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New Encounter With Bradley Happier Than When Mayor Wore Uniform : Ex-Con Traveled Rocky Road to Salvation

January 26, 1985|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

Tom Bradley was wearing a uniform the last time they met. This time it was Clarence L. Lacefield's turn.

Lacefield was dressed in a crisp Salvation Army uniform for the recent opening of a new United Way counseling center in Canoga Park. Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, was there as the keynote speaker.

Bradley wore a policeman's uniform in the 1940s when he was breaking up Lacefield's boyhood dice games. Years later he was a police station watch commander when Lacefield was arrested several times as an adult on suspicion of robbery and burglary.

Last Met Mayor in 1958

After their last encounter at the Wilshire Division station in 1958, Bradley went on to a career in politics. Lacefield headed for state prison and a lengthy personal fight with drugs and alcohol.

Last week Bradley was surprised to spot the lanky Lacefield in the crowd of about 100 at the new Owensmouth Avenue counseling facility. The pair reminisced briefly before the mayor dedicated the new center as a place where "people in need can be served in an atmosphere of dignity."

Had there been more time, Bradley could have pointed to Lacefield as an example of how one can regain his dignity after drifting to the fringes of society.

The 55-year-old Lacefield has been director of services for the Salvation Army's Canoga Park adult rehabilitation center for the past 14 months. Salvation Army officials say his holding the post is a tribute to his own rehabilitation.

Lacefield was reared in Tom Bradley's old South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood and attended school with one of Bradley's sisters. His older cousin, Bill Lacefield, was one of Bradley's closest boyhood friends.

But, Lacefield said, he began falling in with the wrong element when he started hanging out in a neighborhood park as a teen-ager. It is there that he had his first official encounters with Tom Bradley.

"We'd be there shooting craps and Sgt. Bradley and his partner Sgt. Brown would come up," Lacefield said this week, laughing. "They'd come by about five or six times a week. They'd just terrorize us, and right when we had a good crap game going.

Quick Escape

"Sgt. Bradley had been an athlete and was fast. But I knew how to get away over the fence as soon as I saw his car."

Lacefield said he was using drugs by age 18 and "living two lives" to hide the habit from his family. Soon, he was having frequent brushes with the law.

On two occasions, he was arrested and taken to the Wilshire Division station, where Bradley by that time was a lieutenant assigned as watch commander. Both times Bradley asked him how he was feeling and if he needed anything.

"I was so ashamed, having to look at him there after growing up respecting him all those years," Lacefield said. "There I was, a dope fiend."

Lacefield said he was selling and using heroin in 1960 when he was turned in to the police by an informer. He served six years in state prison and resumed using drugs when he was released, he said.

Lacefield said he moved to Oklahoma in the late 1960s to avoid being returned to prison for a parole violation. He turned to alcohol and ended up in an Oklahoma City treatment program after being involved in a drunken fight.

By 1973 he seemed headed for recovery. When his California parole violation status prevented him from getting a state job in Oklahoma that year, Lacefield returned to Los Angeles to clear up his record, carrying letters of endorsement from Oklahoma business leaders and judicial officials.

For the next four years he worked for an alcoholic rehabilitation program run by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. When he suffered what he now describes as job "burnout," he returned to Oklahoma for 18 months.

In 1980 he was back in Los Angeles and back on the street selling drugs he said he acquired through Medi-Cal prescriptions obtained by exaggerating a back ailment.

"My daughter finally told me I was pitiful. And I was. So I went to the Salvation Army for help at their downtown shelter," Lacefield said.

Given a Job

Along with a place to stay and counseling, he was given a job. "I was assigned to work as a janitor there until, one day, I ran into a lady I'd known from the health department. Someone overheard us talking about the old days and mentioned it to the shelter's director."

After that, Salvation Army officials gave Lacefield more responsibility in their program.

"I dedicated my life to the Salvation Army," he said. "I decided it was secure and safe and away from the life I was trying to get away from, but still close to people I wanted to help."

Lacefield's boss, Salvation Army Capt. William Bearchell, said Lacefield's rocky road to Canoga Park gives him special credibility with the 54 residents of the organization's Roscoe Boulevard rehabilitation center.

"Through his experiences and conversion, he's been able to instill confidence and a sense of optimism for anyone with these kinds of problems," said Bearchell. "He is a true example of how a person can come back and stand tall."

Mayor Calls Encounter 'Terrific'

Bradley said Wednesday that last week's surprise encounter with Lacefield was "terrific."

"That's the kind of thing that makes the years on the Police Department worthwhile," the mayor said.

"It always makes me feel proud when I run across somebody who has turned their life around--when someone who I had dealt with as an officer, who was a delinquent or on the verge, chooses a better path."

Lacefield said he shares that pride.

"I had not had an opportunity before to tell him how my life has turned around," he said. "I was very proud to stand there in my uniform. I was very proud for him to see me in it."

He said he was also proud that the mayor traveled to the Valley to dedicate the United Way Canoga Park counseling center.

"Welfare offices out here are packed. Mental health offices out here are packed. People out here have great problems and needs," Lacefield said.

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