On Saturday afternoon, a police car was parked in front of the “crime scene.”
The ominous gang graffiti was already painted over on the white exterior walls of the comfort station housing restrooms at the entrance to the beach of Wildwood Lake Park in Riverside.
No one could see the large 18 STREET tags, or the F— THE COPS slogan. Down a pathway past the sign for Wildwood Lake Park — warning this is an unprotected area with no lifeguard on duty — a chilly April wind rippled the iridescent lake in this idyllic summer swimming hole and picnic area, a secluded little wooded oasis where secret lovers might rendezvous and where underage teens could crack open a six pack of beer and pass a blunt.
It is a place of songbirds, foraging squirrels, and hopping rabbits where authorities fear that members of the 18th Street gang defiantly spray painted some disturbing gang names, marking their violently enforced turf to “dis” their rival MS13 gang, and challenging local Southampton police to stop them.
Or maybe not.
Maybe this was just local kids pranking, pretending to be members from the predominantly Mexican 18th Street gang that is a direct rival of the more notorious Latin American-rooted MS-13.
“I’ve never come across any gang activity patrolling this area,” said the lone police officer at the scene who preferred to remain nameless. “It’s a safe place where people swim in the summer, where families picnic, so this graffiti surprised me. But it could just be local kids pretending to be gang guys. We have people investigating this. I’m just doing my patrol and it’s been quiet, as usual.
Certainly, no gang activity.”
The owner of the nearby Wildwood Bowl agrees.
“I’ve been here for 15 years and I’ve never seen or heard of any gang activity,” said John, walking through his popular bowling alley about 100 yards up from the vandalized comfort station. “I don’t want to use my last name, because there’s been a lot of misleading reporting done on this story. To start with, it has nothing to do with my place. This happened in Wildwood Lake Park not at Wildwood Bowl. C’mon, take a look . . .”
John unlocks his back door and leads me to the rear of his large business where the 60-foot-wide cream-colored walls are an unblemished graffiti tagger’s dream canvas. He points to several strategically located motion triggered security cameras placed around his popular establishment.
“If you were a gangbanger wanting to make a big splash, why wouldn’t you have used this big wall?” John asks. “Because they knew I have cameras. They probably know because they’re local kids.
I have motion sensors so any car that circles back here would have been recorded by my cameras, including license plates.”
John said that when he checked the footage from the night of the graffiti incident — “and that’s what this was, not some gang war” — no car appeared. “That means whoever did this came on foot, otherwise a vehicle would have triggered the motion detectors,” he noted. “So, in my opinion, this was local kids in the middle of the night making believe they were gangbangers to mess with public, cops, and media.”
John, raised in Brooklyn and Queens, brought his city street smarts to the East End 15 years ago when he opened Wildwood Bowl. “In that time, I had three minor incidents where people tried to break in and steal stuff,” he said. “In each case, the cameras nailed them and they were arrested. “
I point out that the park’s comfort station sits there alone — Little Outhouse on the Prairie — without any cameras monitoring the property and surrounding grounds. I suggest that cameras on each side of that structure would probably cost the township or state less than the price of repainting it and removing and replacing the trash dumpsters, which were also covered in graffiti.
“You said that,” said John, smiling. “Not me.”
The uniformed cop outside the comfort station said cameras would make the police job easier.
So maybe all the local print, blog, and local TV news coverage of the graffiti in Wildwood Lake Park is just media hype selling a “violent gangs in the tony Hamptons” storyline.
But maybe not.
Curtis Sliwa, WABC radio host and founder of the Guardian Angels, said he’s not sure about this particular incident yet, but warns that it’s dangerous to ignore the presence of violent gangs in the netherworld of the growing Hispanic community in the Hamptons.
“We have Guardian Angels operating in Hampton Bays right now because of prevalent gang activity,” says Sliwa. “Two of our Angels are former MS-13 members and they gave us behind-the-curtain details about the paramilitary operations of this gang that attracts mostly Latin Americans from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The soldiers must attend scheduled weekly meetings. If they fail to show, they are dealt a beat down. Each group has a general who dictates down a strict chain of command what activities the gang members will engage in, criminal and legal.”
Sliwa first encountered the lesser known and predominantly Mexican and Chicano 18th Street gang in East Los Angeles in the 1980s. “The 18 Street gang basically ran East LA,” says Sliwa. “I ran into them on, ironically, Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights. They ran the drug and extortion and prostitution rackets. They also preyed upon the newly undocumented Latin American community who were smaller in numbers and physical stature than the Mexicans of MS-13. So, the Latin Americans had to give kickbacks to MS-13 on any income they received or else they were beaten and denied the ability to work.”
Sliwa says that the Latin Americans, tired of being preyed upon by 18th Street gangbangers, formed MS-13 to fight back. “They have been bitter rivals since,” says Sliwa. “In places like the East End of Long Island where the Hispanic population has grown in the past 20 years, especially among the undocumented immigrants, MS-13 has gotten all the attention. Every time [President Donald] Trump and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions mentions them, their ranks swell. They basically decide which of the day laborers work or don’t work in the local East End vineyards, and in the mansions of the beautiful people. And they extort a 10 percent kickback. They probably make more money from these extortion rackets than they do from drugs, prostitution, or sex trafficking.”
He said the gangs make sure they do not assault or steal from white employees, because that would bring heat on them from local cops and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“However, 18th Street has been encroaching on MS-13 turf on the East End,” says Sliwa. “They are particularly incensed that Mexicans are actually being recruited into the ranks of MS-13. So, I’m not saying the graffiti in Wildwood Lake Park is legit, but it could be a Bat signal from 18th Street that they are coming after MS-13 turf. They tag the graffiti, take photos, post it on social media, and see that it gets big attention in local papers and TV and mainstream media. And game on. That’s why I see 18th Street in Southampton and Bridgehampton soon. And I also see the Guardian Angels going in soon too.”
Meanwhile, whether the comfort station graffiti in Wildwood Lake Park was a real gang warning or a prank from young local vandals, a legitimate businessman like John is the one who is victimized.
“My place winds up in the papers on TV as the focus of gang activity,” he says, sweeping a hand across his pristine back wall in this tame little lakeside East End Eden. “Does my place look like it’s been vandalized by gangs? No. That’s because there is no gang activity here.”
I looked down the road to the comfort station. The police car was gone.
To comment on Sand in my Shoes, email firstname.lastname@example.org.