Gloria Williams, the South Los Angeles mother who last month became the first parent to be arrested under a new state law that holds adults partially responsible for the gang-related crimes of their offspring, said that she tried discipline and even took a parenting class but was unable to steer her teen-age son away from gang involvement.
“I did all I could to help my son,” Williams said in her first extensive interview since her arrest in late April.
Williams has been accused by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office of failing to “exercise reasonable care, supervision and control” of her 15-year-old son, who authorities said was a member of the Crips gang. The arrest was based in part on snapshots found in Williams’ home, pictures that allegedly depict Williams posing with her son’s fellow gang members and her other children brandishing weapons.
In the interview conducted over the weekend, Williams called the prosecutors’ allegations “ridiculous.”
“How could the police know about all the things I have done to try to help my son?” asked the petite, soft-spoken woman who works as an assembly line supervisor at an electronics plant. “All they see is a bunch of pictures of a party and some writing on the wall. They don’t see everything my family has gone through.”
Williams said the photographs from family albums that police claim show her posing with teen-agers wearing gang colors do not prove that she condoned gang activity. Williams repeated earlier statements that the weapons pictured in other snapshots were not semiautomatics, but BB guns--a contention under investigation by police.
She said police spoke to her only on the telephone, and never made clear to her that she was suspected of committing any crime. The questions, she said, were all about the activities of her son, who is in custody, accused of participating in the gang rape of a 12-year-old.
As a result, Williams said, she never thought to volunteer to police that she had enrolled in a “skilled parenting” course that met each week at the Community Youth Sports and Art Foundation in the Crenshaw District. She received a certificate after completing 30 hours of course work.
School officials confirmed her participation in the course.
Arrested at her home April 29, Williams was charged formally two weeks ago with violating the parental responsibility law, which was passed by the state Legislature last year to combat gang-related crimes. If convicted, she could face a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
After her son’s arrest, police searched the Williams home and allegedly found, in addition to the photographs, one of her children’s bedroom walls covered with graffiti.
At a press conference after William’s arrest, Deputy City Atty. Bruce Coplen said the evidence “proves without any reasonable doubt that Williams failed as a parent” because it showed that she knew about her son’s gang affiliation, condoned it and may have even participated in his gang.
Williams refused in the interview to discuss details of the charges against her son for fear of incriminating her son.
But, wiping tears from her eyes, she insisted: “He is a good boy and we just want him home.”
Williams and her 20-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son live next door to her mother in a working-class neighborhood just west of Crenshaw Boulevard. Her 15-year-old son, whose name has not been released because of his age, is being held at the Eastlake juvenile detention facility awaiting trial.
A graduate of Dorsey High School, Williams said she moved into the small stucco house five years ago after separating from her husband of 17 years. Since then, Williams said, she has taken sole responsibility for raising the children.
She said that her teen-age son took the parental separation hard--and his troubles with the law began soon afterward. Police records indicate that over the last two years he has been arrested for crimes ranging from burglary to grand theft auto.
Each time he was arrested, Williams said, she would “put him on punishment” by denying him telephone privileges and his house keys so that he could not leave their three-bedroom home without her consent.
“I would ask him, ‘What do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?’ ” she said. “I took away his telephone and did not let him have any friends over.”
Williams said she tried everything from scolding to spanking. “But when kids make up their minds to do something, nothing can stop them,” she said. With a nervous pause, she added: “I hated to spank him because I was afraid that if I left a mark on him, I’d be in trouble for child abuse.”
Recognizing that her son needed stricter guidance, she enrolled him last fall in a grass-roots alternative education program that provides classes for students expelled from high school because of criminal or bad conduct.
Prosecutors identified it as the Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation, the same facility where she took the parenting course.
Chilton Alphonse, executive director of the foundation, described Williams as a naive mother who “did not know how to take control of her son so that he would stay out of the gangs.”
Williams said she volunteered to take the weekly skilled parenting course and found it “helpful.” She said when she heard “other parents talk about their kids running away or being sent to jail for drugs . . . I was shocked. I thought, ‘Gee, my problems aren’t that bad.’ ”
But in April, three months after joining the class and just as she was preparing for a second marriage, Williams was stunned by successive shocks. First came her son’s April 27 gang-rape arrest. Police alleged that the 12-year-old victim was kidnaped from Williams’ back yard and was raped by at least a dozen gang members over a three-day period.
‘Whole Bunch of Police Cars’
Two days later, she was arrested. “It was about 4 (p.m.) and I was making out some checks to pay bills, and getting ready to go pick up my wedding dress,” Williams recalled. “My daughter yelled that a whole bunch of police cars were parked down the street.
“When they came up to my house, I just thought they wanted to search the place again,” she said. “They put the handcuffs on me and I looked at my (8-year-old) son. He just stared at me and I told my mother to take care of my kids.”
Williams was charged under a provision of the 1988 Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act. She spent four hours in jail at the Southwest Police Station and was released on $20,000 bail.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Debra Gonzales said police had interviewed Williams about her “failure to control” her son before her arrest, adding: “I know she was asked whether she knew her son was in a gang and if she realized the significance of the graffiti on the wall.”
However, Gonzales said she was uncertain whether police explained to Williams that they were looking for proof that she had tried to control her son. As a result, Gonzales acknowledged, the mother may have been hesitant to answer officers’ questions, fearing that the information might be used against her son.
“I don’t know exactly how she was questioned, I wasn’t there,” Gonzales said. If, in fact, “she has made efforts to curb his gang activity, that information would certainly be relevant to this case,” Gonzales added.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said it appears that authorities failed to thoroughly investigate the facts before Williams was charged with parental neglect.
Calling the parental responsibility law “vague and ridiculous,” Ripston said police and prosecutors “are desperate to try to make this law work, so they went out looking for someone to prosecute. They want to show that they are trying to do something about (the gang) problem, so they rushed to prosecute someone.”
Williams, who is to be tried on June 22, said she has considered “quitting my job to keep closer watch on my kids, but we could have never made it on welfare. . . . If they put me in jail, then what’s going to happen to my kids? Is that going to solve the problem?”