The best big-wave surf spot in all of Southern California, by some standards, is on a public beach in Lunada Bay. Except it's not really public. For decades, a local surf gang from the ultra-wealthy neighborhood of Palos Verdes Estates has done everything in their power to keep people out.
The gang, known as the Lunada Bay Boys, has operated in various incarnations, with impunity, for years. They've pelted rocks at beachgoers and slashed peoples' tires. One woman, Diana Reed, alleges that a member of the Bay Boys poured beer onto her and exposed himself when she attempted to surf there. When she complained to the local police, she claims the officer refused to investigate and instead asked her "why a woman would go down there" in the first place.
For years, it went on that way. But in January, when the Bay Boys allegedly assaulted Cory Spencer, an off-duty cop who was attempting to surf the break, he and others finally banded together to say, enough is enough.
Last week, Spencer, Reed, and the Coastal Protection Rangers, a nonprofit that works to keep public beaches public, filed class-action lawsuit against the Lunada Bay Boys, eight of whom are listed by name. The suit also names the city of Palos Verdes Estates and its police chief, Jeff Kepley, for allegedly supporting the gang's vigilante efforts to protect the beach from outsiders. The suit seeks compensatory damages from the Bay Boys and an injunction that would force the police force to investigate complaints rather than ignoring them.
Kurt Franklin, the lead prosecuting attorney, is a surfer himself, and grew up in Southern California. We spoke to him about the case and why he believes the police department is complicit in the existence of California's most notorious surf gang.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: The thing that I find really interesting about this lawsuit is that the Palos Verdes Estates police are involved. What leads you to believe that the police is partially responsible for how out of control the situation has gotten?
Kurt Franklin: We're still at the beginning of investigation. I can tell you some stuff we know right now. And some things I can't say because it's part of my lawsuit.
We've got decades of this gang type activity, flat out gang activity, that hasn't been addressed. We wanted to address it. We have our two plaintiffs, Corey and Diana, who had both made complaints and both tried to follow up on them, that haven't been addressed, at least in a satisfactory way.
One of the comments was in the complaint. When Diana asked, "Am I going to be safe at Lunada Bay?" and I'm going to paraphrase here, but the police [basically] told her, "No, you're not going to be safe." When the chief of police says just to not go down there… we wanted to address that. Diana also indicated they have photos of these Bay Boys. She said was willing to identify some of the Bay Boys, and the police wouldn't even let her look at photos, which we find unusual. If you're serious about moving forward with an investigation, wouldn't you want the witness to identify the person who did the bad act? I don't understand that.
Aside from the plaintiffs, is there a history of the police turning a blind eye?
We have witnesses we've approached who corroborate it, and say this sort of thing has been going on for a long time, for decades. They corroborate that, the people who live there now. Decades of inaction. And there are other things I'm not allowed to talk about publicly.
We haven't found any records of anyone being issued a citation on this, let alone prosecuted for any of these crimes, those should show up. Those should be public record.
When I wrote about the Bay Boys last year, I interviewed a man who [says he had] been assaulted by them in the early 90s. So it seems like this goes back pretty far.
I talked to some community members that are ashamed about this too, and think it's appalling that the police don't do anything about it. There are people in the community who are sad what has happened as well.
Some of the legal team are surfers, correct? Have you or any of your team had personal experiences with Lunada Bay?
Three of us are surfers, and have surfed since '78 or '79. I grew up in Southern California, but even in the 70s and 80s, I knew not to go to Lunada Bay because of the reputation. I personally never bothered to go because of that. I've been since as a part of this investigation. I've never surfed Lunada Bay, but as a kid, I would've liked to.
Your question about localism: I've surfed up and down this state. I've surfed all over. I've encountered localism, but nothing as extreme [as Lunada Bay]. I've never had rocks thrown at me. I've had some pretty aggressive responses though.
It seems like localism exists because there's a finite number of quality breaks. I mean like, if you play basketball, anywhere you go play, every hoop is ten feet high, but every surf break is different. And so if people have a nice one—
I sort of disagree. I mean, if you go look, you can find them. I surf now anywhere from Kelly's Cove to Monterey, and there are spots if you don't mind surfing by yourself. But the well-known spots, people really try to protect them.
People seem to think Lunada Bay is a pretty good spot.
I will give you this: Three weeks ago, before we filed the lawsuit, I made a trip down to Lunada Bay to see it. It was way better than I anticipated, in terms of a break. It was mid-week, three feet overhead, blowing slightly offshore, seventy-five degrees outside—and there are only three guys in the water! I scratched my head. How could this be in Los Angeles County? Three guys in the water when it's seventy-five and three feet overhead? And two of the guys were kneeboarders, which I was surprised to see.
I understand there's a "rock fort" on Lunada Bay—sort of like a fortress for the Bay Boys. Do you know how long it's been there? It seems strange that there's basically an illegal drinking shack on a public beach, and it's allowed to stand by the police and the city.
If you look at some of the comments from the chief, the police just doesn't like to go down to Lunada Bay, in terms of sending officers. In a meeting with one of our clients, they said the police claim they don't have the manpower to go down to the beach. But they have forty officers to serve a community of thirteen thousand five hundred people. If you wanted to keep it safe, they could. And Lunada Bay is a city park. The city owns the land. If the city wanted to put a camera down there, for instance, they could. If the city wanted to put lighting down there, they could. What I believe, personally, is that the police force is [complicit in keeping] that area exclusive.
So when someone complains, the police just take the complaint, but then nothing ever happens?
You hear comments a lot like "boys will be boys." That's just not acceptable. I think one of the defendant's mothers said, "We don't want to see non-locals changing under towels," or some nonsense. Or comments from the community like, "We don't want the riffraff here." What does that mean? People who aren't a protected category? Or surfers? It makes me sad as someone who cares about civil rights.
Are you familiar with localism being broken up with injunctions?
There are examples of individuals being prosecuted criminally. There's the well-known one in Fort Point in San Francisco, a break right below the Golden Gate Bridge, where a guy got enjoined from surfing for two or three years. I've seen others like Hollywood by the Sea, which doesn't have the same reputation anymore—I haven't heard that it's turned into Malibu or anything [in terms of becoming safe and well-trafficked]. But I'm not aware of anything like this specifically happening before.
Right, and you don't normally see gang injunctions against a group of rich guys in their 40s and 50s.
Well, you don't usually have groups of rich guys in their 40s and 50s battering people. It calls for an unusual solution.
Follow Jacob on Twitter.