You know a local hip-hop trend has cracked the national consciousness when the Associated Press starts keeping a death toll on it. (At the moment, that total number of people who have died attempting to pull off the stunt in which you let your car drive itself while you dance around it, on it, or hang out the window is: two. One guy was from Stockton, the other was from our hyphy neighbor to the north. No, not Richmond. Canada.) The AP's article handily explains the role of YouTube in bringing the ghost-riding trend to the burbs, and, as is befitting an article that has to explain what the heck is going on in the Bay Area to the rest of the nation, recaps the history of sideshow vs. cops, and concludes with a ringing proposition by Oakland's Mistah F.A.B. to turn sideshows into organized, pay-to-drive events. "It would be like a ghetto NASCAR," he tells the AP. Nice.
Call us crazy, but nothing brightened our holiday season like getting an e-mail from a banker at a San Francisco Wells Fargo telling us that he'd spotted The Talented Mr. Young -- perhaps better known to our long-time readers as the Imitation Temptation, the Fifth Top, and one of the best con men to ever work the Bay Area. His real name is Alan Young, and he's a former West Oakland garbageman who over the last several decades has made a stunning career of passing himself off as various Motown legends and other music industry professionals in order to get people to invest in his business scams and butter him up with treats like fancy dinners and stays in top-notch hotels. He's been busted numerous times, but he's never in jail for long, and for a reporter who loves nothing more than a good tale of chicanery, hearing that Young is back on the prowl is like getting a visit from Santa -- although this Santa's bag of tricks ain't all that nice, and he's the one who ends up with all the presents. The alarming thing is, this time around, law enforcement says that he'll be extra hard to catch.
Young's criminal career began in the mid-'70s, and he's been working the music industry angle since at least 1984. At various points in his illustrious career, Young has passed himself off as different members of the Temptations, the Four Tops, and the Bar-Kays, as well as claiming to be jazz bassist Marcus Miller, the bassist for Luther Vandross' backing band, an arranger for jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, an associate of Miles Davis, and the son of jazz drummer Lester Young. He often approaches his victims -- usually well-heeled professionals such as architects or art dealers -- in their offices or at bars and restaurants, charms them with his loquaciousness, his ability to sing and play the piano, his facility with Motown trivia, and his uncanny ability to get comped at Yoshi's and get admitted to private aircraft at the Oakland Airport, despite the fact that he neither owns an airplane nor has any real musical credentials. Then he makes his victims an offer they can't refuse. Sometimes Young says it's an investment opportunity -- say for a new music studio, or real estate, or artwork. Sometimes it's a charity gig. No matter what the deal, Young invariably "discovers" that his briefcase and wallet are mysteriously missing, and throws himself upon the good graces of his new partner to cover entertainment expenses for him until his credit cards can be retrieved. Eager to please someone they think is a celebrity, Young's victims have shelled out thousands to put him up at the best hotels in town and buy him clothes, meals, expensive nights on the town, and even drugs and hookers.
While in most cases the point of Young's con was to have a few wild nights at the expense of another, in a few cases, the endgame went much further. He would convince his victim to open up a "joint" bank account with him for their business venture. The victim would deposit his money and Young would promise to have his own funds wired into the account, but instead, he'd actually drain it.
Many of Young's victims are too embarrassed to report the scam, which has enabled him to engineer "passes" through entire business communities during which he amasses an impressive amount of insider terminology as well as the right names and business cards to drop -- all of which helps him continue the con with his next victim. Even those who file police reports may be reluctant to testify, which has made it hard to put Young away for a significant amount of time, says now-retired San Francisco police Inspector Earl Wismer, who worked his case on that side of the bay. "The embarrassment and negative publicity would be detrimental, and they say, 'I don't want to deal with that,'" Wismer says.
When the Express first encountered Young in early 2002, it looked like he had reached his own endgame. He'd spent the previous winter passing himself off as former Temptations member Cornelius Grant, trying to con folks at the Oakland Athletic League, McClymonds High School, and the Glad Tidings Church of God in Hayward. Young was arrested in San Francisco after running up $13,000 in hotel bills at someone else's expense, and at the time, we thought the courts would throw the book at him: he'd been charged with eighteen counts of fraud, impersonation, and forgery, and could have been facing two decades in prison.
But a year later, Berkeley real-estate agents George and Mary Oram phoned us with a surprising claim: Young had been in their office trying to make a deal. (Among other things, he claimed he was in the market for a warehouse large enough for his 27 cars, plus a grand piano, so he could play and sing to them.) The Orams Googled Alan Young, found our article, and gave us a call. All of us wondered, why was Young a free man? Turns out, the Oakland Police Department never filed charges with the Alameda County District Attorney, and the case never went to trial in San Francisco because the key witness was loathe to testify.
Shortly after Young's run-in with the Orams in 2003, and once he had lightened the wallet of a San Francisco gallery owner from whom he'd pretended to buy a painting, he was again busted in a San Francisco hotel. According to Wismer, he was in county jail until this spring. Once again, says Wismer, it was difficult to prosecute Young because there were problems getting witnesses to talk -- either because they were prominent businesspeople reluctant to garner bad publicity for themselves, or because the process of going to court was just too onerous. Ultimately, Wismer says, Young was released for time served without ever having to go to state prison.
Now there are signs that Young is back to his old tricks. Last week he reportedly turned up at a San Francisco Wells Fargo inquiring about opening a $30,000 business account with some "associates" whom he promised to bring in for an appointment later that afternoon. One of the bank's patrons recognized him and warned a staffer to do a Google search, which turned up the Express articles. The bank contacted the police, but since Young hadn't done anything illegal, there wasn't much law enforcement could do. When Young returned later that afternoon, he allegedly heightened bank staffers' suspicions by asking questions about how quickly he could withdraw a lump sum of money from the account, but his "associates" never showed up, money never changed hands, and ultimately, staffers think they scared him off with tough questioning.
Bank staffers noted that Young was using his own name instead of a Motown celebrity's, and investigators say that his most recent passes through the Bay Area show that he's adapting his game -- instead of borrowing a name, he uses his own, but totally invents a wealthy, well-connected persona to inhabit. That's probably a smart move, because this kind of fraud is a much lower priority for law enforcement than a celebrity impersonator. "He knows he'll go to jail if he impersonates someone," Wismer says. "Identity theft is a huge, huge issue, and judges are more likely to put someone in jail for it now than if they dupe somebody."
Worse, the recent rise in violent crime has shuffled law enforcement personnel away from working property crimes. Local police fraud units are already understaffed -- San Francisco has five investigators, Oakland has only two. By necessity, these officers must focus on big-ticket crimes they know will be a slam-dunk for the district attorney: ones that cause huge losses, or target the elderly, or have a particularly high-profile victim. Young's scams are nonviolent, usually cost his victims a few thousand bucks, target the affluent and the middle-aged, and may look, at first blush, like business deals gone sideways. He'll never be public enemy #1.
He is, however, amazingly persistent. He's "as good as it gets," in the con artist game, says Wismer. "He is a social engineer. He will take his con wherever he can. His forte of course is getting people to do what he wants them to do when he wants them to do it, but his game will work just about anywhere and it just depends on who he gets ahold of."
In the past, that's always meant coming home to the East Bay. The Express is currently requesting a more recent booking photo of Young than the one displayed above, because those who've seen him recently says his look changed in jail -- his hair has gone white, for one thing. But if you spot him, give us a ring.
And if a smooth-talking, musically-inclined stranger approaches you this winter and makes you an amazing investment offer, says Lt. Ken Lee, the head of the San Francisco PD's Fraud Department, "It's the old adage: Buyer beware. People can package themselves very well, and it could be an empty package."
Besides, he says, "In this day of the Internet, how hard is it to Google somebody?"
Back to 92510, the East Bay Express news blog.
Remember Measure Y? That was Oakland's touchy-feely 2004 violence-prevention initiative -- and how well it's working! -- wherein voters agreed to fund 63 more cops and provide a heap of additional tax money to an array of unspecified nonprofits to help suppress inner-city violence and steer young people away from crime. Well, in a scheme first publicly ridiculed by Chip Johnson in today's Chronicle, Joe DeVries, who heads the city's Measure Y-funded prevention efforts, intends to try and swap Guns N' Roses tickets for firearms in some of the city's highest-crime neighborhoods. The ridicule deserves to be taken a lot further...
How is this idea idiotic? Let us count the ways.
Gun exchanges are all about providing the right incentive: You give the people something they want more than what they've got. Given the choice of incentives, you have to wonder how much time DeVries, who is tight with County Supervisor Nate Miley, has spent around Sobrante Park, a neighborhood in the East Oakland flats near 105th Avenue and East 12th Street. By day, the place doesn't appear half bad, but at night, as longtime resident Bobby Hall once told me, "get your gun." (Hall, whose son Jesse was killed in drive-by shooting during the 1990s, has his own personal collection.)
The gun problem, in short, is profound in neighborhoods like this, but the proposed exchange is a farce in the extreme. Sobrante Park is almost entirely black, and it's a good bet nobody's gonna show up for that exchange, except maybe to use it as a second bulky trash day. Why? Because the few black kids in Oakland that are into Guns N' Roses are probably not gun-carrying types, and even if they were, they'd need those weapons to keep their peers from kicking their ass. (Ever try cruising down 105th bumpin' "Welcome to the Jungle," Mr. DeVries? Didn't think so.) Now if this were an exchange for meth-making gear out in Concord, hey, you might get a decent response.
DeVries told Johnson: "I recognize that Guns N' Roses isn't a band that a lot of Oakland kids listen to, but there are so many stolen guns used in crimes in this city we'll take any guns we can get." Trouble is, DeVries is not gonna take any guns, because he's damn sure not gonna get any. DeVries explained that the band had graciously donated $25,000 worth of tickets. And that's admirable, so consider this alternative market strategy, which any half-intelligent grade school kid could have devised: eBay!
How could the people in charge of our tax dollars miss something so obvious? Earth to bureaucrats: Sell the damn GNR tickets at top dollar to people who actually want them, buy something substantial that a young ghetto tough might want (hint, hint), and then organize a gun trade. Of course, some gun-toters might think of the eBay strategy themselves, trade a gun for tickets, then sell 'em online or scalp 'em at Oracle Arena.
But in truth, all of this overlooks perhaps the biggest obstacle to the success of this ill-concieved swap: Gun exchanges don't appear to thwart the sort of violent crime that plagues these neighborhoods. Maybe cities have always provided the wrong incentives. Cash is problematic on its face, since if you offer a kid less than he paid for an illegal gun, he won't want to turn it in. If you offer more, he can afford to buy another street gun and pocket the difference. Oakland's most successful exchange to date, numerically speaking, was for computers, but c'mon, how many street thugs would trade their street cred for a cheap PC?
A 1998 study of a Sacramento exchange in which 141 guns were turned in demonstrates some of the problems with the exchange approach. Led by Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, the researchers conducted a mail-in survey that was completed by 79 percent of the gun-exchange participants, a high response rate. Among their findings:
* 40 percent of respondents were older than 55; none was younger than 25.
* 62 percent of respondents were men.
* 28 percent of the guns were not handguns.
* 23 percent of respondents indicated the guns they turned in weren't working.
Translation: 1) The first finding alone suggests that gun-exchange programs aren't so valuable. Much of the killing in cities like Oakland is perpetrated by people under 25, and rarely is a killer in his middle age. 2) Since nearly all the killers are male, but less than two-thirds of those turning in guns are men, the second finding also suggests these exchanges aren't attracting the right people. 3) Handguns are used in the vast majority of gun crimes, yet more than a quarter of those turned in were not handguns. 4) Roughly a quarter of the forfeited guns weren't dangerous to begin with.
"There is no evidence that gun exchanges or buybacks have an impact on gun violence," Daniel Webster, who co-directs the Johns Hopkins gun policy program with Vernick, told us in an e-mail. "The types of guns turned in are different from the ones used in crime (they're older and more likely to be long guns or revolvers rather than semi-automatic pistols commonly used in crime) and it's unlikely that the ones turning them in are the ones committing a lot of the violence. They may, however, be good for community safety because access to firearms in the home increases the risk of suicide, domestic homicide, and unintentional shootings. If there is follow-up with other community programs to try to change social norms regarding guns and gun violence, gun exchanges might be worth doing."
That last bit is encouraging. However, it falls outside Mr. DeVries' mission. To quote from the Measure Y program's stated goals: "Interventions will reach out to those youth and young adults most at risk for committing and/or become victims of violence." It also states that the program's $6 million in funding "is allocated toward specific best practice strategies that intervene with target populations most at risk for being perpetrators or victims of violence." (That's their bold text, not ours.)
For heaven's sake, would someone send this DeVries fellow a copy of Freakonomics already?
Haunted by the death of club regular Shirley Deanna Smith (aka Dee), the Oakland mother of two who was fatally shot at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, November 11, on the 200 block of Webster St., nightclub mogul John Ivey decided to shut the doors of Mingles Martini & Champagne Lounge earlier today. Dee, who'd been a faithful customer at Mingles since the club opened in 2000, was walking to her car when she got caught in what was apparently a shoot-out between two rivals, as Harry Harris reported Sunday morning on InsideBayArea.com. Dee was rushed to Highland Hospital where she and her sixteen-week-old fetus died within an hour.
"I knew Dee," Ivey said in a phone interview Monday. "She's been coming there since we opened in 2000. She always greeted me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. ... It just hurts me. I don't wanna go forward anymore with this because people have no respect for me. I have too much respect for life to do business with people who don't have respect for life."
Ivey said the night had been positive up until the shooting. Rapper Mos Def had come to the club to help celebrate the birthday of DJ Krypto, who's gained some notoriety as a cohost of Mingles' famed Bay Life open mic, which happened every Tuesday. "He [Mos Def] loved it," Ivey says. "He said, 'I want to be with my people.' He didn't want to go to @17th. He didn't want to go to Geoffrey's, he didn't want to go to Maxwell's. He said, 'Where my people at?'"
Ivey reports that police were stationed outside the club from 11:30 p.m. until 1:15 a.m., a few minutes before the shooting. "At 1:30, shit happened," he says. "Where was the police between 1 a.m. and 2? They were there from 11:30 til 1:15. Then I put people out. Then they leave, instead of blocking off the streets like they do for every other club." He continues: "I'm outraged. I'm pissed off that the police left at 1:15. Maybe Dee could still be living if they'd blocked off the street."
Today, Ivey announced plans to take down the sign for Mingles and paint over the club's facade. He said he'd come to this decision over the weekend and announced it to Oakland's hearing commission officer Barbara Killey shortly before calling the Express this afternoon. "Mingles is dead. I can't win if the police don't support me. I decided to close today. I'm closed now, no more Mingles. No Friday, no Saturday, today I'm through with this," he said, adding that he's "as outraged as the community is."
Ivey, who's operated a series of clubs in the Jack London Square area since opening Ivey's Ribs & Spirits in 1976 says this is not the end of his legacy as "the king of downtown." "In a month it's gonna be different," he explains. "I'm gonna talk to the city. I don't quit, I stopped."
The club owner has a turbulent history in Jack London Square, where he's been alternately maligned by media reports of shootings -- including the fatal shooting of eighteen-year-old basketball star Roland Hall Jr. on April 17 -- and other crimes on nearby Webster Street, and celebrated as a locus of the Bay Area's burgeoning hyphy movement. The Oakland-raised rapper Too $hort shot the video for his hit single "Blow the Whistle" at Mingles this past March.
After a May hearing to revoke the club's cabaret license, Ivey instituted a more stringent dress code, hired several new DJs, and refurnished the venue to attract a more upscale clientele. However, he was unable to stave off crime in the blocks surrounding Mingles -- much of it perpetrated by people who never entered the club and didn't generate any revenue for the business, according to Sergeant Kyle Thomas, who spoke at the May hearing.
Ivey said he shut Mingles' doors out of respect for Smith and her family and that he made the decision voluntarily, without having read or watched any news reports. He adds that at this point it's difficult to physically enter the club. "There's many more things I can do with my life than do this. ... I tried to do the right thing. And obviously the thing is not right, I got to let it go."
Link to the SF Chronicle's coverage of the shooting and the Tribune's.