Parole Revoked for Gang Leader Turned Peacemaker : Legal system: Passionate supporters call Tommy Elam a hero. But hearing officer says facts require incarceration.
In the end it did not matter that Tommy Elam’s 78-year-old grandmother said the marijuana was not his. It did not matter that singer Harry Belafonte had flown in from New York to lend his support, that dozens of youngsters rallied outside his parole hearing Tuesday afternoon, or that an impressive array of community leaders called Elam a hero.
What mattered to the hearing officer was that some marijuana, a set of scales and some bullets had been found in Elam’s bedroom, that Elam had gone to Las Vegas with a community drill team without permission from his parole officer and that two years ago, Elam had admitted smoking marijuana.
So Elam, a former gang leader who community leaders say was transformed during the last two years into a soft-spoken and charismatic peacemaker, is once again locked up.
To his angry and passionate advocates, Elam is a bitter symbol of a mindless criminal justice bureaucracy.
“This case says it doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter who you help,” said Constance Rice, an NAACP attorney who says she has seen Elam take guns out of people’s hands, nurture small children and quiet moody crowds.
“Tommy is a symbol for so many young black men in Watts,” said Margery Tabankin, director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee. “If the system doesn’t recognize what Tommy has accomplished and done, it gives a signal to those kids . . . that there’s no hope.”
Released on parole in 1992 after serving time in a youth facility for a robbery conviction, Elam went to work for the Watts-based Common Ground Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with young people. Mentored by the group’s director, Fred Williams, Elam helped maintain a tenuous gang truce in the tough Watts public housing projects.
Elam’s backers say the 22-year-old is neither a grandstander nor a taker, but rather a young man with an intuitive gift for steering people away from violence, whether they be girls in a fistfight or gang members with guns.
“He is a diamond in the rough,” said Williams, who made Elam assistant director of Common Ground.
Rudolph Castro, the hearing representative for the state Youthful Offender Parole Board who decided Elam’s case Tuesday, said he was impressed by the testimony of the character witnesses called on Elam’s behalf.
“I truly believe what they were saying,” Castro said after announcing that Elam had been found in violation of his parole and was being sent to the Youth Training School in Chino for a year, where he will enter a drug treatment program. “However, they were not privy to the history of this case.”
Contrary to claims by Elam’s supporters that he has been a model parolee, Castro said Elam admitted to marijuana use twice shortly after his release, and later in 1992 also resisted arrest. His parole was continued at that time, and it was recommended that he enroll in a community-based drug treatment program, but he did not.
Police were not even interested in Elam when on Aug. 16 they searched the room he shared with his brother Tony at his grandmother’s South Gorman Avenue house. They were investigating a murder and wanted to question Tony. They searched the house--citing, according to Williams, an incomplete search warrant--and found in the brothers’ room a canvas bag with about 1 1/3 ounces of marijuana, $358, a scale, five bullets and 157 small plastic bags.
Both brothers, who said the marijuana was not theirs, were taken into custody. Tony, also on parole, was cleared of any involvement in the murder, but both were booked for possession of marijuana for the purpose of sale. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office did not find enough evidence to file charges, police said, but the parole office was notified and requested that the brothers be detained pending parole board violation hearings.
Tony’s hearing has yet to be scheduled. The parole office, picketed by Common Ground youngsters for two days after the brothers were jailed, moved up Tommy’s hearing.
Belafonte, who knew Tommy through the entertainer’s work with Common Ground, flew in from New York for the closed hearing at the Los Angeles County Jail.
“While the rest of this city, the rest of this state, the rest of this country treated that community with enormous indifference, (Tommy and Tony) have worked . . . to pull together a cohesive, and a very meaningful program that has put the lives of hundreds of people on the right track,” Belafonte said before the hearing.
Calling the case against Elam “weak and meaningless,” Belafonte warned that it will have ramifications. “The presence of myself and others here is to serve notice that from this day on, what goes on in South-Central, what goes on with Common Ground, will not be just the private business of that community. It has a national constituency.”
Joining Belafonte in calling for the release of the Elam brothers were actor Danny Glover, religious and community leaders.
“Tommy is a critical voice, a critical presence on the streets of South Los Angeles helping to keep peace,” said Joe Hicks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Tommy Elam’s grandmother, Edna Brooks, who raised the brothers, and her husband, George, were also on hand. Brooks, who had 18 children and has more than 100 grandchildren, says the marijuana belonged to a third grandson who had stayed in the same room a few weeks before.
After three hours of waiting in a courtyard outside the hearing room, the crowd greeted Elam’s parole revocation glumly.
“If they think this community is going to stand and watch this happen . . . they got another thing coming,” said an angry Williams. “We’re saying that the parole board, the Police Department, this criminal justice system has too much latitude to lock up black and Latino young men in our community.”
Complained the Rev. Jim Lawson Jr.: “Why isn’t the parole board excited that a youngster (who had been engaged) in juvenile misbehavior and criminal behavior for 2 1/2 years is doing productive, creative work in the community?”
Even in the California Youth Authority Parole agency there was disagreement. Although Elam’s parole officer recommended to the board that parole be revoked, the regional administrator recommended that it be continued, with a sanction, such as electronic monitoring.
“I’m looking at the two years (of) what I consider average to above average parole,” Levan Bell said in an interview before the hearing.
Castro decided otherwise.
“I think he (made) some very big mistakes in the way he conducted himself,” Castro said.
Times staff writer John L. Mitchell contributed to this story.