First of two parts
After midnight on a cool September morning three years ago, Khristina Henry and her boyfriend stepped out of the El Dorado Bowling Alley near LAX. Nearby, a group of about 20 young men stared hard as the pair of 17-year-olds walked to their car.
Two men peeled off from the group and approached. "What you got? What you got?" one of them demanded, as he pulled a stainless steel handgun from his pocket and cocked it in the boy's face. "I will kill you right now," the gunman threatened. The men made off with Khristina's cellphone and her boyfriend's wallet, phone and gold chain.
From that chance encounter in a dimly lighted parking lot, a series of events would ripple outward, altering the lives of several other people forever.
After being robbed, Khristina returned to the Mid-City apartment she shared with her mother, Pamela Lark, and went to bed. When she awoke, the two discussed what to do. Khristina was terrified of what it might mean to get involved in a case like this. She tried to play it nonchalant, telling her mother that she just wanted to forget it had ever happened. "People get robbed all the time," she said.
Lark, however, was adamant that Khristina report the robbery to police. With her boyfriend returning to college, the girl relented and went with her mother to the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division station. When police pressed her for information, Khristina told them a girl who witnessed the stick-up had recognized the gunman. She knew him by his first name, Tyquan, and thought he was, or had been, a student at Crenshaw High School.
A few days later, detectives took Khristina and the other witness into the station. Separately, the two were shown an array of mug shots and told the gunman might be among them. Each quickly pointed to the fifth photo in the bunch.
"That's him," Khristina said with certainty.
She felt herself starting down a road she didn't want to be on. In his notes on the case, LAPD Det. Thomas Vettraino wrote that Khristina was "extremely fearful of retaliation."
In the powerhouse football program at Crenshaw High School, Tyquan Knox had been a star. Entering his senior year in the fall of 2005, the 5-foot, 11-inch, 180-pound wide receiver and defensive back was ranked as one of the city's top players. His talents attracted recruiters from the University of Arizona, Fresno State and several other large college programs. He dreamed of making it to the NFL. Knox had the word "God's" tattooed on one forearm and "Gift" on the other.
Off the field he was known for troubling behavior. Former and current school officials at Crenshaw, who requested that their names not be used out of concern for their safety, described Knox as an aggressive student who clashed frequently with classmates and faculty.
At Crenshaw's homecoming celebration in late October 2005, he got into a spat outside the gymnasium with a girl he had once dated. According to witness accounts collected by faculty as part of the school's investigation, the girl gave chase when Knox tried to walk away. Knox allegedly swung around and punched her in the face.
Knox's attorney denies that Knox struck the girl. Regardless, the incident had serious consequences. Knox was kicked off the football team. Interest from college recruiters vanished as they got wind of the "off-field incident" alluded to in the sports pages of local newspapers. Knox fumed and looked to place blame elsewhere.
"I kind of feel like I'm getting screwed," he said in an interview with a college football fan website.
"People haven't seen the last of me," Knox said. "I've got a chip on my shoulder now. . . . I'll make the schools who passed up on me realize what they miss[ed]."
That spring Knox graduated from Crenshaw. Instead of heading off to a leafy college campus to play football on Saturdays before a stadium full of screaming fans, he enrolled in East Los Angeles Community College and joined its football team.
Afew weeks after the robbery, Khristina's cellphone rang. It was Knox's mother, a woman Khristina had never met. She told Khristina cryptically that she'd heard about the incident and insisted that her son was not involved. Nonetheless, she offered to pay for the stolen items "to make things go away," Khristina recalled.
Over the next several days, phone calls and text messages from the mother and others who knew Knox continued. "You better watch your back," Khristina remembered being told by a mutual acquaintance. "It's best that you guys not go to court."
Khristina and Lark, who had also received calls, looked to Khristina's uncle, Michael Slider, for guidance. Slider, a 20-year veteran of the LAPD and a detective assigned to Hollywood, didn't like what he was hearing. He told them to alert Vettraino, the LAPD robbery detective working the case.
Vettraino called Knox's mother and told her that further contact by her or others would be considered witness intimidation. She apologized and promised to stop. The next week, however, she again called Khristina's mother and, once again, was admonished by Vettraino. She assured the detective that the calls would cease. Her son was a football player, she told Vettraino, who noted in the case file that the mother didn't want "something he didn't do" to jeopardize his prospects.
In mid-October, five weeks after Khristina and her boyfriend were robbed, police arrested Knox. He was soon released on $210,000 bail.
The next day, Khristina received yet another text message, this time from a friend of Knox's who wanted to know what she had told police. With Vettraino on vacation, Khristina and her mother met with his supervisor and another detective. They expressed fear that Knox and his friends knew where Khristina lived. They wanted to move and asked the detectives for help finding a new home.
Slider had dealt with threats against witnesses before and had told Khristina and Lark to ask about a state witness assistance program, which pays for a range of services from armed guard details to a night in a motel for witnesses.
Vettraino's supervisor, Det. Steven Katz, dialed the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and sought approval for relocation funds. The next morning, he sent a detective to pick up the check.
The detectives, however, told the mother and daughter they first must show police a signed rental agreement, proof they had secured a new apartment. It was a difficult hurdle to overcome. Lark struggled to find places she could afford and that would accept tenants who received government housing assistance. On several occasions Slider and other relatives lent Lark money to pay rental application fees.
As they searched for someplace new to live, mother and daughter became nomads. Spending as little time as possible at their apartment, they bounced around, sleeping on couches and spare beds at the homes of friends and relatives.
A detective assigned to handle the relocation funds said he called Khristina and her mother several times, leaving messages about the money. None of the calls was returned, the detective said. For two months, the check remained at Pacific station, until, in late December, the detective had it voided.
Slider, meanwhile, was growing increasingly concerned that Vettraino, Katz and the other detectives were not taking the case, and Khristina's safety, seriously enough. He felt they should have done more -- called landlords, made sure money was available for application fees -- to help the girl and her mother. He wanted them to rearrest Knox and have the district attorney charge him with witness intimidation, which might have raised his bail enough to keep Knox in jail until his trial.
"They made a few phone calls and they were done," he said. "That's not police work. That's laziness."
Slider said he tried at first to keep his distance. But as he heard more from Khristina and her mother about the threats, he couldn't stay out of it. He started logging in to the computer system LAPD detectives use to read the detectives' notes on the case. He made calls to them. In one conversation he told Katz, "This is my family. I expect you to take care of this."
As Tyquan Knox's robbery trial approached, Khristina grew increasingly nervous about testifying, telling her mother and Vettraino repeatedly that she didn't want to take the stand.
Vettraino, Khristina said, assured her that "kids never follow through on their threats" and, during the same phone call told her that "if I didn't go to court, I would go to jail."
Lark, meanwhile, recoiled at the idea of putting her daughter at risk but stood firm in her belief that the girl had to testify. If Knox was willing to stick a gun in her face and was allowed to get away with it, Khristina remembers her mother saying, "next time he's going to kill somebody."
On Jan. 3, 2007, with Knox's preliminary hearing four days away, Khristina and her mother spent a rare night in the cramped apartment they had been trying to flee. Lark's two grandchildren and her grown son slept there as well.
Lark refused to let her daughter travel anywhere alone. She insisted that her son wake early the next morning to drive Khristina to the nursing classes she was taking at Santa Monica College.
Later in the morning, shortly before 10, Lark and the grandchildren left the apartment to pick up Khristina. In the small parking lot at the back of the building, Lark tossed a bag of trash into the dumpster and walked over to her toddler grandson. She bent down to pick up a doll he had dropped.
A black man, dressed in black with a hood and bandanna covering his face, appeared suddenly from behind. He walked up to Lark, shoved a handgun inches from her face and demanded her purse. Lark held up her hand as if to resist. A string of gunshots cracked the air. Acrid smoke drifted upward. The gunman fled as Lark slumped to the ground, blood running down the side of her neck, the purse and doll still clutched in her hands.
Next: The aftermath of a killingCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times