Fighting Back

Residents of Silvius Ave. in the Coastal San Pedro area pose for a picture on July 20 during their neighborhood block party, which was organized to bring awareness to the rash of home burglaries and to install security cameras in the neighborhood. (photos by Kelsey Duckett)

It’s a model that one small neighborhood, about 60 homes, is hoping will become the norm throughout the streets and neighborhoods in San Pedro – it’s simple, cost-effective and an effort to deter thieves from targeting homes.

It all started after a couple home break-ins turned into a rash of home and vehicle burglaries – six homes, 11 vehicles in 18 months – in one Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood on Silvius Avenue.

Residents were fed up and decided it was time to fight back.

That’s where Michael Herzmark came in, he spearheaded a neighborhood watch, planned two meetings, contacted Councilman Joe Buscaino and LAPD Senior Lead Officer Matt Vuoso, and started the push to get cameras installed on every home.

“My house was broken into in the middle of January, we were about the fourth or fifth burglary,” he says. “Enough was enough. It wasn’t just the stuff they took, it was the fact that they were in our home, going through our drawers. They violated our privacy and sense of security.”

So Herzmark knocked on his neighbors’ doors, all 60 of them, and suggested a meeting at White Point Elementary School. The turnout was more than Herzmark could have imagined, and better yet, the neighborhood had a plan.

Captain Nancy Lauer, Commander of LAPD Harbor Division, and Councilman Joe Buscaino attended the block party to lend their support.

A handful of residents, including Herzmark, installed security and surveillance systems in their homes. But a month later, Easter Sunday of last year, another home was broken in to, this time though, they had an image off of one of the neighbor’s cameras.

“We thought we finally caught the people involved,” he says. “But when we looked at the image it was too small, and too far away to see anything.”

Herzmark spoke with his neighbors and they knew if they could get everyone in the neighborhood to put up a camera, they would “have an unbroken view of the street,” he says.

“Again the residents got talking, we had another meeting and we decided to have a block party where the handy neighbors on the street could install cameras for anyone who bought them.”

The block party took place on Saturday, July 20 – about 100 neighbors showed up, fired up the grill, brought desserts and drinks, and while the kids played and neighbors visited, three groups of neighbors went around to various houses and installed cameras and surveillance systems.

Angeline Barnes, a block resident, had a camera and security system installed during the block party. She was the first break-in on the street, almost two years ago.

“They broke in through a window of mine and took all my jewelry, cash, an iPad and a camera among other things,” she explains. “It was a difficult time, I didn’t feel safe in my home and it just was a violation of my privacy.”

Barnes said she was thrilled with the idea of a block party, saying it not only brought the neighborhood out to help fight crime, but also was an event that allowed neighbors to meet and get to know one another.

“I have lived here for almost 40 years, and there are people that I just met today,” she says. “I spent a couple hundred dollars on these cameras and my neighbors are installing them and syncing them with my computer and phone. It’s fantastic.”

While some were installing cameras, others were posting signs on fences and street posts.

Residents installed security cameras on a number of homes along Silvius Ave.

“The installation of these cameras will not only ensure that individuals who commit crimes in this neighborhood can be brought to justice, but also sends out the message that this neighborhood has created a unified front against crime,” Vuoso says. “Facebook continues to be a great tool for both the police and citizens to share information vital to the safety of the community. The two together have taken the concept of neighborhood watch to a new level.”

Los Angeles police Capt. Nancy Lauer, the Harbor Division commander, also attended the block party and endorsed the community’s effort to use cameras and signs as a tool to help deter criminals.

“I applaud their initiative and willingness to get involved,” says Lauer. “Anytime we can work in partnership with a neighborhood is a big benefit and a positive for both the neighborhood and the police department.”

She also told the neighbors at the party that the Harbor Division has had great success in solving crimes through surveillance cameras on homes and businesses.

“Criminals aren’t just bound to one neighborhood,” she says. “Criminals are always on the move, and we have had success in capturing a suspect that committed a crime in one area by using video footage from another.”

Lauer did say that crime in the neighborhood, which includes Silvius Avenue and is bounded by Gaffey Street, Paseo del Mar and Hamilton and Weymouth Avenues is down.

“Major crime is down 57 percent in this area from last year,” she says.

She did note that any crime is too much, and each step neighborhoods take to secure their homes and their community will be beneficial.

Last year there were 21 cars broken into compared to 10 vehicles to date this year, there were 10 cars stolen compared to five this year and 14 burglaries compared to five this year.

Councilman Buscaino, a former Los Angeles police officer who worked in San Pedro as a senior lead officer, says the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Watch Facebook group is the largest in the area with more than 500 members. “This is exactly the type of proactive initiative I was hoping for when my office launched a series of Neighborhood Watch Groups on Facebook nearly a year ago,” says Buscaino. He adds that using the Facebook group to inform each other “will bring new meaning to ‘neighborhood watch.’”

“They have just raised the bar on crime prevention,” he says.

Herzmark adds that with “the installation of these security cameras we are going to make it as difficult as possible for criminals to operate in our neighborhood.”

“We hope this is a model that other San Pedro neighborhoods will adopt,” he continues. “It is time to take back our streets in our city. We are here not only with a model, but to help other neighborhoods implement it as well.” spt

Never Give Up

Ernest Sickenberger

New Year’s is a time for resolutions. Although people come up with multitudes of ways that they’d like to improve themselves, the most often cited resolution is to exercise and lose weight.

By February 1, most of those resolutions have been broken. However, if Ernest Sickenberger gets his way, he will motivate people to not give up on their goals and to get on a path to fitness. It’s his dream to start a physical training company that inspires its clients to live well.

The roots of Sickenberger’s goal were planted on March 1, 1998, when he suffered a horrifying snowboarding accident that landed him in a coma for 45 days. Councilman Joe Buscaino, a classmate of Sickenberger’s from San Pedro High, recalls his feelings when he learned about the accident. “A number of our friends prayed for him. We thought he was going to die, but he shocked us all with his amazing recovery. He’s just a man of strength and determination.”

After coming out of the 45-day coma, Sickenberger was in the hospital for an additional two and a half months. “They thought I would be there for a year,” he says. Sickenberger attributes his good physical condition with keeping him from dying. “I always worked out and I was in good shape. That’s one of the only things that saved my life,” he claims.

The fact that Sickenberger is even capable of telling his own story is nothing short of a miracle. Doctors didn’t expect him to be able to walk and talk again. However, it was not an easy path. He explains, “I couldn’t do anything. I had to learn how to breathe, how to talk, how to walk, how to dress myself, how to live my life again. “

Although it took an amazing degree of strength to get moving again, Sickenberger acknowledges the depth of despair that he felt after his accident. “It was very frustrating. I was like a child in diapers again. In the first year I thought about killing myself. And then I had a realization, this is my new life. There are things you can’t do, but so what? Who cares? I’m alive.”

Sickenberger acknowledges his mistake that so severely injured his brain. He explains, “All of this would have been avoided if I had just worn a helmet. I thought snow is soft.” He raps a table for emphasis and adds, “But the trees are harder. I hit a tree and boom, forty-five days in a coma.”

Councilman Buscaino recently invited Sickenberger to share his story at City Hall. Buscaino was introducing a motion for stricter skateboarder safety laws, inspired by the deaths of two teens in San Pedro while skateboarding. “He came to testify on the seriousness of preventing accidents involving head trauma. Never have the chambers been as quiet as when he was providing his powerful testimony,” recalls Buscaino.

Sickenberger has also accompanied Buscaino to their San Pedro High alma mater to speak on the issue of helmet safety. Buscaino says, “I was with him when he shared his story with the teens. Ernie is an inspiration to our town and I’m just grateful to call him my friend.”

After graduating from San Pedro High in 1992, Sickenberger went to Harbor and El Camino College before transferring to the USC. He was only six weeks from graduating at USC when he had his accident. “I was in a coma when the rest of my classmates got their diplomas,” says Sickenberger.

Eight years after his accident, Sickenberger decided he wanted to go back to college and get his diploma. He states, “I figured, let’s go back to school, and not just any school, let’s go back to USC. My dad always told me, ‘Shoot for the highest. If you miss, so what, at least you tried.’”

Making the decision to go back to school was not an easy one because even eight years after his accident, Sickenberger had a daily routine of physical therapy, speech therapy, and adaptive exercise programs. “All that was like a full time job, we had to do repetition, repetition, repetition,” explains Sickenberger.

Because his schedule allowed him to only take one class a semester, it took Sickenberger three years to graduate from USC’s School of Business, but graduate he did.

Less than one percent of the people rehabilitate from the type of accident that Sickenberger suffered. He says, “I’m the one percent. It’s remarkable. I have a lot of knowledge that I can provide to people that are in a similar situation and are looking for lessons. That’s huge.”

Sickenberger’s goal is to start a personal training company. His own exercise routine includes spinning at the gym for cardio fitness and weightlifting for strength. He especially wants to specialize in helping people recover from the same types of disabilities that he’s had to deal with. “I want to help people to get back their functions because I could basically do nothing after my accident and I had to learn how to use my body again,” says Sickenberger.

So, as you might gather, Sickenberger won’t need a New Year’s resolution to get motivated. He explains his resolution/philosophy, “You only get one shot at life and I got two. This is my second chance, so I’m gonna have a big game.” spt

Jack Baric can be reached at