Lighthearted Night Became a Grim Tragedy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Regular as clockwork, they strapped on their roller skates three times a week and zipped around in circles at local rinks for a few hours of old-fashioned fun.

They were living in a hard world. Saturday night, they were just out for a good time.

That night, some other people were out for vengeance.

Shots rang out as the three friends, Angela Southall, Ronice Elisha Williams and Keane Lavell Faulkner, stood in Southall's driveway, ready to head to a Cerritos rink for hip-hop music night. Southall's father rushed outside his Compton home, but he was too late to do anything but mourn.

Police say two gunmen mistook the friends for rival gang members and killed them in a drive-by shooting in retaliation for a murder committed hours earlier on their turf. The alleged driver, who has evaded police, and two suspected shooters, who are in custody, were charged with three counts of first-degree murder Tuesday. Investigators are still seeking co-conspirators.

Their bullets ended the trio's custom, and set in motion the ritual of the murder-wrenched: calls to notify friends, trips to the hospital to identify the bodies and visits from reporters who need to collect photos of the dead.

In Compton, where the Police Department is struggling to cap the murder toll before it surpasses last year's 84 homicides, it has become a hauntingly familiar routine, one that these three families practiced with a sort of numb acceptance. City leaders Tuesday prepared to declare a state of emergency, vowed to enforce the city's 10 p.m. curfew and canceled police vacations to increase law enforcement presence in gang hot spots.

But all that's left for the families are the hollow words that ring through Los Angeles neighborhoods every weekend now.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Tommy Faulkner said of his son, who died two months before his 21st birthday.

"You can't lock them up," Lafreda Butler whispered as she recalled how her daughter Ronice loved to shop and skate with her friends. "You just say, 'Lord, help me take care of my children.' "

"They were like sitting ducks," Darrel Southall said as he stood in his driveway, in the same spot where he cradled his daughter's crumpled form just a few nights before.

For best friends Angela Southall, 16, and Ronice Williams, 17, it had been just another Saturday. They spent the afternoon shopping together at a mall in the South Bay. Both teenagers had started tacking up Guess and Nordstrom shopping bags in their rooms, displaying them like trophies after the hunt.

In the afternoon, Ronice headed over to Angela's house to shower before trekking to the rink. She planned to spend the night at Angela's home, as she had almost every weekend this year. Pamela Southall used to stock her kitchen with some of Ronice's favorites, rice cakes and apple juice, in anticipation of her visits.

Ronice, a senior at Alain L. Locke High School, learned to skate as a toddler. Her mother and a number of other family members were avid skaters, and Ronice quickly turned Angela on to it when the two became friends.

Ronice worked part time at her family's 99-cent store and planned to attend El Camino Junior College. She dreamed of becoming an attorney, said her mother, Lafreda Butler.

Ronice used to post a "Do Not Enter" sign on her bedroom door, but since Saturday, Butler has reflexively checked the room, wondering for a moment what has become of her daughter. She catches herself thinking that Ronice is just following the old routine.

"I think, 'It's Saturday night. She's over at Angie's house,' " Butler said.

Angela, a junior at Fairfax High School, had just finished studying when her best friend pulled into the driveway Saturday. Her textbooks were still scattered on the floor of her room. She placed a picture of her best friend next to her bed. She loved hip-hop music, her father recalled, but shunned gangsta rap.

"This," said Darrel Southall, 44, waving his hand over a wall of photos in her room, "is my baby." He said she had been skating for several years and was considering college. Last year, she volunteered to attend the prom with a boy after his date left him at the last minute, he said.

Faulkner, 20, a former football, basketball and track athlete at Compton High School, had worked part time at a Redondo Beach tax form company. A table in his family's living room is covered with golden trophies from his school days. His father, a truck driver, brought him up "under the belt, and he turned out OK."

Tommy Faulkner, 45, said too many children are living in homes without discipline, in families that are afraid to punish them when they do wrong. He said he suspects that the people who murdered his son grew up in such a household.

"It's the way you bring your kids up," he said.

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