Where Eye for an Eye Is Justice

Times Staff Writer

Four days after his cousin was gunned down a few blocks away, a 14-year-old youth sat alone in a dark house, thinking.

He had spent sleepless nights since a man had walked up to his cousin, Anthony Brown, 16, at 8th and Vernon avenues, and fired repeatedly into his chest at close range. Anthony, a tall, skinny, popular boy who loved practical jokes, stumbled a few feet, then fell, bleeding to death on the pavement.

Now, his cousin wondered, would the killer ever pay? Would someone take revenge?

The question hovers around many killings in South Los Angeles, where one homicide often means another in a ruthless pattern of payback.

As old as humanity, as modern as drive-by shootings, revenge propels the cycle of violent deaths on L.A. streets. Retaliation shootings are so common that some police view them as inevitable. "You get one shooting, and you can count on it: It will prompt one back," said LAPD Officer Kyle Remolino. "One shooting, then another. Back and forth."

Anthony Brown's close friends were not in gangs, nor were he and his cousin. But in the week after Anthony's death, this 14-year-old talked about why he was certain there would be retaliation.

Even though Anthony had resisted the pressure to join gangs, he knew gang members; it's nearly impossible to grow up in the neighborhood without knowing them, his cousin said.

Shock and anger over Anthony's killing were widespread. Emotions were running high. Anthony's death was bound to be viewed by some as an attack on the neighborhood. What's more, his cousin acknowledged, the idea of payback made sense. Thoughts of taking revenge on the killer had been on his mind since the murder, he said.

"I just wanted his family to feel what we are going through," the youth said. "He didn't show no remorse, so why should we? An eye for an eye -- you know?"

High up in law enforcement circles, gang violence is frequently attributed to cold calculations over drugs or territory, or else dismissed as so-called senseless violence, the product of inexplicable perversity.

But closer to the ground, police often find themselves confronting a more basic, human factor: overpowering grief and the yearning for revenge. "People have been hurt to the [extent that] they don't care no more, and don't know no consequences," said a 21-year-old Eastside Hustler gang member, who gave only his gang name, "Color."

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Challenge for Police

The challenge for law enforcement is to try to ensure that justice is served instead of vengeance. "It's almost a race," said Sal LaBarbera, an LAPD detective in Watts. "Can we arrest a suspect before they are retaliated against?"

Police employ a handful of strategies -- deploying extra patrols where they anticipate the next hit, for example, and monitoring funerals of some homicide victims. One such operation last month in Inglewood Park Cemetery became the scene of a gun battle when some men attacked mourners from a rival gang, and Inglewood Police officers opened fire on the alleged suspects.

High emotions at funerals have spilled over into violence on other occasions in South Los Angeles. The problem is familiar to the detectives on Anthony's case, who are investigating the possibility that his death was linked to a funeral that day.

Some police also advocate more widespread use of the negotiation tactics employed informally by some investigators in South Los Angeles who try to stop retaliation cycles through sheer persuasion. Besides extra patrols, Cmdr. Jim Tatreau said he tries to send "people who have the ability to go out and converse," after a homicide.

"You need people who know how to talk to people about why they shouldn't retaliate," Tatreau said.

There is also another, straightforward remedy many experts say is key to stopping the cycle: Solve more murders.

There have been hundreds of unsolved killings in LAPD's South Bureau in recent years, and solution rates of below 50% have been typical in high-crime areas over the last 15 years, according to a Times analysis. Especially in poor black and Latino neighborhoods, there is skepticism that police will catch the right people. In some close-knit communities, the victim's loved ones may have a good idea who the killer is, or which gang is responsible. But police lag a step behind, often hampered because witnesses are too fearful to testify.

In such a context, the idea of street justice occurs to many law-abiding survivors.

"I know Anthony wasn't a gang member," explained his cousin. "But to the police, he was just another gang member. That's why people will take it on themselves. They will take it into their own hands."

"There is a lack of faith in the whole judicial system," said Sheriff's Capt. Cecil Rhambo.

Thorough investigations and swift arrests may help forestall paybacks, said Det. Dave Garrido, who is investigating Anthony Brown's murder. Recognizing the emotions involved, he called for witnesses to Anthony's killing to cooperate, "so that we can take retaliation for them."

Rhambo also advocates coordinated police efforts to build trust among groups most likely to take revenge.

He described an approach he used recently in Compton after a shooting: Using one family member as an emissary, he recalled, he negotiated with gang members bent on striking back. "Give me 10 days," he told them. "Do me a favor. Don't roll on this neighborhood now."

Rhambo said he promised that his investigators would produce some result within the agreed-upon time. They did, closing in on the suspect by conducting searches and interrogations, and although the suspect escaped, the gang didn't retaliate, he said.

Last month, LAPD investigators struggled to rein in a cycle of payback shootings in Watts.

Members of two neighboring gangs that normally coexist peacefully had begun to quarrel over turf. On Oct. 4, gunmen from one of the gangs invaded the neighborhood of the other and shot up a house in the 400 block of East 93rd Street. Two random victims of indiscriminate fire, Edward Thomas, 21, and Brandi Gunn, 23, died.

The next night, detectives said, came the payback. Gunmen fired into a van pulling into a driveway at 87th Place and Avalon Boulevard. Inside were a mother and her two sons, returning home from church. Deangelo Beck, 6, was struck. He lingered on life support for two days before dying.

Detectives attended his funeral, hoping to deter another shooting.

It was an emotionally intense scene, they said -- a grieving family, a tiny coffin, a "Sponge Bob" wreath for an outgoing little boy.

Det. Donovan Nickerson went to the pulpit, directing his comments to young men standing in the back. "I know you youngsters there have a lot of anger in your hearts right now," he recalled saying. "I want you to do something. Give me a chance to do my job. I will take care of it."

But detectives were stalled by a lack of cooperative witnesses, and faith in the police appeared low. The LAPD had tried saturation policing after the killings of Thomas and Gunn, to no effect. A patrol car, alert to the possibility of a retaliation attack, had passed the house just moments before Deangelo was shot, LaBarbera said.

A few days after the funeral, a young man suspected by several of the mourners of being responsible for Deangelo's death was shot in the face on Crenshaw Boulevard. He survived. Police say they are encouraged that there hasn't been further violence, but don't know whether the cycle is complete.

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Doubts About Outcome

In an interview last week, Deangelo's 35-year-old mother spoke of forgiveness. "I don't hate that person. I feel for that person," she said of her son's killer. At the same time, however, she voiced doubts that police would solve the crime, and seemed resigned to carrying the emotional burden of knowing this perpetrator will face no consequences.

"My baby's case is on a back burner," she said. "I don't really believe they are looking. I will stick with God."

To be sure, killings in South Los Angeles run the gamut: There are killings stemming from disputes over drug markets, or even just to get a reputation for ruthlessness. One 21-year-old gang member from Watts, who gave only his moniker, "Low Key," cited this reason for gang members attacking people: "Girls will hear what you did."

There also are a number of retaliatory shootings that are ostensibly defensive -- or at least characterized that way by gang members. They say they counterattack so as not to be viewed as weak, which could leave them open to continued assaults.

This kind of violence seems to happen regardless of whether the crime is solved and whether grieving families want it. Victims, moreover, often seem to be selected by chance -- chosen simply because the shooters happened to come across them in the rival neighborhood. "Straight bullets ain't got no name," said another Watts gang member nicknamed K.C.

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Crimes of Emotion

Still, people who work closely with homicides say heartbreak, anger and frustration over killers going free help explain many crimes, especially those that resemble spontaneous acts of rage more than hits. Often, these shootings are committed in the highly emotional days following sudden bereavement -- such as the day of the funeral.

For this reason, there should be more efforts to offer mediation and grief counseling after homicides -- including those involving gang members, advocates say.

Among Anthony's friends, for example, are teenage boys who described with evident distress how they desperately waited for an ambulance as he bled to death, his face turning ashen-gray, his lips swelling.

Young men need help coping with the psychological trauma, said Ed Turley, co-founder of Central Recovery and Development Project, a gang-intervention organization.

"We are dealing with the physical effects of homicide, but we are not dealing with the emotional effects," he said. Society is more comfortable demonizing gang members than delving into their motives, he added, but to do so is to miss "why [gang violence] is happening, and why it continues to happen."

For his part, alone at night in the days before Anthony's funeral, his 14-year-old cousin said he gradually came to the conclusion that retaliation was not the answer.

"If I do it, they will come back, and it's just a cycle," he explained. "Anthony wouldn't want that. It wasn't in his heart to kill someone."

But he said he still feared others might choose differently. To avert this, "the police need to find the person," the youth said. "They need to know it is real important -- real important. You can't just let someone's life go away -- to go to waste like that. This was somebody important to a lot of people."

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Anthony Brown, 16, was murdered Nov. 1 at the intersection of 8th and Vernon avenues in South Los Angeles. Detectives are asking anyone with information on the crime to call the LAPD at (213) 847-1310.

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