COLUMN ONE : Mystery Surrounds Death of a Cheerleader : Why was bright, young Jolie Watson slain at a drug house? As police try to find the answer, her mother mourns girl she says was an innocent victim of violence.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sick with grief, Barbara Schwab spent days hunched over her daughter's tiny computer diary, trying to access the secrets inside. If only she could crack the code, she told herself, perhaps she could learn why her beautiful high school cheerleader was gunned down in a filthy drug house. Maybe she could prove that the girl died an innocent.

She typed in names of singers, friends, even the family dog. But no luck. She couldn't figure out the password. The hidden truths of Anitra (Jolie) Watson's life, and perhaps the solution to the mystery of her death, remain locked away in the palm-sized Casio diary.

When Jolie was killed execution-style almost 10 months ago, the college-bound senior at Dorsey High in Southwest Los Angeles was the latest heartbreaking symbol in a parade of good kids claimed by violence. Newspapers and television stations chronicled her death, and "America's Most Wanted" joined the chase for her killer. The Los Angeles City Council, expressing sorrow, offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the gunman.

But behind the frenzied sympathy--and to the mother's horror--police began pursuing a darker theory: The 17-year-old girl and several of her gang member friends were attempting to rip off a drug dealer when the plan went awry, and Jolie--wielding a gun--was killed.

Driven by raw nerves and deepening sorrow, Schwab has responded with an extraordinary personal campaign to pressure police into abandoning their hypothesis--setting into motion an extraordinary struggle between a mother trying to protect the memory of her daughter and investigators trying to solve a homicide.

In long phone calls several times a week, Schwab frantically urges authorities to only consider the possibility that Jolie--an ambitious student who liked to scuff around the house in her floppy Bugs Bunny slippers--was coerced or tricked into going to the drug house. Never, detectives say, have they been lobbied so intensely by a parent so convinced of her child's purity.

"Jolie was not living a double life," says Schwab, an elementary schoolteacher. "She was used--like a sacrificial lamb. . . . Jolie was not in a gang. Jolie always tried to help people she thought were going the wrong way. That is the part that is so ironic.

"It's totally inaccurate to paint a picture that says, 'How did a wonderful girl end up on the dark side?' "

Police acknowledge that they don't have much to go on. With little physical evidence, they have based their suspicions of the girl's activities on statements attributed to two men believed to have been involved in the crime. Although there are inconsistencies with the theory, it's the best they've got.

"Jolie's mom doesn't want to hear that there may be something else to this murder besides pure innocence," Los Angeles Police Detective Paul Masuyama said. "We just go by what we know."

The powerful competing forces in Jolie's life were evident at her funeral, attended by more than 1,000 people. There were the eight teen-agers who each claimed to be her best friend. There were Dorsey's varsity cheerleaders. And there were a group of gang members.

"Ninety-seven percent of Jolie was good," said a close friend of the family. "Maybe the other 1% or 2%, maybe that's what got her killed."

Clue in a Backpack

On the night of Oct. 28, 1994, sometime about 10:30, Jolie was shot in the head at point-blank range in a Century Boulevard duplex, identified by police as a "marijuana house," on Los Angeles' border with Inglewood.

The next morning a neighbor, who happened to walk by the duplex's front window, saw the girl's body on a couch. Her white 1988 Nissan Pulsar was found in an alley behind the apartment, her cheerleading uniform laid neatly across the back seat.

Police carefully combed through Jolie's nylon backpack in her car. Inside were books and quizzes, SAT information and the first big clue in the murder case: A scrap of paper with a name and gang moniker scribbled in ink: "Mr. Carlton, C-Dog, Compton FHC"--an apparent reference to the man who is believed to have killed Jolie, and who is still at large. From there, detectives began their investigation, searching through the light and shadow of her life to find clues to her death.

Jolie was, according to numerous accounts, a considerate girl who would always help a friend in need.

"She was somebody I knew I was going to know for the rest of my life," said Serena Pierre, who worked with Jolie during a summer internship at Warner/Chappell, a music publishing company. "She just cared. She cared about people. She had this ability to see if you were upset. If you were upset she went out of her way to make you feel better."

She spent hours helping with cheers for the varsity squad even though she injured her ankle in a cheerleading camp over the summer. She was taking a class to prepare for the Scholastic Assessment Test, with the hope of getting into Clark Atlanta University or Michigan State University. An avid reader, she kept a stack of books on her night stand and could talk at length about the works of W. E .B. DuBois and Toni Morrison. She preached to her friends about the importance of doing their homework and called them to remind them to study.

She liked to eat and dance. Her friends teased her about how she would consume huge quantities of junk food, usually messy burritos, and never gain weight. She made care packages for her sister, who was away at USC, and always bought birthday and Valentine's Day gifts for her mother.

She was blessed with an athletic body, perfect teeth, a wide smile and deep, dark eyes that mirrored her emotions. She would carefully curl her thick, black bangs into a cascade of spirals and paint her lips deep red. She appeared to be years older than her age but still slept with her favorite stuffed animals.

Jolie's generosity of spirit and a hunger for new experiences led her to place tremendous trust in people she should have been leery of. She never thought twice about befriending troublemakers, gang members or drug dealers.

"She was open to anything," said Loren Shakman, Jolie's junior high school history teacher, who foresaw the danger in such an attitude. "There were no boundaries on what people might be like or look like."

Living with her mother and younger brother in an apartment at Olympic Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in the Mid-City district, Jolie attended four schools in four years--first Beverly Hills, then Hamilton, next Pacific Palisades, then Dorsey. Friends said she was always searching for something new.

"She just got bored," said Yezenia LeBron, one of Jolie's best friends from Palisades High.

As she moved around, applying to one magnet program after another, she made so many friends that her mother had a hard time keeping track of who was who. Jolie carried a pager, as did most of the young people she hung out with, so she would never be out of touch.

Schwab wanted her daughter to stay at Palisades High, where she had spent her junior year, instead of transferring to much-closer Dorsey, as Jolie requested. But Jolie argued that if she stayed at the ocean-side school, where she was a member of the girls' varsity basketball team, she might not be able to graduate. She had trouble making it to her 7:50 a.m. class and had already received one F because of the school's strict attendance policy. She got her way and was accepted into Dorsey's science and math magnet program.

Despite her achievements, Jolie, whose mother is white and father is African American, had unsettled questions about her identity. After her parents divorced, she tried in vain to find her father, whom she had not seen since she was young and living in Florida with her mother. She at least wanted a complete picture of her heritage, and the opportunity to trace her roots. She even inquired with a missing-persons registry to see if she could locate her father.

"It hurt her a lot," Schwab said. "She wanted to know who she was."

Although she had written poems several years earlier decrying drugs, investigators and friends say Jolie started smoking small amounts of marijuana.

As Schwab had feared, there were sharp differences between Palisades and Dorsey. Palisades High sits amid expensive homes on Temescal Canyon Road between Santa Monica and Malibu. Dorsey is in Southwest L.A. near an area of apartments known for violence and drug dealing.

About the time she started at Dorsey, authorities believe, Jolie hooked up with a group of older gang members who were scouting for an innocent-looking high school girl to help them get into a drug house and rip it off; perhaps she agreed to go along with the scheme--not coerced but not realizing the danger.

On the day she was killed, Jolie was looking for money--but for a good cause, friends said. She told them she needed cash to buy a birthday present for a disabled friend with whom she was planning to visit Knott's Berry Farm the next day.

"I owed her a dollar," said friend Sena Manu. "I walked by her and she said, 'Sena, where's my dollar?' "

She said she gave Jolie $5. Jolie kept the change.

Jolie then mentioned her need for money to her mother. Schwab told her she would go to the automated teller machine as soon as she could. Jolie then took a shower and got ready to go to that night's Dorsey home football game.

As she was heading out, Jolie received a call from a man whose gruff voice Schwab did not recognize. "I had a bad feeling," Schwab said. "I was scared she was going to go somewhere with him. I said, 'Please come home early. . . .' "

Jolie assured her mother that she would stick with her friends and left the house.

When she arrived at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Southwest Los Angeles about 8:30 that night, she had an unspecified plan that would bring her some quick cash, police said in affidavits they filed with a court in support of warrants to search the home and car of the accused killer.

Jolie asked two friends to go with her to the parking lot, where she expected to "meet some guys," according to the affidavits that were based on information provided by the friends.

The girls waited at Jolie's car about 10 minutes, then Jolie was paged. She told her friends: "It's them," and drove with the friends to a phone booth, where she made a quick call.

Several minutes later, a dark, early '80s-model car drove up next to Jolie's car. Jolie and one of her friends walked up to the car, where Jolie introduced one of the three men inside as "Antoine."

Jolie asked her girlfriends if they wanted to go with her to "make some money," according to the affidavits, but they declined. They later told police that they thought the men in the car looked suspicious. The friends last saw Jolie alive as she followed behind the men's vehicle in her own car.

At some point that night, police believe, Jolie and the men drove to a Century Boulevard duplex with the intention of ripping off Carlton Maurice Gladden, a.k.a. "C-Dog," suspected of selling marijuana there.

According to another police affidavit, this time based on statements from a friend of the alleged gunman, Jolie went to the apartment and asked to come inside to use the phone, claiming her car had broken down.

Gladden, 25, let Jolie into the apartment, detectives said, then became distracted when he saw the men outside. When he turned around, the girl had a gun, according to the police affidavit.

Detectives believe the men tried to get into the apartment behind Jolie to "take the dope and money," but the door had closed and locked.

Inside the apartment, Gladden told Jolie to "run out the back," but the girl refused because she was afraid of being killed, the affidavit said. Gladden, according to the court documents, then said, "F--- it then. You're dead anyway, bitch." He shot her in the head then fled, police say. (Police do not know whose gun killed Jolie; they have not recovered a weapon.) Jolie's companions opened fire, their bullets ricocheting off the beige, stuccoed wall of the apartment. Then they fled too.

Police issued a murder warrant for Gladden's arrest, but have not found him. Investigators said in interviews that Jolie may have known Gladden and previously purchased marijuana from him.

In March, police received information from another caller, who claimed to know the whereabouts of one of the three men with Jolie that night. Within days, officers arrested Deon Lamare Holt, 27. The district attorney's office would not support a charge of accessory to murder and charged Holt with shooting into an inhabited dwelling. He is being held on $295,000 bail.

Like the friend who claimed to have spoken to Gladden, Holt told police that Jolie was willingly involved in the robbery. Police said he told them that "the young girl had approached him with the idea to go and rob this location because she knew there was money and narcotics there," Detective Natalie Doster testified at Holt's preliminary hearing in April.

A Mother's Quest

Jolie's death devastated her mother. As the weeks went by, the fact that police were considering a grimmer portrait of her daughter ate at her. She couldn't sleep, she couldn't eat. She took a leave of absence from work to try to cope with the loss, but her grief would not heal.

"It's been almost a year and it feels like it was just yesterday," Schwab said. "Jolie didn't deserve to lose her life and we all know that. I just miss her so much. My life is just existing, and my heart is shattered beyond anyone's comprehension."

Schwab has become gaunt and pale, driven by her quest to protect her daughter's memory. She marched in a victims rights rally, displayed the girl's poetry at a tree planting and recounting her daughter's achievements to public officials, who responded with letters of support. Privately, Schwab peppered police with calls, urging them to drop any negative references to her daughter. When the calls failed to persuade investigators, she visited them in person.

The conversations left them exhausted.

"It mentally drains you," Masuyama said. "We continually talk about the same thing: About how good her daughter was, how much potential her daughter had. She wants to keep that image of her daughter alive. . . . I feel for her, I truly do, everyone feels for her. But there comes a time when we have to move on."

Going on what she calls a mother's gut feeling, Schwab insists that Jolie was coerced or tricked into confronting Gladden by someone she had trusted, or perhaps she was a bystander who witnessed something she shouldn't have. Schwab accuses the police informants of lying to protect their own interests.

Choking back tears, she speaks in rapid fire: "[Jolie] was going to Knott's Berry Farm with her . . . handicapped friend. Does that sound like someone who lives the life of drug dealing and gangbanging? Who is going to college? Who is sitting in chemistry class filling out formulas? Who writes stories for English class? Who loves school, who loves life, who wouldn't hurt a fly?

"Anything Jolie might have been involved in was so minute," Schwab said. "Whatever happened, Jolie was murdered for nothing. Absolutely nothing. . . ."

In addition to trying to get into her daughter's computer diary, Schwab has looked through all her belongings. She said she has found no clue that Jolie had gone astray.

"Don't you think I would see signs?" Schwab said. "Don't you think if Jolie was doing things, it would be real clear?"

Besides, Schwab says, the police case is rife with inconsistencies. If Jolie was making money illegally, why was she always broke? If Jolie already knew Gladden, as police believe, why did she have his name and gang moniker scribbled on a piece of paper?

Police found makeup and a Dorsey High "readmit-to-class" pass that belonged to Jolie on a table in the Century Boulevard apartment. If she was only there for a few minutes to rob Gladden, her mother asks, why were her things on the table?

Investigators are hoping that once they find Gladden they will be able to fill in the missing pieces. In deference to Schwab, they have used restraint in commenting publicly about the case. When they held a news conference announcing Holt's arrest, police told reporters that they were unsure what Jolie was doing at the duplex.

"There are some inconsistencies there," Masuyama said, an acknowledgment of the mother's arguments.

Holt's prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. George E. Castello, said Schwab has raised some important issues investigators need to address.

Just because the girl may have used marijuana does not make her a gun-toting robber, said Castello, who said he has had numerous conversations with her mother. "Not only are we saying that she is a thief and a crook, but that she is also a gunslinger. That is an astonishing thing, especially when you hold this up on the objective evidence of the girl's character, which is excellent. . . . It's hard to swallow," he said.

Castello said he also is troubled because the only concrete information police have about Jolie's actions were provided by Holt and (via an associate) Gladden--both of whom have their own motives.

"My feeling about this is that we don't know the whole truth," Castello said.

While Jolie's death came without warning, Schwab carries a heavy guilt, at times blaming herself for her daughter's fate.

"I just felt like I could have done and should have done more," Schwab said. "I could have really talked to her in a much different manner than I had before."

As part of her crusade, Schwab solicited the support of victims right groups. Their sympathy is a salve for her sorrow.

"The pain never goes away," she told an emotional Downtown rally in April after a march against gun violence. The march's organizer, Lorna Hawkins, who founded the group Drive By Agony after she lost two sons to gun violence, accompanied Schwab to a meeting with police. She is aware of the theory of Jolie's death but does not care.

"People can say anything," Hawkins said. "Nothing matters except that [Schwab's] daughter was murdered. . . . How many of us do things we are not supposed to? You don't deserve to die for it."

Before Valentine's Day, Schwab held a memorial service at the Inglewood cemetery where Jolie is buried. A couple dozen of the girl's friends attended the ceremony as did a camera crew from Fox 11 News, which ran footage of Schwab sobbing over the grave. Another graveside tribute is planned Aug. 26, on what would have been Jolie's 18th birthday.

One day in late June, Schwab and a group of Jolie's friends planted a tree in Jolie's memory at Bancroft Junior High, her old school. More than 100 people attended, including Los Angeles City Council members Jackie Goldberg and Nate Holden and a representative of Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams.

"Jolie's future looked as bright as the stars," Schwab wrote on the invitation to the event. "She gave her love, and people gave it back to her. . . . The people that she left behind knew what she could have been."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich sent letters, which were read at the tree planting, expressing their sympathy.

"How one adequately voices sympathy over the loss of such a young and beautiful daughter as Anitra (Jolie) Watson is a puzzle I have not yet solved," Antonovich wrote.

"Everything I hear about her proves that she was a bright and shining light in a sometimes dark and gloomy world," Feinstein wrote. "Her death brings about the inevitable question, 'Why?' You and I know we many never know the answer to that question. But somehow, we must find comfort in the magic Jolie brought to those around her."

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