Taking Back Neighborhoods
By Thomas Shess
(page 1 of 3)The Cauldron
Citizens Patrol, one of the best tools to fight crime at the neighborhood level, was forged 10 years ago in San Diego’s Mid-City area amid a firestorm of public fear, frustration and outrage. Between June and December of 1991, the uptown communities, including Hillcrest, were in the grips of a chilling reign of hate. The almost-daily reports of gay-bashings and strong-arm street robberies were paralyzing a pedestrian-oriented community already staggering from the AIDS epidemic.
By mid-’91, police and the San Diego City Council were keenly aware of the war zone atmosphere in and around Hillcrest. In the District 3 council office that represents Hillcrest, the ears of those answering calls were burning from citizen demands that police stop the violence. By Thanksgiving, police had recorded more than 50 incidents.
Of all the neighborhoods in San Diego, Hillcrest/Uptown stays awake the latest. Hillcrest in the wee hours is pedestrian-friendly, like many areas in San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, Manhattan. It’s not unusual for citizens here to be making the scene at midnight, café- and club-hopping. The heart of the gay and lesbian community, Hillcrest in 1991 was ripe for all manner of thugs prowling the neighborhood and targeting homosexuals.
December 13, 1991, was as good a night as any for two men in their mid-20s looking for such entertainment. It was Friday the 13th. Witnesses later reported the two had shaved heads and were wearing combat gear and military boots. One had s*k*i*n tattooed on the knuckles of a hand.
Also in Hillcrest that night was John Robert Wear, a 17-year-old high school senior from San Carlos. With buddies Bryan Baird and Jacob Isaacsen, Wear had parked in the 1000 block of Essex, a residential street south of busy University Avenue. They locked their car and proceeded on foot toward SoHo, a coffeehouse on University near Richmond, then popular with locals of every stripe. It was also a place for underage students to hang with an eclectic crowd.
The teens never made it to SoHo.
Witnesses later testified in court that the thugs, unprovoked, began taunting the boys and spewing anti-gay epithets. The name-calling turned ugly—and violent. Wear and Baird attempted to defend themselves as they were hammered by fists. Several kicks sent Wear to the sidewalk. Witnesses heard one of the assailants yell, “Stop whimpering, faggot.”
Assault turned to murder. One basher pulled a knife and stabbed Wear while he was down. Then he turned on Baird and struck a nonfatal blow to his head. Isaacsen ran for help.
Wear, who had hoped to join the Army the following was rushed to Mercy Hospital’s emergency unit, less than a mile away. Death was not immediate. Stab wounds take longer. Bleeding to death is a horrific death sentence, especially when compounded by a vicious beating. Wear’s father, John Sr., was at his son’s bedside when he died—in the same hospital where young John was born in 1976.
Baird survived his head wound. He and Isaacsen were key witnesses in two trials that saw the assailants convicted and sent to prison. Eddie Barton, the knifer—the one with s*k*i*n tattooed on his knuckles—is still serving a term of 20 years to life. He continues to deny he murdered anyone. Michael DiPaolo was convicted for his part in the crime. He served four years in prison before he was released.
Speaking at Barton’s trial, Wear’s father pointed at the convicted killer. “The stab wounds, the bruises, the boot marks from head to toe, overwhelmed me,” the father said, “This man’s an animal. The rest of his days should be spent in prison.”