City of Angels

Riding the rails and fighting crime with the Guardian Angels

Where angels fear to tread: Guardian Angels patrolling K Street at night.

Where angels fear to tread: Guardian Angels patrolling K Street at night.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A trip into Sacramento can be very dangerous. One in 8,000 Sacramentans were murdered in the city in 2006. One in 207 were robbed. One in 63 had their car stolen.

This according to the crime statistics of the Sacramento Police Department cross referenced with the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

By those same numbers, you also have a one in 90,000 chance of seeing an angel in Sacramento. There are only five of them in the city, but they are looking to expand their ranks. They’re looking for some free office space, too, if you have any.

Their leader is Patrick Kent, who stands outside the Watt and Manlove light-rail station, surveying his little posse of angels under a light drizzle on a recent Friday night. The working class of Sacramento has just begun its journey home.

“All right, arms up,” Kent says in a soft voice, as a kid holding his mother’s hand walks by with a perplexed gaze. Kent then pats down each one of his crew, look-ing for weapons or any other forbidden items.

Of course, these are not the same angels who surprised the Virgin Mary. These are the Guardian Angels, the earthly volunteer patrol force that has been unofficially protecting the nation’s city streets since 1979.

Back then, a ride through the New York City subways was about as safe as stroll through a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad wearing a “Viva Muqtada al-Sadr” T-shirt. Tired and fed-up with the violence and police ineptitude, a man named Curtis Sliwa got up one day in the Bronx, put on a red beret and started walking around the city’s problem spots, calling the police at the first sign of trouble.

Since then, the organization has grown to more than 100 chapters worldwide, with its largest chapter in Japan. They don’t have any official police power. They’re all volunteers and receive no money. They can’t arrest people, although they do carry handcuffs. They do not carry any instruments of lethal force and say they only engage in physical confrontation as a last resort.

“We’re not looking to start fights with anyone,” says Kent as he eyes a group of youths boarding a train at the station. He’s only 33, but looks older, and speaks through the side of his mouth slowly and simply. “We’re here to provide a presence on the streets to let people know we’re out here and we’re watching.”

And unlike many of our fellow citizens, they’ll actually step in and help someone in distress.

Kent has two full-time day jobs, a wife and four children. He has been trying to get a Sacramento chapter consistently operating since he joined in 1995. Some years are better then others, he explains, and at times he has had to hit the angry streets alone. After the pat-downs, he surveys his group of volunteers, all of whom had their own special reasons for joining the Sacramento chapter of Guardian Angels.

There’s Matt Connolly, 32, who is a mechanic by day. Connolly stands about 6 feet tall, he’s soft-spoken and bearded, and wears thick eye glasses. He just joined the Angels because he’d grown tired of the crime in his own Sacramento neighborhood and thought this would be a good way to do something about it. His fiancée isn’t so sure, he says.

Then there’s Theresa Thompson, a.k.a. TJ, the lone female angel. TJ is 49 and recently sober. She hopes to help others lost in the urban wilderness and perhaps find some redemption along the way. She is the shortest of the Angels and her long hair is kept tucked under her beret, leaving a street-worn but peaceful face to greet you.

The most animated of the group is Rocci Twitchell, 39, a UC Davis firefighter, former bouncer, and sometime security man for the legendary Blue Oyster Cult. Twitchell has a vast knowledge of martial arts and is the default self-defense, CPR and first-aid instructor of the group. Lately, he’s been teaching the other angels an Indonesian martial art called Penakat Silat.

“I don’t teach them the contact elements of the fighting style,” he explains. “I teach them take-downs and submissions only. Because I don’t want them poking people in the eyes and blood gushing all over the place.”

Twitchell is also the group’s gear-master, loaded up with handcuffs, flashlight, latex gloves, notepaper, promotional materials and a cell phone. But the basic uniform is the same for all of them: white T-shirt with the Guardian Angels logo, black pants (preferably military cargo), combat boots, and, of course, a red beret. You can’t miss them, and that’s how they like it.

They try and go out every weekend when foot traffic is at its peak. And, after his Angels have been cleared for patrol, Kent and the rest board the inbound light-rail train, and take up positions—two at each end of the streetcar.

“How you doing man?” Twitchell asks one man boarding the train. “Are you having a good night?”

“Yeah, it’s cool,” the man replies with a grin. The smiles and curious looks are contagious, spreading from face to face along the seat rows as the passengers consider the little band of crime fighters in their white T-shirts, red berets and combat boots.

“I wish you well,” yells out Dewitt Richmond, 34, as he sits on the train scratching a Lotto ticket. “It’s fucked up out there and someone’s got to make some sense of it all.” Richmond says his younger brother was one of Sacramento’s 57 homicides last year—shot in the head in a gang-related hit. “Ya’ll need to be up in Oak Park,” Richmond explains. “Although ya’ll would need a whole train load of you mothafuckas,” he adds smiling.

“I appreciate what they are trying to do. I don’t know if it makes a difference. But I do appreciate it.”

Others on the train feel the same. “I appreciate it,” says Larry Tadlare, adding that he has seen “some things” during his nightly commute on the train. “It might make a difference. The kids out here are crazy.”

The Guardian Angels get off at K and 8th streets and step into the lively movements of Midtown at night.

“God bless you guys,” says one passerby from underneath his hood. “What the hell?” another asks rhetorically. The Angels walk in formation along K Street and pull up to Toppings, a pizza take-out restaurant. Connolly walks inside to speak with the cashiers as the other Angels assume position along the exterior wall—no one can get you from behind with your back to the wall.

“Everything OK tonight?” Connolly asks the two young men behind the counter. A fight had broken out earlier that week at the eatery and the Angels had just happened to be there to break it up. “I’m glad they’re here,” says Edward Jonathan, a cashier at the pizzeria. “Just the other night, we had a woman split her head open right outside. It gets crazy out there.”

The Angels make their way back to the light-rail station, stopping to talk to anyone with a question, handing out recruiting brochures. “Well, I thought it went pretty well tonight,” Patrick says tiredly at the group’s “debriefing” back at the Watt and Manlove station.

He looks around at the new recruits maybe thinking of the lean years and his long solitary patrols. “Seeing all of you gives me a lot confidence out there,” Kent says. “We made a difference tonight.”

The group decides to call it a night and head out to the station’s parking lot to resume their earthly lives. On the way to their cars, the group happens upon a homeless man lying in the dirt just as a light rain begins to fall. “Are you all right?” Twitchell asks, with a flashlight pointed at the man’s face.

No response. “Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Kent asks on his way to get a blanket from his car. The man stirs slightly and groggily shifts his body upright into an unsteady sitting position. With his hand over his eyes to shield them from the glare of the flashlight, the man’s bearded head snaps back in surprise as his mouth struggles for words. “Angels” is all he can manage to say.