Compton Family Survives Harrowing Hostage Ordeal

Times Staff Writer

The sounds of war broke out in Larry August's Compton home as he lay sleeping in his upstairs bedroom.

First, he was jarred awake by gunfire, startlingly loud and close. Next, the sound of two intruders crashing through the home's back door, despite its steel security bars. The pop, pop, pop of gunshots as armed strangers shot out the locks, setting off the alarm system.

He heard glass shattering and falling to the floor. Four close relatives had just gone to bed.

August had grown up in Compton -- he knew its problems as well as anyone -- but never had violence like this come into his home.

In the next few hours -- early Thursday -- he sat downstairs in his thin pajamas, held at gunpoint, his elderly in-laws hiding in their first-floor bedroom. The hostage-takers -- young men he had never seen before -- drank his Olde English malt liquor. They sat in chairs like invited guests as they debated plans to shoot it out with the scores of sheriff's deputies waiting outside.

"I had to get my composure straight," August said later. "I needed to save my family."

Last year had been the most violent for the city of 10 square miles and about 96,000 residents in a decade -- with nearly 70 people killed in the city and more than 10 others slain in unincorporated areas within a few blocks of Compton.

But August had long considered his four-bedroom house in a newer neighborhood safe from the worst of his hometown's struggles. The family had lived on Cypress Street seven years. It's a winding block lined with Orange County-suburban-style homes, where families of various races live under red-tile roofs just a short walk from the high school and City Hall.

And now this. Police sirens blared, a helicopter roared overhead.

August's brother-in-law, Sintori Daniels, knew the situation was dire. Disoriented and scared, he tried to break through a second-story window only to slash his face and cut a hand. Bleeding, he hid in a closet, then burst out to see a stranger waving an AK-47 in his direction.

"I didn't know what was going on. I thought I was going to get shot in the head," Daniels said.

August started yelling at the strangers not to shoot, calling Daniels "crazy" while trying to explain his brother-in-law's agitation.

"Larry started yelling. 'No, no, no! He's schizophrenic! He's tripping! No, no, no! Don't shoot!' " said Daniels, who recalled that his heart was pumping and blood was running from his cuts.

While August tried to reason with the men -- one of whom he said looked as if he couldn't be out of his teens -- he was frantic to find his wife. Only later did he learn that she had escaped through a side door shortly after the men broke in, with too little time to move her elderly parents from their room.

Four family members were still trapped.

The trouble had started more than a mile away near the city's eastern border. On Compton Boulevard near Aprilia Avenue, sheriff's gang-unit deputies saw two men in a red Honda Civic run a red light at "highway speeds." It was about 10:50 p.m. When they tried to stop the red car, the driver and passenger began shooting at them.

The deputies then began a pursuit -- exchanging gunfire at several points along city streets, sheriff's officials said. The car turned south on Wilmington Avenue, then west on Laurel Street, then stopped as the men abandoned the vehicle and ran into a small neighborhood park.

The suspects, gang investigators said Thursday, were thought to be affiliated with a gang elsewhere in the Los Angeles area. Their names were not released.

Overhead, a Sheriff's Department helicopter had a bird's-eye view, law enforcement officials said.

The men appeared to be hiding behind trees, still armed. Deputies on the ground were advised to halt to avoid being ambushed.

Soon, from the helicopter, deputies watched as the men kicked in the back door of the August home in the 600 block of Cypress Street, then saw Juanita August flee.

Inside, Daniels and August said, they were trying not to panic.

"When they first came in, I thought they was going to kill us for sure. I mean, they were shooting at the police," Daniels said.

"They're saying 'Cooperate. Cooperate," Daniels said of the two men.

Meanwhile, both Daniels' and August's cellphones kept ringing. Relatives and neighbors who had heard news reports or seen events unfolding were calling to check on them. Many members of the large, extended family were still in town because they had come together last weekend for the funeral of a 59-year-old uncle.

Now the family gathered at the sheriff's makeshift command post at Compton Airport to wait and hope for the best.

Just after midnight, Shontae Johnson described wrenching calls to August, her uncle.

"He answers his cellphone and he's saying he's not OK," she said as she waited at the command post. "He's telling me 'No, things aren't good here.' "

Daniels said the ringing phones were making matters worse, angering the gunmen. But August -- figuring chances were still high that he would end up shot -- said he told them he wasn't going to go quietly and planned to keep talking to his loved ones.

As hours passed, the gunmen got tired. August said he told them that any plans to shoot their way out of the mess were suicidal. The man with the AK-47 fell asleep with the gun in his lap.

"Larry looked at me like, 'Let's get him" and I said 'No.' Who knows what would have happened?" Daniels said.

Sheriff's officials secured nearby homes, bringing at least 20 residents to the airport and then to Compton High School, where a temporary shelter was opened.

More than 60 officers were at the scene at the height of the crisis, sheriff's officials estimated. Mothers carried toddlers dressed only in pajamas and socks and adults clutched blankets and pillows in anticipation of a long wait.

A break came, said Capt. Mike Ford, head of the department's gang-suppression unit, when the men called the Compton station and the mother of one agreed to speak to her son. At the same time, August said, he had decided to take matters into his own hands, repeatedly urging the men to give up peacefully.

Shortly before 2 a.m. the gunmen surrendered, leaving their weapons in the house and walking outside. August and Daniels said they left with them, three hours after their ordeal began. August was still wearing slippers; Daniels wore white athletic socks.

"What choice did I have?" August said later of the decision to accompany his captors ill-dressed for the cool night.

At the command center, both men shook with cold as relatives embraced them. They bummed cigarettes and chain-smoked -- still jumpy.

Sheriff's officials expressed relief that no one had been seriously injured despite the many shots exchanged. "We have no idea why these guys started firing at our deputies," Sgt. Don Manumaleuna said. "It is very fortunate that no one was killed."

Quincy Smith, 33, who drove to Compton from Rancho Cucamonga early Thursday to be there when his family's hostage crisis came to an end, called the resolution "a blessing."

"Normally, people don't walk away from a situation where [their captors] already were shooting at the police," Smith said after embracing his uncles. "It's just a wake-up call.... Tomorrow isn't promised to anyone."

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