COMPTON — "Beeb" Stevens was two weeks shy of his 16th birthday when a bullet ripped into his chest as he stood with some friends in Kelly Park on a recent Friday. Pistol shots had been fired from a passing car, wounding two others in the group. But only Stevens died.
The following Sunday night was pay-back time.
Thirty-year-old Don Turner was standing in a street-corner crowd near Lueders Park, about eight blocks north, when a gunman jumped from a slowing Nissan truck and sprayed them with shotgun blasts. Turner died--an apparently random target who happened to be standing in front of a house in Piru gang territory--and three others were wounded. Some of the pellets strayed into a nearby home and peppered the living room couch only inches from where an 8-year-old boy sat watching television.
"It's a wonder any of these kids reach maturity," said David Velasquez, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney assigned to the hard-core-gang detail.
The Kelly Park Hustler Crips and the Lueders Park Piru had begun to war it seemed, until Velasquez and Compton police stepped between them. Last Thursday morning, on what would have been the birthday of Charles (Beeb) Stevens, a task force of 43 officers swept into the middle-class Kelly Park neighborhood and silently encircled eight houses and a bus used as a gang "crash pad." At 7:01 a.m., they began either knocking on doors or, in two cases, kicking them in.
They emerged with two shotguns, a rifle, several pistols and knives, as well as two murder suspects. Eric Darnell Garrett, 18, and Dennis Earl Reed, 24, were arrested on suspicion of killing Turner, a former Piru. Word on the street was that they or other Hustler Crips had been preparing to "ride" again that night. A Nissan truck, its chassis lowered close to the ground, was also impounded as possibly the vehicle used in the Turner shooting. And freshly printed sweat shirts found in one house proclaimed "Lil Beeb R.I.P."
"They were going to commemorate his (Stevens') birthday by shooting and killing," said Lt. Jim Fette, homicide investigation coordinator. But since the arrests, Kelly and Lueders parks have been "very quiet," he said. So far, no arrests have been made in Stevens' death.
Last week's sweep was only the latest to occur in a city that has been plagued for years by one of the most serious youth gang problems in Los Angeles County. Between 52 and 57 known gangs--about 40 of them small neighborhood factions or "sets" of the more widely recognized Crips and Piru--periodically quarrel or kill over various portions of Compton's 10 square miles.
"In the old days," Compton Police Cmdr. Terry Ebert said, "they used to go toe to toe with knives at worst. Now they drive by and shoot. . . . Now they're into narcotics, robberies. . . . They've gotten more sophisticated."
The burgeoning and lucrative cocaine trade from which many gangs now profit has driven up the ante, turning street conflicts more violent and making it even harder for authorities to persuade children that they should shun the life adopted by many an older brother.
"It's hard to tell a kid (that) crime doesn't pay when the guy standing next to him is wearing a $300 suit," Fette said.
Juvenile division Sgt. Steven M. Roller said: "The role models they see are driving around in (Mazda) RX7s with (telephone) beepers on their belts." It seems that instant communication has become a business necessity even on the streets.
Police officials favor tough enforcement, such as last week's sweep, as a necessary--if only short-term--solution to gang activity.
"The result of gang violence in the community is that the people who live here, the good people, feel like they're living in a 'reign of terror,' " Velasquez said. "About half the victims of gang violence are innocent victims or non-members."
A case in point may have been the death on Saturday of Ceola Belle Moore. The 45-year-old mother and nursery school teacher's aide was struck in the head and killed by a random bullet as she sat sipping coffee and talking with her husband at the kitchen table of her home, in an unincorporated area just west of Compton. Sheriff's deputies say they have no motive for the gang-style drive-by killing, and no suspects.
Investigating and prosecuting gang crimes, Velasquez said, "is sort of like shoveling sand. Every time you take a shovelful out (of the hole), more sand falls in."
One long-term solution, officials believe, may be an educational program begun last fall in several Compton elementary schools, including Kelly Elementary, which is fenced and patrolled by a full-time school security officer because it stands on the edge of Kelly Park.
Modeled after a similar program begun in the Paramount schools, Compton's version tries to teach fourth-graders and fifth-graders about the pitfalls of running with a gang. So far, it has been well received by both teachers and students, said Ted D. Kimbrough, superintendent of the Compton Unified School District.
"This whole problem of gangs is a very complicated problem and there is no one program that is going to be the answer," Kimbrough said. "Not only do you do early preventive education, but you have to get to parents. The solution is to keep the kids out of gangs, and that means (creating) other kinds of activities that are wholesome."
The problem cuts into "the social fabric of our communities," the superintendent said. "There must be something of greater value, that is meaningful" to youth, he said. Searching for those motivations, Kimbrough said, "is everybody's job who lives in the community."