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DIANNE KLEIN

Fern Stamps, Whose Son Was Killed in a Gang-Related Shooting, Shares His Life With Young Felons at High-Security Jail in Whittier So That They Can Hear First-Hand . . . : The Result of Their Actions

July 29, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN

Fern Stamps is going on and on about her sons, her babies, her boys.

She is a guest here, in this place they call a school, the Fred C. Nells School in Whittier. It is a high-security jail.

The room is very quiet as Fern Stamps speaks. Her listeners, murderers, rapists, gangbangers, felons of all sorts, are rapt. They've just met this woman who is so easy with her words. They spill out, unedited, with lots of asides.

These guys relax with Ms. Stamps, as they call her here. They like her. They are growing to like her family, too. That is the plan.

There is a banner on the wall, above the window. It says, "Everytime a Bullet Flies, a Mother Cries. . ." Ms. Stamps is out to prove that this is not jive.

So she talks a lot. There is the story of the two years when all five of her boys, including her two stepsons, were living with her and her husband. "I went from one child to five . Can you imagine that? That's when I started drinking," she says.

Her audience is with her. The lady can joke.

They are watching her home movies now. These are spliced together on video for occasions such as these. Look at everybody bike riding, splashing around in the plastic wading pool in the back yard, on motor scooters, clomping along on those tired-looking ponies, in preschool.

But the twins! They were something else. The video doesn't show the time they got into the Vaseline and smeared it all over themselves--you know how little kids are--but Ms. Stamps says she's got that on stills.

"It was a joy in raising them," she says. "They did everything together. They were best friends."

Once Kimani picked up a snail and stuck it in his mouth, then soon as he saw his mother coming he chomped on it faster, figuring she'd try to pull it out. She did.

The murderers, rapists and the gangbangers laugh. Yeah, they know about little kids. They've got little brothers and sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, you name it, even kids of their own, some of them. And it wasn't long ago that they were children themselves; many still are.

The average age here is just under 18, although murderers can come as young as 14.

The kid who murdered Ms. Stamps' son was 16 years old.

That was on Jan. 23, 1988. Kimani was 15, like his twin brother, Kwame, an honor student at Gardena High School.

Neither one of them was in a gang, although the kid who walked up and shot Kimani, point blank in the back of the head, was. He told the detective who arrested him that he was "practicing to be a shooter."

Ms. Stamps has propped some mementos of her son on the chalk tray of the blackboard in the front of this room.

There's Kimani's honor roll certificate, the one from the national youth sports program, another from the Watts Junior Olympics, another attesting to his proficiency in computers. A yearbook from the "Who's Who of American Students" is open to the page on which Kimani's picture appears.

There are more details from Kimani's life, so many that nearly three hours sail by. Details are very important to Ms. Stamps.

There were the house rules she posted on the back of the broom closet. The twins got their full allowance for doing their chores without being told. If she reminded them, she docked their pay. They didn't like that.

There were the bomber jackets that the boys wanted. You remember when bomber jackets first came in style? Well, there was this trip to Hawthorne Mall. . . . Oh, and Kimani was a real finicky eater. Never did like ketchup. That would always hold up their order when they'd go for fast food. Always a special order for Mr. Kimani Stamps.

Then there was the night that Ms. Stamps got sick and took to her bed. It was probably the flu. She said sure the twins could get a pizza and watch a video down the street with their friend Ron. Kimani had called to ask permission. "I love you," he told his mama on the phone.

*

The Stamps live in Carson. They've lived in the same middle-class neighborhood for 23 years. Ms. Stamps is an office manager, and her husband, Virgil, is an accountant. As parents, they are what the experts call "very involved."

I'll put it another way. They have given their children their soul. When one of them was murdered, a jagged piece of that was ripped off. Such a wound never heals.

Ms. Stamps is screaming now. This is not scripted at all. It just comes, this mother's rage and desperation, when talking to this room full of felons who could have just as easily killed her son.

"His killer was so close that the bullet dragged through his brain," she says. "It stopped right here in his forehead." She points to her own forehead now.

"My son was 15 years old!" She produces an 8-by-10-inch black and white photograph of Kimani, handsome, with a smile that says life is good. She makes sure that everyone in the room gets a look.

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