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COLUMN ONE : An Ethic Dies With Gang Chief : The stakes these days are drug money, not turf. The transformation has eroded the code of unity, and violence is out of control as member turns against member.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the partially decomposed body of Keith Cardell Thomas turned up in a San Gabriel Valley avocado grove two months ago--handcuffed, shot in the head and stuffed into the back of a rented Ford Explorer--it sparked some rare introspection by Los Angeles’ most notorious street gang.

At 30, he was among the oldest and most respected leaders of the Rollin’ 60s--a group of Crips whose fierceness and reckless exploits have fueled the city’s worst fears about gang violence.

But Stone, as he was known around Crenshaw Boulevard, was different from the new generation of gangsters filling the ranks of the Rollin’ 60s, teen-agers blinded by the lure of fast cash and gold chains.

In many ways, he was a throwback to the Crips’ origins in the 1970s, when the battles were over community control, when loyalty to the neighborhood--being “down for the ‘hood"--meant self-determination, not self-destruction.

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Even as he became a ruthless henchman in the gang’s violent push into the rock cocaine trade, Stone clung to an old-fashioned code of honor, cautioning that cutthroat greed within its ranks was undermining the ethos of unity and devotion. Much like a weary Mafia don, he had begun making peaceful overtures to rival gangs, wearing wooden African beads and seeking inspiration in the teachings of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.

Although some Rollin’ 60s listened--if only out of respect--Stone’s assassination drove home a point they could not ignore: The violence that he had both warned against and wreaked is careening out of control.

“We started out as brothers loving brothers,” one veteran Rollin’ 60s member said. “Now, the neighborhood don’t really trust each other no more. . . . There used to be respect. Now, it’s like everybody’s against everybody.”

Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials, while declining to discuss details of the case, say Stone’s execution has all the markings of a soured drug deal, in which he was either the victim or the perpetrator of a rip-off. Stone’s body was found Feb. 1 by a caretaker in the isolated avocado grove in Duarte, where he was lying face-down inside the truck alongside his friend Daniel J. Chapman, 28, who had also been handcuffed and shot in the head.

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“This is not poo-butt street stuff,” said Sheriff’s Homicide Lt. Frank Merriman. “You’re talking major league gangs and major league dope.”

That Stone’s call for self-examination had struck a nerve in the Rollin’ 60s was evident at his funeral, where an anguished crowd of nearly 400 packed the pews and stood in the aisles of Grace Chapel at Inglewood Park Cemetery.

The mourners formed a sea of blue--hardened young men in baggy pants and carefully creased shirts--as Stone was remembered as “a warrior,” “Six-O all the way.”

But unlike most gang funerals, this one was not an affirmation of the criminal life. Instead, a burly man known as Keta Roc, who has “Rollin’ 60s” tattooed across his neck, took the microphone and made the kind of speech that normally only the preacher dares deliver.

The gang, he said in emotion-choked spurts, must face its culpability in Stone’s death. The homeboys were so busy thinking about themselves that they had failed to protect one of their own. As the mourners shifted uncomfortably, Keta Roc said in a rising voice that they were all to blame.

“The ‘hood,” he said, “is liable.”

The Rollin’ 60s’ evolution from a unified band of neighborhood enforcers to a collection of well-armed, for-profit factions is being mirrored in gangs throughout Los Angeles County. While gangs have always been brutal, they resort to violence more quickly and more indiscriminately now because the stakes are about money, not just turf or pride, according to police and gang authorities.

This transformation has jarred not only the gang world, but has turned their neighborhoods into virtual war zones, where innocent bystanders are consumed by the mayhem, victims of geography.

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In gang and law enforcement circles, there are no illusions that the Rollin’ 60s’ soul-searching, triggered by Stone’s execution, will make any difference in the escalating violence that last year claimed a record 771 lives in the county.

But when even hard-core gang members say they have grown tired of the bloodshed and treachery, it underscores the bitter truth of what Crippin’ has become.

“Once upon a time, the Rollin’ 60s were a family,” said Chilton Alphonse, a Crenshaw District gang worker. “Now, I think a lot of these youngsters are beginning to question, is it really worth it.”

When Keith Thomas was born in 1961, Crips did not exist.

Their roots are usually traced to a Fremont High School student named Raymond Washington, who had been steeped in the Black Panther rhetoric of pride, protection and community control. In 1972, when a gang of followers from his neighborhood beat a teen-ager to death for his leather jacket, they became a legend.

Word spread about the tough-looking young men, who some said carried canes and walked with a limp--cripples, or crips, they were called for short. But their significance went beyond just a few heralded street fights. Before long, some were saying that Crip was an acronym for Community Revolution in Progress.

“There was a point at which Crips had a more favorable reputation and position in the community,” said Donald Bakeer, a teacher of African-American literature at Washington High School, who has written a historical novel about the Crips. “Today, all the destruction and murder and terror seem crazy. . . . But in the late ‘70s, every youngster in junior high wanted to be a Crip--there was mystery and glamour, like tales of the Old West.”

It was an attractive notion to the young men growing up in the western fringes of South Los Angeles, where many black families had sought refuge in the late 1960s after the tumultuous events in Watts. The Rollin’ 60s, who take their name from the numbered streets between Slauson and Florence avenues, were one of the first cliques--or “sets"--of the Crips to take root in the area. They viewed their new turf as a prized possession--a symbol of manhood and existence.

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Even back then, the Rollin’ 60s could be vicious in their defense of the neighborhood. You seized your piece of the pie with fearlessness and audacity. Being crazier than the next guy was part of the mystique.

In those days, however, they tended to view their enemy as the society that had kept them powerless. When cheap crack cocaine began pouring into the community in the 1980s, that changed. The high-stakes battle for drug turf turned Crips against Crips, and eventually, Rollin’ 60s against Rollin’ 60s.

The 60s were one of the first Los Angeles gangs to cash in on the drug trade, shifting their focus from neighborhood rule to for-profit endeavors. They were also one of the first to heavily arm themselves; according to urban folklore, they hold a cache of automatic weapons stolen from a National Guard Armory.

“The 60s are one of the most violent, active gangs in the city,” said Sgt. Steve La Roche of the Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-gang CRASH unit. “They’re so big that their own internal factions frequently get into it with each other.”

In a confidential LAPD report prepared in 1989, detectives identified 459 hard-core members of the Rollin’ 60s, who had been arrested a total of 3,527 times. Those arrests had resulted in convictions for 17 murders, four attempted murders, seven assaults with a deadly weapon, 35 robberies, five burglaries, eight auto thefts, 20 narcotics sales, three rapes and two forgeries, among other things.

The report also noted that members of the gang were suspected of 37 bank robberies in Southern California, a jewelry store holdup in Modesto, transporting cocaine to Dallas, a drive-by shooting in West Covina and barging into motel rooms in Southwest Los Angeles and robbing the occupants at gunpoint.

Moreover, officials found no evidence of a formal leadership structure. Apart from two cliques devoted to drug trafficking, the report said, most of the gang members commit crimes for their personal gain and “hold no allegiance to any organization and do not act at the direction of a recognized leader.”

In one of their most savage exploits, two Rollin’ 60s members barged into the home of former NFL star Kermit Alexander’s family in 1984, killing his 58-year-old mother in the kitchen and his sister and two young nephews in their beds. The attack was supposedly a murder for hire; the only hitch was, the killers had misread the address and gone into the wrong house.

Four years later, another act of reckless shooting erupted into arguably the single most significant event in Los Angeles gang history. Durrell DeWitt Collins, a 23-year-old member of the Rollin’ 60s, spotted a rival on a crowded Westwood street and approached him, saying: “C’mon, I got something for you.”

Collins then pulled a gun and fired twice, missing his target, but striking Karen Toshima, a graphic artist from Long Beach who was strolling with a friend. The shooting was a watershed, shocking middle-class corners of the city with the realization that gang violence can occur anywhere, while minority leaders complained that killings in their communities rarely generate the same outrage.

There were also the cases of David (Let Loose) Cole, convicted of killing a 10-year-old girl after the bullets he fired pierced the walls of her Inglewood home; Anthony Wayne Fagan, sentenced to 25 years in prison for selling rock cocaine from a house across the street from Hyde Park Elementary School, and George Brett Williams, who killed two men during a scheme to buy cocaine from them with bundles of shredded telephone books disguised as cash.

Last December, 26-year-old Eugene Henley, one of the gang’s de facto leaders and one of Stone’s closest confidants--was arrested in a drug sting after he allegedly tried to rob an undercover sheriff’s deputy of 33 pounds of cocaine. He is being held in lieu of $2 million bail.

“You can’t predict what we do,” said a 16-year-old gang member known as Mike Dog, as he scrawled RSC--Rollin’ 60s Crips--on the metal gate of an apartment building. “If we let people run over the 60s, we wouldn’t have no ‘hood.”

Like many of his friends, young Keith (Stone) Thomas had no father in the house--a two-bedroom, 1920s-era bungalow on Cimarron Street. His mother, a UCLA graduate and public health nurse for the county, struggled to raise two sons on her own.

Although she managed to provide the basics of a middle-class life--Keith collected pigeons and played Little League baseball--not all of their hurdles were economic. All around, they faced reminders, some blatant, others insidious, that race was still a defining factor.

“You have a generation of young black children, especially males, that feel disenfranchised, that feel used, that feel the system is out to get them,” said Alphonse, director of the Community Youth Sports and Art Foundation. “So, they think, what the hell, I’m down with gangsterism. It’s their way of paying society back.”

When he was 13, Keith’s mother took him and a cousin to a West Los Angeles bank, where a teller suspected that the two teen-agers were robbers--"not because of their behavior, but because of their physical appearance,” his mother wrote in an obituary printed on the back of his funeral program.

More than a dozen police officers showed up and pointed their guns at Keith and his cousin, the only two black youths in the bank. “I didn’t do nothing,” Keith cried, as his mother pleaded for the officers to hold their fire.

The misunderstanding was cleared up, but the incident remained “a confusing trauma in his life,” his mother wrote. It was the kind of experience, he later learned, that was “shared by the very many friends and brothers he made.”

“Kids in this neighborhood get labeled,” his mother, Billie L. Thomas, said in an interview. “Nobody is trying to include them in mainstream America. A child here has to fight for his self-esteem, his friendships and his belonging.”

As a teen-ager at Crenshaw High School, that meant Stone stood behind his fists and never shied from a challenge, even when the taunts came from an older or bigger kid. Later, when he had earned the title of O.G., an Original Gangster, he would invite 50 friends to his place, send out for $300 worth of barbecued ribs and crack open a few gallons of his favorite vice--Hennessy cognac.

It also meant there were times when he had to, as they say on the streets, take care of business. Stone--a name he adopted because of its flinty sound, as did other old-timers with monikers such as Roc and Bone--could be ferocious and merciless. One gang authority described him as a henchman akin to Luca Brasi, the beefy enforcer in “The Godfather.”

Yet, as in the early days of the Mob, there were also rules to be followed. You didn’t shoot little children or somebody’s mother, let alone fire on a cemetery, hospital or church. A dispute might still turn murderous, but it was understood that the beef was only with that rival, not his entire gang.

“Stone was an O.G. with love for the ‘hood, but he wasn’t down for that stupid gang-banging, that senseless killing stuff,” said one Rolling 60s member, who asked that his name not be used. “Now, I ain’t gonna say that he never did no shooting. . . . But it wasn’t like these kids now, who shoot nine or 10 times, then open their eyes to see what they hit.”

When he was coming of age, it was easier to live by such rules, in part, because not everyone had a gun. If they did, it was most likely to be a .22, not some imported military-style rifle that could fire 16 rounds without reloading. Drive-bys were also kept in check because few could afford a car.

But Stone, who was convicted in 1981 of burglary and being an accessory to a robbery, also subscribed to a different ethic. Gang was synonymous with neighborhood, and you protected the neighborhood by not turning every dispute into a war. Stone would even party with rivals, walking from 60th Street down to Century Boulevard--now unthinkable--in search of a beer bash, dancing or female companionship.

“The whole nature of the beast has been transformed over the last 15 years,” said Jim Galipeau, a deputy probation officer who knew Stone. “There was a time when there was heart, when guys fought from the shoulders, when there was camaraderie and devotion. All there is now is screw your buddy.”

That change--"a reflection of the breakdown of society in general,” as Galipeau sees it--began in the avaricious 1980s, as scandals were brewing on Wall Street, in the savings and loan industry, among overcharging defense contractors and swindling televangelists.

California replaced Florida as the chief port for the Colombian cocaine cartels. Weapons were circulating widely. Easy money was close behind. The most aggressive and ambitious members of the Rollin’ 60s, lacking other economic opportunities, responded to the message of the day and did whatever necessary to survive.

“These kids read the newspapers and watch the news and see what’s going on in the world,” said Ed Turley, a manager for Community Youth Gang Services. “The persons who are the shot-callers are very charismatic and could have been corporate raiders. The ones with entrepreneurial abilities, who maybe because of lack of resources or a positive family structure didn’t got to college, took to selling drugs.”

Stone, who bore no tattoos and had abandoned the saggy pants and blue rags in favor of close-cropped hair and a short goatee, was not going to turn his back on the action, despite being grounded in the old ways of the gang.

He organized drug-selling “crews” that branched out to other states, colleagues said, bought speedboats, all-terrain vehicles and a classic 1963 Chevy with hydraulic lifts and vanity plates, STONE63. When he supplied his people with guns, according to one associate, he cautioned them “not to hurt anybody that don’t gotta be hurt.”

He bought a gated home at the base of Windsor Hills, with a gym in the den and big-screen TV for watching Raiders games and his favorite movie, “Scarface.” On weekends, drug profits fueled high-stakes games of dice and dominoes. Entertainment was supplied by Stone’s coterie of exotic dancers--four scantily clad women who appear in provocative poses on business cards bearing his home phone and pager numbers.

“Stone didn’t change with the times--the times changed him,” said a member of the gang. “When the dope hit the scene, some could grab it, sell it and rise up to fame. He was one of the lucky ones, the blessed ones--and it brought him up, in a sense of speaking.”

Yet Stone, a father of three, did not approve of his friends using cocaine, associates said, and he did not deal in his own community.

He generously shared his wealth, buying remote-control model airplanes for poor youths and opening his home to anybody who needed a safe place to chill when the streets got too hot. One teen-ager from the neighborhood whose older brother was arrested said Stone took him under his wing and kept him out of trouble.

“For that, I’m forever grateful,” the youth said.

Last April, on the night of the touted boxing match between George Foreman and Evander Holyfield, Stone invited a group of friends, including some from rival gangs, to celebrate at his place. Although there might have been a time when some of the guests would have bristled at the thought, the mood was jovial, the cognac flowed freely and the bikini dancers paraded for tips between rounds.

“Stone was a kid in transition,” said Jim Brown, the former pro football star, who had recently made Stone a leader in Amer-I-Can Inc., his self-esteem course for gang members. “He tried to bring peace and reach out to other gangs without losing respect in his own neighborhood. . . . But there is not some magic dust that you just sprinkle on a gang member and get him to go to church.”

That all this madness would one day claim Stone probably could have been predicted. But the shock wave that rippled through the Rollin’ 60s after his death was as much a function of the way he was killed as the level of respect he commanded.

Stone, the theory goes, must have trusted his killer for that person to have gotten so close. He weighed 210 pounds, looked like he could bench-press 400 and would not go down without a fight.

When he was stopped by police on Christmas Day, 1990, for driving his 1988 Bonneville with a broken taillight, officers found a stolen .38-caliber Smith & Wesson under the front seat. “That’s my gun,” Stone confessed, according to a police report. “I need it for protection.”

In the old days, there were many things you would die for--neighborhood, family, pride--but a bag of dope was not one of them. Back then, no one would have even been able to get close enough to betray Stone. His homeboys would have been watching.

“If he had been with some trustworthy brothers, Stone wouldn’t be dead,” a member of the 60s said. “If the homeboys weren’t fighting each other and tripping all the time, I wouldn’t have to be grieving.”

At Stone’s funeral, the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Goin’ On?” was playing in the chapel. Many of the mourners mouthed the words, shaking their heads.

A young man who called himself Bronco choked back sobs to recite a poem:

Hey, brother, where you going?

Hey, brother, where you been?

Can we reach the mountaintop?

And stop following that same old trend?

As they filed past Stone’s body, a young woman turned to her friend. “The homies keep leaving us,” she said. “I’m getting so sick of this.”

But by the same evening, many of the toughest youths were already back on the streets, sucking down 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, building up each other’s courage. Even with the tears barely dried in their eyes, the talk was of revenge.


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