A Murder That Woke Up L.A.
Now and then, when a dark mood strikes, Kevin Toshima returns to the Westwood Village street where his older sister was killed and tries to envision the last moments of one of Los Angeles’ most famous innocent bystanders.
He thinks about how Karen never saw the young South L.A. gunman who fired twice into a crowd of Saturday night strollers 10 years ago today while trying to shoot a rival gangster.
In his mind’s eye, Toshima sees his 27-year-old sister sprawled on the sidewalk of Broxton Avenue, a bullet wound in her temple, struck down as she celebrated a big promotion at her Studio City ad agency with a dinner on the town.
“She would have been married by now, with kids,” he says softly. “I’d be an uncle. Going there makes me think of all the things in life she never got to celebrate.”
He isn’t the only one who can’t forget Karen Toshima.
A decade after her death, a prosecutor in her murder trial still keeps a photo of her on his office wall as a symbol of wasted innocence. A lawyer who defended her killer can’t help but think about her each time he walks through Westwood. To some police and politicians, the young graphic artist remains the most stunning image of random street violence.
“I don’t know how many times we’ve said it: ‘We don’t want another Karen Toshima,’ ” said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
The Westwood killing hit Los Angeles in its living room, shattering the naivete of Angelenos who assumed that gangs were confined to inner-city minority neighborhoods. It forced people to acknowledge that gang violence, which had jumped 50% since the late 1970s, was out of control. It opened a window on the stark terrorist logic of gang members, who were increasingly firing on crowds without regard to who they hit.
The killing also triggered increases in anti-gang programs by police and prosecutors--and sparked resentment in black and Latino communities, which grew outraged that one gang-related murder in Westwood seemed to matter more than the thousands that had occurred in South and East Los Angeles.
The murder was the first of a series of incidents--including the Rodney King beating, the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trials--that weakened the city’s fragile psyche and made many residents feel more vulnerable and uncertain about the future than ever before.
Karen Toshima’s death also jolted the nation, generating a flood of telephone calls from other cities that were beginning to see Los Angeles-style gang graffiti and gang attacks. The violence reflected national trafficking in crack cocaine by loose confederations of L.A. street gang members, who realized that crack--then at its peak of popularity--was an easy source of wealth and power.
“After the Toshima case hit the papers, I got calls from places like Tulsa, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. There were civic officials saying, ‘Who the hell are these Crips, and why is their graffiti going up on the walls around town?’ ” said Michael Genelin, who for 13 years has headed the Los Angeles County district attorney’s hard-core gang division. “Within two or three years, we had 50 cities reporting some kind of dangerous gang activity.”
Within days of Toshima’s death, authorities called a “gang summit” attended by 16 local police departments, which collectively termed 1988 “The Year of the Gang.” Police patrols were tripled and 30 officers were assigned to the murder investigation. Yaroslavsky, then a city councilman whose district included Westwood, prodded the council to offer a $25,000 reward for information leading to the killer’s arrest.
Then came the backlash.
“The black community has known for years that a problem is not a problem until it hits the white community,” complained then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters. “There is a deep feeling in the black community that the philosophy of the police department was, ‘Let ‘em kill each other in South-Central L.A.’ ”
Many Asian Americans watched this debate uncomfortably, awkward about seeing themselves lumped in with “whites” and not used to seeing an Asian as the victim in a spectacular case.
“It woke everybody up, even people in the Asian community, where safety is such an important factor,” said Kevin Toshima, a 35-year-old partner in a Santa Fe Springs importing company. “People realized that a shooting like this could have happened even to them.”
Police said they were painfully aware of the spread of gangs but were unable to forcefully respond because politicians had not given them sufficient personnel.
That changed quickly. Within months of the slaying, more than 650 police officers were hired as the city pumped $6 million in emergency funds into the anti-gang effort. There was also a surge in patrols, especially in South-Central L.A., where then-Police Chief Darryl F. Gates launched Operation Hammer--massive sweeps aimed at interrogating and arresting thousands of alleged gang members.
In 1989, 21-year-old Durrell DeWitt Collins, a gang member since age 13, was convicted of Toshima’s murder and sentenced to 27 years to life.
And yet, despite the newfound public focus, gang violence erupted in Los Angeles as never before.
By 1992, the annual pace of gang-related murders would climb nearly 80%, from 452 in 1988 to 803. As many as half of the victims would be bystanders. In recent years, gang-related deaths seem to have followed the national decline in crime, dropping to less than 500 a year, but experts are baffled by the cause and take little satisfaction in the decrease.
“Only in Los Angeles can you say that only 500 people were killed by gangs in a given year and try to feel good about it,” said Wes McBride, a veteran Sheriff’s Department gang specialist. “In my mind, there is no more clear and present danger to the public at large.”
The numbing toll makes it easy for others to see Toshima’s death as little more than a footnote in a long, seemingly winless street war.
“Unfortunately, I don’t feel her death changed anything,” said Collins’ defense attorney, Paul Takakjian, who once worked in the district attorney’s hard-core gang unit. “It was merely a signpost of the unhappy road ahead, a road that has led to other tragic shootings which come to prominence for a day or two before being relegated to the long and tragic line in innocent victim cases.
“She’s just part of the body count.”
Unaware of Simmering Tensions
Weeks before her death, Karen Toshima’s life was on the move: The Cal State Long Beach graduate was up for a promotion to senior art director at her small advertising firm.
To her boss, Rob Frankel, she was a bright, playful woman who kept things in perspective--especially at the occasional lunch when they discussed life’s deeper issues.
“I remember one day we talked about how insignificant we are all,” Frankel said. “We joked about how our deaths wouldn’t be noticed because we weren’t celebrities, how people like us were lucky to make the small print on the obituary page.
“How ironic Karen would have found it that, in death, she had become one of those celebrities.”
Toshima got her promotion, and on the night of Jan. 30, 1988, chose to celebrate in Westwood.
In the days before Universal CityWalk and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, the village was one of L.A.'s entertainment magnets.
But Westwood was also becoming popular with area gangs. There were fights and robberies and people harassed for merely sporting blue or red clothing.
Yaroslavsky recalls thinking it was a time bomb waiting to blow.
On that Saturday night, as Toshima and a friend, Eddie Poon, window-shopped along Broxton Avenue, they unknowingly entered the breach of a simmering gang skirmish.
Durrell DeWitt “Baby Rock” Collins and several other members of the Rolling 60s Crips, one of the city’s most violent street gangs, had also chosen to frequent Westwood that night.
Dressed in a leather trench coat and baseball cap, his hair braided in blue beads, Collins quickly spotted members of a rival gang, the Mansfield Hustler Crips.
After confronting one another in a video arcade, the gangs gathered on either side of Broxton. Hustler member Tyrone Swain--a recent target of an unsuccessful drive-by shooting he blamed on the Rolling 60s--then walked into the street, taunting his rivals with a milk crate held over his head.
That’s when Collins pulled a .38-caliber handgun from his coat pocket, told Swain: “C’mon, I’ve got something for you,” and fired twice. One of the bullets struck Toshima in the head, despite Poon’s desperate attempt to pull her down, out of the line of fire.
Hours later, at his Westwood-area apartment, Kevin Toshima received a distress call from his father. The outlook, Paul Toshima told his son, wasn’t good.
Early the next morning--Super Bowl Sunday--Yaroslavsky also got a call at home from a high-ranking LAPD official.
“You knew instantly that the press would blow this thing into a cause celebre, and that Westwood was going to be portrayed as a place that was no longer safe,” he said.
At 11 a.m. Sunday, 12 hours after she was shot, Karen Toshima was declared dead at UCLA Medical Center. Her body was taken off life support, her organs were harvested. In a hospital waiting room, Kevin Toshima knelt next to his mother and led half a dozen family members in prayer.
Police, Prosecutors Tackle Case
Reading the first newspaper account of the Toshima shooting, Sandra Goen-Harris, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, decided to do something she had never before done in her career as a prosecutor. She walked into her boss’ office and asked permission to handle the case.
“I could see this was going to have ramifications for our office and the community,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
She, like other prosecutors, viewed herself as fighting a losing battle, lacking both police resources and public understanding of the gang crisis.
Convicting drive-by shooters, for example, often meant convincing a jury that one teenager was willing to kill another simply because he wore a rival gang’s color.
“For many jurors, there was no conceivable reason for kids to fire shots at other kids they didn’t even know,” Goen-Harris said. “It was just a foreign concept to them.”
She quickly called police investigators, offering help in reviewing and filing search warrants, one of the myriad details that go into filing a major case.
In the mayhem-filled hours after the shooting, police had questioned dozens of possible suspects. Working with witness accounts and photo lineups, they narrowed their investigation to Collins and several other Rolling 60s members.
Lead LAPD investigator Will Thurston--soured by past run-ins with prosecutors, whose skepticism he believed had weakened some cases--wasn’t sure he wanted Goen-Harris’ help this early in the game.
But her energy won him over. Working long nights, authorities quickly were ready to serve search warrants on Collins’ house in Southwest Los Angeles.
At 7:30 a.m. on the Saturday after the shooting, officers took Collins into custody, waking him from his bed.
“We felt it was critical to make the arrest as soon as possible,” Goen-Harris said. “The whole community had become unglued.”
Outpouring From Witnesses
The Superior Court judge in the Collins case, James A. Albracht, was stunned when he saw the gang members called to testify. He anticipated greasy Hells Angels-like creatures.
“These young men came in looking attractive and very well dressed and they were surprisingly articulate,” he said. “And that just floored me. Had they been sitting down and having a glass of white wine at a Hollywood party, they wouldn’t have looked out of place.
“It showed our cluelessness to the whole gang world.”
Prosecutors were already used to gang members intimidating witnesses, but in this case there was a surprising outpouring of people who came forward, despite their fear of reprisal and the reality that they would require police escorts to and from court.
There were college students, a security guard, a street minister, even a San Fernando Valley high school student who wrote a poem about the death--many so affected by the case that they would keep in touch with prosecutors for years after the trial.
But the star witness was a 16-year-old Inglewood High School student who had gone to Westwood that night with his sister to buy a pair of basketball sneakers.
Prosecutors needed a believable eyewitness because there was little physical evidence linking Collins to the killing: the gun used in the murder was later discovered hidden in the ivy near UCLA, but no fingerprints were found on it.
In a strong, clear voice, the teenager pointed out Collins as the person who fired the gun.
“He was on the street and Durrell started hassling him because he wore red sweats and Durrell thought he was a Blood, but he was just a kid,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Duarte, who took over the prosecution after Goen-Harris took maternity leave.
“He remembered Collins pulling out the gun, recalled the scar over his eye. Thank God for that kid. He was the key.”
Prosecutors were already reveling in newfound public support. The district attorney’s gang unit, understaffed with only 16 attorneys, had already more than doubled to 35 and would soon rise to 50.
“I went to Washington and within two days got a million and a half dollars for a prevention program,” Genelin recalled.
“Before Toshima, they wouldn’t even have talked to us. They would have laughed in our face.”
Father Mourns Son Behind Bars
Standing on the front porch of his Southwest Los Angeles home, a world away from Westwood, DolDean Collins described how the years have dragged since his son went to prison.
“We can’t get an appeal for Durrell. We can’t get justice,” said the father, a school mechanic. “Black or white, it still hurts a family to endure this.”
The senior Collins had testified at Durrell’s trial that he didn’t believe his youngest son was a gang member. He still calls him a good kid, a high school graduate who once planned to attend trade school to work on machines like his father.
When he learned of his son’s conviction, DolDean Collins hung his head over a rail in the courtroom and wept.
“My son was convicted by the media,” said Collins, who visits him twice a month at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. “It didn’t matter if he didn’t do it. He was their excuse to put somebody away. It was a white-black thing in a white neighborhood. It was a violation of the white rules.”
In the years after the Toshima killing and subsequent racial divisions, many local newspapers and television stations have tried to be more sensitive to minority concerns that innocent victims of gang violence should receive the same attention in poor neighborhoods as they do in rich ones.
“I think we’ve learned our lesson,” said City Councilman Nate Holden. “Black, white or any color, a life is important no matter what part of the city it is taken.”
For years, common wisdom held that Westwood’s subsequent withering as a tourist spot was caused largely by the Toshima killing. In fact, overcrowding, subsequent outbreaks of violence by movie-goers in the early 1990s and competition from new malls played as large a role.
Today, a series of renovation and new development plans are at hand, and Westwood’s merchants say they are tired of their district being known as “the place where Karen Toshima died.”
“There are shootings all over the city, much worse than here, and nobody ever brings them up,” said Judy Flax, who owns a Westwood arts supply store. “Why do people keep dredging this up? It’s in the past. Let’s put it to rest.”
Victim’s Brother Grieves and Forgives
Once, Kevin Toshima wrote Judge Albracht a letter asking that Durrell DeWitt Collins serve the rest of his life in prison. Now, Toshima says, he forgives his sister’s killer.
“I have to,” he says. “Otherwise, the anger of it would eat me alive.”
Unlike his parents, Toshima doesn’t visit Karen’s grave each weekend. Instead, he goes alone to Westwood, to the spot on Broxton Avenue where she died.
Just for five minutes or so, just to remember how it all happened.
“She’s gone,” he says, “but I know she’s in a better place.”
Someplace, he adds, where there aren’t any gangs.