The two young men were close in age, shared the same turf in the neighborhoods near USC but led very different lives. Then, with the slamming of a metal gate, they had a chance encounter late one night in September.
After drinking with friends, Bryan R. Frost, a USC student and aspiring film director, walked past a sliding gate just north of campus and, on a whim, shoved it closed. The loud clang drew the ire of Travion T. Ford -- street name "Poison" -- who was visiting his mother's apartment there.
Angry words were exchanged, then they fought. Frost, 23, an Idaho native and former West Point cadet with an excellent academic record, died at a hospital later that morning of knife wounds.
Ford, a warehouse worker who has had several brushes with the law, was arrested six days after the Sept. 18 fight and is scheduled to stand trial next week on a murder charge. Facing a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in prison, Ford has pleaded not guilty and told police that he stabbed Frost in self-defense against a drunk and aggressive opponent.
Frost's death triggered grief around campus and calls for better security. Among other things, USC and the Yellow Cab company made it easier for students to use taxis at night rather than walk home. Meanwhile, some area residents said they were upset about the death but also expressed annoyance over having rowdy students as neighbors.
Ford's relatives and friends say his case is being handled more harshly because it involves a white USC student and a black defendant and because the school wants to project a security-conscious image.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Kennes Ma, who is prosecuting the case, strongly denies that, saying that "we certainly would not have argued for something that is not there." He conceded, however, that the case has attracted attention because of the appearance of a town-gown conflict: "It's unfortunate for the community there, because it could cause more divisions than might already exist."
Frost played high school football and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for a year and a half. A fan of western films and "Citizen Kane," he decided on a movie career and transferred to USC. He earned an economics degree and was finishing a second bachelor's in film. He spent a summer in Pakistan working on a film he wrote about the Iraq war.
"All of his life, he was an achiever," Paige Lee said of her only child, who had seven step-siblings in an extended family. "He was the one all the younger people looked up to."
Lee, a Boise, Idaho, real estate broker, said she worried about crime in the USC neighborhood where Frost shared an off-campus apartment. But her son, who was active in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, kept telling her that "he was happy there and that he loved that school."
Frost's parents and other relatives expect to attend the trial at Los Angeles County Superior Court in downtown Los Angeles. "It won't be easy but we have to do it," Lee said in a telephone interview. "Because Bryan can't be there, it's about being there for him."
As for Ford, she said: "I think he needs to pay for what he did and have the rest of his life to think about what he took away from so many people."
Ford's mother, Valerie Nevils, said she is heartsick for both families. "It's a sad situation," she said during a tearful interview outside her home in the well-maintained complex with the beige sliding gate near Orchard Avenue and 28th Street. "The other mother has my condolences and she's in my prayers because I'm losing someone too."
But Nevils, a child care worker, insists that her son was drawn into a fight by the students' slurs and that he never intended for it to end with a death. "My son, he's not a murderer. He's not that kind of person."
Court records show that Ford was convicted in 2002 of a misdemeanor for carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to probation and graffiti cleanup. Three years ago, he was sentenced to 45 days in jail on a misdemeanor charge of loitering for drug purposes; he was also ordered not to associate with gang members.
Nevils said her son, who attended Fremont High School, was getting his life together. She proudly showed off a 2007 career school certificate he earned for completing a class on workplace professionalism. She said it's wrong to portray him as hostile to USC, because he worked as an usher at the Coliseum for the school's home football games.
When she last visited him at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, where he is being held on $1-million bail, his parting words were: "Just pray for me." He has been in custody for nearly a year, and missed the birth of his first child, a son, she said.
Ford's public defender, Diane Butko, declined to discuss specifics of the case, saying details would be presented to the jury.
According to testimony from the preliminary hearing, Frost and two friends were walking from the popular 901 Bar and Grill several blocks away. They each drank about five beers and were "moderately drunk," Frost's friend Nicholas Wisniewski testified.
Frost "jovially" slammed the gate and "it made a decent clang," Wisniewski said at the February hearing. Ford and his girlfriend, who lived in another part of South Los Angeles and were visiting family in the building, started yelling and cursing, Wisniewski said. Quickly, Ford and Frost were rolling on the ground. Prosecutors say that Ford then ran into his mother's apartment for a kitchen knife and came back outside to stab Frost. Ford told police that he had a knife on him during the brawl, did not go into the apartment and didn't even realize that his "poke" had pierced Frost because the USC student hadn't screamed, a detective testified.
Wounded in the chest and stomach, Frost told his friend: "Dude, I think I just got stabbed" and lifted up his shirt to show his left side covered with blood, Wisniewski recalled. The other friend called 911 while Wisniewski tried to memorize the license plate number of the car in which Ford allegedly fled.
A black-handled knife later found in a planter on the property had Frost's blood on it, prosecutors say.
Michael L. Jackson, USC's vice president for student affairs, said Frost's death was "a tragedy for his family, friends and fraternity and, in many respects, a real loss for our society because he was a great kid." Besides beefing up patrols, installing more security cameras and starting the taxi arrangement, USC also is more strongly warning new students about the dangers of excessive drinking and walking in the area late at night. "You have to remain vigilant about personal safety and also have to keep yourself out of situations that might put yourself in harm's way," he said.
Frost is buried at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise. His mother described it as a beautifully landscaped facility with wonderful vistas of the Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, where her son loved to ski and snowboard. "He's got a great view," she said.