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Monday, March 17, 2008 | As a rule, I am extremely wary of any story with an odor of suburban hysteria. We get a lot of it in Merge-land.

So when a woman called with a tale about recent gang activity in the area, I sort of didn’t believe her.

The outline of the story — that the woman and her fiancée were attacked at Torrey Pines State Beach — I could handle:

The pair were sitting in their parked car a few Saturday nights ago, enjoying conversation, hot chocolate, pretty views. It was about 10 p.m. A pooch, one 80-lb., Shepherd/lab mix, relaxed in the backseat. They had recently parked — the woman, who asked not to be named for safety reasons, hadn’t yet taken her seatbelt off. In the midst of the conversation, her fiancée’s glance began to shift, the woman recalled.

Two cars, inconspicuous Toyota Camrys, rolled up and parked close. Out of them came a total of four men who all ambled toward the woman’s car, joking and laughing like college students, she said.

She and her fiancée weren’t concerned at first. There were other people in other parked cars nearby. The group seemed jovial.

Then one of the men — described as “very clean-cut” — rushed up to her side of the car and struck the door, according to the woman’s recollection. He reached the door handle, opened it and grabbed the woman.

“I thought at first it was a joke,” she said, “and then he started to pull me out of the car.”

Luckily, her seatbelt was still on. It kept her inside while the fiancée struggled to get the guy away.

The other three men creepily stood by the car’s rear doors, right in its blind spot, and watched the fight occur, she said.

After much struggle and the gratuitous use of one particular racial slur toward the woman being attacked, the attacker apparently got spooked — other parkers had started to notice something going on, the woman said — and took off with merely a wallet to show for his efforts.

She and the fiancée chased the two Camrys in their own car as the group took off toward Del Mar, but lost them without getting the license plate.

While unsettling, the woman’s story, up to this point, doesn’t sound fantastic. Then she talked to sheriff’s deputies.

“What they said is that there are gangs that have hit this area,” the woman told me.

If anything sounded like suburban hysteria to me, it was the idea that Del Mar and Carmel Valley could somehow be harboring criminal street gangs. Somehow, million-dollar, red-tiled subdivisions and super-manicured suburban boulevards don’t seem like fertile territory for that sort of thing.

Call me naive, but the woman’s description of her attacker (“a college-age student that worked out”) didn’t bring to mind your typical thug. Who needs to mug someone when you’ve got your parent’s credit card and/or an engineering degree?

Even if you did need cash — to, say, support your Oxycontin habit? (a ridiculously addictive opiate prescription popular among super-affluent teens in Merge-land) — wouldn’t you try to purloin something more valuable than a wallet and cell-phone?

I called Andy Mills, a lieutenant in the San Diego Police Department’s gang division. He knew of the robbery right away.

“That has the earmark of what we would think of as a gang incident,” Mills told me, careful to add that he wasn’t yet sure who was responsible.

But, he said, there are gang members living and gang activities occurring — albeit rarely — in the San Diego Police Department’s northwestern division, which includes Carmel Valley, Del Mar Heights and Sorrento Valley.

I was so wrong.

No violent or drug crimes have been recorded in those areas so far this year (just some gang-related graffiti). In the northern division, which runs from La Jolla to Clairemont, three robberies in 2008 are so far considered gang-related. About three percent of the total crimes in that division are racked up to street gangs, Mills said.

So even if nearly all gang crimes happen elsewhere, the idyllic mid-coast ‘burbs still harbor their share of thugs.

In November, police arrested Phillip Liou, a 19-year-old Carmel Valley resident, with 1,500 hits of ecstasy, a gun and various drug paraphernalia at a Shell station on Carmel Valley Road. Liou’s older brother has a Ph.D from Stanford, making him just the sort of person whom I didn’t believe could exist.

“Some of them come from very nice homes,” Mills said. “When you go to other communities you go to these just awful homes that are just not fit for a person to live. … I’ve been in homes in the Del Sur area in Carmel Valley that are $1.2, $1.3 million homes and their kid’s a shooter for different gang sets.”

“A shooter?” I asked in disbelief.

“They shoot people,” Mills responded.

Apparently the factors that send kids into gang life aren’t neutralized by affluence, or race. Mills said that most of the street gangs in the area involve youth of Asian descent, but that’s not always the case. Bad parents and broken homes happen everywhere.

Samuel Graham, a 25-year-old with a central Carmel Valley address, was arrested recently for a double murder in southeast San Diego. He didn’t claim to be in a gang, Mills said, but he had a tattoo indicating he was a West Coast crip. The murders took place when a robbery went bad.

So how can the average suburbanite tell if they’re looking at a gang member? They probably can’t. The relevant colors, symbols and tattoos are meaningful only if you know what you’re looking for. (Read: Not everyone with baggy pants, a bandana or and old English script tattoo is in a gang.)

But it’s not too hard to get a picture of local gang life. You just need to know the right words to search for on YouTube. (I was asked not to print the names of any of the major local gangs, but a little Googling will yield more information than you probably want.)

Not all Merge-land gang-bangers actually live in the area. Some of them just work there. (Yes: according to Mills, “it’s not uncommon” for these dudes to hold down jobs in between committing episodes of thuggery and putting videos of them on YouTube).

For all you Carmel Valley and Del Mar residents out there, don’t flip out — the chances of becoming a victim of gang crime are utterly minute. There hasn’t been a confirmed episode of gang violence or drug-dealing in the area so far this year, and Lt. Mills said the average citizen probably won’t find trouble unless they’re looking for prostitutes, guns or drugs.

“The majority of our gang problem is not in Carmel Valley,” Mills said. “That’s why I bought my house there.”

If anyone deserves paranoia and/or hysteria related to gangbanging, it’s those of you who live in Mira Mesa or certain neighborhoods of southeast San Diego. Mills says many Merge-land gangsters follow patterns similar to those of more legitimately occupied citizens: Hang in the ‘burbs, ‘bang in the city.

Ian S. Port is assistant editor of the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice. Contact him at iansmithport@gmail.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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