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Boy's Slaying Haunts School in the Grip of Gang Pressure : Terror: The 14-year-old victim had confided his fear to a teacher. His slaying is a reminder of the need for school personnel to act promptly if they sense a threat to students' lives.

December 14, 1989|SANTIAGO O'DONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fourteen-year-old Mark Iwashita made a mistake last summer, and it cost him his life. On Aug. 7 he wore an "Atwater-13" football jersey to his Glassell Park school.

A gang member at school told Iwashita he would kill him for wearing the jersey, which carried the name of a rival gang. Iwashita asked school authorities for help. But the next day he was executed under a railroad bridge two blocks from campus.

The youth who confessed to the murder turned 15 at Eastlake Juvenile Hall last week.

The story of Iwashita's death, pieced together from accounts by school officials, police investigators and court records, shows how gang violence ruined one teen-ager's life and ended the life of another.

It also illustrates the pressure that gangs can put on junior high school teachers and administrators to decide quickly whether they're dealing with a child's fantasy or life-or-death reality.

"Even in junior high schools, one can never underestimate what appear to be idle threats," said Detective Larry Clerisci, who headed the police investigation.

"You can never underestimate the power of gangs," concluded attorney Tom Fogelman, who represents the defendant.

In his two years at Washington Irving Junior High School, Iwashita had kept his grades up and had never worn clothes that identified him with gangs. School officials said that before he wore the Atwater jersey, they had no indication that Iwashita might be linked to a gang. Police investigators still don't think he was. His parents insist he wasn't, authorities say.

But when math teacher David Sell saw Iwashita walk into the classroom wearing the Atwater jersey, he knew his student was in trouble.

"He was wearing a jersey from another gang and was trying to convince the kids that it was just a football jersey, but he wasn't being too successful at it."

Earlier that morning, Sell said, then-assistant principal Steve Casos--who was aware of the problem--called Sell into his office and told him, "Mark's being hassled. Can you talk to him?"

During class, Iwashita walked up to Sell's desk and confided in the teacher. Iwashita was scared, Sell said. The teacher said he suggested that Iwashita talk to the other students and try to work things out. Iwashita asked permission to leave school early for his own security. Sell let him go.

Sell had no idea what would happen the next day. "The worst I expected was that Mark might get beat up, but I thought he could talk his way out of it."

The following morning Iwashita came to school without the jersey. At lunchtime, Sell observed from a distance as Iwashita talked to the Glassell Park gang members in the school's outdoor patio.

"From the body language, there was no anger, no animosity," said Sell, who has taught at Washington Irving for 20 years. "When kids are about to fight, they have a rooster chest. They start shoving each other. But there was none of that."

Later that day Sell asked Iwashita if the problem had been worked out and he answered, ' "I think so," ' Sell said. "Mark seemed to feel he had everything worked out."

But he didn't. Five minutes before the end of the school day Iwashita asked to leave and Sell gave him permission to leave early.

As Iwashita walked out, he said, " 'There's one of them now,' " Sell recalled.

Sell was working on a math exercise and didn't react. "It didn't click--there was no panic in his voice," he said. "If he was really frightened, he would have walked back into the room, but he didn't."

It finally did click when the teacher had finished his exercise and had a second to think about the situation, but by then Iwashita was gone. Sell said he rushed out of the classroom and looked for him, but Iwashita was no longer on the school grounds.

There are no known witnesses to what happened next. The police report said the convicted youth made the following confession to investigators:

"I shot him in the right side of his head. I was alone. I walked from school. I saw Mark standing outside the liquor store. I didn't want to shoot him there. There were too many people there. I told Mark, 'Let's go down to Los Angeles to look for a teddy bear for my sister.' We started walking down and Mark asked me , 'Why are you messing with me?' I said, 'Because you are from Atwater, that's why. I wanted to kick your ass.' We walked across the street and started walking down the hill where the dark side hits. I told Mark I didn't want to go any further. . . . I already had the gun out. The gun was this far from his head," indicating eight inches. "Then I ran."

He ran back to the school, the youth said, to tell his fellow gang members what he had done, but they didn't believe him. He hid his .22-caliber handgun in the bushes outside the campus, he said. The gun was never recovered.

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