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Behind the headlines: When gang activity hits home

Behind the headlines: When gang activity hits home

2/27/02 August 8, 1997 started out like any other day in Lompoc.

The morning sun struggled to break through the familiar overnight fog that often blankets this quiet town, a place insulated within by dozens of beautifully handcrafted murals and seemingly buffered from big-city crime by acres of surrounding flower fields.

It was also another busy, routine day for Christine Orciuch, a stay-at-home, home-schooling mother of three teen and pre-teen children.

Her stop at the local Vandenberg Federal Credit Union branch that morning was to be a quick one. Her 11-year-old son, Quentin, would wait in the family/s Chevy Suburban in the parking lot.

But as the 48-year-old woman opened the credit union door for a man on crutches, the mundane became surreal and Orciuch was suddenly thrust into a situation no average Lompoc citizen had ever encountered.

She came face to face with gun-toting Gregory Mitchell 77 a Lompoc gang associate just days past his 18th birthday 77 recruited by three members of a Los Angeles gang to post lookout during the takeover-style robbery of the hometown credit union.

Instinctively, Orciuch turned to run toward her son.

The masked teen reacted by firing off two shots: One hit the man on crutches in his uninjured leg, the other went through Orciuch/s heart, fatally wounding her.

The search for two of the suspects made television/s "America/s Most Wanted" and the subsequent trials kept the story in the local media for two full years.

But behind the daily headlines and the television reports was a reeling family and a frightened city asking the question, "How could this happen here?"

And for the first time, throughout Lompoc and the Central Coast there was the feeling that if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.

Big-city gangs had moved into Mayberry. Nobody and no place was immune.

"Where are you really safe?" asked Chester Orciuch, Christine Orciuch/s husband of 20 years. "You/re not really safe anywhere these days. … A lot of people didn/t believe there was a gang problem in Lompoc. With (the robbery) they lost their innocence."

n n n

Shotgun pellets shattered illusions, police car windows and the darkness that prevented Lompoc police Officer Don Lothery from seeing the gang members who were ambushing him in a Lompoc alley on Jan. 30, 1989.

Responding to a dispatch call of shots heard late that night, Lothery had stopped his patrol car in the alley between the 500 block of North N and M Streets. As he stepped out of his car, he came under a hail of 12-gauge shotgun pellets, two of which shattered the passenger side window; the other went into the driver/s seat.

The suspects, Lompoc members of an L.A.-based gang who reportedly targeted police to avenge a previous arrest and gain favor with their fellow gang members, were captured the next day after a manhunt.

Lompoc police Sgt. Harry Heidt, who was in command at the shooting and the manhunt 77 as well as led the successful Vandenberg Federal Credit Union investigation 77 said the Los Angeles Police Department had just months earlier sounded a nationwide warning that the "disease" of big-city gangs was spreading and coming their way.

On the day Lothery was shot, Lompoc started showing symptoms.

"That brings it pretty close to home," Heidt said of the 1989 shooting. "We don/t see a lot of that in this area but, of course, we always try to be prepared for it."

Wearing a bullet-proof vest 77 a standard police precaution and something Lothery/s young daughter Traci made sure of every night before he left for work 77 the officer, who died years later of unrelated causes, escaped with only two superficial wounds to his shoulder and back.

Unlike the Orciuchs, the Lotherys knew the dangers. But it was a wake-up call nonetheless.

"I think it was a shock that something like that could happen in a small town like Lompoc," Traci Lothery said.

It/s a phrase that has surely been echoed thousands of times since.

n n n

Some would say the specter of gangs in this city and the Central Coast reached new heights with the VFCU robbery. Others would say it was yet another example of a gang presence that has existed here for decades with multi-generational and ethnic gangs operating from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara.

But this was different. It was the most poignant, painful example to date of an innocent victim here on the serene Central Coast caught up in the dangerous world of big-city gang violence.

"Any of us could have opened that door," Joyce Howerton, then Lompoc/s mayor, said at the time.

Orciuch was one of "us," a very active community member known by many, not a gang member who secretly swore an unholy allegiance and knew the life-or-death risks of the lifestyle.

"I think that we had been aware for some time that there were members of gangs from outside the community that were in the community periodically," said Lompoc police Chief William F. Brown, Jr. "I think it was kind of a wake-up call for the community and the citizens that we, like unfortunately most places in the country, have been impacted in a very negative manner by this problem that lots of people in the past just had viewed as an inner-city problem."

Indeed, Lompoc had lost its innocence. But in the years that have followed, the Orciuchs, churches, local law enforcement and average citizens have found ways to take positive, pro-active steps with the hope that this watershed tragedy is never repeated.

In addition to completing award-winning investigative work that closed the case and sent the four robbers to prison for life, the smaller- budget police department continues comprehensive efforts 77 some birthed not long after the Lothery shooting 77 to educate the public so they can respond in the right way to gang violence.

"You can do one of two things: you can pretend that it/s not happening and eventually end up having to lock yourselves in your home," Brown said, "…or you can look at it and you can say, you know something, we/re not going to let that happen in our community.

"We/re gonna combine our resources and were gonna work to not only enforce the law and make sure that the streets are safe … but also to say we/re going to invest time and money in making sure that future generations are in the best position that they can possibly be and not become involved with this type of activity."

Those investments include:

n A dedication to the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which includes gang education and prevention units. The implementation of the program is unique in Santa Barbara County because not only does it include classes in every public and private elementary school in the city, but additional follow-up components in middle and high schools that statistically improve the success of the program, Brown notes.

n A unique series of classes for landlords to keep their apartment complexes free from crime, including that perpetrated by gangs.

n A 15-week citizens academy, which has graduated nine classes. The class includes one week devoted to gang awareness.

n Lompoc police Det. Allen Chisholm, liaison to the county/s gang enforcement task force, has developed educational materials he uses for gang presentations at schools and the city/s Dorothy Jackson Family Resource Center, where he gives parents better tools to cope with and set guidelines for their kids.

It/s a message Chester Orciuch now wishes had reached the parents of Gregory Mitchell.

n n n

It/s beyond just noteworthy that Christine Orciuch was killed committing the last in a lifetime of selfless deeds. It was the kind of values the Orciuchs wanted to instill in their oldest daughter when the Orciuch trio decided to settle here in 1981, seeking career opportunities and a chance, ironically, to escape a gang-infested San Jose neighborhood.

Chester Orciuch, an Aerospace Corp. engineer, remembers that at that time gang-related crime seemed "virtually non-existent" in Lompoc.

Waking up each morning without his wife 77 as he has for over four years now 77 and raising their children alone, Chester Orciuch still admits to feelings of hatred for Gregory Mitchell, who Orciuch describes as "a creep, no doubt about it."

But Orciuch tempers that hatred with a desire to impact young people contemplating joining a gang.

"I just wish I could find a better way for them," Orciuch said, "to let them know that their lifestyle isn/t going to get them anywhere 77 that it/s a dead-end street."

With the credit union, Orciuch has established a memorial scholarship in his wife/s name, given to B-average students 77 like Christine was, Chester says 77 at Cabrillo High School in Vandenberg Village. At his speech during the annual awards ceremony, he takes the opportunity to implore parents to take an active role in their children/s lives and keep them away from starting down a path similar to Mitchell.

During the penalty phase of Mitchell/s trial, family members and defense attorneys said the boy/s childhood was marred by absentee or abusive father figures and a drug-addicted mother who committed suicide just weeks after his arrest for the robbery.

The prosecution countered that when Mitchell was later placed in the care of his grandmother, she overindulged him and failed to provide boundaries for him, allowing him to get involved in drugs and crime.

Whatever the reason, Mitchell/s decision to be involved with gangs has left lasting impacts.

"Basically, the lifestyle has totally devastated our family," he said, adding that he/s "still very grateful for the (support of the) community."

"It/s still hard," Orciuch said. "We have our days, but I think we/re on the road to recovery. But it/s quite painful."

Staff Writer Rick Tuttle can be reached at (805) 736-2313, Ext. 104, or by e-mail at rtuttle@pulitzer.net

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The following is taken from the Lompoc Police Department's calls-for-service log and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office daily arrest log. Those appearing as "arrested" are only suspected of the crime indicated but are presumed innocent.

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