Risky Business

It's a Saturday evening in late November on the border of Phoenix and Glendale. The scent of barbecue drifts through the brisk air on a residential street just north of Camelback Road.

All seems quiet at the moment in this working-class neighborhood. But just after 10 p.m., two cars turn off North 63rd Avenue onto West Colter Street and park in front of an unremarkable home on the southwest corner. Three more vehicles soon pull up from the other direction, trailed within minutes by a caravan of about a dozen more.

Most of the cars are crammed with passengers, mostly Latinos in their teens, about two boys for every girl. Most of the boys are dressed in baggy jeans, tilted baseball caps, chests draped with bling-bling and prominent crucifixes.

Most of the girls are clad in tight-fitting blue jeans or black miniskirts, pleather jackets and enough makeup to keep Este Lauder flush until the next millennium.

The arrivals greet each other with hugs, kisses and elaborate handshakes as they move en masse toward the corner house, cell phones stuck to their ears.

A line forms at a side door.

It's time to play, courtesy of one of the Valley's dozen or so working "party crews" (or krews, as some prefer to spell it).

The crews are made up of street-level entrepreneurs who organize itinerant house parties, and try to make some money by charging admission fees (about $3 for the guys -- girls usually get in free). In exchange, crews provide keg beer, booze, DJs and a space for their clientele, almost all of whom are under the age of 21.

Bashes like this one pop up just about every Friday and Saturday in what partyers know as the "480," "602" or "623"-- area codes for the East Valley, Phoenix and the West Valley.

The word-of-mouth network concerning the whereabouts of these parties is impressive.

Phone info lines whose numbers are available on the popular Web site RottenApplez.net come alive after 9:30 on weekend nights, which is when the up-to-the-minute party locations are announced.

Text and cell phone messages then fly around the Valley within minutes, with directions and other information.

House parties may seem relatively harmless in the larger scheme of things -- a reasonable take on the long tradition of underage carousing at locales as far as possible from parents' prying eyes.

But the party crew scene recently has taken an ominously violent turn.

That reality hit home in late October with the unrelated back-to-back Phoenix house party murders of 14-year-old Jose Renteria and 17-year-old Rashelle Carpenter.

On October 22, someone in a passing car shot Jose in the head moments after the boy had left a party near North 63rd Avenue, just north of Thomas Road. His death stunned scenesters because of his status as a prominent member of the rising crew Rockin' The Streetz.

Almost exactly 24 hours later, Rashelle died after she was shot once in the chest during a party at a north Phoenix home. Two other partygoers also were wounded by gunfire. According to police, the shooter apparently had been denied entrance to the late-night gathering.

A Phoenix man, Christen Beckner, was arrested January 6, 2006, on charges of second-degree murder and aggravated assault.

A Silent Witness offer of $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and/or indictment of anyone involved still stands in the Renteria case.

Many scene insiders blame the spike in violence on an increased rivalry among crews.

They claim that members of certain crews have discharged firearms near or at ongoing parties with the intent of attracting police attention. As a result, the partygoers find someplace else to go -- such as, not coincidentally, to events hosted by the shooters or their associates.

Others say that a typical lack of security at the parties has allowed a gang-banging element to ruin what used to be a far more benign environment.

Barely 15 minutes have passed on West Colter Street, but now the only place to park is a few blocks away. Still, cars are entering the area.

By 10:30, more than 100 people have arrived.

As it turns out, the party house is a rental. Its tenant, a long-distance trucker with a teenage nephew, has afforded the crew access to the home for the evening, for all of about $100. Which is more or less the going rate. In return, the crew's leaders have promised to leave the place as they found it (good luck there).

But this party is doomed to a short run.

Before things get cooking, Glendale police respond at 11:15 p.m. to a 911 call from a neighbor who doesn't know why his street suddenly has been invaded by an army of kids.

Seven police cars pour into the area, as the teens scatter.

About 40 of the partyers quickly obey the officers' orders to stop. They allow themselves to be herded onto the street curb that winds around Colter onto 63rd Avenue.

It makes for a surreal sight as midnight approaches, these would-be revelers sitting side by side beneath an amber streetlight. The police order the youngsters to show the palms of their hands to prove they're not holding weapons.

Many of the kids are too young to drive, much less be out late at night in a strange neighborhood, unsupervised. But none seem troubled by the sudden change of fortune from party animal to detainee.

"This is the most fun I've had all day," a shivering young girl says to no one in particular.

"How old are you?" an officer asks her.

"Eighteen," she says.

The cop gives her a look that says, try that one again.

"I mean, 16?" the girl says.

"What are your mom and dad gonna say about this?"

"I'm at the movies right now, then I'm going to my girlfriend's, okay?"

The cop shakes his head, and moves down the curb to the next teen.

A boy in a red sweatshirt implores another officer not to assume he's currently a bad guy.

"I used to be a criminal," he says, jovially.

Someone starts the chant, "Taser, Taser, Taser, Taser," referring to the controversial stun guns that the seven Glendale officers on hand are carrying on their belts.

"You don't want to be thinking about that," one of the officers says, trying to keep the mood light.

But things sour when a girl unexpectedly jumps up from the curb and jabs an index finger at an officer.

"I didn't do nothing wrong," she says, loud enough for all to hear. "I didn't even get into the fucking party. Let me the fuck out of here."

"Oh, so you want me to be a jerk?" the officer responds, leading the girl by both arms to a squad car across the street. There, he handcuffs her briefly and lectures her about her use of language before escorting her back to the curb.

Another cop instructs a 13-year-old girl to call her mother on her cell phone. When the woman answers, the officer takes the phone and tells her to come to the scene to get her daughter. The mother apparently isn't thrilled by the idea, but agrees to come by.

Many of the kids on the curb are under 16, and are violating the city of Glendale's curfew laws. But the police release all but a few, after issuing stern caveats to go home, or else.

The words of warning don't resonate.

Even before they get to their cars, several kids are back on their cell phones trying to find out where the next party is.

"Got one in Avondale," a 17-year-old named Henry announces, just out of earshot of the Glendale cops. "We there!"

A west Phoenix funeral home is packed with mourners. Someone murdered Jose Renteria three days ago, and now is the time to grieve.

Many of the younger mourners are wearing white tee shirts inscribed with the words, "Jose Renteria Aguirre, RIP, 1991-2005."

Jose looks even younger than 14 in the photographic image also silk-screened onto the shirts.

His body lies in an open casket, a simple white band wrapped around his head to disguise the fatal bullet hole in his left temple. Six red roses rest on his chest.

Despite his youth, Jose was a leader of the party crew Rockin' The Streetz, also known as RTS. Though he was slight of stature, Jose had won many friends by dint of his cool street patter and winning smile.

Jose fancied himself a topflight tagger, a graffiti artist, and he signed his name "Sife Onez." Sife is what most of his friends called him, not his given name.

For three hours, the mourners approach the casket to say goodbye after hugging Jose's mother, Maria. She sits in the front row dressed in black, and sobs inconsolably.

The funeral director looks on from a respectful distance, noting later that he's seen mourners stick mementos into friends' coffins as a parting gesture, such as a bullet, a dagger, or such. He doesn't want that to happen at his establishment.

Jose's sisters, Marianna and Andrea, wander around the funeral home, accepting condolences and trying to hold themselves together. Jose's 7-year-old brother, Ivan, scampers around with other little ones, seemingly oblivious to the sadness around him.

Their father lives in Sonora, Mexico, where Jose is scheduled for burial a few days later.

Andrea, an 18-year-old senior at Avondale's La Joya Community High School, was just a few feet from her brother when a still-unidentified man in a passing car shot him. Moments earlier, the siblings and Andrea's boyfriend, Frank Dominguez, had left a house party on nearby West Earll Drive.

Andrea tells New Times that Rockin' The Streetz didn't have anything happening that night. Instead, the siblings and Dominguez decided about 10:30 p.m. to check out the newly announced party on 63rd Avenue and West Earll.

No matter that 10 p.m. marks curfew in the city of Phoenix for those under age 15. Jose pretty much had been doing as he'd wished for some time, what with his mother's long hours at work and no father around to supervise him.

A 15-year-old girl who lives with her parents at the party house on Earll later told a Phoenix detective how she'd come to host the shindig.

She claimed that members of party crews Dime Peace Entertainment and Playground Pimps had shared the bill, and offered her a coveted spot in one of the crews if she came through for them.

That meant opening her parents' home for the party.

The girl, a sophomore at Carl Hayden High, said her parents were going out that night and probably weren't going to be home until after 2 a.m., when the bars close.

They had given her permission to have a few girlfriends over, she said, as long as she kept everything low-key. Sure thing, she'd told them.

Sometime after 9 p.m., an information line gave directions to the party.

A DJ with a carload of stereo equipment and CDs pulled into the driveway, followed by crew members with a keg of beer and other party favors.

By 11 p.m., more than 100 people had shown up.

The young "hostess" and others who attended later swore that everyone had been getting along fine before the police broke up the happening.

"Everyone was chilling," says Andrea Renteria. "I didn't have a problem with no one, and neither did Jose. We only left because the cops were about to break it up."

Just after 1 a.m., Phoenix police officer Ryan Petker responded to a call about a loud party on Earll that was keeping people in the neighborhood awake.

As he pulled in front of the party house, Petker heard what he later described as five to seven gunshots coming from around the corner. He called for backup, and then heard more shots coming from the same direction.

Petker quickly drove over to see what was happening and saw a woman running toward him screaming for help. It was Andrea Renteria. Moments later, he saw a line of cars speeding away in the opposite direction.

Lying on the sidewalk was a boy with a terrible gunshot wound to his head. His breathing was shallow, and his blood already was seeping onto the dark pavement.

Another young man, 18-year-old Francisco Atilano, also had gotten hit by a bullet, in his upper right leg. But his injuries weren't life-threatening.

Witness accounts varied dramatically, as they usually do in such highly charged situations.

Andrea Renteria told police that she'd seen a Latino man in a red ball cap fire a handgun from a passenger-door window of a gray Caravan. But she said she couldn't identify the shooter.

Others described markedly different vehicles from which the killer had fired -- a red Suburban, dark Monte Carlo, Jeep Cherokee.

The police soon caught up to the posse of partyers who had just seen Jose get shot, and also to a vehicle whose three passengers had been a subject of the chase.

Officers detained the trio -- two men from New Jersey and a Mexican national -- in a gold Cherokee. But after detectives interviewed them later that morning, they concluded that the men had just happened to be in the area at the time of the shooting.

Jose's oldest sister, Marianna, rushed to the scene after her sister Andrea had called her. But paramedics already had transported the boy to St. Joseph's Hospital.

"The thought of someone shooting my brother is sick," says 21-year-old Marianna, who, like her siblings, was born in Tucson.

"He was just a little kid, and he wasn't into any violence, no way. He was just coming out of a party. A party! House parties used to be somewhere for people to kick it, drink some Bacardi, Jell-O shots, meet people. Maybe just smoke a little weed, and act goofy. It wasn't about murdering no one."

It remains uncertain if Jose Renteria and Francisco Atilano were targeted or were the victims of random violence.

Doctors kept Jose alive overnight as his family wrestled with the truth of the situation. Jose's mother then allowed the doctors to harvest his vital organs before he officially was pronounced dead.

The rumors ran wild in the party crew community after the murder. Some suggested that crews competing with RTS in the house party scene had been responsible.

But a crew leader from Playground Pimps, who calls himself Bigman, tried to dispel talk that he and his buddies had gone after Jose.

"He was our homie, you stupid fucks," Bigman wrote on the RottenApplez Web site two days after the murder. "I was with Jose and Bobby from RTS like a minute before he died. I was on the hood of my truck counting the money from our party when he got shot. . . . Our prayers go out to Jose and his family."

The murder also inspired a poem titled "The Life" by a West Valley high school student who calls himself J-Keys.

"It's disgraceful how cruel people can be," J-Keys wrote. "As soon as they hear of a death, they admire it. They think of it as a joke and a good laugh.

"But what's so funny about taking the life of a 14-year-old? How could someone be so harsh and take the life of a little angel? The life of a mother's baby. The life of a sister's brother. The life of someone's best friend. The life of Jose Ramon Aguirre Renteria."

A car wash organized by Rockin' The Streetz and Jose's family raised more than $3,000 to defray the costs of the young man's wake in Phoenix and his burial in Mexico.

Momentum to find Jose's killer was strong immediately after his murder. But Phoenix detectives ran into roadblocks sadly familiar to those who investigate homicides.

"Fuck snitches!" an anonymous punk warned in a Web chat room shortly after Phoenix police announced the Silent Witness award.

Then another unnamed scribe who signed his (or her) message "602" wrote of being "sorry about Jose, but if you step out of line that's what happens in the 602. This isn't a threat to all you pussies in the 480 or the 623, it's a warning.

"That's how we handle our shit in the 602. If you stay chill, there is nothing to worry about, but don't start shit if you ain't willing to finish it."

Out of curiosity, the Phoenix cop heading the Renteria murder investigation asked the teenage girl who'd offered up her parents' home how her parents had reacted to the situation.

"They were mad and made me clean everything up," she told him. "And I had to promise not to do that ever again."

Rashelle Carpenter's murder less than 24 hours after Jose Renteria's didn't have the same impact on the house party community as Jose's.

That's probably because Rashelle wasn't as integral to the scene as Jose. But to those who knew and loved her, the loss was devastating.

For someone who was just 17, Rashelle had unusual direction and focus in her life. She had graduated in 2004 from Glendale Mountain Ridge High School, where she was class valedictorian, then enrolled at Glendale Community College.

There, Rashelle took classes in criminal justice, with an eye toward a career as a prosecutor. In fact, she was just finishing a project on gun control when, in a nasty irony, she was shot to death.

She was planning to move to San Diego during the holidays, where she was going to attend the University of California, San Diego.

"I try to live life to the FULLEST," Rashelle wrote on MySpace.com shortly before she died. "I'm moving to Cali after Christmas, and I can't wait! I've always wanted to live there. I'm thinking about getting a bike when I move. I want to eventually have a big lifted truck with lots of toys behind it, like quads, jet skis, a boat etc. College is just too expensive for all that right now. I know I'm gonna need a good job to get what I want so I'm going to school for Law. I can have a good time doing almost anything. "

Phoenix police reports say the owner of a north Phoenix home on West White Feather Lane and the small crew running the party, known as The Insomniacs, wouldn't allow entry to several youngsters who showed up at the same time. One of those turned away, Christen Beckner, allegedly fired his handgun into a group of kids as he left the area.

One bullet struck Rashelle in the chest, killing her.

It happened in the bat of an eye. Rashelle's friends drove her to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.

Despite the violence, weekend house parties have been going strong across the Valley.

On a recent weekend, about 50 teens lined up at the front door of a tidy home in a new subdivision in the city of Tolleson.

Everyone was pat-searched by party crew members running the show before they got into the house. If they left even for a minute, they again were searched when they returned.

The party's host was the older brother of a teenage girl about to celebrate her 16th birthday. He says he used to run in the old school (and, of course, "better") house party scene before he got married, got a good job with the City of Phoenix and settled down.

Now he's 23.

Inside the home, in a spotless cul-de-sac, a keg of Bud Light sat in a corner of the living room, manned by a party crew member.

A music mix -- controlled by a young Latino wearing a Reggie Bush football jersey -- ran from Kanye West to the Latino street sounds of reggaeton, just about anything with an insistent beat and a monster hook.

The only spoken rule seemed to be no smoking of anything in the house, just in the backyard. The evening was notable for the absence of "drama," as the partygoers call it.

Still, the police came by around 12:30 a.m. to tell everyone that enough was enough.

Despite the relatively mellow atmosphere at this particular party -- a Sweet 16 celebration -- an undercurrent of tension dominated conversations that weren't about the latest romantic match-ups or upcoming football games.

"I like to party, but I don't want to die 'cuz I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Hector Jimenez, a junior at a Phoenix high school who aspires to a career in the military. "I've been too many places recently where these bad-asses pulled out their pieces and scared everyone. I don't plan on staying home, but . . ."

A Phoenix teen wrote in an Internet chat room just before Christmas, "What do I think about the scene these days? That is a stupid question. Count up the funerals then you know how the 'scene' is."

Another partyer bemoaned that "all in all this ain't no fairy tale and this ain't no HBO special. This is real life. C'mon now. Party crews shooting up party crews? People need to quit actin' street and quit actin' like they are killers when they not. Drive-bys at a party doesn't make you a killer, random gunfire into a crowd doesn't make you a killer."

That led someone else to respond, "For everyone who says they're still gonna bang on people and krews, what the 'f' for? It doesn't solve anything, all it does is just make things worse.

"It's basically like a never-ending cycle of hate, and the only one who can change it is you, us! What I can say is, fuck the beef, because right now it's gonna take a lot of dead bodies to solve things and that's just not right. So, please, people, stop killing each other!"

The young man who started the RottenApplez site in February 2004, a Carl Hayden High grad of Mexican-Korean descent who goes by the moniker of "Pak," has his own doubts about the current house party scene.

"It's not what it used to be," Pak tells New Times. "It used to be about having fun and hanging out with friends and getting tipsy. But now you're lucky if a party lasts more than 30 minutes."

Pak, a talented artist who works at a graphic design firm, says he opened the Web site when he and a dozen or so pals were starting their own crew.

"Our intentions were self-promotion," he explains. "Within a few months, the site became very popular with the underground party scene. But the only reason it's still up and running is because it's so well-known in the club scene and the party scene. Eventually it's going to become strictly club."

Pak elaborates: "I hate drama. I hate the company it keeps, so I try to disassociate myself from it. I just want to go out, drink, have a good time and come home safe."

He doesn't attend many house parties these days, and with good reason.

Pak has turned 21.

For obvious reasons, nightspots such as downtown Phoenix's Coach and Willies -- a popular meeting ground for young Latinos -- are far more appealing to those of age.

"Honestly, the little backyard house shit is dead," a woman named Cathy wrote December 8 on Pak's Web site. "The bomb-ass parties I go to are in mansions, warehouses, etcetera, but everyone is not qualified to go. That shit is tight -- many different contests from girls competing, bare-fist fighting, huge prizes. Just fun meeting peoples and dancing, strong security. NO DRAMA. Just fun, but it's hard to get into."

But those teenagers seemingly unfettered by parental supervision need someplace cool to hang. With that in mind, a guy named Big Ray recently issued what he called a "blueprint" for throwing a successful and safe party.

It included cogent advice on location, music, drinks and -- most important -- security.

"Safety is a big issue," Big Ray wrote. "You wanna have fun, don't you? Don't feel like dying that night? Have someone in front patting everyone down, even if they have already paid and got patted. If they want to come back they better get patted again or else it defies the whole point."

A few weeks ago, Jose Renteria's immediate family drove after nightfall to the site of his October murder, which now seems to have happened so long ago.

Jose's mother, siblings and other family members return there almost daily, to attend to the array of votive candles and flowers on the side of the road, and to say their prayers.

"We have to keep candles lit for him," says his sister Marianna, "keep the light shining on him, keep him in the light."

Andrea Renteria says she and Marianna haven't attended any party crew bashes since Jose's murder. "It's too weird, too many things to think about," she says.

The man who owns the home in front of which Jose was shot has allowed the Renterias to place a small wooden cross on the front edge of his property.

They brought the cross back from Mexico after Jose's funeral. It has Jose's name burnished into it. In front of the cross sits a framed photograph of the young man, taken shortly before his death.

Jose's mother, Maria, sprinkles holy water from a small bottle on the spot where her firstborn son fell. She whispers incantations in Spanish as she weeps softly, her tears cascading off her cheeks to join the drops of holy water already on the pavement.

A young cousin of Jose's, no older than 5 or 6, keeps touching the cross with her right index finger. The girl is talking to herself, or to someone else no one can see.

"She's speaking with my brother," Marianna Renteria says. "She wants to tell him everything is okay."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin