

Another tragic and sad story with ties to the West Valley. This story has been well documented which I briefly covered so I recommend reading the various articles listed below. In addition to the articles, you can view the movie, Alpha Dog, which has been fictionalized due to the pending court case at the time when the movie was released. The movie was excellently filmed covering every detail perfectly. Unfortunately, since it was fictionalized, the names of the characters, locations, etc. were changed due to the pending court case which slightly disappointed me because I always appreciate that autenticity factor. In any event, if you read the articles listed below, you can identify the true location as you watch the movie. Addtionally, several scenes were shot in the SFV so you will be able to easily recognize various SFV spots.  

You can also view below Unsolved Mysteries: Jesse James Hollywood video,  My Stolen Son: The Alpha Dog True Story video, and the Alpha Dog trailer below. I provided a list of references at the bottom of this post. From that list, I highly recommend The Real Story Behind 'Alpha Dog' by Chris Hansen on January 15, 2007; Dateline NBC and The Last Ride of Jesse James Hollywood by Jesse Katz on February 1, 2002; Los Angeles Magazine. 




2008: Bling Ring
Members of the Bling Ring gang. Top row, left to right: Diana Tamayo, Johnny Ajar, Alexis Neiers. Bottom row, left to right: Nick Prugo, Courtney Ames, Roy Lopez Jr. Image courtesy Wikipedia
Rachel Lee, Image courtesy Wikipedia
The final heinous act of crime fortunately didnt involve murder or physical harm to a human being. Instead this last example of the West Valley acting in a pernicious manner involves a more sophisticated, masterfully planned, and at times elusive scheme to deliberately steal from select celebrities' homes. This group of teenagers hailed from the Calabasas area and attended Indian Hills high school in Agoura Hills. They targeted celebrities that they adored for their clothing and lifestyle. They stole over $3 million in clothing, jewelry, and cash from Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr, Brian Austin Green and Megan Fox, and Lindsay Lohan.

The ringleader behind this group was Rachel Lee who was obsessed with reality TV.  Additionally, she yearned to wear the same clothing and jewelry of the celebrities she idolized which led to the formation of the Bling Ring. Lee partnered with Nick Prugo who together discovered the locations of targeted celebrities homes, tracked their schedules to visit their homes while on travel, staked their homes to determine the best entry method, and avoided any visual contact with security cameras such as walking backwards to the front door. Other members of the group included Diana Tamayo, Johnny Ajar, Alexis Neiers who had her own reality show, Courtney Ames, and Roy Lopez, Jr. From Vanity Fair:
In the media, she (Neiers) was being called a member of “the Burglar Bunch,” “the Bling Ring,” nicknames for the most successful and outrageous burglary gang in recent Hollywood memory: a gang of well-off kids from the Valley.
The Bling Ring was in operation from October 2008 through August 2009 having robbed from 6 celebrities with 50 more homes targeted for burglary. Like any good party, at some point, the party crashes and ends. As smart as these kids were having robbed homes for close to a year that completely baffled the LAPD initially, they were also in dumb in that they were caught due to their bragging at parties and the Internet. The way that the Bling Ring was able to search for celebrity addresses on the Internet was how the LAPD was able to find clues and evidence through Facebook. 

The members of this group initially pleaded not guilty but Neiers later changed to no contest when she discovered the Orlando Bloom would testify against her. She received 180 days in jail which she was released after 30 days as well as pay $600,000 restitution to Bloom. Lee also pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 4 years in state prison. Johnny Ajar pleaded no contest to several felonies and is currently in jail. Nick Prugo pleaded no contest on March 2 who will face two years in jail, pay restitution, and testify against the others.

[Update October 21,2012]: Diana Tamayo pleaded no contest and will receive three years probation plus time served in the county jail and 60 days community service with Caltrans. Tamayo must also pay restitution. The attorney, Ben Gharagozli for Tamayo called the LAPD's lead investigator an "entirely uncredible witness" because of his work on an upcoming Bling Ring movie and other issues. The movie, Gharagozli said, "was the big elephant in the room." In a July hearing, Judge Larry P. Fidler said LAPD Officer Brett Goodkin's decision to serve as a technical advisor on Sofia Coppola's docudrama "The Bling Ring" while still assigned to the case had harmed the prosecution of the defendants. "You should all write a thank-you letter to Goodkin, because his judgment is as poor as it gets," Fidler said, addressing the attorneys. "You can have a field day with his credibility during trial.... It's a shame what he did. It's harmful to the people's case."At this moment, trial is still pending for Courtney Ames, and Roy Lopez Jr. [End Update]

[Update November 8, 2012]: Roy Lopez Jr pleaded no contest to one count of receiving stolen property. Lopez received three years' probation plus time served in the county jail. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors agreed to dismiss charges of burglary and conspiracy. Paris Hilton, whose jewlery and property Lopez was alleged to have stolen, is not seeking restitution. [End Update]

[Update December 14, 2012]: Courtney Leigh Ames pleaded no contest to a single felony charge of possessing stolen goods. Ames received three years' probation and 60 days of community service. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors agreed to dismiss charges of conspiracy to commit burglary, burglary, and receiving stolen property. Ames is the final member of the Bling Ring to be sentenced which concludes this courtroom saga and leads the way for Soffia Coppola's docudrama film, The Bling Ring[End Update]

Some wonder why the Bling Ring committed these crimes especially when they lived such affluent lifestyles. Here is a possible reason from the NYTimes:
“Young people see a lifestyle on television and have peer pressure and constant bombardment from media to have what other people have, to want what other people want and to try to live the dream,” said Jason Peirce, the host of “Calabasas Teen Forum,” a local cable television program. 
Just like the Jesse James Hollywood and Nickolas Markowitz story was made into the movie, Alpha Dog, so was this story appropriately titled, Bling Ring, a Dick Clark Productions directed by Michael Lembeck. This was the subject of an episode of Law and Order: Los Angeles aired September 29, 2010.

You can also view some videos on Youtube that I cannot embed from ABCNews.

A really good article to read is The Suspects Wore Louboutins by Nancy Jo Sales on March 2010 at Vanity Fair. You can also see the sources section for other informative articles. 

Conclusion

One can make the argument that this is purely coincidence, but there is underlying evidence of young adults and teenagers from this affluent area of the San Fernando Valley causing serious mischief and harm. This is not your occasional vandalism, cheating, theft, or drug story that might typically be associated with a troubled youth. These were serious and unique acts of crime that made national headlines and were covered in a book, TV show, and/or movie. 

Keep in mind that Jesse James Hollywood, Nicholas Markowitz, and Joel Radovcich homes were all located in less than a square mile of each other. If there is some kind of connection or "something in the water" that causes kids from this area to commit serious crime, why and how? I dont know, but maybe it is the "water" that has been contaminated since the 50's from the nearby Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory testing site overlooking the West Hills and Calabasas homes. But on a serious note, maybe its a combination of the proximity and the isolation from Hollywood. Kids wanting to live the Hollywood lifestyle which is within arms reach but yet are stuck in the suburubs. I really dont know and just taking a stab here. 

However, the kids of the San Fernando Valley have been prospering and reaching accolades on a national level and the North Hollywood High School recently won the DWP regional Science Bowl on February 25, 2012. So you cant obviously say that a few "rotten eggs" make the whole carton bad. There are definitely more successful and ambitious kids in the Valley than those that are unfortunately steered into the wrong path. 

So is it safe to raise your kids in the West Valley? As I mentioned at the very top of this article, this area boasts the lowest crime rates, highest real estate values, best schools, and overall safety than any other area. So I wrote the title somewhat sarcastically and this area is probably one of the best for your kids. 

The events discussed in this article occurred in 1992, 2000, and 2008 which are more or less 8 years apart. Following that timeline, suggests there will be another serious event in 2016. If you become complacent with your kids, they could be the next one featured on 60 Minutes or any other national program.  

Sources:

1992: Dana Ewell and Joel Radovcich Murder of Ewell's Parents and Sister
2000: Nicholas Markowitz Murder by Jesse James Hollywood and Gang
2008: Bling Ring

1 comments

ventura-capitalist May 10, 2012 at 4:56 PM

Don't worry. All these problems will be solved when Mary Nichols and Jerry Brown force us into housing projects in North Hollywood next to the subway line, and the entire valley is bulldozed and returned to the goats, which by the way will need to be equipped with flatulence abatement devices.

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