The Killing Fields : In Some L.A. County Schools, It's Matter of Life and Death

Times Staff Writers

"Under this tree, a boy died."

--Jeff Engilman, former football coach at Manual Arts

Jeff Engilman walks the halls and watches, for that's his job now at Manual Arts High School, a fenced-in compound. As head of security, he tries to make sure that students stay in and non-students stay out.

He checks for hall passes. He looks into suspicious situations. He eases tense moments for frustrated substitute teachers.

As the coach from 1979-84, he won two football championships.

"During (lunch), right over here, right under these fences -- gangland - style -- they held the kid and shot him in the head . . . My fullback was killed the following weekend because, they said, he was seen talking to the policeman. He was riding home--they jumped out of the hedges and they shotgunned him."

--Jeff Engilman

Reggie Morris, Manual's basketball coach, is also on patrol.

A few miles away, at Johnson continuation school, he stomps, he shouts, he whispers. He tries to brainwash, he says. Whatever it takes. Gangs, drugs and decay in the inner city have made Morris almost desperate.

There must be alternatives, Morris, Central City coach of the year last season, tells students in his assemblies.

Basketball is an alternative. It, and other sports, used to be the way out. But the significance of sports in the inner city has dwindled.

"I'm in a recruiting war with the gangs," Morris says.

Apparently, the gangs are winning. Last season, only 11 of about 1,200 male students went out for the Manual Arts basketball team.

Engilman, pointing at a spot on the Manual Arts campus with the 1981 murder of Michael Carr still fresh in his mind, said: "Gangland-style, they held the kid and shot him in the head."

Carr, a suspected member of the Crips gang who was not involved in athletics, was killed during lunchtime while school was in session.

The next weekend, Earl Bonsinger, who had been the starting fullback for the school's football team, was shot and killed riding home on his motor scooter.

"They jumped out of the hedges and shotgunned him," Engilman said.

Engilman said that a one-time Manual Arts football player was arrested in connection with the Carr killing.

"He wanted me to be a character witness. At the time I said, 'If you want me to be a character witness, first of all, I kicked you off the football team. Second of all, if I'm a character witness for you, then the Crips blow me away. If I don't, the Bloods blow me away.' So I just said I'm not going to do anything.

"So I lost two players. One was my starting fullback. These guys were teen-agers."

Since those killings in 1981, street gangs have gained even more influence in the city and county of Los Angeles.

Paralleling a steady increase in gang activity is a decline in sports participation in many areas, most noticeably South-Central Los Angeles and the inner city.

More kids are joining gangs and far fewer are going out for high school sports.

Male students, coaches and school administrators say, are looking for an easy way out, and in many situations, that appears to be a street gang.

In gang areas, membership means community prestige and influence.

It can also mean quick and easy money. Many gang members sell drugs, especially in South-Central Los Angeles, according to police. The expensive cars and jewelry they display seem to offer a tempting option for a youngster who will probably decide by the time he is in junior high whether he will join a gang or go out for sports.

The gang option apparently is winning but in a curious mixture of cultural values, sporting events are frequent backdrops to gang violence. Thus, gangs not only spoil athletics by skimming potential athletes, but by ruining athletic events as well.

In the last year alone, there have been three shooting incidents involving gangs and sports:

--July 27, 1986. Troy Batiste, a guard on Crenshaw's state championship basketball team and a recent graduate, was shot in the leg by three carloads of gang members.

The attackers shouted gang slogans as they fired in front of a fast-food restaurant near the school at 3:15 a.m. Batiste's teammate, Marcus Williams, was also hit, but suffered only a flesh wound.

Police could not explain the attack because the victims were not known to have any gang affiliation. Police said the shooting was probably a case of mistaken identity.

--Oct. 3, 1986. Gunfire erupts during a fight between rival gangs behind the stands at the Pasadena-Monrovia football game in Monrovia.

Many of the 1,200 fans ran out of the stands in terror, and two bystanders suffered gunshot wounds.

The game was canceled, and players, coaches and officials crawled off of the field on their stomachs.

--March 2, 1987. At Valley Christian High in Cerritos, enrollment 500, Russell Poelstra, a track and field athlete, and another student, Randy Talsma, were shot and wounded in front of the school's weight room by assailants, thought to be gang members, in a planned attack.

The incident was allegedly triggered by an argument between Valley Christian students and gang members the previous night at a local pizza parlor.

Taken individually, the three shootings could be dismissed as isolated incidents, as some school officials have suggested.

Taken together, though, they are hard to ignore.

Some school officials have also suggested that gang problems are strictly off-campus problems, that a natural overflow brings community problems into schools and their athletic programs.

There were 135 assaults involving knives, guns, or both, in the Los Angeles Unified School District during the 1985-86 school year.

Ira Reiner, Los Angeles district attorney, said that there are 400 to 500 street gangs in Los Angeles County. Most in South-Central Los Angeles are affiliated with either of two major groups, the Crips and the Bloods, he said. Reiner estimated membership of both predominately black groups at 40,000-50,000. Other estimates, however, are considerably lower.

Reiner was quoted in The Times on June 10 as saying: "They are well armed. They carry Uzi and Mac-10 machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and semi-automatic rifles. They outgun police officers when they have these weapons.

"Right now, the gangs are active in narcotics trafficking. Large-scale Colombian cocaine distributors are starting to deal directly with street gangs because they are street-wise, highly organized and willing to be as vicious as necessary in order to enforce drug trafficking. They are willing to kill at the drop of a hat."

Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn said: "I don't have to tell you this isn't 'West Side Story' we're dealing with here.

"It's vicious criminals--a lot of kids, plus an even higher percentage of young adults--who organize to deal drugs, pull armed robberies, burglaries and--if anybody gets in their way--to kill people."

There have been more than 200 gang-related killings in Los Angeles County this year, an 80% increase over 1986, according to Reiner. He said the projected 1987 total is 585 killings, compared to 325 last year.

And, as gang participation goes up, sports participation goes down.

Listen to the coaches:

--Reggie Morris, L.A. Manual Arts basketball coach: "I haven't cut anybody (not good enough to make the team) in three or four years. This year, I had 11 guys (on the varsity basketball team) when the season ended. When it began, I had 11 guys. The days of having 80 guys trying out are gone."

The enrollment at Manual Arts, located near Vermont and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Central Los Angeles, was 2,572 in the school year just ended. Roughly 50% were boys.

--Paul Knox, L.A. Dorsey football coach: "The numbers are down. . . . If we didn't have the drugs and the gangs, we might get 5-10 more kids on the football team."

--E.C. Robinson, L.A. Locke football coach: "When I first started, I could cut. But not now. I hate to say it, but now with the gangs and the kids trying to sell drugs, it's a hassle getting kids out for the football team. If I can get 40 kids out for the team at Locke, I'm doing good. Now, we're begging kids to come out for the team."

--Ernie Carr, Compton Dominguez athletic director: "I could make up a team of guys who (could have been outstanding athletes but) never played."

They are not playing, according to Carr and others like him, because they are in gangs, selling drugs, or both.

Engilman, the Manual Arts football Coach from 1979-1984, the Reseda Cleveland coach from 1984-86, and the new coach at Reseda in the fall, put it this way: "They're gang members first, and students and football players second."

Athletic events, however, possibly because they are community events, continue to draw gang interest--and gang violence. Some recent incidents:

--At Dominguez High in Compton Sept. 28, 1984, a gang fight broke out in the stands during the Dominguez-Cerritos Gahr football game.

The riot forced cancellation of the game, although there were no serious injuries reported and, according to Carr, no players were in danger.

The fight spread, though, involving up to 100 people, according to Darrell Walsh, Gahr football coach. It spilled onto the track surrounding the football field. Players and coaches, fearful of shooting, hit the ground for five minutes until the fight was broken up.

--Engilman recalled another occasion when he and Willie Nixon, a school policeman, apprehended a gunman on the Manual Arts campus.

The gunman was on campus to kill a member of the football team, he later told Nixon.

"We chased him all over to where he had to draw his gun on me and luckily Willie (Nixon) was there to (apprehend him)," Engilman said.

Said Nixon: "He did admit that he came up here to kill this kid. And the jerk we caught--this guy was 16 years old, 6-5, 195 pounds. He could have played wide receiver, been a basketball player."

Rock-throwing incidents by alleged gang members apparently eager to protect their turf also are commonly described by coaches:

--Paul Knox, Dorsey football coach, said that his team had been "rocked" by gang members.

During Dorsey's 1984 game at Compton High, there was shooting and some rock throwing, although Knox said it had occurred "down the street" from the stadium.

When the team was on the bus leaving Compton High, however, "We got rocked," Knox said.

"(In) 1982, coming back from South Gate, the bus had to stop at Alameda, at the train tracks, and whoom! Jordan (High School) kids hit us," Engilman said.

"They hit us with rocks, anything they could get their hands on. I had to take two kids to the hospital.

"It was definitely gang-related. They knew who we were."

"For baseball, we have to play at Harvard Park, which is on 62nd Street. Which is Blood country. Well, a lot of our kids are Hispanics. Even when I was coaching, they didn't want to go down there. They were scared. One of our security agents has to go down there for us to play a game."

--Jeff Engilman

From the violence in the gang areas has arisen fear. It afflicts parents, students and other people in the community.

Fear of gangs is the controlling influence for many people.

Several coaches interviewed feared that their comments might bring gang retaliation, and one coach refused to be photographed for the story.

Dorsey is a school that draws students from outside its boundaries. Athletes and other students have to travel through territories to get there. They are often targets.

Said Knox: "We do have kids get harassed and jumped and chased. One of our track kids on Monday (May 11) got jumped on pretty good. He's got a concussion. It happens regularly with athletes."

In another instance several years ago, Engilman said, a Manual Arts football player hid a sawed-off shotgun in a travel bag, taking it with him to a road game.

"He had to go to Jordan and he was scared," Engilman said.

"We didn't know about it until later, until he was far away from the school. Then we heard about it from some of the guys on the team."

The 1984 Dominguez riot resulted in a three-week boycott of all sporting events at Dominguez by the rest of the San Gabriel Valley League.

"I wonder if someone will have to get shot before something is done," Gahr's Walsh said at the time.

Monrovia and Pasadena have agreed not to play each other in football next season in hopes of heading off another gang incident such as the shooting last October.

"We don't want question marks in our minds next year," Al Clegg, the Monrovia football coach said.

Indeed, Clegg said, security at home games will be increased. "We're just going to evaluate who gets in," he said.

Knox said the 1984 rock-throwing incident came as no surprise to his team.

The team had been afraid on the bus ride to Compton because the driver had taken a back route, hoping to avoid trouble.

"I looked in their faces and I saw that we were not going to win," Knox said. "They were intimidated, not by the team, but by the surroundings. We've never had to take precautions like that before.

"At Jordan, gang members walked right through the football warmups once. They said some things to our kids and kept going. That raised a few eyebrows."

E.C. Robinson, Locke football coach, said that fear can override a players' on-the-field motivations.

"It's the gang stuff that's going to affect their playing," Robinson said. "You fear the gang. You can't operate if you're afraid someone's going to start shooting in the stands.

"During the season they'll tell you there's an incident of a shooting where they'll feel there will be some sort of retaliation. They'll tell you, 'I have to go home early today (from practice).' And I'll ask why and they'll say 'Well, somebody got shot last night.'

"And they want to get home before it gets dark. If something's going down in their neighborhood or on their block then they'll feel that (on the field), you know."

After the Carr-Bonsinger slayings in 1981, L.A. University refused to play its first-round basketball playoff game at night at Manual Arts.

"They didn't want to come over here at night," Morris said. "And you really couldn't blame them."

Daytime practice is not immune to gang-related incidents, either. Engilman said: "There have been days when we (coaches) used to go through baseball practice carrying a bat."

Morris acknowledged that he's scared.

"This is my 14th year here," he said. "I haven't been in the service, but I've seen two people die, and both of them died right here at school."

Morris said that he talks to athletes and tells them: "Hey, you've gotta go to class, do this, do that.

"They say 'OK, fine.' The next week, they're pulling the trigger on somebody.

"So sometimes, you back off and say, 'Maybe I'd better not say this to the person,' in fear of retaliation."

Said Engilman: "We've all been threatened, many times. Whether each (threat) is gang related, we never know."

Many teams worry about playing at a school in an area controlled by a gang at odds with the one that controls the team's own area. Several seem especially to fear one place--"the Doghouse," L.A. Jordan. That's particularly true of Locke, Jordan's traditional rival.

"Jordan High School is the only place kids really fear," Robinson said. "They just fear Jordan. They hate to play at Jordan."

Jordan High sits on 103rd Street in Watts, a couple of miles from Locke but in a different realm altogether.

Locke is in a rather quiet residential neighborhood. Jordan, on the other hand, is between two government projects--the Imperial Courts and the Jordan Downs, hotbeds of gang activity and one of the most crime-ridden areas in Los Angeles, according to police.

"It's a very bad image," said former Jordan football Coach Ed Woody, who will be succeeded in the fall by Jordan graduate Darryl Divinity.

A school's reputation breeds fear, Robinson said, which means that many potential athletes choose to attend Valley schools rather than take their chances in the inner city.

"There are kids living in the Locke district who want to play," Robinson said. "You call the parents and the first thing they say is 'Well, look, what about the gangs?'

"That's one reason you have a lot of kids that are being bused out--they're afraid of the pressure from the gangs."

Knox said: "A big problem is our (Dorsey's) reputation as a rough school. (Dorsey is located near Rodeo and Farmdale streets, near Rancho Cienega Park).

"Maybe it's the Blood element. That's why the kids go to the bus. We've had incidents on campus or around the campus, and we do have a hard time convincing parents to send their kids here, that, hey, Dorsey isn't all that bad.

"A lot of kids end up going to Fairfax or the bus (to the valley). It's a constant fight."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 24, 1987 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 11 Column 6 Sports Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction In Part I of the Sports vs. Gangs series in Tuesday's editions, Jeff Engilman was incorrectly identified as the new football coach at Reseda High. Engilman will be the football coach at Sylmar in the fall.
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