Denny Suspects Are Thugs to Some, Heroes to Others : Riots: Portrait of four accused in savage beating suggests they are improbable candidates for role of revolutionaries.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Depending on whom you ask, they either are vicious gang members who deserve to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, revolutionary soldiers who sounded the first shots of a racial insurrection, or decent young men who are falsely accused.

One is said to be a stalwart member of the notorious Eight Tray Gangster Crips, while another is a quiet man whose main preoccupation is with motorbikes. A third is a husband who holds down two jobs and is expecting the birth of his second child. The fourth is a drifter, who is said to have spent the past two years hanging out at the neighborhood Unocal station, pumping gas and hustling customers for change.

Today, they stand accused of one of the most vicious and widely publicized attacks ever carried out on live television--the beating of truck driver Reginald O. Denny, who was dragged from his truck, pummeled senseless and robbed as millions of horrified viewers watched. They are Damian Monroe (Football) Williams, Antoine Eugene (Twan) Miller, Henry Keith (Kiki) Watson and Gary Anthony Williams.

Despite their vilification by the likes of Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, in certain circles the four men are not only defended but deified. Activists and supporters have dubbed them "the Los Angeles Four," compared them to Revolutionary War heroes and characterized the attack on Denny as an act of war, not crime.

"There is very deep feeling for these men," said Celes A. King, chairman of the California chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. "And that feeling is growing."

From law enforcement records and interviews with relatives, neighbors, friends and associates, the portrait that emerges of the Denny suspects challenges many details of the police accounts, but also suggests that the men are an improbable group to lead the revolutionary vanguard.

Soon, they will go to trial; many in the community are convinced that these four young black men will be denied justice. And despite differences between the cases, many already have made the verdicts for the officers who beat Rodney G. King their yardstick for a fair trial. If four white officers can be found not guilty, some activists and family members of the Denny suspects ask why can't four black men?

Of the defendants, none has attracted more attention than Damian Williams. Police say it is Williams, 19, who is pictured on the videotape hoisting a brick--sometimes it is described as a piece of cinder-block or a rock--and smashing it into the side of Denny's head. That man then dances next to Denny's motionless body and flashes a gang sign.

In a videotape filled with images of violence, there are few moments more appalling than that one, and Williams has emerged as the central figure in the approaching criminal trial. It was Williams, the youngest of the four suspects, whom Gates chose to arrest personally.

Williams' lawyers admit that their client was at the Florence and Normandie intersection that evening, and suggest that he was drawn there by the noise of the growing commotion. Others say he was enraged by the sight of police arresting a young neighbor and putting the neighbor's mother in a chokehold.

In either case, the Los Angeles riots were not Williams' first brush with violence.

He has an arrest record that includes charges of battery, robbery, resisting a public officer and hit-and-run. A copy of the search warrant left at Williams' house says police found shotgun shells and a gun among his possessions.

Neighbor after neighbor said Williams was universally known as an "O.G.," or "original gangster." According to one court document, Williams has a "71" tattooed on his left hand, a mark of allegiance to the 71 Hustlers.

Police say the Hustlers are a subgroup of the Eight Trays, although gang members say the Hustlers are merely a small group of 71st Street men who run dice games and engage in other low-level criminal activity.

Williams, who never finished high school, has a 3-month-old boy named Jaron. Williams' mother, Georgina Jackson, is a soft-spoken nurse from Mississippi who has taken up the fight for her son with vigor. She says Williams is a good father who tries hard to support his boy by installing car alarms for friends and neighbors.

He has played semipro football--which some say accounts for his nickname. Poster-size pictures of Williams in uniform bracket the front porch of his mother's house, and his trophies are scattered throughout the living room.

Some say Williams has a generous streak, too. One neighbor recalls that when her young boy was playing in the street one day, Williams saw him and was astonished at how long his hair had grown. Williams asked the boy why he did not get it cut, and when the boy said he had no money, Williams marched him down to the barber shop and paid.

But far from everyone in the Florence and Normandie area is fond of Williams. The Eight Trays frighten many residents, and some said--in interviews from behind their locked metal screens--that Williams is known to play rough.

"Football takes his gangbanging very seriously," said one person who has known Williams since he was 10 years old. "He doesn't go out and start trouble, but he doesn't run from it, either."

Antoine Miller, 20, grew up with Williams and is the person whom police say clambered up Denny's truck and yanked the door open, setting in motion the attack that followed. To his friends and the people who raised him, however, Miller is a baby-faced young man scarred by tragedy.

Almost from the time he was born, Miller ricocheted between broken homes. His mother and father, who never married, split up when he was a baby, friends said. Miller was set adrift when his mother's drug problems made it difficult for her to care for him.

Greg Colston, a friend of Miller's father, stepped in and adopted the young boy for a while. Miller occasionally got in trouble, Colston acknowledges, but it was mostly minor offenses: His brand of crime ran to misdemeanor drug charges, joy riding and failing to appear for traffic violations, copies of his criminal record show.

"Every time he went to jail, it was always joy riding or something like that," Colston said in an interview last week. "Every time he got released, I would go down and get him out."

The searing moment of Antoine Miller's youth came in 1985 or so, Colston said. Antoine, then in his early teens, was spending an evening at his grandparents. An argument erupted, apparently the result of a jealous spat. Then, Colston said, Miller's grandmother pulled out a gun and shot and killed his grandfather as the young boy watched, helpless.

"He was never able to discuss that," said Greg Colston's wife, Seville. "That's when he became withdrawn. He just wasn't the same after that."

In an affidavit filed in federal court, an FBI agent stated that an LAPD gang expert identified Miller from the Denny videotape and knew from past experience that Miller is a gang member.

But neighborhood residents and friends of Miller's--including some of the same people who say Williams is an Eight Tray Crip--emphatically deny that Miller is affiliated with any gang.

"He was a weirdo," one gang member said. "He was always riding around on his motorbikes. He wasn't no gangbanger."

Although the Colstons say they cannot believe that Miller would have attacked Denny, they admit that he does make an appearance on the videotape. In the version they have seen, they recognize Miller's face as he jumps up on the truck, pulls open the door and then runs off with a bag from inside the cab.

But they say they have not seen any version of the tape that shows Miller striking the truck driver.

Sinking back into one of the chairs in the front room of his auto repair shop, Colston sighed: "He might have taken the stuff from the guy's truck," Colston said. "That's what he'd do. He wouldn't hit him."

Henry Keith Watson's parents, Henry and Joyce Watson, were awakened by hundreds of FBI agents and LAPD officers about 2:30 a.m. on May 12. Since then, they hardly seem to have slept. They have appeared at each of their son's court hearings, craning to catch his eye. They have granted interviews and organized fund raising, including a "Hair-a-Thon" at which hairdressers donated their time.

Joyce Watson, a county social worker, has used her moment in the spotlight to urge peace. In interview after interview, she patiently counsels that violence will not solve anything.

She says she cannot bear to watch the videotape that police say shows her son stomping the head, face and neck of the truck driver.

Kiki Watson is a barrel-chested 27-year-old, the only one of the four suspects who is married and the only one with a steady job. He also is the only one raised by a set of married parents. His friends call him Keith or "Kiki," the name he has tattooed on his chest.

Like his parents, Watson was raised a Christian, but he has not lived a life of nonviolence. Copies of his criminal record show arrests for carrying a concealed weapon and carrying a loaded firearm in a public place. In 1990, while on probation for one of the firearms charges, he held up a Loomis armored car.

He went to jail for that offense, and his parents say that was a sobering experience. People who live near the Florence and Normandie intersection say Watson emerged with a commitment to turning his life around and was respected for that.

Watson married and moved to a threadbare but well-kept apartment complex in Inglewood. He and his wife, Valencia, have a young daughter, and he holds down jobs as an airport shuttle driver and a pet store employee, his mother said.

Their neighbors say the Watsons are quiet, though a few say they worry about Kiki's friends--some of whom they say are gang members.

Police call Watson a gang associate, but many people say that may have more to do with where Watson grew up than whether he chose to run with gangsters. In the neighborhood near Florence and Normandie, where Watson grew up, some young men joined the Eight Trays, and some did not. But there is no escaping gang associations if you spent your childhood in that community, say Watson's parents.

"I know Football. I know Antoine," said Henry Watson during a break in the court sessions one day. "I've taken Antoine to school. . . . Yes, all these boys 'associated' together. But that doesn't make them gangbangers. My son is not a gangbanger."

Alone among the four suspects, Gary Williams, 33, is not charged with a crime of violence. Where each of the others may spend the rest of their lives in prison, Gary Williams faces a maximum penalty of seven years.

Although Williams' only alleged offense is robbery, it may be the most widely watched act of pickpocketing ever recorded.

The man who police say is Gary Williams makes his first appearance on the videotape after Denny is down on the pavement, having by then been stomped, hit repeatedly with a hammer and smashed with a large, unidentified object that resembles a fire extinguisher.

Only then does the pickpocket arrive: He flips over Denny's limp body to rifle through his pockets. Finding a wallet, he takes it and runs.

Gary Williams' aunt, Vera Crayon, was watching television when that videotape was played.

"I kept saying: 'It couldn't be,' but it was," she said. "It was him."

Crayon raised Williams--a reed-thin, jittery wisp of a man--after his parents died nine months apart while he was a teen-ager. His father had battled cancer for more than a year, Crayon said. After he succumbed, Gary's mother died a few months later of a heart attack.

Gary was stunned by the deaths, but he managed to keep up his grades and graduated from high school, Crayon said. He even tutored children who needed help.

"I cared for him until he turned 18," Crayon said in an interview at her home. "Then he got the little bit of money that was his, and he was gone."

For the past couple of years, Williams hung out at the Unocal station on the southeast corner of Florence and Normandie, residents say. His lawyer says Williams worked there, but his arrest report lists him as unemployed.

"He was a hustler," said one man last week as he waited for a bus near the intersection. "He was ripping people off at the gas station. That or looking for handouts."

Having watched the attack on television, Crayon said she was not surprised when the phone rang a few days later and it was Gary, calling from the 77th Street station to let her know he had turned himself in.

"I said: 'Baby, I'll pray for you. But when you do the crime, you have to pay the fine,' " Crayon said. "The tape don't lie."

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