The first sentence in Dean Takahashi’s e-mail was a relief.
“Those stories were hard for me to read,” he wrote, “but I thought you handled them well.”
Then he gave me pause.
“I wish you had more room to describe my brother.”
Dean had a point.
He’d just read my recent two-part series that looked at the state’s first prison hospice.
There, dying killers, rapists and thieves are graced with a profound compassion, much of it coming from a group of murderers who live in other parts of the prison and have been trained as caregivers.
The central figure in the stories was caregiver John Paul Madrona, in prison for 30 years to life. The work has become part of Madrona’s quest to atone for his own crime — fatally shooting Dean’s older brother.
In 1993, Madrona and a fellow gang member drove to a Gardena apartment house, hoping to kill a gang rival. Instead, they killed Tracy Takahashi.
They had gone to the wrong door.
Months into reporting on the hospice, I learned that Dean had been a Los Angeles Times reporter when Tracy was murdered.
Still, Tracy was not the story, only part of it. I kept details of his life to a minimum.
Now let me tell you more — and how Dean learned more than he ever thought he would about his brother’s killer.
Tracy grew up in Sacramento, the eldest son of government workers whose forebears had come to California from Japan at the turn of the last century.
He was a sharp kid, got top grades without trying too hard and was nearly the valedictorian at C.K. McClatchy High School. Cloaked behind shyness was good-natured warmth that showed itself once he came to know you.
“Tracy was the one who always made us laugh,” recalled Randall Fujimoto, a friend since their teens. “He had this sort of gravelly voice and this infectious smile and a sly humor.... He was a guy who liked to make fun of himself more than anything else.”
In the early ‘80s, he enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he studied chemistry and gained a reputation for incessant pratfalls. His friends called him “Chuck,” a reference to Charlie Brown stumbling around in the “Peanuts” comic strip. Fujimoto remembered Tracy leaping over the net while playing tennis, then catching a toe and crashing to the asphalt; Tracy sneaking into his first college lecture, hoping not to be noticed because he was late, only to end up in a heap when his chair broke apart as soon as he sat down.
“He’d bounce up laughing every time,” Fujimoto said. “That was him — a person who saw the bright side of things.”
After college, Tracy moved to Southern California, rooming with Fujimoto and another friend in a Gardena apartment.
“It fit with his life, with who he was,” Dean said in an interview over the phone. “Gardena was like a magnet for Japanese Americans. If you wanted to play in the Japanese American basketball or volleyball leagues, if you wanted to eat Japanese food, if you wanted to really experience the culture, surrounded by a lot of others from the third generation, Gardena was the place to be. My brother loved every part of it.”
The chemistry degree helped him land a job monitoring oil fields and industrial buildings for hazardous waste. He worked hard, said Dean, but work was hardly his life. What mattered most were his friends. As he approached age 30, there were dozens of them.
By then the apartment had become something of a jovial, grown-up frat house. Friends came by at what seemed like all hours to drink beer, eat pizza or play Super Mario video games on the three television sets in the living room.
“That apartment had such a welcoming vibe,” Dean said, his voice halting. “Tracy helped make it that way. He had this open, trusting nature. That’s what ended up dooming him. He was one who would open the front door without checking to see who was on the other side.”
And so when someone was pounding on the door just after midnight, Tracy opened up.
Madrona and the other gang member opened fire.
At Madrona’s sentencing in 1994, a judge read to the courtroom a letter written by Dean that implored his brother’s killers to consider deeply what they’d done — and to turn their lives around.
The series shows how Madrona took those words to heart.
When I spoke to Dean after the series was published, he didn’t want to talk about himself or how things have gone since Tracy’s death.
He wanted to talk about Madrona. The series, he said, gave him the first news he’d had about the murderers since the trial. He’d always wondered about how they turned out. It helped to have a better fix on at least one of their lives.
“Nothing can bring Tracy back,” he said. “We miss him terribly. But after finding out about Madrona, I’m glad he is doing what he is doing. He could have gone in a really bad direction in prison, worse than he’d been before, but he resisted that. It’s gratifying that the letter I wrote had an impact, gratifying that he did change his life.”
Dean also said he has never felt a need for angry, eye-for-an-eye retribution. Hatred has not consumed him. He doesn’t believe more hatred would do the world any good.
I asked about the theme underlying the series — redemption and forgiveness.
“I think it is not up to me to forgive,” he said. “It’s not for my side to offer redemption — that has to come from within. Madrona has to find it himself. But I will say this: The path that he is on, that path is far from hopeless. It is a good path. Whether he is inside the prison or out, I want him to stay on that path. That is what I ask of him.”
If I were to endure such a violent loss, there is only one question. Would I have Dean Takahashi’s strength?