Their Bright Promise of the Future Died With Them : Crime: Khye D. Johnson 'was everything children should be.' USC student Soy Song Lao looked forward to a career in diplomacy. Their violent deaths have stunned their families and residents of Gardena.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Both were dreamers, good students who believed hard work would bring them success, when an upsurge in Gardena's violence cut them down.

Khye D. Johnson, 13, an eighth-grade honor student at Peary Middle School, was waiting for a bus at Rosecrans and Normandie avenues Oct. 29 when a bullet fired from a passing car ended his dreams of someday becoming a doctor or professional basketball player.

"I'm just stunned," said Patricia Johnson, Khye's mother.

A few days earlier, Soy Song Lao, 21, a Chinese-Cambodian who escaped the brutal Communist regime in Cambodia for a new life in America, died in a knife attack at her sister's doughnut shop on El Segundo Boulevard where she worked on weekends. She hoped for a career in diplomacy after graduating from USC next year.

The crimes have shocked this small working-class suburb, prompting the Gardena City Council to offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers of Johnson or Lao.

"Before, we had maybe some robberies around here but never anything like this," said Lynn Lao Ngov, Lao's older sister who has run the family-owned 24-hour doughnut shop for the past four years.

Councilman Mas Fukai, who recommended the reward, said such measures are rare in Gardena because the city usually is not confronted with such shocking crimes. Gardena last posted such a reward in 1980 after a rash of arsons at a local Buddhist temple, said Kenneth W. Landau, Gardena city manager. The reward went uncollected because police made an arrest through their own investigation.

"We want to send the message that if we have violence in this city we are very supportive of the police and we will do all we can to catch the culprits," Fukai said. "We are not going to stand for anything like this in Gardena."

A city of 49,847, Gardena normally has six or seven homicides a year, but this year the count already has reached 11 with nearly two months left.

Lt. Gary Cherry, who heads the Police Department's 21-person detective bureau, said he could not recall as many murders in his 27 years with the force.

The incidents were diverse--the victims have included gang members, victims of child abuse, and people killed in drug disputes and other quarrels--and Cherry was at a loss to link the increase to any one factor.

Four of the murders remain unsolved, but it is the killings of Johnson and Lao, students regarded as on the road to success, that have particularly stirred the community.

"Here we have a young lady from Cambodia going to (USC) and looking for a new life and motivated to become something and she's killed senselessly," Fukai said. "And a young boy and honor student waiting for a bus and he gets killed. There must be someone who knows more about these crimes."

Lao, her sister, brother and grandmother, all Chinese living in Cambodia, hid in brush and jungle as they escaped Cambodia's Communist regime in 1980. Her parents had died a few years before in Cambodia's notorious "killing fields."

Under cover of darkness, Lao and her relatives escaped the hunger and oppression by sneaking across the border into a refugee camp in Thailand, where the Red Cross and other humanitarians helped them resettle in San Diego, near the home of an aunt.

"She dreamed of a new life and she got it," Ngov said.

After finishing high school in San Diego, she took out loans and got jobs to pay for an education at USC, where she studied international relations, Ngov said.

"She wanted to travel all over the world," Ngov said. "She was planning to go on a big trip this summer to France and to visit her pen pal in Greece."

To put herself through school, Lao worked on campus five days a week and on weekends helped out in the doughnut shop in Gardena, located in a strip mall.

On Oct. 24, around 4 p.m., a man who had been sitting in the shop for about half an hour attacked Lao with a knife, stabbing her repeatedly in the chest before fleeing with $60 from the cash register, police said.

A customer discovered her dazed and bleeding to death on the floor. She died later that night at a local hospital. Although the money was missing from the cash register, police are not sure why she was attacked.

"It was going so well for her because this summer she dreamed about finishing school and planning the future," Ngov said. "But now . . ."

Five days later, Johnson was waiting at the Southern California Rapid Transit District bus stop in front of a supermarket at Rosecrans and Normandie.

On his way home to an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County east of Gardena, he waited at the stop just as two groups of teen-agers, possibly affiliated with gangs, antagonized one another with verbal challenges in an adjoining parking lot.

One group bolted, heading for the bus stop, while the other teens followed in a car, one of them brandishing a handgun from the passenger window.

"Get down!" someone at the bus stop shouted as a single gunshot was fired from the passing car. Johnson, who police say was not involved in the dispute, was hit in the forehead. He was removed from life support systems that weekend and died.

Crisis counselors at Peary Middle School helped students cope with their grief, Principal Kathy Louie said.

"It was very devastating," she said. "He was a good student. He had good grades and he was in all honors classes."

Patricia Johnson, who was raising Khye on her own, said she firmly believed her son would reach his goals. He had an array of athletic and academic honors, including student body president and student of the year in elementary school. He loved basketball, but hearing of the high salaries that neurosurgeons earn, he decided he would pursue that too.

"The thing is he had the ability," Johnson said, adding that Khye arose an hour early every morning to prepare for class.

He attended the medical magnet school at Markham Middle School, but transferred this year to his home school, Peary, to be closer to friends. He regarded riding the bus as a sign of maturity.

Over the Christmas holiday, Johnson planned to send him to visit his older brother, Rance, a senior at Grambling State University in Louisiana, so he could get a taste of college life.

Now, she said, she is left with the memory of a boy who could make a roomful of adults laugh but, at so early an age, knew well enough to take his education seriously.

"He was everything children should be," Johnson said. "I don't feel angry, like everybody keeps telling me I should feel. I guess that hasn't come yet. I feel lost."

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