South L.A. Divided on Williams’ Fate

Times Staff Writer

In the South Los Angeles streets where Stanley Tookie Williams once roamed, a few still speak admiringly of how the young co-founder of the Crips used to stroll down the avenues with one strap of his overalls undone to expose his bare 22-inch arms and 55-inch chest, just daring someone to take a shot at him.

Many others remember Williams, now on death row awaiting possible execution, as a 5-foot-10, 300-pound terror who channeled self-hate into violence against others: spitting in people’s faces, stealing and robbing, exacerbating volatile mood swings with PCP, and murdering four people in 1979. That year, Los Angeles led the nation in gang-related homicides.

“I’ve lived in a war zone for 18 years, so I understand why some mothers advocate to kill Stanley,” said Lita Herron, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles group Mothers on the March, created in 1988 after a 13-year-old girl was shot 15 times by Crips in a case of mistaken identity.


This tangle of memories and emotions in South L.A. has triggered conflicting reactions to the prospect of Williams’ death penalty being carried out early Tuesday. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering a clemency petition that would commute the sentence to life in prison.

Friends and family think Williams has redeemed himself by writing books to steer children away from gang violence, and say he should not be blamed for the carnage that he and his peers unleashed.

“What hurts is that some people are trying to blame Stan for the 25 years of uncontrollable violence that happened after he went to prison,” said Williams’ ex-wife, Bonnie Williams Taylor. “That’s not his fault any more than it was Al Capone’s or Bonnie and Clyde’s.”

But Deborah Brown, a volunteer at the Weingarten YMCA Wellness Center south of downtown, doesn’t buy it.

“He killed four people and started one of the worst gangs on the planet,” she said, shaking her head. “I understand that some people are saying he changed in prison, but that won’t bring those people back. Somebody’s got to pay for that.”

Retired Compton Police Department gang unit officer Rick Baker, who knew Williams, agreed.

“Anyone who could take credit for organizing a gang that killed 50 times more people than the Mafia -- how could you grant a guy like that clemency?” he said.


“That would be like making John Gotti governor of New York.”

Williams was sentenced to death in 1981 for the shotgun killings of Albert Owens, a clerk at a 7-Eleven store in Whittier, and for the murders 11 days later of Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yu-Chin Yang in their family-run motel in Los Angeles. Williams maintains that he did not commit the murders.

When he was 17, Williams and a group of his friends from the west side of South-Central merged with a group to the east led by Raymond Washington, he has said. They called the new gang the Cribs, later garbled into Crips.

Baker recalled that when he “crossed paths with Tookie” in the mid-1970s, “Tookie was committing a lot of crimes in the east Compton area at the time, like shooting up the Piru Blood sets. Then he would run into a halfway house for juveniles in Compton and claim sanctuary there.”

In his memoir, Williams tells a similar story, and says he worked at the halfway house at the time as a youth counselor.

Initially, Cripping with Tookie was a ticket to good times, recalled Taylor, who separated from Williams in 1977. They divorced in 1984.

Gazing beyond the screen door of her tidy home, Taylor, a Los Angeles County juvenile detention officer who now tries to keep youths out of gang life, smiled sheepishly over a flood of crazy memories etched in myth:


Getting high by sniffing glue or smoking a mind-numbing mixture of marijuana laced with PCP they called “Lovely.” Cruising with Williams in his gold 1965 Lincoln Continental. Hanging with Crips in local parks reclaimed in rumbles with enemy gangs such as the Mau-Maus, the Black Gladiators, the Chain Gang and the Figueroa Boys.

Strolling down the street with Crips, sometimes a hundred strong, all wearing highboy dress shirts, suspenders, khakis or heavily starched Levis and high-topped biscuit shoes with a gold earring in their ear and a blue bandanna hanging from a back pocket.

“But the Crips of those days were nothing like the Crips of today,” Taylor said. “You’re liable to get shot just walking to the store.”

In Taylor’s living room, former Crip Cedric Mosely, 50, demonstrated the gang’s characteristic, ultra-confident stride. “We didn’t walk; we strolled, like this. Watch,” he said with a laugh.

Williams once appeared on the madcap television program “The Gong Show,” flashing his muscles amid scantily clad dancers, Mosely recalled.

“Tookie was fun to be around -- if you knew him,” said Mosely, who these days is a soft-spoken man with an easy smile and graying temples who works as night supervisor at a local hospital.


At least one of Williams’ former homeboys has turned against him. In a recent interview with Associated Press, Jimel Barnes, 52, said, “Tookie really murdered those people.”

Williams, he said, “went around South-Central bragging about it.”

However, Omar Page, leader of the Roaring 20’s Bloods gang, the Crips’ mortal enemies, this week called on Schwarzenegger to grant Williams clemency.

“Violence has been going down dramatically,” Page said, “and that’s partially because of Tookie and the books he’s been writing.”

Herron is not so sure. “It’s not a clear-cut issue, even for us,” she said.

“The Crips and the Bloods have meant terrorism in America and in my community; it’s been terrible and terrifying,” Herron said.

“But if Tookie Williams doesn’t get clemency, then what? He only represents one of them. So is he going to help us better dead or alive? That’s a hard question to answer.”