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Ex-Gang Member Follows His Dreams as Pasadena Activist

October 26, 1989|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PASADENA — Tim Rhambo has always sought the spotlight.

But in the past it usually came from a police car, as officers handcuffed him on suspicion of grand theft auto, possession of cocaine for sale, trespassing, disorderly conduct. In all, there were 12 arrests by the time he was 18.

Now, nearly three years later, Rhambo is again in the spotlight--as an emerging Northwest Pasadena community leader and an aspiring boxer.

"Everyone around here calls me 'boxer,' but now they're starting to call me 'businessman,' " Rhambo said. "People are starting to recognize that I'm doing good. I'm not the same Tim I was before."

The turnaround in the life of the 20-year-old former gang member comes at a time when his brothers, Michael and Isaac, are reaping the bloody harvest of a life style Rhambo once pursued with gusto.

Michael Rhambo, 18, lies in a hospital bed, recovering from an August gunshot wound to the back that could leave him permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

Isaac Rhambo, 20, sits in San Bernardino County Jail, awaiting trial this month on murder charges stemming from the March shooting of Tonya Marie Wallace in Upland.

"The Pasadena police used to say, 'You guys are going to be the next Ray Ray Browning," Rhambo said, referring to a notorious Pasadena drug dealer now serving two consecutive life terms in federal prison. "But I got out of it before they did, before something happened."

Those who know Rhambo see the change in his life as a symbol of hope for the Northwest area, a neighborhood whose children and youth face major problems, as outlined in a city report released last week.

"Typically, young men and young women don't have a lot of support from older people," said Ibrahim Naeem, director of the Pasadena Foothill branch of the Los Angeles Urban League. "Older people simply condemn them for what they do."

But Naeem said he and a small group of other community activists have dedicated themselves to supporting youths like Rhambo "to cut off some of the reasons for flaking out."

For Rhambo, his turnaround still does not seem like victory. It seems like a daily struggle.

"I feel like an old man," he said during an interview at his apartment, where a card table, four folding chairs and a bicycle were all that broke up the monotony of one bare room.

The walls were empty of decoration, but Rhambo pulled out snapshots he intends to frame: photos of his 10-month-old daughter, Jasmine, and one of himself shaking hands with Pasadena Mayor William Thomson.

As founder of the nine-month-old Claremont Business Club, Rhambo attends numerous community meetings to promote his idea of a cultural center in Northwest Pasadena.

The fledgling community spokesman is still finishing his high school education and hopes to receive a general equivalency diploma in March. Besides caring for his daughter, he also watches over his younger brother, Edward, playing "big brother and daddy" to the 16-year-old, who is at the age when gang membership beckons.

Meanwhile, boxing, the skill that earned Rhambo a 1987 Southern California Golden Gloves welterweight championship, has been dropped temporarily while he applies for a job as a Police Department youth adviser.

Raised in "the projects," 313 units of low-income housing on Fair Oaks Avenue called King's Villages, Rhambo said he turned to the Denver Lane Crips at 15.

"At that time, girls admired the gang bangers," he said. "They learned the nicknames that people were talking about and they wanted to find out who that person was."

With a name that sounded like the macho movie character portrayed by actor Sylvester Stallone, Rhambo quickly earned himself a reputation. Rhambo began selling cocaine on the street, which allowed him to buy the clothes and jewelry that went with his new image. He became so successful that he employed couriers and earned up to $800 a day.

The inevitable arrest followed. He was sentenced to four months at Camp Mendenhall, a youth camp in Lake Hughes, where Rhambo, still intent on establishing a name for himself, fought with a rival gang member. The incident earned him an extra six months at Camp David Gonzales, a high-security youth camp, where he ran smack into Iler Patterson, an English teacher whom he credits with changing his life.

In Patterson's class, students were forbidden to drop their books on top of their desks, Rhambo recalled. Violation of the rule brought a stint in "the box," solitary confinement in one of the camp's single rooms.

But once he learned about the rule, Rhambo had to test it, earning a zero grade that resulted in an argument with Patterson and two weeks in the box for him. Months of confrontation followed until Rhambo finally yielded to Patterson's influence.

"She was like, calling me, 'My son,' and told me I had potential and good leadership (abilities)," he said.

When his time ended at the camp, he was determined not to disappoint his former instructor. His first job as a midnight security guard demonstrated to him that, despite his felony conviction, he could still make something of his life.

Since then, times have not been easy. Without a car, Rhambo takes the bus or walks to his many meetings. Some days, he and his fiancee, Sonya Hooker, have gone hungry when they ran out of money.

But he hopes to find a job soon and begin training in earnest to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Games. His boxing coach, Charles (Buddy) Bereal, believes Rhambo has enough natural talent to become a world champion.

"I want to be a famous, famous boxer and have a business of some sort," Rhambo said of his future. "And if I keep going up to the city board and getting experience, I'll probably run for mayor some day."

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