Rager at the end of the world: How Halloween looks in the shadow of tragedy

Five months ago, a nightmare was visited upon Isla Vista. Tonight, it braces itself for Halloween

Published October 31, 2014 10:58PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1163747p1.html'>Teri Virbickis</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Teri Virbickis via Shutterstock)

Like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, thousands of young people are expected to flock into the dense neighborhoods surrounding UCSB tonight, part of a seasonal migration.

About 50,000 students and workers who live in Isla Vista, and another 10,000 suburban residents nearby, are bracing themselves for the year’s biggest party, Halloween. The Santa Barbara County sheriff expects that 100,000 outsiders will flood into town this weekend to drink alcohol, do drugs, party hearty and perhaps riot.

After a string of assaults, armed robberies and murders, tonight’s influx is expected to be a truly scary Halloween. “We’re getting out of town,” said Karen Rohde, a Goleta resident and mother of two.

After a riot broke out last April during Isla Vista’s huge street party, called Deltopia, 225 people were jailed, some 250 were cited and another 50 received medical attention. Several law enforcement officers were sent to the hospital with injuries and the entire incident strained the resources and good will of Goleta, which borders Isla Vista. How a carefree sunny day with women in skimpy dress and guys with ripped abs could turn so ugly was a question people didn’t have time to ponder. A month later, on May 23, another spring evening turned into a nightmare like no other party school has seen: A disturbed young man named Elliot Rodger wrote about his alienation in this party town, before killing five young people, injuring seven and killing himself.

Now, six months later, the town of Goleta is preparing for Armageddon. The spring riots and subsequent murders were so horrific that campus police and the local sheriff have asked several Southern California jurisdictions to send in 200 of their officers to help keep the peace. All told, there will be 300 law enforcement officers at a taxpayer cost of at least $400,000.

Counting the out-of-town partiers, police officers, checkpoints and clogged streets, residents and students are plotting to leave the area. “I’m not sure where our kids will trick-or-treat this year,” said one young mother. “But we won’t be staying home.

Most reports about Isla Vista parties tend to focus on the college students, but there are families, property owners, undocumented residents, low-income workers and others who are affected by this problem. I asked a few people what they thought.

“Deltopia was the defining moment,” said George Thurlow, executive director of the UCSB Alumni Association, who serves as UCSB's special assistant on Isla Vista. “Deltopia caught everybody by surprise.”

Actually, residents have been complaining for years about the influx of drunk and dangerous marauders. In fact, the history of the country’s largest costume party is a long and well-documented affair.

Isla Vista became a maelstrom of campus unrest in the late 1960s when UCSB students protested the Vietnam War. Their actions were constitutionally protected but ones the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office didn’t favor. Indeed, two former members of the DA’s office once told me that they liked to join the revelers, which made matters worse. “[We] had a lot of fun disguising ourselves as hippie rioters, jeering and yelling at police cars,” said David Minier, now a retired Madera County Superior Court judge once said. That helped aggravate an already tense situation.

Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, took a punitive approach to campus unrest. During the People's Park protests at UC Berkeley, Reagan sent the California Highway Patrol and other officers to squash students in what became known as "Bloody Thursday.” He also called out 2,200 state National Guard troops to occupy the city for two weeks in a crackdown on protestors.

That same law-and-order mentality spread south, and turned the community of Isla Vista into a fortress under siege--often for ridiculous reasons. In June 1970, 700 students were jailed for violating a 7:30 p.m. curfew during finals, and the DA intended to prosecute. A judge, however, freed the students, which infuriated the DA. He barred the judge from hearing more student cases, which outraged local citizens. There were cries of “overreach” and demands for an investigation into prosecutorial abuse. But by the 1980s, things had changed. Anti-war chants and the protest culture were replaced by Joan Jett songs and a hook-up culture. The dynamic of cops-and-rockers was set; taunting authority and getting arrested during Halloween in IV became a badge of honor. After Playboy magazine in 1987 listed Halloween in Isla Vista as one of the “best parties in America,” arrests ballooned.

Isla Vista is a dense area only 0.6 miles long. UCSB and other college students dominate one end of town, while working-class whites and Latinos live on the other end. Students account for about 60 percent of its population and 35 percent of its crime; outside revelers account for more of the area’s criminal activity, according to the county district attorney’s office. That’s why the sheriff, UCSB and other leaders have taken to Facebook to warn visitors to stay away this year.

But for the families who live here, Halloween is fraught with anxiety, especially when it falls on a weekend night as it does this year. While children aged 3 to 16 go door to door in the neighborhoods, ringing doorbells and yelling “trick or treat,” cars packed with young adults aged 17 to 28 arrive on these streets and park, sometimes blocking driveways. They carouse through the neighborhoods on their way to Isla Vista parties, carrying bottles of liquor, smoking substances and tossing trash on middle-class properties that list for $700,000 to $900,000. It’s not unusual for drunken frat boys and sorority sisters to ring doorbells here and ask for candy; sometimes it’s harmless fun.

But after too much booze, people trip, fall and break glass on the sidewalk, cutting themselves or others. People vomit in gutters and front yards, leaving behind something the dog might deposit after eating too much guacamole. In years past, neighbors have banded together and hired security guards to patrol their streets. They’ve formed morning-after brigades to pick up the astonishing amount of trash left behind: lip gloss, glitter bags, cigarette packs, Chanel sunglasses, Trojan condoms, Versace tights, McDonald's burgers, and any number of iProducts. It’s rather like Pompeii after the volcano erupts, when the village still reeks of hot breath, strange odors and the bubbling ooze of mysterious liquids.

Indeed, this cultural phenomenon should be studied by the archeologists and sociologists who populate the Nobel-Prize-winning halls of UCSB. You have a huge numbers of stressed-out young achievers, the demands of attending a top university, the ubiquity of guns and weapons, the proliferation of medicine and drugs, and a dissonance between the well-to-do who attend UCSB and those who work in the area.

“It’s affluenza,” said one professional on campus who doesn’t want to be identified for fear of getting reprimanded. He’s watched as each successive class of freshmen arrives on campus, seemingly more affluent than the previous one. The annual price for tuition, books, and room and board has climbed steeply over the years and now costs about $35,000 -- or $140,000 for a four-year degree. Out-of-state costs are about $55,000 a year, or a quarter-million-dollar price tag for a four-year stint.

In many cases, money, good grades and high SAT scores engender a sense of entitlement among students, says Mark Ward, a deputy at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department and longtime member of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol. “I think part of the problem is helicopter parents. They tell their kids that they are free to make whatever choice the want, and that their decision will be supported by everyone around them," he said. “That becomes problematic when you’re away from home,” especially when drugs and alcohol are involved.

Add in X-factors such as luxury vehicles that students use aggressively in town or mental illness suffered by students such as Elliot Rodger and you have a devil's brew. The town realized this painfully in 2001 when another son of a Hollywood veteran went on a deadly rampage. It was a Friday night and streets were packed with weekend revelers when 18-year-old David Attias drove his parent’s black Saab along the streets and past an elementary school at speeds above 60 MPH. He killed four people with his car, hitting them with such force that it knocked the shoes and socks off of one victim. The assault ended only when Attias crashed his car into a swingset at the end of the street, where kids had been playing a few hours earlier. Attias got out of the car and hopped around the dead bodies calling himself “the angel of death” and yelling “satanic stuff,” according to witnesses. He was locked up and later found to have been self-medicating after stopping his anti-psychotic meds.

The mangled monkey bars remained for nearly a week.

But at least students cooperated with police so they could piece together the events of Attias’ tragedy. Now, 13 years later, the level of tension between students and police has increased to the point where arrests are more common than assistance. “During a routine contact, everyone becomes a lawyer, even in the simplest matter,” said Ward. “I’ll ask ‘What’s going on?’ and I’ll get a screaming reply about how I’m going to get sued, or how I’m violating their rights.” It becomes a fight. “This happens much more than now that it did a few years ago: People talk themselves into going to jail."

As a man who smoked weed in his younger days and has done his share of partying, Ward appreciates a good time. But he and other leaders don’t understand the rising levels of violence and destruction. “It’s not like these rioters are making a political statement or trying to stop war or save the whales,” he said. “They are powered by drugs and alcohol and out there to enjoy themselves at the risk of everyone else. I get the sense that a lot of these young adults don’t have a sense of humanity, let alone humility.”

The tragedy is that many people simply make stupid choices. They’ll crush Ritalin into their margaritas, or mix Zoloft with the appletinis. A friend who works in the emergency room treats young adults who’ve had too much crack, crank, or rum-and-Cokes. Recently, a young man got so intoxicated with cheap vodka and Xanax that he fell off the toilet in an IV apartment. He lay unconscious for about 12 hours as the toxins circulated in his still body. Muscles were damaged; his brain was harmed; they had to cut skin from bone.

Alcohol poisoning is very common. Then, there are the 19-year-olds who get drunk in the houses and terraces that sit atop the “deadly cliffs” along Playa del Rey. Young people get a breath of air, urinate outside and look up at the sky--and then fall 40 feet to their deaths. Or they’ll climb on a railing, drunkenly dance to the music and slip to their deaths. Then somebody has to inform the parents about the death of their beloved child.

These students rank among the nation’s smartest, most athletic and most accomplished citizens of our time. Yet, their parties cause so much heartache and destruction. It happens not just at UCSB but at colleges and universities across the country, from Colorado to Rhode Island to Keene, New Hampshire.

UCSB, the sheriff’s department and city leaders are finally getting serious about the problem in their neck of the woods. By Friday morning, Goleta parks and shopping lots that border Isla Vista were cordoned off with tall chain-link fences. Orange parking cones festoon residential streets. For the first time, homeowners will be allowed to call towing companies and remove strangers’ cars parked in front of their houses and driveways. (The price for towing and impoundment will be about $400.) More nurses, doctors and medical technicians will be working this weekend to care for the bright young things who’ve gone too far. Isla Vista Recreation and Park District has already announced a HalloClean event on Sunday, Nov. 2 (sponsored by Monster) and if it rains, the clean-up efforts may get an assist.

We’ll know more by Saturday, the Day of the Dead. Meanwhile, sirens will wail tonight.

By Kathleen Sharp

Kathleen Sharp reports on business and entertainment from Southern California.

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