Tensions have reached a boiling point in the city of Ventura where 35-year-old Anthony Mele Jr. was fatally wounded by a known vagrant while dining with his wife and daughter inside a Ventura Promenade restaurant. On Monday evening, residents gathered to express anger and frustration over perceived inaction by the City Council and police department in addressing a problem that they say has been smoldering for years.
Jamal Jackson, 49, has been arrested in connection with the incident and is being held on $1.05 million bond at the Ventura County jail.
On Wednesday, April 18, visitors to the Promenade area reported that Jackson was yelling and being disruptive near the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Ventura police were unable to send officers to the location and instead chose to monitor Jackson via surveillance camera. For over 20 minutes, it appeared that Jackson was not causing a scene and the call for service was canceled.
At approximately 9:20 p.m., officers were again called after Jackson allegedly entered the Aloha Steakhouse restaurant and stabbed Mele as he finished dinner. Jackson was chased from the scene and later arrested, and Mele was taken to the hospital, where he was removed from life support several days later. This is the first homicide in the city for 2018.
Outside the restaurant, a makeshift memorial of lit candles, handwritten notes and flowers sits on a ledge. Photos of Mele show him with his wife and daughter. Amid a large police presence, demonstrators approached the memorial and stood silent, some with tears in their eyes.
Mostly, demonstrators expressed fear for themselves and their families, and anger at the City Council and the police department.
Janis Hendricks, 36-year resident of Ventura, says that she didn’t feel safe even showing up for the demonstration.
“I was thinking of where I was going to park, and I forgot my mace so I better park on the main street, but I’m not going in the garage,” said Hendricks, who says Ventura has become unsafe. “It used to be the sweetest little town and now people are busing and dropping people off here.”
Hendricks suggests giving each the homeless individual a one-way ticket to be with family, wherever that may be.
Mark Rochin, owner of a property management business in Ventura, says that the answer to the problem is simple.
“Enforce the laws and stop criminals from killing us. Please,” said Rochin. “I don’t want to die. Enforce the laws. I’m a citizen here, and if I was camping on the beach, I’d be thrown in jail immediately. It’s against the law.”
Rochin says that he feels unsafe walking from the Museum of Ventura County to downtown. He held a sign that asked people to stop giving money to homeless criminals who spread hepatitis, adding that the city’s services make it attractive for vagrants to come from elsewhere.
“We need to change the perspective of Ventura residents here,” said Rochin. “We don’t want crime, we don’t want hepatitis, so don’t give them money or food. The government is not the answer. It’s a reflection of us; the majority want the homeless criminals here, [and so] the city’s going to want them too.”
Others blame the lack of presence by the Ventura Police Department and feel that the department has ignored repeated requests for assistance in the area.
One Ventura resident, a 47-year-old who requested anonymity, says he has lived in the city his entire life and that something like this was bound to happen.
“There’s more cops on this boardwalk right now than there’s ever been,” he said. “It’s not about the homeless people, it’s about the criminals. Everybody wants to help the homeless. I emailed the City Council and got an email from the police chief saying that they can’t do anything.”
Demonstrators marched to City Hall at approximately 5:30 p.m. and into council chambers, where a regularly scheduled meeting was to be held. Over two dozen speakers spoke on the issue, during which attendees took part in a moment of silence.
“I believe this council has worked very, very hard to try to reduce the problems and the risk that we face with the criminally vagrant population of our city,” said Ventura Mayor Neal Andrews. “We will do everything we can, we will commit every resource we have to doing better, and we will try to do better, but we need you to help us.”
Andrews expressed disappointment that those in attendance weren’t aware of the work the council has put into addressing the issues, referencing his and councilmember Cheryl Heitmann’s time spent on the board of the Ventura County Mental Health Board twenty years prior.
City Councilwoman Christy Weir laid out several ideas, from adopting an ordinance similar to that of Santa Barbara banning recreational vehicles from parking on city streets and lots to assessing the city’s downtown methadone clinic, which she believes is “not having good results.” Weir says that increasing police presence on the Promenade and in Mission Park and Plaza Park, and clamping down on panhandling could help as well.
“This is a very multifaceted problem and it will take a multifaceted response from all of us, us and you,” said Weir. “We don’t want what happened last Thursday night to happen again.”
Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, when asked if the department has any evidence that cities or counties are shipping individuals to Ventura, simply said, “No,” only to note that some of them may be arriving by public transportation.