Three personalities are dominant in "The Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption" by former football star Kermit Alexander: Alexander himself; his remarkable mother, Ebora "Madee" Alexander; and the sociopathic gang member convicted of killing her and three other relatives.
Written with San Francisco State criminal justice professors Alex Gerould and Jeff Snipes, "Shadow" is a gripping story of a home-invasion murder so senseless that it shocked even crime-beset South Central Los Angeles in 1984. Alexander's grief and then rage are expressed in prose that is spare and direct.
True-crime stories abound, but "Shadow" is a must-read for anyone concerned with how drugs and gangs ravaged Los Angeles, how the criminal justice system seemingly tortures the families of crime victims, and how California's death row is a world apart with its hateful logic and propensity for violence.
On a warm morning in August 1984, with Los Angeles still pleased with itself for hosting the Olympic Games, killers stormed the Alexander home and shot to death 59-year-old Madee, Kermit's sister Dietra, 24, and his nephews Damon, 8, and Damani, 13. Two other relatives survived but were not able to provide much information to police. Kermit Alexander had been set to visit with his mother that morning to tell her about a new job — as a color commentator for football games.
The wantonness of the crime led to media coverage. So too did the fact that Alexander was among the city's most celebrated athletes: a local who rose from the projects in Watts to stardom at UCLA and then with the NFL's 49ers, Rams and Eagles.
Weeks after the killings, with the police stymied — and his own lack of trust in the LAPD rising — Alexander scoured the streets for clues, head-banging possible informants when necessary. He was agonized by the idea that members of his family suspected that somehow, given his celebrity status, he must have done something to provoke the killers.
Mayor Tom Bradley, a family friend, warned Alexander to let the police do their job. He called Police Chief Daryl Gates into a meeting with Alexander in the mayor's office. Alexander quotes Bradley telling Gates at the end of the meeting: "Find his killers or I'm afraid he'll turn into one."
Finally, three local men were arrested. The motive remained opaque and, when explained, only brought more pain to the family: The killers had gone to the wrong address when paid to kill someone over a lawsuit brought on by a nightclub shooting.
Prosecutors charged an 18-year-old member of the Rolling 60s street gang, Tiequon Cox, as the shooter. The gang, a branch of the infamous Crips, dealt in drugs, burglary and bank robberies and glorified with the boast "rich and rolling, mafia-style."
With each of the three defendants facing his own trial, Alexander writes that his family knew "our lives would be on hold, dominated by the fits and starts of the legal system. For years we would be forced to relive the crimes, subjected to autopsy photos, defense arguments and the ongoing presence of the killers."
In "Shadow," Alexander and the professors have skillfully woven the personal and painful with the public and political to deliver a compelling story of the struggle of urban America. Alexander's portrait of his mother is loving but nuanced. She guided the family through the transition common to many African American families after World War II in the migration from the South to California. She and her husband divorced, but she kept their children focused: "As my mother matured she proved herself a natural leader, the head of the household who kept things under control. But as was the family way, when she ruled, she flashed a fierce temper. Discipline had the feel of the Old South."
The book also explores the Dickensian background of Cox: "We shared a past: southern kin, South Central kids, filled with both talent and rage. I felt sympathy for the boy. He was traumatized by his mother. He barely knew his father."
Alexander is horrified to learn that he had once been at a Pop Warner football game where a young Cox was a player and his temper had flared. Alexander could have intervened but did not: "All of the guilt came crashing down. My community service, my work as a motivational speaker, my time as a probation officer."
Convicted and sent to death row at San Quentin — where he remains — Cox is known for his defiance of authority, his refusal to confess or provide details about his crimes, in true Rolling 60s style. On the streets of Los Angeles, "Shadow" reports, Cox is admired by other gangsters and gangster wannabes.
"Shadow" points out the lie behind the concept of "closure." Even with the killers in prison, Alexander's plunge into darkness continues: "The convictions restored no meaning to my life." As its title indicates, however, there is redemption ahead: a new relationship, a new challenge. But these things have their own setbacks and frustrations. The conclusion of "Shadow" is a poignant and confessional admission of a man trying to find a new sense of family.
In the end, with light finally shining into his life, Alexander recalls one of his mother's favorite sayings: "There's nothing worse than an empty house."
The Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption
Kermit Alexander, Alex Gerould and Jeff Snipes
Atria: 331 pp., $26