Homicide--Sharing the Pain in Search of Solace

Times Staff Writer

'People don't identify with this unless it has happened to them. They can't understand why you hold onto it even though you want to let it go. I got to let this go and just take on living . . . But there's something about it.

You can't let it go . . .'

--Shirley Butler,

Co-founder of the group 'Loved Ones of Homicide Victims' who lost two sons to violence.

They have a grim, particularly shocking way of introducing themselves, the members of this once-a-month Saturday morning group.

"I'm James Chavis," begins the slight, mustachioed man near the head of the long wooden table. "That's my wife, Laura. We're trying to get over losing a son to robbery and murder. Being robbed and beaten to death for no reason. That's why we're here. To get over that."

"I'm LeeBertha Pickett-Allen," declares the motherly woman at his left. "My son was Earnest Pickett Jr. He was murdered at Dorsey High School by gang members. He was an innocent bystander. There is still no one serving any time on it . . . and it seems to me the longer a person goes unpunished, the worse I get."

Daughter Slain

"My name is Tommie Whitmore," continues the kindly looking man seated near her. "My daughter was murdered in November of 1985. Driving down the street. Someone shot her in the head and killed her."

With a numbing kind of sameness, the introductions go on.

Mothers and daughters, cousins and uncles, all of them have come to share--and perhaps in some way ease--the searing pain that identifies them as one of the "Loved Ones of Homicide Victims."

All from South-Central Los Angeles, they have been meeting this way for almost a year.

Searching for a sense of purpose and understanding in the murders that occur almost daily in their neighborhoods, they cry, they roar with outrage and they stare vacantly. They try to exorcise the bitterness eating away at them and the fury they feel for everyone who treats violence in their communities as just another fact of life.

There is Emma Fairley, whose daughter was spirited from her house and strangled a year ago March 3, and Cheryl Scott-James whose "beautiful husband, Kerry," was murdered after turning his back on a 20-year-old gang member in October, 1984.

Husband Shot

There is Barbara Markham, whose husband, Robert, was shot to death as he worked in his garage one night last January, and Vanelea Shores, whose 24-year-old daughter was choked and tossed from a 12th-story window by a crazed admirer two years ago.

And there is Shirley Butler, the woman who co-founded the group after losing both of her sons to the same inexplicable violence--the first stabbed as he rode home on an RTD bus and the second, the victim of a drive-by shooting. The murders occurred only five months apart.

"This week is the anniversary of my youngest son's death," Butler says by way of her introduction. "And I'm having kind of a thing of it myself.

"People don't identify with this unless it has happened to them. They can't understand why you hold onto it even though you want to let it go. I got to let this go and just take on living. . . . But there's something about it.

"You can't let it go. And when you have had two without any sense at all, that's the hard part. Two. Without any sense at all."

Most of these survivors have a keen awareness of how the justice system works--and doesn't work--for them. They speak their own language, a parlance peppered with phrases like "my murderer," and "my perpetrator."

Unsolved Crimes

They have their own opinions, the result, they say, of dealings with police and prosecutors who don't care enough, and of the scores of murders in their communities that remain unsolved.

And they share a commitment toward advocacy and a belief that if justice is to be even-handed, they must speak out.

"They (authorities) have some unrealistic ideas about the level of tolerance that black people have when they have homicides," said Norma Johnson, a counselor with the city's Victim-Witness Assistance Program who helped launch the group.

"It's like we have it happen so often, we don't care. . . . We're some special kind of animal that it doesn't affect us that bad. . . . You would not believe the callousness and the coldness some of these people have to face. . . . But it's people killing people and it just breaks my heart."

Like Butler, Johnson is a regular at the sessions, which are held the second Saturday of every month at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices in South Los Angeles.

Case Etiquette

Johnson coaches the group on the fine points of case etiquette once an arrest is made and she prompts them to write letters to prosecutors and public defenders, to judges and legislators. She encourages them to visit courtrooms, to talk to police. "We are going to thoroughly educate ourselves in this group to know what it takes to get criminals off the streets and stop damaging our families," she tells the assembled Loved Ones. "We're not going to passively sit by and allow the system to pummel all the life out of us. Life is never going to be the same again, but at least if we know what the system can do, maybe we can make some changes."

Although police tell you "what you can expect" after a homicide, Butler says, "It's hard to realize that your case is just one case, that it's important only to you.

"They tell you that and when you think about it, it makes sense, you know. But the first time they said it to me, it seemed very callous."

Police who work the violence-torn neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles are "frustrated" by the dimensions of the job they face, admits Deputy Chief Jesse Brewer, who heads the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau. His homicide detectives are among the city's busiest. "As far as I'm concerned, they do an outstanding job under adverse conditions," Brewer said of his detectives. "They'll get a homicide today and they will start to work on it and then in another three or four days, they'll get another one. It's frustrating."

People Are Scared

Johnson said that even the most embittered family members recognize that "even the detectives who try hard can't solve a crime if (witnesses) don't come forward. And people are scared."

But in Pickett-Allen, there is anger that comes from believing that her son is "nothing but a number" to homicide investigators.

"They don't have any concept of my son having lived ,"she cries. "They don't know that I don't sleep at night. . . ."

In the murder of honor student Pickett, police told his mother it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Caught in the cross fire of rival gangs as he left school in January, 1984, Earnest Pickett died when a stray bullet sliced through his body. A second man, Ronald Gregorie, 25, also was killed in the melee. A teen-ager arrested in the case was released when none of the students milling around the schoolyard would step forward as witnesses in the double slaying.

"Mine is a (possible death penalty) case and the boy is still walking around," Pickett-Allen laments. "It doesn't make sense to me. . . . Here is this kid who never bothered anybody, shot down innocently and 300 people watched it and didn't say anything. That didn't make no kind of sense whatsoever."

In Markham, the group's newest member, there is fear that her husband's killing will be treated "as just one more black person gone, that's all."

Sorting Out Feelings

Speaking in halting, whispery tones, she strokes her daughter's knee for courage while she sorts out her feelings from the night of Jan. 9.

"I believe I could have accepted a heart attack or an automobile accident," Markham says, her glazed, expressionless eyes turning toward the floor. "But when someone for no reason at all comes into my yard and walks all the way back to my garage and shoots my husband, that's hard for me to accept.

"It's really more than I can take, honestly. . . . I cry morning, night and all day long. The more I pray, the harder it gets. I feel nothing. I read the Bible. I understand nothing and I'm putting such a burden on my children. . . . It makes me mad and it makes me angry because I should be the strong one."

Markham says police tell her they have no idea who strolled across her lawn that night and opened fire. They tell her they don't know why.

Nor, say the survivors, does anyone know why Shirley Butler's son Gerald was so brutally killed or Emma Fairley's daughter, Wency.

"They went to her house and took her out of the house, strangled her and left her there," Fairley says. "I don't go around crying all the time because I got kids, her kids at home, to do that. 'I want my mama. I want my mama,' the 5-year-old keeps saying. The baby is only 2. I can't go to pieces in front of them.

"I could be angry with God. But I'm not angry. I believe in God."

He Was Only 17

"I believe in God, too," says Veronica Pickett, Ernie Pickett's older sister. "But personally, I got a hold on it. . . . My brother was trying to be someone. He was not a criminal. He was only 17.

"I have to question God a whole lot. Like why didn't the gun backfire?"

Butler shakes her head, beginning to weep.

"I thought I had stopped crying," she says to no one in particular. "It's a horrendous feeling, I tell you. You don't want to be there. The confusion. The helplessness."

Butler's oldest son, Adrian, was only 23 the night he lit up a cigarette as he sat aboard an RTD bus. After stopping for a drink with friends, he was headed home.

"The man, he stood over my son and told him to put the cigarette out and my son said, 'Shut up.' That's all he said. The man stabbed him and then laid him on the seat and walked away singing. He plea-bargained (to second-degree murder) and they gave him 11 years (in state prison)."

Butler's "baby," Gerald, was just 19 when he was shot to death as he pedaled his 10-speed bicycle up Gage Avenue five months later. His killer has not been caught.

"It would seem that after losing two sons, I would be a basket case but for some reason I'm not," Butler says. She thanks the group for that. "In this group, everybody has the same grief. It's the kind of grief that's real difficult to share unless it's with someone else who has been through it."

Making Sense of It

"When you can go to a group where everybody is suffering from the same symptoms, they know what you're talking about," Pickett-Allen tells her. "It makes sense even when it don't make sense.

"It's been two years now and I guess I expected to be better," continues Pickett-Allen. "I did not expect to be dreaming that Ernie was alive all this week. . . . I don't like to wake up every morning and have to think, 'Good morning, Ernie, where are you? How are you?' But I do.

"Death is an everlasting thing and when one family member is murdered, it's not just that one person. That kid killed my family. He murdered part of me."

Their stories told, the group begins to leave in clusters of twos and threes. And they exchange telephone numbers, and they promise to check on one another, and they pledge to return in another month. And the shattered look in their eyes still is there.

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