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Teen’s slaying taps into a community’s compassion

Four years have passed since Richard Gordon’s teenage son Kwame was shot to death outside a graduation party in Eagle Rock.

The circumstances were murky. The crime is still unsolved.

Police said Kwame — a 17-year-old junior at a Pasadena Christian school — was killed after he shot a 27-year-old man who had confronted him and his friends outside a house party to which the group had been denied entrance. Friends of the wounded man fired back, police said. Kwame was hit in the stomach and died in the back seat of a Mercedes-Benz en route to the hospital.

Witnesses were uncooperative, and police never arrested anyone. But they concluded that Kwame fired first, instigating the shooting that led to his death.

That story went down hard among people who knew him. The younger son of a psychologist and a college professor, he was described as a gentle, good-humored boy who played in the school’s hand bell choir and was voted “Best Smile” when he graduated from eighth grade at Pasadena Waldorf School.

“He was by no means a gun-toting, short-tempered thug,” classmate Madeleine Emanuel, who had known Kwame since kindergarten, wrote in an e-mail to The Times back then. “He was tenderhearted, beloved by our entire class.... Every one of my classmates is convinced that Kwame would be incapable of firing a gun.”

At his funeral, at Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church, where he was an altar boy, people talked not about how Kwame died, but about how they saw him live — as a polite young man and big-hearted friend.

And that has been the focus every year since, when Kwame’s classmates, teachers and family friends gather — as they did last Saturday evening — at the Waldorf School for a lesson in the legacy violence leaves.

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For months after he was killed in June 2006, the circumstances of Kwame’s death troubled me.

As a reporter, I was bothered by the loose ends and inconsistencies; I wanted to solve the mystery. As a parent, I wondered which version of Kwame was more real, and began studying my own children for signs of teenage duplicity.

Kwame’s parents, who are divorced, didn’t talk publicly about the crime. His father said he resigned himself to the possibility early on that he might never know exactly what led to the death of his son.

But in his pain, he recognized that Kwame’s death had pierced the cocoon of a community insulated from random violence. “It made me kind of an ambassador,” Gordon said.

As such, he established a scholarship in Kwame’s name at the Waldorf School and turned its annual dinner into a frank community forum.

“We’re bringing up our children in a world that’s not quite as cheerful as we’d like it to be,” he said. “We’ve got a community of good-hearted people here who don’t understand what’s happening in minority communities; people who want to do well, but see it from a distance.”

About 50 people gathered outdoors, in a flower-filled yard, on Saturday night to listen to a trio of South Los Angeles college students including Kiana Moten, a mother of two whose husband was murdered three years ago. She now counsels young offenders in a “peace building” program at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where Gordon is an education professor.

The group had many questions for her. What pushes kids toward crime and gangs? Is it fear, poor communication skills, a need to belong? Can we help — mentoring, school visits, art projects?

Kwame’s father was ambushed by tears more than once. But he was smiling as the evening ended and the Waldorf parents lined up to hug the students.

“This community has not forgotten Kwame,” he told me. “I get cards even now from parents saying, ‘We are still here with you.’ You can’t imagine how much that means.”

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As I prepared to leave home for Kwame’s dinner Saturday, a neighbor knocked on my door with news of another teenage death.

Authorities say a “drug suspect” was shot last Thursday in Studio City when he drove into a group of law enforcement officers debriefing after a drug sting.

But the community knows young Zac Champommier differently. He had just graduated from Granada Hills Charter High. He played saxophone in a marching band. He was the only child of a local elementary schoolteacher.

“It’s just not possible that he could have done what they said he did,” said Phillip Brooks, the father of a marching band member. “He’s a complete ‘band geek,’ a great guy, just the gentlest soul.... It’s unfathomable, devastating.. He could have been any one of our kids.”

It’s hard knowing how to respond when the dead kid is both suspect and victim.

“We tend to want to classify — the bad families and the good families, the violent kids and the victims,” said Nancy Erbe, associate professor in Cal State Dominguez Hills’ Negotiation, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding program.

“It’s much more complex than that, but our discomfort leads us into overly simplistic thinking,” she said. “We withdraw rather than confront the complexities.” She said she’s seen many students leave gangs behind to become teachers, counselors and policemen.

And I’ve seen many kids like Kwame lose their lives to violence.

Zac’s death is under investigation now by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD. Zac, just like Kwame, had a beautiful smile and a big group of loving friends. I hope that whatever is learned or not learned as the case unfolds, his mother finds comfort from community as Richard Gordon has.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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