A Life In the Balance

Times staff writer.

On a winter night almost three years ago, joe jones dialed a popular party line where young thugs trade insults and try to pick up girls. The 13-year-old gangbanger seemed to have struck gold. A sweet-sounding teenager was coming on to him. She wanted to hook up. Tonight. So Joe did something the party line managers adamantly warn against--he gave her his address.

Jones, a Blood from the Fruit Town Brims, didn't know the girl was undercover. She'd been recruited by a Rollin' 30s Harlem Crip to find out where his rival lived. Shortly after 9 p.m. at Joe's mother's Inglewood apartment, there was a knock on the door. This is gonna be my night, Joe thought. He opened the door and a scowling young Crip shot him between the eyes.

The paramedics hustled Joe into their van, stuck him with two IVs and raced to Martin Luther King Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center. Luckily, the assassin was packing light. The .22 didn't have enough firepower to finish the job. It did leave Joe Jones blind in his left eye, deaf in his left ear and determined to change his life.

"I thought I was tough, but I wasn't," Jones said during his recovery. Separating his eyebrows is a small, puckered scar, the chilling souvenir from that February night. "Now I just want to get back into school."

But it wasn't long before Joe figured that one eye was all he really needed to see what was important in his life--his mother, pretty girls and, still, his homeboys and his enemies. So just four months after he was left for dead, the street beckoned again, and Joe Jones went back to the Bloods. He soon had a revelation: The bullets that dragged him right up to death's door had given him a certain prestige.

"It's hard to take a young boy away from glory," says an uncle who is familiar with the life. "Even if the glory you get is from hurting people."

Joe started banging again with renewed dedication -- fighting and getting revenge. His reputation grew. Then, on the night after Christmas in 2002, he walked out of an alley off 35th Street. Rollin' 30s Harlem Crips drove by and fired.

But this time there were no .22s--a .45 caliber bullet streaked straight for Joe Jones' brain.

Joseph Jones III was born July 3, 1987, at Gardena Memorial Hospital, descended from a long line of gang members.

His maternal grandfather was Carl Simmons, a legendary leader of the Businessmen, a black gang of the 1950s and '60s. Simmons died in 1973 in Folsom Prison after balloons of heroin he swallowed to hide from guards erupted in his stomach.

Joe's uncle, Carl Simmons, Jr., was an original gangster from the Fo-Tray Crips. Simmons, 43, shakes his head when reminded that he was a Crip and his nephew is a Blood.

Joe's father, Joseph Jones Jr., was born in 1950 in the now-leveled Aliso Village housing project in Boyle Heights. His family moved to Compton, where he attended Centennial High School. He hung with a rough crew who helped keep Compton's violent crime rate among the nation's highest. He ended up doing nearly five years in state prison for drug offenses and hijacking trucks.

After prison, he met Carla Simmons in 1985 at an unlikely spot--the Roxbury Recreation Center Park in Beverly Hills. They were there as part of a program called New Beginnings, which helped adults with drug problems. (Carla says she has been drug- and alcohol-free for 10 years.)

Jones, then 35 and working at Amtrak as a heavy equipment operator, was smitten with Carla, who was 24 and, as he describes her, "fine." Soon they moved into an apartment in South-Central.

"I gave her something no other person could give her--a son," boasts Jones, a powerfully built man who, at 53, still has his street toughness operating.

Two years after Joe III was born, his parents broke up.

"It kinda hurt 'cause I always wanted a son," says Jones, who also has a 25-year-old daughter. "But I stayed in touch. I'm the one who taught him how to walk."

But Joe II was not around long enough to teach Joe III how to walk away.

"My dad," Jones once lamented, "I don't see him that much. Probably if he was around more, I wouldn't have joined the Bloods."

Even with his gang-rooted family tree, even on the dead- end street where he hung out with the Brims, even on the emergency room operating table with blood oozing from his skull, Joe Jones was never a hard and hopeless case.

He could be an intelligent, curious, respectful boy, quick with a "thank you" and a "please." A kid who wrote poems, who had opinions on Bush and Saddam as rational as any, who could recite the 50 states of the union in alphabetical order with the speed of a county fair auctioneer. But, like thousands of other Los Angeles gang members, he got in trouble early, starting--as he once put it--"bumping heads with Crips" in the fifth grade.

"It all starts in elementary," says Jones, who even in his early teens resembled a junior version of an Oakland Raider offensive lineman. Not very tall--5-foot-8 --but very wide--230 pounds. "When I was 10, I started saying 'Blood,' but I didn't start actually being in the 'hood 'til I was 11, when I got recruited by the Brims," Jones says. "When I first joined, I was lookin' at it like another family. I been Fruit Town Brim ever since then. You feel me?"

Jones talks as if his youth is ancient history. But every year in South-Central is a long time. In the four years after he started hanging with the Brims, Joe Jones was loved by his mother and his gang. He was incarcerated at juvenile hall, placed in group homes, sent to a school for kids on probation, talked to doctors and psychologists, probation officers and anger-management specialists. His head was riddled with bullets and experts.

What good did they do? Less than two months after the second shooting, Joe was sipping a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English at midnight on a 35th Street sidewalk, less than 200 feet from where he was left for undertakers a second time. His greeting: "What up, Blood? This is Fruit Town Brims here."

If the city, the county, his family, his counselors, his teachers, the police, the anger-management specialists, peer-pressure classes, even bullets can't rescue a kid like Joe Jones, who can? Is he now, at 16, already doomed to a cell or a casket?

What good are all these anti-gang efforts that cost local government millions? Do they help real gang members or just those teetering? Do they prevent killings and maimings or do they, as one prominent Watts activist suggests, merely "provide paychecks for those who work there"?

"All these programs, it's not about helping the kids, it's about people getting paid to counsel the kid," says Janine Watkins, who runs the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. "What the kids are looking for is more than most people are willing to give. It's about caring and concern. Someone who's going to keep their word and be there for you."

It's a daunting challenge, to say the least. The L.A. County Sheriff's Department estimates there are about 1,100 gangs, with 85,000 members, operating here. Five years ago, the department had about $20 million for 300 uniformed deputies whose role was gang prevention. "Now we don't spend any money on prevention--all the funding is gone," says Capt. Paul Tanaka of the Sheriff's Depatment. "We don't have those programs anymore."

The county continues to spend about $10 million annually on anti-gang programs through its probation department, and the City of Los Angeles' current year budget for its program, L.A. Bridges, is just over $12 million. The problem seems intractable, however. Talk is hot air to kids like Joe. Action is what's going on.

"If a kid is standing on the corner," Watkins surmises, "and his big homeboy says, 'I'm going to protect you,' and he does, then who do you think that kid is going to going to put his faith in?"

Joe Jones put his faith in the Bloods.

crips have always outnumbered and outgunned bloods, and Jones had to prove himself daily. Being such a big kid, it wasn't unusual for young, smaller Crips to attack in pairs or trios. Jones fought them off.

In 2000 he was sent to juvenile hall for assaulting a female middle-school teacher. He claimed he only lightly pushed her aside. He received a year sentence and served eight months. No rehabilitation came his way. But it wasn't a waste of time. He learned how to be a badder, better gang member. He talked more trash, got more confidence, his mind started crossing over to the evil side.

"When I was young, I would always like to watch 'Cops,' " Jones says. "But I was looking at what the bad people did, not the good people. I was checking out the bad things, and that helped mess up my mind. Life is really full of messed-up days."

Feb. 23, 2001, would qualify as one of them. Less than an hour after giving his address to the party line girl, Joe was shot, not only in the head, but also in the left arm, shoulder blade and back.

As the paramedics tried to help Jones, his mom was shopping with her friend Rhonda Peoples. Peoples' pager beeped. She used a pay phone to call a neighbor of Carla.

"She told me Joe had just been shot," Peoples said. She gave Simmons the grim news. "Carla went crazy right there in Vons."

Meanwhile, paramedics were struggling with Jones. At one point he got up, blood dripping from four parts of his body, and tried to walk away. As paramedic Damon Wafer tried to subdue Jones, he noticed the boy's mother running up the street. "She was hysterical," Wafer says. "She's screaming, 'That's my baby. That's my baby.' "

Doctors saved Joe's life, but his left eye and ear were ruined. Joe spent a month in the hospital. When he got out, he didn't visit the Brims' hood. He seemed sincere in his desire to attend school and leave the streets behind.

His mother, on disability with carpel tunnel syndrome and two bad neck discs after working 10 years for a phone company, got him enrolled at the Optimist School in Highland Park, a state-funded institution for troubled youth.

The director of education there recalls Jones as being nice and bright, although he showed flashes of violence. "He could be a very pleasant kid, but sometimes he would talk that gang talk," says Alan Escott. "He usually passed his classes with Bs and Cs. He had some good verbal skills, better than his written skills. He was not in any way stupid."

At Optimist, Joe tried to succeed, but he had trouble following direction. "I know if you don't listen, you don't get an education," Joe said after one long bus ride home from school in mid-2001. "I guess I have a hard time with authority."

He looked back on his first 14 years, slowly shaking his scarred head. "I really do regret joining a gang," he said, absent-mindedly rubbing his blind eye. "Lot of it's my fault. I know it. When I was young I wanted to be a doctor, but now I know I'll never be a doctor. It's kinda sad. You feel me?"

But as the bloody memories of the shooting faded from red to gray and strength returned to his wounded body, the hypnotic lure of the street returned. By summertime 2001, he was back with the Brims.

"He's doin' bool," said fellow Brim member Henry "Tiny Stretch" Nichols. He meant Joe was doing cool. Like most Bloods, he substitutes their gang's symbolic "b" for "c," the letter of choice for the dreaded Crips.

Both Nichols and Jones said they had already taken revenge on the Harlem Crips. Whether they did, or were just boasting, is not known, but probation officer James Stratton, who is close to Simmons' family, said he wouldn't be surprised if they had.

"He's such a hard-core Blood now," Stratton said in August 2001. "I think, or I wouldn't be surprised if, he and his buddies did go out and kill somebody."

Even Carl Simmons, Joe's uncle, was worried.

"He's gotten real hard since he got shot," Simmons said. "He can give the aura of innocence, but he's hard with the Bloods now. Whatever work he puts in [for the Brims], they praise him."

Though Jones lived in Inglewood and his gang was seven miles away near USC, the distance wasn't a problem. His largely absentee dad, now an MTA worker, had given him a bus pass. So after the school bus dropped him off at home, Joe would catch another bus to Brim territory. Anyone familiar with buses in L.A. knows this is true devotion.

He was hanging with a crew of street thugs with names such as Killa Krafty and Big Killa Dirt and Baby this-or-that and Li'l so-and-so. Guys who hang out in front of apartment buildings on 35th and 36th streets near USC and talk about the badness of the Fruit Town Brims. (The gang is named after an allied Blood set in north Compton, Fruit Town Piru, where the streets are named Cherry, Peach and Pear.) They sling a little dope and occasionally fight and shoot it out with their arch rivals, the Harlems.

Joe relishes hanging out with the Brims. All of them have been in juvenile hall or jail, many have done prison time. It makes him feel strong, gives him confidence.

Clearly, the time in juvenile hall, the weekly talks with the probation officer, his twice monthly trips to anger-management classes and his mother's preaching were having no positive influence.

The gang programs were not working on Joe Jones.

"We've got a lot of intervention and prevention agencies that's out here, but the problem is they are not connected to a corporation and a job program," says Daude Sherrills, one of the architects of the 1992 Watts Gang Peace Treaty, who has traveled the world to speak on gang violence.

"We can't just train them and let them go," he says. "They need jobs. Somewhere out there, there's a guy, a big shot in a huge corporation, that knows what it's like on the streets. And he needs to step up and save some lives."

What strategy would he suggest for Joe?

"People need to wrap their arms around that brother and tell him they love him," Sherrills says. "He needs an overall holistic approach from the minister, from his family, from city officials. They all need to be part of this."

By fall 2002, Carla Simmons is frantic. She is trying to save enough money so she and Joe can move away from the city, but without a job, saving is difficult.

"I've called everybody I know who could help me get Joe some help," says an exasperated Simmons, a large woman who, when she gets going, makes Don King sound soft-spoken. "My boy has a serious emotional problem. He's been traumatized. He was supposed to get some therapy. But he's just a number to everybody."

Joe is now missing a lot of school. Carla has mixed feelings, wanting her kid in class, but calling Optimist a "gang-related school." Joe spends a lot of time at his mom's two-bedroom apartment, lying on the green front room couch. The phone rings and he quickly grabs it. Another girl.

"Mahogany. Passion. Desire. Kim. Porsche. Teresa," says Carla, shaking her head in mock disgust, but bragging too. "Sometimes they call so much I turn the ringer off."

Joe says nothing, just smiles smugly. Yeah, I'm the man. Joe doesn't like to read much, but he likes to write. He wrote a rap song and recorded it at a local studio. His bedroom is very neat. There's a globe and a peewee football and baseball trophies on the dresser and not so much as a stray sock on the carpet. A maid from the Hotel Bel-Air couldn't make the bed any better. A Tupac poster is above the headboard.

With his proud mom urging him on, he plays his song, "Why Kids Have to Go To Jail," bobbing along and mouthing some of the words. When it's over, he switches gears.

"Recite the states. Go ahead, Joe," his mom urges.

Joe rattles off all 50 states in alphabetical order in less than a minute. Doesn't miss one.

On another night, Carla sits on a beanbag chair and stares at her son.

"If I have to move to save Joe's life, I will," she says. "But it's not only about him. He's selfish with his gangbangin'. Gangbangers don't care about your family. When they come, they come. They don't care who they get. What if they come here looking for him and I'm the only one here? I'm scared for my life.

"I'm trying to protect him, but he don't want to be protected."

While she is going on and on, Joe is sitting quietly on an overstuffed couch.

"I'm grown--she can't protect me," he says, flipping channels on the TV. He stops on CNN, which is airing a report on Osama bin Laden, who Joe observes is "almost as tall as Shaq and they still can't find him."

Carla's friend Rhonda Peoples stops by. She doesn't believe Joe is a real gang member. "He just thinks he is. He's like a follower. He's just acting bad. Sometimes you see a boy and you can tell he's just bad. Joe's not like that. He's really a good kid. I try to talk to Joe sometimes, but he can be hard-headed."

Two weeks later comes the ominous message. A Harlem Crip calls Jones at home to announce they are going to shoot him. Again.

"They got the green light on me," Jones says casually. "I got a call from some Harlem named Baby Killa Truck. He said, 'Your ass is dead from someone totally Crippin.' I told him I'd see him."

The day after Christmas, Joe tells his mom he loves her. It is something he does almost every day. But on this day, there is something more to it.

"Normally he says, 'Mama, I love you,' " Carla recalls, "but that day he said, 'Mama, I luuvvve you,' and I even told my girlfriend the way Joe told me."

Joe is going to spend the day with his cousin Damien, a mature 22-year-old not into gangs. But an hour after they leave Inglewood, Joe persuades Damien to drop him off at Jefferson and Vermont--Brim territory.

That evening, Carla goes out with her girlfriends. She calls the house twice to check in and isn't worried when no one answers because she knows Joe is with Damien.

About 8 p.m., Joe and another Brim are walking through an alley, headed to a bus stop after smoking some weed, drinking some brew. They exit the alley at Catalina and head south to 35th Street. A car rolls by and Joe hears the shouts: "Harlem!" "Thirties!"

Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

By the second shot, Joe is sprinting for cover. By the fourth, he's laid out on an elderly woman's front lawn. She calls 911. Paramedics are on the way.

Carla, still out with her friends but getting nervous now, checks her phone messages. What she hears breaks her heart.

"Carla, Joe just got shot," announces the mother of another Fruit Town Brim. That's it--the whole message. No info on where he got shot, where he was taken, whether he's alive.

Carla goes into shock. Again.

Rhonda Peoples tries to console her. He probably got shot in the foot or something, she says. She wouldn't leave a message like that if it was serious. Carla and Rhonda drive frantically to the King/Drew Medical Center. When they arrive, Carla is told her son is not there. Maybe he's at County USC. Simmons and friends speed toward the hospital. At the emergency waiting room, Simmons is told a wounded black man, a John Doe, is being treated, but he is between 18 and 25 years old.

"I'm thinking it's my son," she recalls, "because Joe is so big."

Then Carla sees something that chills her bones: four teenage gang members dressed in red. She recognizes one of them. Now she knows she's in the right place.

Inside the OR, neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Wang is working on Joe. "He was basically in a coma," says Wang, 31, who has seen more than 100 gunshot wounds to the head in his seven years at County USC.

The bullet entered behind Joe's left ear, skirted the skull and exited on the side of his head. But it rattled his brain, like one of those paint mixers at a hardware store.

"The pure kinetic energy of the bullet was so great it shattered blood vessels in and on the brain and that caused blood to accumulate inside the skull," says Wang.

The blood is squeezing the brain, so the doctors relieve the pressure by using a high-powered saw to cut open Joe's head. Blood gushes across the OR. A good thing. They stop the bleeding. They sew the round piece of skull back on. It looks like a manhole cover.

Hours later, Dr. Wang comes out. He has Carla identify the gunshot victim. She almost passes out. The surgery went well, Wang explains. He tells Carla that in a few days they'll know if her son can recover or if he will become a vegetable.

"It's up to Joe," says Wang. "We did everything we could. He's a strong kid. Only one out of 10 make it through this, but I think Joe is going to be that one."

Four days later, Joe wakes up. His dad asks him to wink if he can hear him. Joe winks.

"Joe made a quick recovery," Wang says. "He's a tough kid. He's been through a lot. It's heart-wrenching. It would be sad if Joe didn't realize now how precious life is."

"It was a very interesting situation," the doctor continues. "Joe had gotten shot in the head with a big gun, but the bullet didn't actually penetrate though the skull into the brain.

"Joe has a very hard head."

Joe gets daily visits from his mom. "The first time Joe got shot in the head, I just couldn't believe it," Carla says. "I ain't never dealt with that. This time, I guess I was getting used to it. It was like, this is getting old. I'm getting tired of my son getting shot in the head."

The Brims, the young ones, show up with a get well card.

"People think gang members are cold," says Tiny Stretch. "That's not true. We have feelings too. We told Blood not to stay out late. We weren't patrolling that night. Now, everybody is patrolling."

The LAPD investigator on the shooting, Det. John Parra, says he has little to go on.

"When I saw Joe, he couldn't talk," says Parra. "The neighbors heard some shots and heard a car drive away. That's about it. Time is of the essence in a gang shooting. Witnesses disappear. People change their mind or get intimidated. A lot of times the gangs don't want the police to do anything. They'll take care of it."

Joe goes home after three weeks in the hospital. "The Harlems caught me sleeping," says Joe, lying on the couch, his speech slurred, his good eye glazed.

His mom hopes some good will come from this. "Maybe this was one of those blessings in disguise," she says. "I think he's afraid to go out. That's good."

But again, like the first shooting, the fear doesn't last long. A month later, Joe is hanging out with his crew.

"We just kicking it," he says, taking a sip of the ubiquitous 40-ounce Olde English. Li'l Stretch Dog, G Active, Killa Krafty, Ja Capone, Telly, Big Killa Dirt--the boys are all there. They boast about how tough and big they are. They talk abut making some money. A few talk about LAPD Chief William Bratton and his war on gangs. They've noticed the police have been more active in the area, riding through in the daytime on bikes. A police car cruises by a block away.

"The cops is brave, tell you the truth," says Joe quietly, looking around to make sure no Brims hear him. "They do put their life in jeopardy."

Louder now, fueled by the alcohol, Joe chimes in with the bravado. Late at night, on 35th Street, he's light years away from the kid in his bedroom, reeling off Alabama to Wyoming. Now he is Baby Killa Dirt, bench-pressing 200 pounds, wearing an Oakland Raiders jersey and baggy red sweat pants that would fit a polar bear.

"We like, if you mess with us, we mess with you."

But for all the swagger, Joe is not as hard as he thinks. Cleamon "Big Evil" Johnson, once considered the city's deadliest gangster, says Jones sounds like he's not cut out for the mean streets.

"I mean, here's a kid only 15 and he's been popped twice in the head already," says Johnson, laughing heartily on the phone from San Quentin Prison. "Sounds like he needs to take up sports. Maybe hockey."

In February 2003, Joe returns to optimist high school. But he's a different student, less able to focus. "He is a very sad kid in a lot of ways," says Alan Escott, the school's director. "He's lost all sense of impulse control."

Escott relates an episode in which a man came to the school to pick up his younger sister and another student told Joe the man was a rival Crip.

"Joe came running out, yelling and tearing off his jacket and putting up gang signs," says Escott, all of 5-foot-5, who successfully intervened. "It made me wonder if he really wanted to attack the man because he could have easily pushed me aside."

Escott says Joe is more entrenched than ever in gang life. He remains stubbornly defiant toward authority and everyone involved decides Optimist isn't the best place for him. A week later, March 19, is his last day. As he leaves the campus, he hugs and thanks Escott.

No one seems to be able to reach Joe. He's gone through three probation officers. They are so overworked they barely look at him, taking some notes, sending him on his way as their next teenager comes in.

"I'm trying to get help for my baby, but he's just a number to society," Carla says. "You get shot twice in the head and see if you don't have some problems. I'm doing the best I can, but everyone keeps giving me the runaround. "

In early March, Joe gets inspiration from an unlikely source, Kaleena Robertson, 19, a streetwise ex-Blood whose baby and boyfriend were gunned down two years ago.

"Joe's such a sweet guy," she says, standing with him in Hollywood where she lives with her mother. "He's respectful. But he's still got that gang thing going. He needs to get rid of those tattoos. He needs to get a job and take care of his baby."

Yes, Kaleena is pregnant, and she says Joe's the daddy.

"I told him he better get right before he get left."

Later, Joe is cruising through a demoralized stretch of Jefferson Boulevard lined with liquor stores, run-down shops, women with glancing eyes and a handful of Crips. He mentions the baby that Kaleena is carrying.

"It's mine," he acknowledges.

"I need to get a job and leave the 'hood behind. I wouldn't want my son or daughter going down the same road as I went down because," he says, spotting a cracked-out woman zigzagging down Jefferson, "they might end up like that." He laughs.

A week later, Joe is claiming he has nothing to do with the pregnancy.

"I know it's not my kid," he says. "Plus I had a [condom] on." Then he gazes off into some faraway space. "But, ya know, if I did have a kid, that would get me to stop gangbanging."

Joe's on his way to the 'hood, talking guns. "I ain't gonna lie, I been looking for one, a good clean one."

Back at home, the word "blood" begins or ends most of his sentences. His mom erupts. "Don't talk to me like that," she screams. "No more gang talk."

He sinks deeper into the couch, silently.

"He's got nothing positive to say," Carla moans. "It's either talking about gangs or girls. It's always 'Fruit Town Brims.' He's never calm and quiet. He's just not happy. He's very depressed."

On a March morning, Joe and Carla meet with Gerald Kibble, coordinator of special education at Inglewood Unified School District.

"I found him to be a charming, fairly intelligent young man who really wants to do better for himself," Kibble says, "but his environment is not making that happen for him."

Kibble praises the fast-talking Carla, who has arranged the meeting.

"He's got the most wonderful mom. She's seeking out as much assistance as she can. But she really doesn't know what to do.

"I've been looking for a school that would best fit his needs," Kibble says. "Education is the only gang Joe needs to be married to. This kid really wants to talk to somebody who will listen to him."

But, Kibble admits, Joe is teetering.

"The father's not an influence. Mom is doing both jobs."

Joe and Carla go to the probation department, where she tells an officer that Joe needs help.

"Somebody needs to talk to somebody," Carla yells helplessly. "You keep sending me on the runaround. This child is in need. You need to take time out to hear this parent who's crying out and trying to save her son's life."

Word has hit the street that the Harlems have a green light on Joe. But unlike months earlier, when Joe ignored the threat as if it was from a barking Chihuahua, this time he is scared. One day, Joe startles his mom by talking about how he wants to kill someone.

"My son's been traumatized," she says. "He's walking around in fear of his life, so he figures he's gonna hurt someone else first."

As March ends, Joe is unusually quiet, hardy speaking. "I realize now the 'hood ain't for shit," he says, slumped on the front room couch. He is soon asleep, or pretending to be.

"He has no self-worth, no self-esteem," says Carla, tenderly patting his head. "My baby just goes deeper and deeper down. If something happens again, I'm ready to deal with it. I know God has spared him twice already. I'm just trying to get him all the help I can. It's not easy getting help."

Joe wants to return to jail, where he feels he'll be safer than out on the streets. La Donna Parker, Joe's therapist at the mental health center where he attends anger-management classes, writes to his probation officer. The response: "Joseph has committed no crime and there is nothing that can be done."

In early April, Joe and Carla return to the probation department. "I told [the officer] that Joe wants to go back to jail," says Carla. "He was safer in juvenile hall than [on] the streets. [The officer] told him, 'It doesn't work like that. I can't just send him to jail. Joe needs to commit a crime to go to juvenile hall.' "

That's all Joe needs to hear. His salvation is a crime.

Saturday, April 5, 2:30 a.m. Carla Simmons is startled awake by a front door knock. She thinks it's Joe. Must have forgotten his key. Why is he out so late? I can't let him get away with this. What can I do to lay down the law?

She peeks out the window. It is the law. Two LAPD sergeants. In a split second, Simmons thinks: Is he dead? Is he just wounded? No, not another head shot -- how many times is this going to happen?

The police, familiar with Joe, quickly interrupt her thoughts. "No, no, he's OK, he's OK," says one of the cops. "But he just carjacked someone."

A few blocks away from the Brims' hangout near USC, Joe had approached a 2002 Mercedes-Benz at a stoplight and ordered the man to give up his car. The victim says Joe had, or indicated he had, a gun.

Joe cranked up the stereo, rolled down the windows and slowly cruised the neighborhood--wanting, hoping, praying to get caught, he says. In a few minutes, one of the sloppiest carjackings ever came to an end. The police pulled him over and soon he's where he wants to be--in the safety of a jail.

"They got him so fast, they musta had a Lojack on that Benz," says his mom.

In the teeming hallway of Central Juvenile Court, public defender Robert Johnson, Joe's parents and grandmother confer on a wooden bench.

"Carjacking is a problem," the attorney tells them. "Especially with a gun. This is a very complicated case."

Johnson spends a half hour listening to the family, mostly to Carla.

"He's a lost little kid," she says, voicing her familiar refrain. "He's a boy trying to be a man. He doesn't have anyone to guide him. Joe's trying to be a man, but how you going to be a man if you ain't got no man backing you?"

Joe's father, staring stone-faced down the hallway, says nothing. A moment later, he goes outside for a smoke.

"Joe's not going home today," his attorney says. Carla starts to sniffle; her knuckles scrape tears from her face.

The range of penalties for a carjacking by a youth with a gun go up to imprisonment until 25 years of age at the California Youth Authority. An adult could get life.

But the main players now directing Joe's life seem to think he is not a lost cause. La Donna Parker, his therapist, writes to the court: "Joseph has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Over the course of treatment, Joseph has evidenced a desire to change by learning to express his feelings in appropriate ways and managing his anger."

The letter continues: "I believe that this incident was another cry for help."

Another public defender, Michael Irpino, says: "Joe impresses me. He's warm and friendly--kind of a goofy guy. He asks appropriate questions. That is rare. Most of the kids don't know what's going on. I have a lot of hope for him."

A week later, the judge drops the gun allegations since no weapon was ever found. She agrees to drop the carjacking charge if Joe pleads guilty to robbery. No strike, but it will remain on his record for life. On May 30, he takes the deal.

The carjacking may have saved his life.

"Sadly, sometimes it takes a serious offense to get the attention you need," Irpino says. "We just don't have the resources to take care of every kid.

"I really like him. Joe's a nice kid. My guess is he started off pretty smart, if he's still that smart after being shot twice in the head. He's really trying. We need to get him in a good program. But even if we do, I'm not sure how he's gonna make it in the world. I have hope for all the kids, but most of them that come through here don't make it."

On June 25, hardheaded Joe Jones walks into courtroom 204. After getting his three meals a day, the small room seems almost inadequate for him. He's pushing 240 pounds, his arms have grown rock hard from working out, the fat has melted away. He's wearing baggy red sweat pants still and a Dr. Wang-approved black headband to protect the surgical scar. He looks like a gang member.

When he sees his mom, dad, grandmother and step-grandfather, he is so happy. A kid at Disneyland never smiled bigger.

"You've got a lot of family here today," the judge says. "They're here supporting you."

"Can I tell my family that I love them?" Joe asks the judge.

His attorney, Irpino, pats Joe's back and says, "You just did."

After several evaluations, Joe is admitted to a locked-down treatment facility. "By not sending him home, not setting him free, we could be saving Joe's life," Irpino says.

Joe gets sentenced to a year, but if he messes up, he goes straight to the California Youth Authority--Pelican Bay for teenagers.

"There is hope for the hard-core gang member, but the key is they must be willing to change," says John Chavez, director of L.A. Bridges, the city's anti-gang program.

"Little by little we try to get them to change their behavior," says Chavez, who believes Joe is not a lost cause. "But we won't spend time on a kid unwilling to listen."

At his facility, sitting in a day room, Joe echoes Chavez as he reflects on his downfall.

"I didn't listen to anyone," he says. "Not my mom, my dad, my homeboys. I wanted to do everything my way. My way got me shot. I'm gonna listen to people now. The first person I'm gonna listen to is my mom."

In late August, Joe gets a visit from his father, whom he's thrilled to see. Though his dad has not been a regular presence, it's not too late as far as the son is concerned.

Better now than never, the father gives the son some advice: "Listen and quit acting on your emotions," he says. "Stay away from knuckleheads, study--and no more gang signs."

Joe III is wearing a white T-shirt and baggy pants; his hair is unruly. He seems happy in the dormitory complex, where he spends a lot of time in group counseling.

"I'm not gonna mess up. I'm not going back," Joe says. "I think this is going to be a good year. I really love my family. I've had a few bad breaks, but I'm gonna make it. I'm getting out of the gang and I'm gonna make it in life."

A visitor asks Joe if he wants any reading material.

Yeah, he does. He wants articles on Big Evil, the notorious Blood shot-caller from the 89 Family Swans, and on Stanley "Tookie" Williams, one of the original Crips. Both are on death row.

"I don't want to wind up like them, but I need to find out my history," says Joe Jones. "You feel me?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°