The Untold Agony of Black-on-Black Murder
Lewis Wright Sr. was at a pay phone when he learned his son had been murdered.
He was staring into morning traffic, and a deep weariness swept over him. He wanted to close his eyes and make it go away.
Wright is lean, a musician and security guard from Alabama. His son, Lewis Jr., was a bright, sometimes troubled boy. He had a long, narrow face like his father’s, played the clown at school and liked to joke about his skinny legs. At 16, he still called his father Daddy, still came running when his father’s car pulled up.
Wright could hear the boy’s mother, Debra Steadman, crying into the phone that day. Police were saying Lewis Jr. had been shot on a South-Central Los Angeles street, she told him. Wright hung up, and sped to her house.
They spent the rest of the day trying to track down Lewis Jr.'s body. The hospital had no record of him. Things weren’t adding up. Secretly, Wright began to hope. He concocted a story: They had switched Lewis Jr.'s name with someone else’s. Maybe it was all a mistake.
The truth caught up with him at the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, a sprawling concrete building in Lincoln Heights.
Wright and Steadman were called to a small briefing room.
A man in a suit brought a photo, and laid it face down on the scratched hardwood table. It still might be somebody else, Wright thought.
The man slid the photo across the table.
Wright watched: A white rectangle, moving slowly toward him.
When it reached him, he found his hands were shaking.
“I was scared,” Wright recalled two years after the death of his only child, “afraid just to actually turn it over.”
People across Los Angeles know there is a murder problem.
But most don’t have to see it.
Residents in black neighborhoods have that burden. African Americans have long lived with a homicide epidemic that one veteran detective calls “the Monster.”
Young black men in Los Angeles County for years have been far more likely to be murdered than anyone else. Four times more likely than young Latinos. Eighteen times more likely than young white men.
Last year, homicides in Los Angeles jumped 10%, prompting Police Chief William J. Bratton to call for a new anti-gang campaign. The rise in homicides made headlines. But the killings fell into an old pattern. For the fifth year in a row, about 40% of the victims were African American, even though blacks compose just 11% of the city’s population.
Such numbers put black and white communities at the extremes of personal safety. Santa Monica, for example, has a murder rate similar to that of the safest European nations. By contrast, South-Central L.A. -- just a few miles away by freeway--has a murder rate double that of Bogota, Colombia.
Authorities say most black homicide victims die at the hands of other blacks. Witnesses often are afraid to step forward. Few killers are caught. They live alongside law-abiding neighbors, bragging, bullying, daring justice. Or they have been killed themselves.
People know where these murders take place: Slauson, Florence, Manchester, Century, Imperial. Residents from elsewhere in Southern California see these exits along the Harbor Freeway and drive past.
They know. But they don’t know.
To lose someone in this way is to endure a catastrophe the world scarcely seems to notice. It is to wait behind yellow tape as your child dies beneath the hands of paramedics. It is to pull up your son’s T-shirt and count the bullet holes in his back. It is to feel angry at blacks, angry at whites, angry at police, angry at killers still on the loose.
In interviews over four months in homes, hospitals and police stations and on city streets, dozens of people who have been affected by homicide spoke of the invisibility of this pain.
Nearly all expressed the sense that society cares less when victims are black. For all the notoriety of gangs and urban violence, they said, the suffering caused by the black-on-black homicide problem remains largely unseen.
The accounts that follow are from those forced to look.
This is the first in an occasional report on murder in Los Angeles. Monday: Surgeons work to save a gunshot victim at Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center.
A Mother’s Loss: ‘My Everything’
Wanda Bickham was in bed when the phone rang.
She picked up the receiver and heard a voice talking.
“Tyronn’s been shot -- " the voice said.
Bickham reacted instinctively. She hung up.
Tyronn was 22, an aspiring fireman, just finishing the academy. He was broad-shouldered, striking, with eyes lined by thick black lashes. He had been homecoming king of Compton High School.
At night, after work, he would sprawl in his favorite corner of the couch and talk about his day as Bickham cooked him dinner. To Bickham, who never married and had no other children, Tyronn was “my everything,” she said. “My whole life.”
When her phone rang again, she let it go to voice mail. She sat staring.
It rang a third time.
The caller was Emond Taylor, Tyronn’s childhood friend. Earlier that night, he had been with Tyronn when a white Altima pulled up and a young man got out and shot Tyronn in the chest.
Later, Bickham was at Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center, where, after a long wait, doctors told her that her son had died. She became hysterical, friends recalled. She ran through corridors, then passed out.
When she came to, she was taken to a small room. Tyronn’s body lay on a gurney. Bickham saw his sheet-covered form, and her body stiffened.
She braced her hands against the door frame to keep from being ushered in.
Bickham has prominent cheekbones, a beauty mark under one eye, and whimsically dyed red hair. She is girlish, and sits cross-legged on her couch as she recalls these events, more than a year after her son’s death.
When she recounts the phone call, she holds out her arms, as if to push something away. “I didn’t want to hear it,” she says.
Later, talking of seeing Tyronn’s body, she makes the same gesture. “I didn’t want to see,” she says.
‘They Know Who Did It’
Jenell Nelson’s son died in her arms. She talks about it mechanically, staring into space. She is an airport shuttle driver, thin, with dark circles around her eyes.
Jamaal, 18, had light brown eyes. He was her youngest and most spoiled. He was big, hated school, liked everyone -- immature and bighearted by turns, his mother’s chief irritation, her chief joy.
The morning he died, Feb. 16, Nelson heard gunshots in front of her house.
She was outside in an instant, screaming and running, hurling herself on his body where he lay, half under a car.
“I was in his ear, screaming his name, down on my knees,” she recalled. “I was saying, ‘Please don’t die on me, please don’t die!’ ”
She raised his T-shirt, and saw bullet holes in his back. “I’m screaming,” she said. “And I’m picking his head up. And I’m screaming, ‘Please don’t die, please don’t die, please don’t leave me!’ ”
With frantic fingers, Nelson searched Jamaal’s braids, looking for head wounds.
Then she heard him take his last, rasping breaths.
Police had to pull her away.
The day was warm. Jamaal’s body lay in the street for hours, half-covered by a sheet while investigators completed their work. Nelson noticed that her clothes were soaked with his blood.
At last, officials showed Nelson a photo of Jamaal to identify, a required procedure. They handed her a card with a claim number on the back.
Then they stripped Jamaal’s body in the street and took him away.
Jamaal’s murder remains unsolved. There were witnesses. The detective needs just one to talk. They are easy to find, hard to persuade.
At the wake, one of Jamaal’s friends whispered to Nelson that several mourners knew who did it. It was no secret, they said. The killers were guys from the neighborhood. They had bragged about it afterward, laughed about it. Some of Jamaal’s friends had heard them, and said nothing.
They knew who had done it, Jenell Nelson recalled, and there they were, in her living room, “helping themselves to the food.”
An Unshakeable Image
Peter Drake Jr.'s killers shot him from behind, then stood over him and shot 11 more times. They put the gun in his mouth and blew out his teeth.
But three years later, the part his mother, Marjorie Craddock, can’t get over is how they shot him through the palm of his hand.
She can’t shake that image: Pete begging them to stop. Pete raising his hand to shield his face as he died.
Craddock is a South L.A. insurance agent with short, shiny black hair and a brisk Louisiana lilt. Her son had a saunter and a “sneaky smile,” she said, which played around the corners of his mouth.
As a child, he would cuddle with her in bed on Saturday mornings and watch cartoons. He grew up tall, with very dark skin, a black goatee. He couldn’t hold a job, and they argued frequently. But there was tenderness.
When she couldn’t reach the higher cupboards in her kitchen, Pete would step up with a breezy, “Move, Shorty!” and lift her like a doll out of the way.
Sometimes now, Craddock stands at the kitchen sink and senses someone behind her.
She whirls and finds herself staring down an empty hall.
People know that black men are being murdered, Craddock said, but they assume they are all criminals. “They see,” she said, “and they don’t see.”
The young black men who killed Peter Drake were caught and convicted of the mistaken-identity murder. When Sheriff’s Det. Elizabeth Smith first interrogated them, they asked her why she was so zealous.
“People get killed all the time,” she remembered one asking. “Why are you solving this one?”
They thought Pete was “just another gang member,” Smith said.
They thought no one would care.
A Never-Ending Emptiness and Pain
Six years after the murder of her 16-year-old son, Roshod, Karen Hamilton sits at her dining room table, tense as a wire, rubbing her hands together. She has left dinner simmering. Her eyes are downcast. A tattoo on her arm reads, “My Son Roshod.”
Asked about him, she is at first silent. She fidgets, clasps and unclasps her hands, then finally speaks, her voice barely audible.
She says she has never talked about his death.
Not in six years. Not even to her husband.
Tears are rising. She flicks them away. She says she wants to talk, then can’t.
“Just emptiness,” she whispers at last. “Just empty.”
Her husband, Bobby Hamilton, watches from the back of the room. “It hurts, it hurts. It is a never-ending hurt,” he said.
Roshod looked like his mother, had her chestnut-colored eyes and a way of opening his mouth wide when he laughed, as if in astonishment. He was bright, a whiz at math, too popular with girls for his parents’ comfort. The phone rang all the time with calls for him.
The night Roshod died, his father heard shots from the park and ran to look. He knew Roshod was out on his bicycle.
Leslie N. Shaw Park is a manicured spot west of the Harbor Freeway on Jefferson Boulevard: a set of brick stairs, a sculpted concrete drinking fountain, an orange-and-blue jungle gym.
It was dark, and at first Hamilton saw nothing. Then, near two slender palm trees, he saw a figure on the ground. His son.
Roshod was breathing heavily. Hamilton searched his body for wounds, found a bullet hole in his leg, one in the back of his head. He carried Roshod to his car and drove to a fire station.
A detective later noted the crime scene evidence: a pool of blood, a black bicycle on its side and, a short distance away, a can of malt liquor.
Hamilton is intense and speaks with a preacher’s cadence. A gold pendant around his neck swings with the force of his gestures.
Sometime after the death, Hamilton realized that the words that first sprang to his mind when he saw Roshod on the ground were from the Bible.
“O Absalom,” begins the lament of King David.
“My son! my son!”
A Long Drawer in the Wall
Young black men in a passing car shot Jhana Leah Wilson in front of her mother’s house in South-Central. The bullet tore through her lungs. She was 20, and had a baby girl.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Jerome Wilson says of the death of his daughter 18 months ago.
Black women in Los Angeles are far less likely to be murdered than black men. But like black men, their murder rate outstrips those of women in any other group. A black woman Jhana’s age was seven times more likely to be killed than a young white woman, county statistics for 2000 show.
Jhana was light-skinned, her father says, with eyebrows that grew together. She loved to sing--and had no ear for it, says Wilson, a truck driver from Michigan. She wanted to be a beautician.
When Wilson arrived at the packed waiting room of King/Drew Medical Center, no one seemed to know anything about Jhana.
King/Drew’s trauma waiting room is low-ceilinged and painted sky blue. There are rows of padded seats connected by metal bars, a loud TV and a guard outside the door.
Wilson waited for hours. “Just sitting there. Being real quiet,” he says. He prayed.
Doctors finally took him down a hall and into a room with a drawer in the wall.
Why a drawer? he wondered.
When they pulled out Jhana, she was so pale, looked so strange, that he wanted to tell them it wasn’t her. He made no sound. He felt weakness sweep through his body, but kept his feet.
Is this your daughter? they asked.
“Yeah.” he said. “That’s my daughter.”
‘Homicide Is Not Normal’
The Rev. Ferroll Robins, a Los Angeles Police Department chaplain, has brown eyes and light brown freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Her brother, Joseph Ray Paul II, 31, was returning a video to a store on South Western Avenue a year ago when a robber shot him. Joe was quiet, and had a cleft chin. He was an aspiring police officer and Robins’ junior by 14 years -- the little brother she took to school.
Homicide looks different close up, Robins said. There are people who are forced to see it and there are those with the luxury of looking away.
People think it just happens “over in the ‘hood,” she said -- like it is the norm for black communities. “But I beg to differ,” she said. “Homicide is not normal.”
Robins describes a barrier that has risen between her and other people: the limits of understanding, of empathy.
After Joe was killed, friends dropped away, she said, finding her grief “too heavy.”
There was her brother’s birthday, six months after his murder. She was alone that night and called friends in desperation. They were squeamish -- changed the subject.
She crumpled in the center of her bedroom. She stayed there, on the floor, for hours, praying: “Please, God, deliver me from this pain.”
Living With ‘the Monster’
Los Angeles Police Department homicide Det. Brent Josephson calls it “the Monster.” The homicide problem. The routine. The invisibility. The indifference. The overwhelmed institutions. An entire system which, in his view, leaves little room for compassion.
“There lies a body. There’s the family behind the yellow tape,” Josephson said. “We have three minutes for them. Then they’re left with all the pain and all the loss.”
Of the LAPD’s four bureaus, one has 41% of the city’s homicides -- the South Bureau, which spans precincts in South-Central, Southwest and Southeast Los Angeles. One South Bureau precinct, the 77th Street Division, consistently leads the city in homicides, most of them black-on-black.
The caseloads of South Los Angeles detectives are about 40% higher than those of their counterparts in the San Fernando Valley. High caseloads are tied to poor rates of solving murders. Homicide detectives in the 77th Street Division hit a low point in 2001, closing only 17% of their cases with arrests.
To retiring LAPD South Bureau Deputy Chief Willie L. Pannell, the pattern is disturbingly familiar.
Pannell is 55, a tall, black, freckled LAPD veteran of 33 years. His Southern accent is so thick that he can be hard to understand. He grew up a sharecropper in rural Georgia. Back then, in Jim Crow’s South, black people lived in an atmosphere thick with fear. The law was made to protect whites.
A black man who killed a white man could expect to feel its full weight -- and then some. But a black man who killed a black man acted with impunity. As a young black man, you lived without the protection of law, Pannell said, and you knew that “nobody cared about what happened to you.”
High murder rates among black men go back decades. As far back as 1950, black men nationally were 12 times more likely than white men to be killed at the hands of another. Pannell lost an uncle and a cousin to homicides by the time he was 19, and a friend was maimed by an ice pick. All three were assaulted in drunken brawls.
As in many black-on-black murders today, Pannell’s relatives died at the hands of neighbors who got away with it. Nobody expected a trial. Black people were left to live alongside killers.
Then, as now, a few violent people in black communities caused great harm and suffered few consequences. Back before black men shot each other in drive-bys -- back when there was little in the way of effective law enforcement for blacks, or swift, fair prosecution of criminals in their communities -- black men killed each other, but with knives instead of guns.
Today, ask black people in South Los Angeles whether responsibility should be assigned to political leaders, or to the rest of the city, and you sometimes get blank looks.
“Why should they be asked to care?” asked Capt. Cecil Rhambo, who grew up in South-Central and now runs the sheriff’s station in Compton. “Should I blame you because you’re white?
“Oh, I know, people will call me an Uncle Tom. But people don’t see it. We can go to school now. We can get jobs. So blame us.... Now the enemy is us.”
But anger at a complacent white society also is commonly voiced.
Pannell said people living north of the Santa Monica Freeway fail to have sympathy for young black men. “People are dying like crazy down here and there ain’t anyone sayin’ anything,” he said.
It’s easy for people to see women and children as vulnerable, he said, but they don’t see black men as the ones who need protection.
Pannell told of the recent murder of a “16-year-old kid, killed with a gun in his hand.”
“Now, was this kid pristine?” he asked. “My preliminary view is that he was not pristine. I mean, this don’t look like a nice clean thing! But he was 16. Sixteen.”
The homicide problem is baffling to many African Americans, a demoralizing coda to the black struggle against oppression. “We are committing suicide,” said Carlton Mitchell, an Inglewood carpenter whose brother, Paul, was gunned down outside a South-Central hamburger stand. “We don’t have to worry about other races doing it to us. We are self-destructing.”
Older black L.A. residents are especially likely to express such feelings. Many fled segregation in the South, battled discrimination, broke barriers in education and politics, only to see their children or grandchildren die in what detectives call blood-spot-on-the-street murders.
To Josephson, who works in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division, it is “one of life’s most unfair situations.” He is white, ruddy, stiff and official, with a conservative, cop-style mustache.
He and other detectives typically commute from distant, more affluent suburbs. Even so, they sometimes display an allegiance to South-Central.
“This area is filled with 90% of the most God-fearing, wonderful people,” Josephson said. “In the years I have worked here, I have never been without an invitation at a holiday from a family of color.”
Suburban friends don’t get it, he said. Work there long enough, and it gets personal.
Josephson has a wallet-sized photo of a young black girl taped to his computer terminal. She is the 17-year-old girlfriend of a murder victim. They had become friends.
He pulled off the photo, and showed the back: A silly note in ballpoint pen -- round girlish script, signed, “Love, Yvette.”
Josephson put the photo back, paused, then spoke again, his voice slightly rough.
She had been murdered a few weeks before, he said.
A Glimpse of Grief
On the evening of Oct. 2, a man lies dead inside a doorway of one of the tiny stucco homes on East 74th Street, hidden from sight -- a black man, shot.
Neighbors loiter at the end of the street. Children gape from front porches, then resume their play.
A car pulls up. Brenda Thurman leaps out, her shrill voice ripping the air. She races to the police tape, whimpering, pressing her hands together in a gesture of appeal. Detectives hurry toward her, talking in low urgent voices.
Perry Thurman, her brother, 41, a father of four, has been shot.
She bends double as if punched, then reaches skyward, and screams in short bursts ending in sobs. A moment later, her mother, Gloria Martin, arrives. She is 59, a frail mother of 10 with long gray-brown braids. Her high-pitched cries also echo down the block.
Martin begs to see her son’s body. An officer blocks her path. She hurls herself against him, fighting, her arms whipsawing the air. The screams go on and on.
The detectives turn away, resume their work.
Black Pride, Black Anguish
Trauma surgeon Bryan Hubbard sometimes finds himself thinking of his patients only as gang members -- a reaction, he said, to the stress of treating so many gunshot wounds.
“It’s not as terrifying,” he said. “You can tell yourself they were just asking for it.”
He works at King/Drew Medical Center. The hospital is between two violence-plagued communities, Compton and Watts. Each year, its physicians treat more than 2,500 people who have been shot or stabbed.
Sharon Blackmon recalled the day in July when King/Drew nurses took her to the trauma center’s morgue to see her son Darrin, dead on a gurney. He had been shot by a childhood acquaintance.
Darrin, 22, was tall, thin, caramel-colored, gregarious, his mother said, with dimples. He had two children by two girlfriends. He called Blackmon “Momsy,” and had her name tattooed on his arm.
The body looked nothing like him, Blackmon thought. There were bloody tubes in his mouth and his face was swollen. A nurse stood over him, holding up the corner of a sheet.
Blackmon wanted to touch Darrin, unable to believe her eyes.
She started toward him. But her vision went blurry and she felt “as if my insides were dropping out.” Blackness closed in. Then she was down on the scuffed gray-and-white linoleum, seized with panic, still trying to reach him, determined to get her body to obey.
She struggled up, tried to take a few steps. Blackness rushed down like a curtain falling, and her legs buckled again.
Physicians at King/Drew say the agony they witness doesn’t square with the selectiveness of news coverage or the public indifference they see.
“We are not the only ones in L.A. who know what is happening here,” said Ama Lacy, a young black trauma surgeon at King/Drew. “The attitude really, truly, is that, as long as it’s black and brown, it doesn’t matter.”
It troubles Hubbard that so much of the violence is black on black. He grew up in a middle-class black family in a white Pennsylvania suburb.
“I could never figure out who is responsible,” he said. “The black pride part of me wants to blame whites -- to say, you know, ‘It’s the fault of the Man!’ But then I go back and forth. I hate to hear excuses.”
The problem “is sad, and frustrating, and infuriating,” he concluded. “Sad, because black men like me are dying. Frustrating, because all day, I’m just patching holes here. Infuriating, because they are shooting at each other.”
Last Moments Lost Forever
A little more than a year ago, 13-year-old Marquese Prude was shot by a gang member who left him in a pool of blood on the gymnasium floor at St. Andrews Park. Marquese was a happy, quick-witted boy with big ears. His mother, Sharon Brown, wanted him to be a lawyer.
What sticks with Brown is that her son remained conscious a while before dying.
Brown is a special education teacher from South-Central; she has a steady gaze, and talks calmly about the murder, chin high, hands folded.
Nearby, her mother sits listening, slouched over the dining-room table, leaning on her arms, her face slack with misery.
Brown recalls that the paramedics were in the gym working on Marquese when she arrived. Police barred her way. I’m his mother, she pleaded. Stay out, they said.
OK, she recalls thinking. I must keep out of the way. All that matters is that they help Marquese. She joined the crowd behind the police tape. She paced, made phone calls, sat on a park bench.
This is the memory that hurts most.
If only she’d known Marquese was dying. She thinks about how she sat on a park bench as he bled to death.
She imagines herself kneeling beside him. I love you, she would have said. I’m with you, baby.
The killing was reported on TV and in newspapers. Marquese was conspicuously innocent, a random target picked from the crowd at an after-school program. There were public meetings. Politicians spoke.
The attention made his mother and grandmother uncomfortable. What about all the other people whose sons die unnoticed, they wondered.
Later, the black teenager suspected of killing Marquese was himself killed.
And that didn’t feel right either.
“It’s not blood we are looking for,” grandmother Annie Brown said. “It’s justice.”