Last Thursday started out like most days for 14-year-old Nikki Lofton, except that she slept a little later than usual and had to hurry to dress for her ninth-grade classes at Pasteur Junior High School. Neither she nor her mother, Alzena Newt, realized that within hours Nikki would be fighting for her life, the innocent victim of a gang-related shooting, according to police.
If they had not been running a little late, Newt said, she would have driven Nikki to school, then gone on to her job in an ophthalmologist's office. Instead, Nikki left first, boarding the bus for the 15- to 20-minute ride to school.
A few minutes later, about 8 a.m., Nikki was sprawled on the ground, unconscious, with a bullet lodged in her neck. She had been shot as she hurried from the bus stop at La Cienega Boulevard and Sawyer Street.
The bullet struck a major artery leading to the brain. Doctors Wednesday said they were optimistic that Nikki would be able to breathe without a respirator within a few days and hospital spokesmen quoted her physicians as saying they did not anticipate any permanent neurological damage.
The events leading up to the shooting were recounted by students and confirmed by police.
According to other students, Nikki was the innocent victim of an argument on the bus between another girl, also a Pasteur student, and a boy over gang affiliations. The boy was angry with the other girl because she was wearing a blue headband, a color signifying a local gang, the Playboys.
Nikki's friends told Newt and police that Nikki and the girl got off the bus a block before their regular stop because the argumentative boy had a gun. The boy and a companion left the bus when both girls did and one of the boys fired at the girls as they walked away. Nikki was hit. The other girl was not but she is too frightened to return to school, police said.
Later in the day, police arrested two boys, one 14 and one 15, on suspicion of attempted murder. Both were arraigned Tuesday in juvenile court and both are being detained by juvenile authorities.
Students said they knew of no gang problems on the Pasteur Junior High campus, on 18th Street between Fairfax Avenue and La Cienega and between Pico and the Santa Monica Freeway. And members of West Bureau CRASH, the Los Angeles Police Department's anti-gang crime unit, said they have had few reports of gang problems in that community since about 1981.
The boys do not attend Pasteur and are believed to be gang members from another part of the city, CRASH spokesmen said. Paul R. Lookinland, the principal at Pasteur, said some gang members attend the school, but no one is allowed to wear any gang paraphernalia, such as red or blue "rags," as the headbands are called, or earrings, hats or hair nets.
Newt has spent almost every moment since last Thursday at the hospital where Nikki has undergone two operations. On Tuesday, as her mother waited out Nikki's second surgery, she talked about her daughter.
Newt said the shooting terrified her because her own 19-year-old sister was killed instantly when a shotgun was accidentally discharged nearly 15 years ago.
Newt recalled that last Thursday, before Nikki left for the fateful bus ride to school, she had teased her about being a sleepyhead, and tugged playfully at her hair to waken her.
Late for School
"Punkin, you'll be late for school," she recalled telling Nikki, a nickname for La'Chanique. They had talked about what shoes Nikki should wear to school. Newt ironed Nikki's clothes, while the girl cooked her breakfast.
They also talked about Nikki's birthday. She turns 15 on Sunday and couldn't decide whether she would rather have a scooter or a manicure and hairdo, plus a shopping trip with her mother's credit cards.
"I told her, Mother's Day comes first. She told me she would fix my breakfast that day," Newt said. "We have a pretty close relationship."
Although, at 5 feet, 3 inches, Nikki is a little taller than her mother, they both are slender and wear the same size clothes. "She wanted to wear a pair of my pants that day," Newt said.
Newt smiled. "She's very neat about her clothes, but her room looks like a jungle," her mother said. "The night before, she told me she had cleaned her room, but when I looked at it. . . !
"Nikki was a straight-A student when she was in Catholic (elementary) school. Her grades started dropping in public school. I guess she has gotten interested in little boys.
"She has gone to Pasteur two years. She was going to Hale (in Woodland Hills), but she wanted to transfer to Pasteur, where her girlfriends are. She's supposed to graduate next month."
Nikki's schoolmates described her much as her mother does--a sweet girl who is quiet and a little shy, something of a loner.
Lots of Plans
"She's a typical teen-ager," Newt said. "She likes to sleep a lot, likes to go to parties. She likes to skate and she likes to play music real loud."
Nikki's plans for the future have, at various times, ranged from becoming a construction worker or a journalist to joining the military.
"She said she would put me in a condo," Newt said.
Newt is proud of the fact that, although she is a single parent, she has always been able to support herself and her daughter. But the mounting hospital bills will take their toll.
Nikki is not covered by medical insurance and her mother, in order to be with her daughter, has taken a leave of absence from her job.
Friends are trying to help them obtain MediCal coverage; otherwise, Nikki will have to be transferred from the private hospital to County USC Medical Center.
Newt hopes desperately that this won't happen. "The nurses here are so good to her," she said. "When I first talked to her, she wanted to know who shot her. She wants to go home."
Doctors are feeding Vikki through tubes. Her mother has promised that when she gets home, she will prepare her favorite foods--tongue, okra and potato salad. Newt said that being a "born-again" Christian has made her unafraid. "I'll go anywhere. I never worry about it. Nikki is just like me. She's not afraid either.
"But I'm afraid for her."