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.