Two Sides of Catalina Revealed

EL CAZADOR

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Two Sides of Catalina Revealed
Crime: Fisherman is accused of tossing a bomb, and islanders rally to help his family.



By LOUIS SAHAGUN, TIMES STAFF WRITER


Night after night, Steve Quarnstrom returned to a patch of deep, choppy water on the back side of Santa Catalina Island that he claimed as "my fishing hole."

Guzzling beer to mute a methamphetamine rush, he prowled the swells in a skiff, authorities said, screaming insults at other boaters and shooting at sea gulls and sea lions that chased his bait and catch.

Locals shrugged it off as an extreme but tolerable example of an independent spirit they call "the islander mentality." That is, until he allegedly tossed a bomb at a competing fishing boat. The "Bully of Church Rock," as some locals call him, was arrested April 12 in Avalon on felony charges, including use of an explosive to intimidate, assault with a deadly weapon, making terrorist threats, possession of a controlled substance and discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent manner.

Authorities also allege that several times after the bomb incident, Quarnstrom--who is 6 feet tall, weighs 200 pounds and sports a mustache--approached other fishermen in town and warned, "If I catch you out there again, you're dead."

Bail was set at $1.1 million--a record for Catalina--in a case that has exposed two faces of Avalon, known to most people as a sunny seaside tourist town.

About 22 miles off the mainland, it is a close-knit town of 5,000 permanent residents who get by on tourism, self-reliance and mutual aid. It also harbors shadowy nonconformists who deal in drugs, poach fish and game, and are wary of anyone not born and raised on the island, particularly law officers. Even island residents of a quarter-century refer to themselves as newcomers if they hailed from the mainland.

"Nobody messed with Corny [Quarnstrom]," said one acquaintance, who asked that her name not be used. "Even on this island of misfits, he stuck out."

Since Quarnstrom's arrest by Los Angeles County Sheriff's detectives, the chatter in Avalon's restaurants and boutiques has been divided. Some defend the 47-year-old fisherman as a model of self-reliance who only wanted to be left alone to support his family. Others express relief that, as one of them put it, "Corny is finally off the island."

The case also has revealed what some call "our best side." Almost immediately after Quarnstrom was arrested, residents began raising funds for his wife, Judy, a teacher's aide at the local public school and, by all accounts, an ideal mother and neighbor.

"That's life in Avalon," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Frisco, who specializes in Catalina criminal cases.

"The vast majority of people in Avalon are good, hard-working people, who rush to help their own," he said. "Troublemakers who go too far are eventually rooted out and driven off the island."

In an interview, Quarnstrom's San Fernando Valley attorney, Alex Baum, said he has yet to fully investigate the merits of the charges against the fisherman.

For now, he believes the bail is excessive, given that no one was hurt in the alleged incidents. He also suggested that Quarnstrom's troubles may stem from old blood feuds with competing fishermen.

But lifelong islanders said Quarnstrom has always had a notably contentious disposition. "In school, he was a loudmouthed punk who got beat up a lot," one man said. "Then he grew up."

Over the years, they said, he withdrew into a kind of furious isolation over cultural changes that challenged his way of life: growing tourist hordes, greedy gill netters, law enforcement crackdowns on land and on the water.

To hear some tell it, his alleged drug abuse only made an already intimidating man meaner.

"It's a bummer, a sad thing that's happened to Corny," said Avalon hardware store owner Mike Cassidy, a lifelong friend. "A lot of us have been concerned about him for some time. We'd say, 'Hey, man, what are you doing?' He'd just shrug it off."

"People were scared for him, and of him," said one acquaintance who, like some other islanders, feared reprisal and asked that her name not be used.

Said another: "The tensions were just building and building. You could see it on his face."

Quarnstrom's wife declined to comment. But many Avalon residents said she had helped them in the past--as a baby-sitter and in various emergencies--and now it was their turn to return the favors.

Friends Plan Events to Help Suspect's Family

Filling a glass with draft beer for a customer at J.L.'s Locker Room saloon, bartender Margie Wahl said, "We're planning a bake sale for Judy, who is a beautiful person. We want to help pay her bills, and buy tickets for her to shuttle back and forth between the mainland while her husband is gone."

A few doors down from Quarnstrom's rented home--a small, wood-framed cottage painted blue with white trim--the staff at Avalon's Beach Realty was planning a dance benefit.

"Judy is a real trouper, but right now she's overwhelmed with this case--and her daughter's high school graduation," said broker Ray Jayne Flores. "We brainstormed and decided a dance would give her an opportunity to cut loose a little."

In the meantime, Catalina's nine sheriff's deputies are struggling to deal with rising sales and use of crystal meth on the island.

"Five years ago, we issued maybe one drug-related search warrant a year in Avalon," said Sheriff's Det. Dan Coon. "Last year, we issued 10."

On the day of Quarnstrom's arrest, Coon confiscated from his backpack roughly three grams of what he described as "the highest-quality crystal meth I've ever seen."

Avalon authorities believe the powerful stimulant is typically imported from Orange County sources and sold for about $60 a gram. It is popular, they say, among some commercial fishermen who want to stay awake all night.

Quarnstrom specialized in stalking white sea bass, a prized food fish with high resale value that is usually caught at night with live squid bait.

Drifting in the cold blackness below Church Rock, he sat for hours on end in his skiff huddled beneath a blue plastic tarp. When the bass were biting, acquaintances said, he was as protective of his hot spot on the gusty southern end of the island as a sourdough of a gold strike.

According to police reports, Robert Ronald Vickers was fishing there in the early morning hours of March 28 when Quarnstrom motored up and yelled, "If you don't leave and I catch you alone out here, you're dead."

Quarnstrom allegedly then grabbed a "seal bomb," lighted the fuse and hurled it in Vickers' direction.

Seal bombs are about 31/4 inches long, thick as a man's thumb, and packed with black powder. They carry the explosive force of a quarter-stick of dynamite and are used to scare seals and sea lions away from fishing grounds.

Leaning hard on the wheel, Vickers managed to steer clear of the bomb. He told authorities that it exploded about seven feet from his vessel, which was loaded with extra gasoline in the bow.

Ten days later, Avalon resident Scott Costa was fishing near Church Rock when he overheard Quarnstrom alerting a friend on VHF marine radio's channel 65 that the white sea bass were biting there.

Fisherman Recalls Recent Altercation

In an interview, Costa recalled dropping a line into the water about 100 yards from Quarnstrom's 15-foot skiff. Suddenly, Quarnstrom was back on the radio screaming, "Scotty, you stupid punk. This is my fishing spot!"

By the time their boats drifted to within 50 yards of each other, Quarnstrom allegedly pulled out a pistol and shot at a seal that was eating a bass caught by a third fisherman in the area. Costa said at least one bullet ricocheted off the water, barely missing his boat.

"That guy is scary--and I'm just fed up with it," said Costa, who works for a glass-bottom boat business in Avalon Harbor. "Something had to be done."

Sheriff's detectives are now investigating the alleged shootings of seals and sea lions, which could lead to federal charges against Quarnstrom. Authorities have asked anyone finding any bullet-riddled carcasses to keep them so forensic experts can study them for possible links to Quarnstrom.

Coon said Quarnstrom admitted catching more than his legal limit of bass in order to make ends meet.

He also admitted throwing the bomb in the water, but only to scare bass away from Vickers, whom he suspected of slashing his tires earlier.

The meth, Quarnstrom maintained, must have been planted in his backpack by some enemy. Quarnstrom and Steve Vien, his attorney before Baum took the case, suggested that Quarnstrom was the victim of a vendetta.

"If Quarnstrom was such a horrible person," Vien said, "why didn't people call police?"

Authorities said they did, often.

A California Department of Fish and Game official, who suspected Quarnstrom of poaching white sea bass, said his agency already was planning to "have a detail watch him day and night."

But then, Fish and Game Lt. Dan Sforza, who is assigned to the island, pointed out that "it's tough to make cases over there."

"When our big patrol boat leaves Long Beach Harbor, the islanders know about it," he said. "Undercover officers can't walk two streets in Avalon without being recognized."

"In this case," he said, "people got fed up with a guy, then mustered the courage to file a complaint."
 

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