Lure of the Streets Puts a Youth on Road to Prison : Gangs: Che Avery had caring parents and a bright future. But he’s in a jail cell instead of in college.


Coming of age was a time of crisis for Che Avery, a teen-ager caught between powerful, competing forces. At home, he enjoyed the generous attention of loving parents--what he called a “perfect childhood.” He learned responsibility and respect and became a popular A student bound for a major university.

But outside the home were the streets, gritty and action-packed. Avery heard the siren song of the music, the parties, the girls. He liked to hang out or cruise with his pals. Slowly, and secretly, he entered the gang world.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the diminutive teen-ager ran with one of Los Angeles’ deadliest gang sets--drinking, packing weapons, defending the ‘hood in bloody turf fights. In seven months, he saw two friends get shot to death and lost a third to gang gunfire.


In his outrage, he embarked on a terrorizing string of armed robberies for a few hundred dollars’ worth of jewelry and jackets--a spree that ended with his arrest and guilty plea.

Avery’s downward spiral became a chilling example of how gangs can snare even the best and brightest of young men, how perceptions of glamour and the struggles of teen-agers to demonstrate their manhood can thwart even the most diligent efforts of some families to keep their children out of trouble.

“I was living a kind of double life,” a contrite Avery, 20, recalled in low, unflinching tones at Los Angeles County Central Jail, where he was awaiting transfer to state prison. “At home . . . I was an ideal son. I looked up to my Dad. Then, as soon as my father turned his back, I’d be out doing things he couldn’t have imagined.”

While handing down an eight-year sentence, Superior Court Judge Charles E. Horan struggled to grasp how gangs could exert such sway over a teen-ager of such apparent promise. In a dramatic exchange with the defendant, Horan asked how “a kid who is not in any real way disadvantaged; a kid who has not been abused, beaten, molested; a kid who has been taken to school by his parents; who’s been clothed, fed and loved and taken to church . . . all of a sudden, at age 19 or 20, decides that the family values or (the) law is of less importance to him than gang values.”

Avery could offer no explanation, except that “the family love was always there” and he “just felt some kind of attraction to the streets.”

For thousands of youths--many of them with far fewer advantages than Avery--the influences of the street prove all but impossible to resist, and for reasons that vary widely, experts say. Especially now, with gangs more pervasive in Los Angeles than ever, “gangbanging” is often seen as the only way for some teen-agers to escape harassment, even gang assaults. Other youths simply gravitate to that sphere in search of glamour or acceptance--or even a family life--that they cannot find at home.

“The baddest kids--the kids that do the worst things--get the most attention,” summed up Chilton Alphonse, a former member of the mayor’s gang task force who now directs the inner-city Youth Sports and Arts Foundation. “I see it every day.”

Che Avery became the rare instance of someone who followed the path to hard-core gang involvement while also pursuing academic excellence and striving to do his family proud. An honor student with a 3.6 grade-point average at Beverly Hills High School, Avery was bright enough to win acceptance at UC Berkeley and UCLA before his life began to unravel.

“Everyone knew how smart he was,” remembered Antonio Carrion, 17, a childhood friend in Windsor Hills, a palm-lined community of middle-class homes bordering gang-plagued portions of Inglewood and South Los Angeles. “People looked up to him.”

Avery was the middle of five siblings, reared by working parents with a two-story home and a pool. His father, Lloyd, a street-hardened man who overcame the poverty of Watts to start a successful home repair business, made sure his offspring had a chance to participate in swimming, gymnastics, Little League. He also took them hunting, fishing and motorcycle riding and stressed academics. The Avery children were expected to earn A’s and Bs and taught to make responsible decisions. So far, none except Che has encountered serious trouble with the law.

“We spent a lot of time with all the kids,” Lloyd Avery said. “My thing is for my kids. That’s what makes me happy.

“I always tell (Che), ‘OK . . . if you’re hanging with some guys, and they’re talking about doing something wrong, just think I’m standing right next to you, because there is a God, there is somebody really watching you. . . . (And) if you do something wrong, something wrong is going to happen to you.’ ”

Avery’s mother, Linda, a genial woman who works as a senior accounting clerk at a bank, tried to ensure the best possible education for her children, free of gang influence. Che followed his older brother into a voluntary busing program, attending elementary school in Playa del Rey, then junior high in Westwood.

At 15, Avery was a favored son--willing and cooperative, good at anything he tried, as his father recalled. But at that impressionable age, Avery also was gaining his first taste of urban street life, a seemingly innocuous beginning that involved about 20 friends in the neighborhood. They attended parties and ballgames, or loitered at theaters and burger stands, Avery said.

Seeking an identity, the friends dubbed themselves the “Scandals,” a name never wholly appropriate; their worst indiscretions, according to Avery, were a few drunken nights.

“I wasn’t really doing anything then (that would have) upset my parents,” he remembered, though he kept the group a secret.

By the time Avery enrolled at Beverly Hills High School through the busing program, he had begun to favor the khaki pants, sweat shirts and Raiders caps that have come to symbolize the gang culture. His parents tolerated the attire, knowing that Che was a model student and aware that he took a public bus to school on a route through gang territories.

“A friend of mine made his son (look) non-gang, and somebody stabbed (the youngster) on the bus,” Lloyd Avery explained. “Somebody sharpened up a screwdriver, put a point on it, and stabbed him--paralyzed him a little while. That taught me something. I told (Che) whatever he needed to do to get from point A to point B, you do that.”

On campus, though, the khakis and occasional bandannas made Avery an anomaly, a stellar student in a maverick’s clothing. He was popular, invited to parties. Girls liked him.

“Ironically, the Beverly Hills High influence might have been worse” than the gang environment at Crenshaw High, where he normally would have been educated, Che recalled. “All these little Caucasian kids . . . thought I was the stereotypical gangbanger they’ve seen on TV. They just idolized it.

“I wasn’t really gangbanging,” he added, “but that’s the way I portrayed myself. . . . It gave me something to prove. I had to live up to this image they had of me.”

At 17, Avery was at the vortex of swirling peer forces. With graduation nearing, classmates were abuzz with talk about major schools--the mountains of reports, the college midterms that lie ahead. A counselor urged Avery to complete university applications, but he found himself doubting his capabilities, fretting over scholarships and finances. Even as major schools were accepting him, Avery was beginning a retreat.

“I was just intimidated by it all,” he remembered.

He turned down the major universities and immersed himself in the familiar, enrolling at Los Angeles Trade Tech, a school his father had attended. He figured to go there two years, pick up a trade--refrigeration repair skill that he could “fall back on,” then transfer to a major university engineering program, Avery said.

In the meantime, he seemed to rely more than ever on the social whirl of the streets. He now had a late-model pickup truck and a new clique, one he founded himself: the “DGFs.” The name was short for the “Don’t Give a F---s.”

In the street parlance, the DGFs were a “posse,” not a gang. Guys in a posse “don’t sell the dope, don’t sling the guns” in the way a gang does, Avery explained. “(They) might steal a few things . . . might have a few guns,” he added. “But they mostly have parties, chase girls.”

Avery ripped through his first year at Trade Tech with straight A’s. At home, he was the same old Che, studious, helpful and earning money with a part-time job. But the DGFs only whetted his appetite for excitement. He soon found himself admiring half a dozen guys from a nearby part of the ‘hood--members of the Rollin’ Sixty’s Crips.

Seeing their attitudes, their toughness, their apparent popularity with women, Avery set out to enter their circle as consciously as he had set out to excel in school. “The atmosphere, putting yourself in danger, the illegal activities . . . I can’t explain it,” he said. “I just wanted to fit in with them. I wanted to be part of the best.”

Just as he was becoming involved with the Sixty’s, one young member--Jason Jones, 14--was gunned down at a gas station by a rival gang from Compton. The shooting, in July, 1990, angered Avery, who thought he saw indifference in the failure of police to come up with leads in the case.

They acted like they didn’t care, Avery said. “(It was) just another black kid dead, no big deal.”

The Sixty’s saw no hypocrisy in their own unwillingness to assist authorities with information about the killers. Adhering to a strict code of silence, gang members steered far afield of police, running by their own rules. “Every night we were basically doing something against the law--drinking, driving with a concealed weapon, fighting,” Avery remembered. “Wherever we went, there was always a gun in the car.”

Avery is vague about his use of those guns or the extent to which he might have joined with the gang in committing more serious crimes. But he talked candidly about the sense of adventure he enjoyed--an adrenaline rush. Intense highs were sometimes followed by devastating lows.

In August of 1990, just a month after Jones’ death, one of Avery’s best friends, Terrance Ferris, 18, was shot in the head while sitting in a parked car. Ferris was an associate of the Sixty’s, never formally initiated in the gang’s traditional rite--a group mugging, Avery said. The shooting occurred after a minor argument at a party in Inglewood, killing a young man who had, in Avery’s words, “a good heart, a lot of family love.”

Roiling with anger, Avery lost his focus on school. He withdrew at home, coming and going quickly or lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. “It seemed like nothing was being done” about the shooting, he recalled bitterly. “There was no (police) follow-up.”

In time, Sixty’s members came to believe they knew who killed Ferris, but again police were never told--a fact that points up the wide breach between gangs and law enforcement. Inglewood Police Sgt. Alex Perez said investigators “would love to get the (killer)” but are stymied despite the knowledge there must have been many witnesses.

“Somehow or another, I guess (Avery) expects us to be mind-readers,” Perez said.

By early 1991, Avery’s life took an agreeable detour: He became a consultant to director John Singleton, a friend of Avery’s older brother. Singleton was making “Boyz N the Hood,” a film exploring gangs and family relationships in the inner-city.

Although the screenplay was completed, Avery helped with fashion and street jargon, he said. Largely by chance, the movie offered striking parallels between a lead character named Tre (rhymes with Che) and Avery himself--two promising young men with strong fatherly influence who become swept up in gang warfare.

Avery’s own emotions were about to get out of hand. Within weeks of his short film stint, Avery lost a third friend to gunfire. Earl (Little Looney) Williams, 27, an ex-convict, was someone Avery greatly admired. Tough, fast-talking and experienced, Williams was the leader of the “Overhills,” a Sixty’s set hailing from Avery’s neighborhood near Overhill Drive.

The Overhills were accused by another Sixty’s set of being “busters,” do-nothings who failed to “put work in for the gang,” according to Avery. (Avery declined to specify the nature of that work, which sometimes involves retaliating against gang rivals in fistfights or in drive-by shootings, said another youth familiar with the gang.)

A fistfight was planned to counter the accusation, Avery said. But instead, Williams was gunned down--another unsolved murder.

“Deep in my mind, I knew they died in vain--they died for stupid reasons,” Avery said of his three fallen friends. “But I didn’t want to believe it. So I tried to build up the Sixty’s so they were worth dying for.”

Avery took his rage to the streets. On weekend nights, he got drunk and went out with a .22-caliber revolver, stealing jewelry and jackets. Much of it, he said, he later gave away--a claim bolstered in court by testimony from his father, who said Che did not need the money. The father reported finding more than $800 in uncashed paychecks in Avery’s bedroom.

“The money--the material things--didn’t give me as much satisfaction as seeing people scared,” Che said bluntly. “I wanted to see somebody else feel the same pain and frustration that I was feeling.”

On a night in late March, 1991, a robbery led to Avery’s arrest. He was quickly linked to two earlier incidents. He spent seven months in jail before pleading guilty on all nine felony charges of armed robbery.

Avery then appeared to take new stock of his life, his values. He denounced the gang culture and began to mend relationships with his supportive parents. At a sentencing hearing on June 2, Avery startled even his own attorney by piping up to agree with the arguments of a prosecutor.

“I know I was wrong,” he declared. “I know I have to do time, without a doubt.”

A day later, he was behind bars, a solemn, seemingly wiser youth, reflecting on times past and a hard road ahead. “There’s a lot of temptation on the streets,” he said. “The attraction to the lifestyle is so strong, the peer pressure is so strong. Kids feel like they have something to prove to everyone except the right people.”

But he was not giving up on himself. Not yet. With good behavior and credit for time served, Avery figured he will be out of prison in three years--early enough to get a late start on college. Or to finish up at Trade Tech, where he was only 10 weeks shy of graduation.

“I am going to get through all this,” he vowed. “I see this as a test. I’m going to pass it with flying colors.”