Gang members, like the rest of us, enjoy taking their girlfriends and families to amusement parks. However, unlike most people, they see the innocent crowds inside the parks as herds of vulnerable prey—fat, dumb and happy.

It's almost like this attraction to fun zones is in the genes of gang members. The dangerous predatory jungle cats of Africa often target watering holes as their favorite spot to ambush their prey. They have learned from generations of successful hunting that this is a place that attracts prey in large numbers. Even better for the predators, the prey is often distracted while grazing and drinking at the water hole and this makes them easier to ambush and kill. The same is true of your average civilian in an amusement park. And gangs have been working them for decades.

Back in the 1950s, Edward "Sailor Boy" Gonzales earned his nickname rolling and robbing drunken sailors in and around the "Pike" amusement park in the California port city of Long Beach.

For Sailor the people at the Pike were easy pickens. But he made mistakes in his other criminal activities, and he got caught. So "Sailor Boy" wound up continuing his criminal education in some of the most violent California penal institutions until he reached the pinnacle of gang life as a member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang.

Ramon "Mundo" Mendoza, who was Sailor's partner in crime and a fellow member of both the VNE gang and the Mexican Mafia, could often be found attending baseball games at Dodger Stadium when not locked up in some prison cell. He once told me that it would not be uncommon for him to be involved in one of the numerous Mafia hits he participated in, and then, the same day, attend a baseball game. How many everyday civilians have unknowingly sat beside someone like Mundo at a sporting event or rode a roller coaster with someone like Sailor.

The thought of armed gang members in the parks or stadiums is even more frightening for us in law enforcement when we realize that most amusement parks and entertainment venues now prohibit off-duty police officers from carrying their weapons. This restriction of course does not affect the criminal gang members. This corporate crazy thinking is even more confusing when amusement parks sponsor "Police Appreciation Day," allowing law enforcement to enter the park free or at a discounted price but insist that they be unarmed and defenseless. This is like saying, "We want to honor you for your service in protecting us, but we can't trust you if you are armed." International terrorists have listed Disneyland, Disney World and other large American amusement parks as possible future targets and gangs love these places, so it's very unwise disarm the cops who also visit.

Most amusement parks have security forces, however, none of them are armed. Many forbid security from carrying; flashlights, pepper spray, or any less-lethal means of subduing a violent park patron. This is because of corporate lawyers and "risk management" doctrines and has nothing to do with "public safety" or "officer safety." Recently on the national news you probably saw videotaped four security guards watching as a group of teens savagely attacked a young girl. It was later reported that the security officers did exactly as they were trained to do, NOTHING. They were hired to be good witnesses and to take no action other than reporting the incident to the police. Unfortunately this is what most amusement park security officers are told to do. If an amusement park security officer takes decisive action, he or she will likely be fired.

Here's what I know about the criminal and anti-criminal activity at some of Southern California's leading attractions. You can expand this intel to apply to amusement centers in your jurisdiction.

 

Disneyland

Despite the encumbering restrictions placed on Disneyland security, they have managed to do a better job than other Southern California amusement park security forces. The huge maze of the Disneyland complex is patrolled and monitored by more than 300 security people. In addition technology is utilized to light and surveil the park with security cameras covering every foot. Disneyland security also uses "undercover" people to monitor suspicious activity. Tunnels and non-public passages help Disneyland security personnel and the Anaheim police arrive quickly, often before trouble starts.

 

Knott's Berry Farm

Knott's Berry Farm (one of my favorites) started as a restaurant and a free to the public amusement park with a "ghost town" made from old buildings transplanted by the Knott family to their Buena Park berry farm from Prescott, Ariz., and Calico, Calif. In the 1950s and 1960s, I never saw a single gang member there. But as the theme park grew into what it is today, it attracted more of the bad element, including gang members.

Today Knott's is a huge amusement park owned by Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, and it rivals Disneyland as a regional attraction. And like the security officers at Disneyland, the security team at Knott's must temper safety with good public image. I have always felt that since so many Knott's employees are dressed in western costumes, including era firearms, that armed security could be easily integrated and barely noticeable.

 

The Anaheim Area

Demand for lodging from vacationing tourists coming to the Anaheim area to visit Disneyland and Knott's and other attractions spurred the development of numerous low cost motels along Beach Boulevard during the 1950s and 1960s. As these motels got older and run down, gangs began selling dope and running prostitution rings from these formerly family-friendly inns.

 

Magic Mountain

In the 1980s a new amusement park opened up in the Palmdale area north of Los Angeles. Magic Mountain or Six Flags Magic Mountain was a huge park that became an instant success with young people in Southern California. Unfortunately this coincided with the worst explosion of gang violence in the history of Los Angeles.

As a result, the new administrators of the amusement park and their new security force faced the growing problem of L.A.'s traditional street gang members in the park. After several violent gang incidents, the security requested our assistance. The Los Angeles County Sherriff's Department, Operation Safe Streets Gang Unit helped train the Magic Mountain security force in recognizing and dealing with criminal gang members.

The big test came in May and June of each year when several graduating high school classes had their senior days at Magic Mountain. Several schools were scheduled for each weekend and many of these schools were rivals. We set up search teams to search each of the thousands of amusement park visitors. We prearranged Sheriffs Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB) units to stop the pedestrians and vehicles that recognized and avoided the search teams. Even though the students were warned in advance and stood in long lines to be searched at the gates, we still recovered several piles of weapons and contraband three or four feet high. But the heavy artillery was captured by the SEB SWAT teams in the park parking lot. The well-dressed gang members who had fled the search ritual were inevitably armed to the teeth.

The 20 or so Operation Safe Streets (OSS) gang officers divided up into small teams and circulated in the park. And we, of course, found bands of gang members from various gangs that we were all familiar with. Surprisingly, most of them greeted us in a friendly manner; the gang members generally complied with our direction but acted like kids in a candy store. They openly laughed at the square non-gang members, just like those African predator cats they were surrounded by herds of prey around the watering hole.

Each weekend the OSS teams and the Magic Mountain security took hundreds of guns, knives, and other weapons in searches; broke up numerous potential gang conflicts; and helped identify and expel gang trouble makers from the family amusement park.

For years after that first graduation Magic Mountain security people stayed in close touch with our teams. But over the years those corporate lawyers and risk management minded administrators weakened that security force again. Soon I found myself forbidding my own children and relatives from going to that particular amusement park because it seemed to be a new gang hangout.

 

Final Thoughts

My brother-in-law works Disneyland security and is a very professional officer. But no matter which amusement park I find myself in, I keep thinking about those little mountains of weapons recovered in Magic Mountain and the fact that these parks are basically defense free zones.

I watch people at the park whom I recognize as criminal gang members and wonder how many are armed. I know if something would happen, I would be unable to respond, security would respond unarmed, and maybe the local police might get there in time to chalk my bodies outline and call CSI and the coroner.

I urge you to think about gang members as potential problems in the amusement parks and entertainment venues in your area. Think about how you can protect your family and yourself if you recognize a gang incident happening in the park. Don't be one of those African prey distracted at the watering hole, don't think it can't happen here because it can.

 

Author

Richard Valdemar
Richard Valdemar

Sergeant (Ret.)

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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