Postmodern paradise for yuppies and college kids, or the Valley's version of Hell's Kitchen?
This is a question the residents and fashionable patrons of Tempe's spiffy Old Town were asking themselves after the area was hit by a scary blitz of teen hooliganism that left several Mill Avenue fun-seekers bruised and bloody. No fewer than ten seemingly innocent pedestrians and motorists registered complaints with the Tempe police after two consecutive weekends late last month of what jaded New Yorkers call "wilding"--roving teens attacking people at random.
Victims have told police they were kicked, slugged, jumped on, pissed on or spat on. The thugs have been white, black and Hispanic, and the muggings apparently aren't drug-related. That leads Tempe police to think that the attacks aren't gang-related, either.
"We have a little bit different definition for gangs than most people do," says police spokesman Roger Austin. "[These attacks] don't fit into our definition of what a gang is. It's not that organized, not coordinated and not ongoing."
Austin says the series of assaults is unusual for the Mill Avenue area, even though it's the Valley's most concentrated nightlife hub.
"It's a highly populated area, with a lot of activity," he says. "Occasionally we'll have complaints of criminal damage, even assaults. Such things as robberies, like that. But that's the kind of thing that happens in any large, populated area."
Frank Maguire, executive director of the Mill Avenue Merchants Association, said the assaults had been a topic of discussion in many shops along the avenue, but no one's jabbing at the panic button.
"It's just kind of general talk--people wondering," he says. "It hasn't really affected that many people." Nonetheless, the attacks were the subject of a meeting two weeks ago between a police representative and the merchants' group. "They mentioned they have some suspects in mind," Maguire said. "He didn't want to get into it more than that. I think the police are on top of it."
Austin says police have responded by beefing up their patrols of the area. (The cops' headquarters is just a half block from many of the recent violent crime scenes.) Police also are reviewing crime reports filed from the area during the past eight weeks or so in an attempt to determine if the assault wave extends beyond the six or seven reported incidents. So far, Austin says, the review has been inconclusive.
Police have reports on the following acts of random violence:
* 8:30 p.m., January 19: A group of male teens assaulted a boy and a girl, both age fourteen, while the couple sat on a bench in front of the Trails store near the corner of Mill and Fifth Street. The victims said they were kicked, punched and pissed on by the teens, who first asked to borrow money. The assailants were described as "jocks." One of the victims said that the attack may have occurred because she and her friend "dress different." According to the police write-up of the assault, "[One victim] was wearing knee-high black combat boots, has half of his head shaven and wears a leather jacket. [The other] dresses similar."
* 12:45 a.m., January 27: Two men in their early twenties were riding a motorcycle south on Mill. When they stopped for the light at University, a silver or white four-door Toyota carrying at least four men pulled up beside them. Someone inside the car yelled, "What are you looking at?" The passenger on the motorcycle replied, "What's up?" Someone inside the car replied, "We'll show you `what's up.'" Two men got out of the car and pushed and punched the motorcycle passenger. When the driver of the motorcycle stepped in, two more men got out of the car and began to beat and kick the passenger.
* 12:55 a.m., January 27: A 27-year-old Tempe man was walking south along Mill near Seventh Street when a teen male walked up and said, "How's it going, homeboy? Do you got any money?" The man replied, "Couple dollars." The teen said, "Do you want to give 'em to me?" Another teen approached the victim and said, "Come on, man," then shoved him against a wall. After both teens struck the victim several times in the face, he escaped and ran until a third teen jumped on his back and bulldogged him to the ground. All three teens then hit and kicked the victim several times each.
* 1:15 a.m., January 27: A Tempe man and woman were driving north on Mill near Sixth Street when they saw a group of five or six youths chasing someone. When the driver stopped at Sixth, the teens surrounded the car and started kicking, punching and spitting on it.
* 1 a.m., January 28: Two ASU students left a late double-feature of Uncle Buck and Parenthood at the Valley Art Theatre and were crossing Sixth Street on the east side of Mill when they met up with a group of about five teen males. The teens asked the students, "Do you want some?" then started pushing them. Witnesses who watched from nearby cars said the thugs were joined by several more teens who punched and kicked the students.
After finishing with those two, the teens ran north on Mill, where they passed two women who had been watching the assault. One of the women was hit on the back and head and knocked to the sidewalk as the gang ran past.
At almost exactly the same time, an eighteen-year-old ASU freshman, who also had left the Valley Art Theatre, was walking south on Mill. He was accosted at Sixth Street by a teen stranger who socked him on the right side of the head with a closed fist.
As of press time, no arrests had been made in the crimes.
On a typical weekend night, Tempe police assign four or five officers to the area, Austin says. For the past couple of weeks, "extra patrol" units have been deployed, including both uniform and undercover officers. "It is a safe area," he says, "but just like any other safe area, you still have to take precautions. That means, don't be out by yourself, don't walk into dark areas, make sure your car is locked--crime-prevention tips that every police department will tell you."
One of the teens' victims, a student from Pakistan, says he still is puzzled.
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"They were either drunk or something," he says. "There was no provocation. We didn't know who they were. They didn't want money, as far as I know. They abused us, but they didn't ask for money. It just started.
"I didn't think something like this could happen in the center of town. These guys were not concerned. They were just out there to beat up people."
Someone inside the car replied, "We'll show you `what's up.'"