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Denny Suspects Are Thugs to Some, Heroes to Others : Riots: Portrait of four accused in savage beating suggests they are improbable candidates for role of revolutionaries.

May 25, 1992|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Football takes his gangbanging very seriously," said one person who has known Williams since he was 10 years old. "He doesn't go out and start trouble, but he doesn't run from it, either."

Antoine Miller, 20, grew up with Williams and is the person whom police say clambered up Denny's truck and yanked the door open, setting in motion the attack that followed. To his friends and the people who raised him, however, Miller is a baby-faced young man scarred by tragedy.

Almost from the time he was born, Miller ricocheted between broken homes. His mother and father, who never married, split up when he was a baby, friends said. Miller was set adrift when his mother's drug problems made it difficult for her to care for him.

Greg Colston, a friend of Miller's father, stepped in and adopted the young boy for a while. Miller occasionally got in trouble, Colston acknowledges, but it was mostly minor offenses: His brand of crime ran to misdemeanor drug charges, joy riding and failing to appear for traffic violations, copies of his criminal record show.

"Every time he went to jail, it was always joy riding or something like that," Colston said in an interview last week. "Every time he got released, I would go down and get him out."

The searing moment of Antoine Miller's youth came in 1985 or so, Colston said. Antoine, then in his early teens, was spending an evening at his grandparents. An argument erupted, apparently the result of a jealous spat. Then, Colston said, Miller's grandmother pulled out a gun and shot and killed his grandfather as the young boy watched, helpless.

"He was never able to discuss that," said Greg Colston's wife, Seville. "That's when he became withdrawn. He just wasn't the same after that."

In an affidavit filed in federal court, an FBI agent stated that an LAPD gang expert identified Miller from the Denny videotape and knew from past experience that Miller is a gang member.

But neighborhood residents and friends of Miller's--including some of the same people who say Williams is an Eight Tray Crip--emphatically deny that Miller is affiliated with any gang.

"He was a weirdo," one gang member said. "He was always riding around on his motorbikes. He wasn't no gangbanger."

Although the Colstons say they cannot believe that Miller would have attacked Denny, they admit that he does make an appearance on the videotape. In the version they have seen, they recognize Miller's face as he jumps up on the truck, pulls open the door and then runs off with a bag from inside the cab.

But they say they have not seen any version of the tape that shows Miller striking the truck driver.

Sinking back into one of the chairs in the front room of his auto repair shop, Colston sighed: "He might have taken the stuff from the guy's truck," Colston said. "That's what he'd do. He wouldn't hit him."

Henry Keith Watson's parents, Henry and Joyce Watson, were awakened by hundreds of FBI agents and LAPD officers about 2:30 a.m. on May 12. Since then, they hardly seem to have slept. They have appeared at each of their son's court hearings, craning to catch his eye. They have granted interviews and organized fund raising, including a "Hair-a-Thon" at which hairdressers donated their time.

Joyce Watson, a county social worker, has used her moment in the spotlight to urge peace. In interview after interview, she patiently counsels that violence will not solve anything.

She says she cannot bear to watch the videotape that police say shows her son stomping the head, face and neck of the truck driver.

Kiki Watson is a barrel-chested 27-year-old, the only one of the four suspects who is married and the only one with a steady job. He also is the only one raised by a set of married parents. His friends call him Keith or "Kiki," the name he has tattooed on his chest.

Like his parents, Watson was raised a Christian, but he has not lived a life of nonviolence. Copies of his criminal record show arrests for carrying a concealed weapon and carrying a loaded firearm in a public place. In 1990, while on probation for one of the firearms charges, he held up a Loomis armored car.

He went to jail for that offense, and his parents say that was a sobering experience. People who live near the Florence and Normandie intersection say Watson emerged with a commitment to turning his life around and was respected for that.

Watson married and moved to a threadbare but well-kept apartment complex in Inglewood. He and his wife, Valencia, have a young daughter, and he holds down jobs as an airport shuttle driver and a pet store employee, his mother said.

Their neighbors say the Watsons are quiet, though a few say they worry about Kiki's friends--some of whom they say are gang members.

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