18-year-old ran from LAPD before officer shot and killed him in South L.A., witness says

A man who witnessed Tuesday’s deadly police shooting in South L.A. said he saw an 18-year-old run from an officer before he was shot, then saw a gun near his body.

The witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was inside his house Tuesday afternoon when he heard someone outside yell, “Freeze!” He looked out his window, he said, and saw a young man running from an officer on a motorcycle.

He watched the 18-year-old duck into a small, dead-end driveway on Century Boulevard, then turn back toward the street as if to keep running. The officer, the witness said, was close behind, still on the motorcycle.

Then, the witness said, he heard three gunshots as the officer jumped off the motorcycle and the teen fell in the driveway. The witness said he then saw the officer kick a chrome handgun away from the teenager.

“It happened so fast,” the man said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys run from the cops. When you hear the shots, you go, ‘Oh. They shot him.’”

The dead man was identified Wednesday as Kenney Watkins. Coroner’s officials said he died at the scene.

Police said the shooting happened at about 3:30 p.m. when the officer stopped a car near the intersection of Century Boulevard and Figueroa Street. Watkins was a passenger in that car, the LAPD said, and at one point got out of the vehicle.

The officer told investigators he fired at Watkins because he saw the 18-year-old start to turn toward him while holding a gun, said Det. Meghan Aguilar, an LAPD spokeswoman.

One woman, who didn’t see the shooting, said she was inside her home when she heard someone yell, “Get down! Get down!” Then she heard three gunshots.

When she looked out her window, she said, Watkins was down in the driveway. She watched as police swarmed the scene, later covering his body with a white sheet.

“He died right there,” she said.

The woman, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she saw a shiny gun in the driveway. The LAPD said two handguns were found at the scene.

When asked about the guns, a civil rights lawyer who attended a vigil for Watkins with the teen’s mother Wednesday evening said they were skeptical of the police account and would investigate what happened themselves.

"We are going to question everything," attorney Caree Harper said.

Watkins was the 16th person shot by on-duty LAPD officers this year, according to data compiled by The Times. Thirteen were killed.

Police have not said what prompted the officer to stop the car, which sped away as the shooting unfolded. 

The LAPD was still looking for the car Wednesday, Aguilar said. She described the vehicle as a dark-colored, four-door sedan with tinted windows. The car had no front license plate, but might have had a paper plate in the back, she added.

The officer who shot Watkins works in the LAPD’s Valley Traffic division, Aguilar said, but was working in South L.A. as part of the department’s efforts to curb violent crime in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.

The deadly encounter comes a week after the high-profile police shooting of Jesse Romero, a 14-year-old in Boyle Heights. Police say Romero had a gun and fired at LAPD officers before he was shot and killed.

On Wednesday evening, dozens of people gathered in the small driveway where Watkins was killed, surrounding his mother as they prayed. Tears fell as people held hands and hugged. A sign with photos of the smiling teenager sat on a nearby fence.

"Long live Kenney," it said.

Watkins' mother, Prescious Sasser, said she learned about the shooting on social media. Then her friends started to call. She went to the scene and waited for police to tell her more.

“I knew in my heart it was him,” she said. “I was just waiting for the confirmation.”

Sasser said her son was known for his smile from the day he was born, which was the day after Mother's Day. His birthday "was like a double gift," she said — a special day for him, but also for her as his mother.

Sasser said her son was involved in his church and other groups. He ran track in the Junior Olympics in Baltimore. He walked in South L.A.'s Kingdom Day parade. He was almost done with school — he attended Duke Ellington Continuation High School — where he gravitated toward photography and computer science.

“He just had that winning smile and personality,” she said, her eyes teary. “He was my baby.”

kate.mather@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @katemather

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UPDATES:

10:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

8:40 p.m.: This article was updated with details from a Wednesday evening vigil for Watkins and a comment from a civil rights attorney at the event.

This article was originally published at 4:30 p.m.

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