Stranger’s bullet ends a special friendship


They met when they were 7 years old, their houses 10 minutes apart if they ran the whole way -- both precocious and charismatic, both baseball fanatics, one a shortstop, the other a pitcher. Their friendship should have been simple.

But as much as they might have seemed it, they knew from the start that they were not the same: Ronald “Looney” Barron and Tommie “T-Top” Rivers were from different “neighborhoods”: two pockets of the city, one in Mid-Wilshire, one in West Adams, claimed by different gangs. As teenagers, they joined their respective gangs -- Barron a Mansfield Hustler, Rivers a Geer Gang Crip. And, under the rules of the street, that was the end of the friendship.

It wasn’t the end, though, of their parallel lives. By 1990, both were serving time for violent, gang-related offenses. In the prison yard in Chino, they discovered common ground, once again.

Then for more than a decade, after their release, they were inseparable, working in tandem as gang interventionists for Amer-I-Can, the foundation started by football great Jim Brown -- spreading the gospel of education, sobriety and family to youngsters from some of the toughest schools in the city. They were both 40. They started each day together, at the gym. When it was time to pick up Barron’s daughter from school, Rivers went too.

“We were together every day, all day,” said Rivers.

On Sunday, the friends’ winding journey came to an end.

They were together, of course. They’d finished watching the Super Bowl and, with Barron’s girlfriend, dropped by an after-party at a red-doored bar in the 5000 block of West Pico Boulevard, near their boyhood homes. It’s a volatile stretch; 14 people have been murdered within a mile of that spot in the last three years.

About 9 p.m., a friend told Rivers that Barron was outside the bar, arguing with a “tagger” -- a graffiti vandal he’d confronted.

“He told the guy: ‘We don’t do that over here. We keep a clean community now, “ Rivers said. “Before I could get outside, I heard a gunshot.”

Rivers bounded outside. The gunman was gone. Rivers’ friend lay in the street. “He tried to get back up, and then he fell again, face down. I got to him, turned him over,” Rivers said. “Blood was coming out of his mouth. He had a blank stare on his face. He was pretty much dead in my arms.”

As Rivers pleaded with him, Barron tried to breathe. The ambulance arrived quickly; but Barron, shot in the head and chest, was dead before reaching the hospital.

“From what we can tell, it looks like he was trying to do the right thing and was senselessly shot because of it,” LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said.

On Tuesday, police announced they had arrested a 16-year-old Los Angeles resident in Barron’s shooting. Officials declined to identify the suspect, citing his age, but noted that he was not affiliated with a street gang. There were witnesses to the shooting, which was also captured on surveillance video at nearby businesses; and a gun believed to have been used in the slaying has been recovered.

Asked if the arrest brought any sense of relief, Rivers said: “That was my best friend. It doesn’t bring him back.”

And the teenager? “Just another life lost.”

Barron was a pillar in a gang-outreach community that has become increasingly relied upon in Los Angeles to augment traditional police work. It is a thorny and delicate partnership; there is still plenty of distrust on both sides. However, the effort has come -- not coincidentally, many civic leaders believe -- at the same time as marked declines in gang violence throughout the city and county.

Much of Barron’s work was in area schools: Horace Mann Middle, Thurgood Marshall Charter High and others. There, he and Rivers team-taught Amer-I-Can’s 60-hour curriculum, which focuses on responsibility, self-determination, the development of community support systems and staving off the allure of gangs, drugs and alcohol.

“For many years, we caused a lot of pain and grief in these streets,” Rivers said. “Now it was time to create a solution. God had called us to do this together.”

Rivers was asked how, or whether, he would carry on.

“Our mission was to stop all of this -- not just my community, not just his community, all of it,” he said Tuesday. “A road without obstacles leads nowhere . . . I’m not going to let his memory die.”