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1 Bullet Joins, Shatters Lives of 2 Mothers : Slaying: Pasadena shooting left one man dead, one in jail and two women wondering what their sons did to deserve such a fate.

November 15, 1990|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Wake up, mama." The cry jolted Alice Rhodes from a restless sleep July 22. There was pounding on the door of her Pasadena apartment. Jimmy's been shot, her daughter-in-law screamed, in the head.

Rhodes, 45, a round, motherly woman who comes from a family of Pentecostal ministers, dressed quickly and rushed to the emergency room of Huntington Memorial Hospital. By the time the doctors allowed her to see him, 22-year-old Jimmy Wilburn, her youngest child, was dead.

A white sheet covered him to his chin, and a white bandage was wrapped around his head. Rhodes touched his chest. She remembers how it still felt warm.

"I don't know how to explain it to nobody, how I feel on the inside," she said. "A very dear life was taken from me. That life came from my body. He was my friend, my son, my baby."

Three days later, Sherry Peterson, 48, a tall, stoic woman who works as a paralegal, called the detective bureau of the Pasadena Police Department. She had heard that officers were circulating a photo of her son as a suspect in the shooting.

Convinced there had been an error, she invited police to her small rented home in Monrovia to clear up any misunderstanding. The next morning, three plainclothes homicide detectives arrived with an arrest warrant and, at gunpoint, dragged 21-year-old Michael Peterson away.

Although Peterson could face a life sentence if convicted--the trial is tentatively scheduled to begin Monday () in Pasadena Superior Court--his mother is convinced he will come home. In his bedroom, his clothes hang neatly in the closet as if he never left.

"We can't figure out what he's still doing in jail," she said. "You go to sleep thinking about it, and you wake up thinking about it. I imagine it's much like what the mother of Jimmy Wilburn is going through. I'm sure it would make her furious to hear that. But it's totally devastating when you know he's innocent and nobody believes you."

In the poor, minority neighborhoods of Los Angeles County, this was as close to a routine murder as they come--just one of nearly 500 homicides attributed to gang members since the beginning of the year.

Two more African-American men were added to the bleak tally that has made murder the leading cause of death for young black males in this country, and that in California, shows one of every three black men in their 20s behind bars, on probation or parole.

"These things cannot be considered routine," said Donald Wheeldin, a longtime activist in Northwest Pasadena and a member of the local Black Male's Forum. "It's taken a terrible toll on the community."

Women like Alice Rhodes and Sherry Peterson do not show up in the statistics. But to anyone who flips through old Polaroids at Rhodes' dining room table or gazes at the lace-framed portraits hanging in Peterson's living room, it is clear their lives will never be the same.

Although these two women are of very different backgrounds, each tells a similar story of hope, sacrifice and regret. Rhodes, who is black, and Peterson, who is white but whose son's father is black, both came to California in search of a better life. Each struggled to raise her children in Pasadena without the help of a father at home.

And no matter what the truth turns out to be, each woman insists her son did nothing that summer night to deserve such a fate.

The 9-millimeter bullet that brought them together was fired with the kind of indiscriminate fury that has become a daily occurrence.

Jimmy Wilburn was sitting with some friends on Del Monte Street at 3:20 a.m., waiting for a ride home. His mother says he liked to go there to play dominoes. Officers say he was at a gang hangout, home to members of the Pasadena Devil's Lane Bloods.

Michael Peterson, according to the police report, had a reputation on the streets for shooting Bloods. His mother says her son was home asleep that night; Peterson himself says nothing, on his lawyer's orders. Officers say he was seen in a blue Nissan Maxima holding his thumb and index finger in the shape of a "C," the sign for the rival Crips gang.

As the car cruised past, four or five shots exploded from the driver's side. Everybody, except Wilburn, seemed to duck or scramble for cover. One of the bullets lodged in the left side of his brain.

Detectives give only the standard police line that both victim and suspect were "associated" with local street gangs. "They don't carry membership cards," said Sgt. Monte Yancey.

Alice Rhodes and Sherry Peterson say their children knew members of gangs, but never joined.

"Jimmy was a black boy in a black neighborhood with black friends, but that doesn't make him in no gang," Rhodes said. "It certainly doesn't mean he deserved to be killed in that way."

Peterson said: "When you grow up in Pasadena and you're black, you know kids who end up being gang members. You go to school with them and you play football with them. Michael didn't stop being friends with them just because they were in a gang. But that doesn't make him a gang member."

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