By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- As promised, the Mahoning County Sheriff's Department has more paint than the graffiti artists.
Four inmates from the misdemeanant jail used gray paint and rollers Monday afternoon to cover two defaced sites in an East Side area drug users call La La Land.
It was the second time an empty store at Rigby and Byron streets and concrete sections under the Wilson Avenue bridge received a coat of paint.
"This time it's not gang signs, just nonsensical obscenities," said Maj. Michael Budd of the Rigby store artwork. "We've also had to redo a building, an old bar, at Lansdowne and McGuffey. It said 'If you paint over this we'll burn it down' -- but they didn't."
Sheriff Randall A. Wellington watched the inmates work and waved to honking cars that passed by. After the indictment of 14 Ayers Street Playas in March, he established round-the-clock deputy patrols to supplement the efforts of city police.
"They're obviously testing our commitment," Wellington said of the paint vandals. "When we started, I said we had more paint than them -- and we do."
Positive feedback: The sheriff said he has consistently received good feedback from those who live in the neighborhoods high above Wilson Avenue. He likes the idea that people are sitting on their porches and watching kids at play.
Ayers Street, especially, had nonstop drug deals before the gang indictment, vice squad officers have said. Of the 14 defendants, one remains in jail unable to make bond. The trial is set for July 11.
A 72-year-old Ayers Street woman once frightened by the drug sales said the street has been quiet. "We've been waiting to see what happens when they go in front of the judge," she said of the Playas' trial.
Youngstown Patrolman Dave Wilson smiled and waived Monday as he slowed his cruiser on Rigby near the inmate painting crew. Wilson is among the city officers who patrol East Side neighborhoods.
"It's a lot better now, isn't it?" Wellington said as Jesus Rivera walked up to chat near the old store. The 70-year-old reserve deputy lives on Oak Street and visits a mechanic friend on Rigby nearly every day.
Attitude in neighborhood: "It's way better," Rivera said of the deputies' and city police patrols. "I talk to a lot of people here and they're saying there's not so many [gang members] hanging around anymore."
The friend Rivera visits, George Miranda, said in Spanish that people did whatever they wanted to do before. The main problem? Drugs, Miranda said.
Latesha McRae, 21, of Himrod Avenue and a friend who lives on Rigby also watched the graffiti disappear under the gray paint. She said police have been keeping the neighborhood quiet.
Still some problems: Her friend, who didn't want to be identified, didn't wholeheartedly agree. She has neighbors who play loud music all hours of the night and drag-race on the street.
"It wakes my grandmother up and my kids," she said. "When they see the police, they scatter."
Budd said the sheriff's department enforces the city ordinance that prohibits loud music from motor vehicles. He acknowledged that sometimes the music gets turned down once the offenders spot cruisers.
Iris Luciano, who lives across the street from one of the young men under indictment, said many of them grew up together and hung out together and she never thought of them as a gang. Luciano, 44, said some of the fear that has been expressed likely came from older people on the street.
"I don't think it was as bad as some people said."