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She Gives a Voice to Crime Victims : Activism: Deborah Coats' son was the innocent victim of gang gunfire. She grieves privately but is outspoken in her message about violence.

March 10, 1994|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind a microphone, Deborah Coats betrays no hint of the grief she still carries for her 14-year-old son, Stephen, gunned down Halloween night on a Pasadena sidewalk, an innocent victim of gang rivalry.

"When I speak, I speak as a whole person," Coats said. "My grief is private."

That grief has propelled Coats into the limelight and onto a new mission: speaking out about families and crime. A panelist last month at Gov. Pete Wilson's crime summit, the subject of two television profiles and a guest speaker on school campuses and before parent-teacher associations, Coats impresses others with her strength, composure and common-sense advice, said Lisa Bierer, a Wilson aide.

"We can't say enough nice things about her," Bierer added.

But the 38-year-old Coats calls herself simply an "average citizen" with a message to deliver.

"I'm not a legislator. I'm not a politician," she said. "I just know that something has to be done.

Coats' life, if it is indeed average as she claims, speaks to the vulnerability of families struggling to live peaceably in violence-ridden times. She herself survived a sexual assault at age 20 and a home invasion robbery in Los Angeles three years later before moving her family to what she thought would be the safer streets of Pasadena.

Her 6 1/2 years as a crime scene investigator for the Pasadena Police Department were no preparation for the sight of her son, sprawled and bleeding on the sidewalk half a block from home.

Stephen Coats was shot and killed as he and nine other boys returned from an adult-chaperoned Halloween party. Police say that gang members, seeking revenge for the shooting two hours earlier of one of their own, mistook the boys for rivals.

Two gunmen sprang from behind bushes and opened fire with semiautomatic weapons. They killed Stephen, Edgar Evans, 13, and Reggie Crawford, 14, and wounded three other boys.

Five alleged gang members now face murder charges. The five--Aurelius Bailey, 19, Solomon Bowen, 18, and Herbert McClain, 25, of Pasadena, Karl Holmes, 19, of Altadena, and Lorenzo Newborn, 23, of Los Angeles--are scheduled to appear March 23 in Pasadena Superior Court, where trial dates for them could be set.

"My kids had done everything I asked them to do and I still lost a son to gang warfare," Coats said recently inside police headquarters, where she works.

Dressed in a black police jumpsuit similar to that of patrol officers except with no gun, Coats fielded work calls at her desk. Her aggressively cheerful demeanor changed only once, when, in a strict serious tone, she counseled one of her three other children over the phone.

"10-4," she said, ending the conversation with a bit of police lingo she uses at home.

Normally, Coats would have been out in the streets at a rape, robbery or murder scene. She and other investigators work behind the yellow tape stretched across such sites by police. In a job that can sometimes take 17 hours at a stretch, she takes photographs and collects fingerprints, hair, spent bullets and other clues to help detectives solve crimes.

Although she came back to work two weeks after her son's slaying, she said she found the crime scenes troubling. So, instead, she has been doing lab work inside police headquarters.

"When that yellow (police) tape went up when my son was shot, I was on the other side of it," Coats said. "I never thought I'd be on the other side of it. My poor co-workers, they had to take pictures of my son's dead body."

The last few months have been tough for her and her other children, Stephanie, 17, Kenneth, 13, and Kristina, 12, she said. She buried Stephen on Nov. 8. The family struggled through Stephen's birthday, Dec. 2. Then, they faced Christmas without him.

"I have three children with very broken hearts," she said. "We're still trying to heal."

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Pasadena, Coats never set her sights on police work. She dreamed of being a doctor but left college at 18 to care for four younger sisters when her mother became ill and was bedridden five months.

Afterward, Coats got a job, married and moved to Los Angeles. The family's new neighborhood was relatively good, she said. Still, one night as she waited for a ride at a corner bus stop, a burly man dragged her behind a house, raped her and fled, she said. She never got a good look at him and he was never caught.

Three years later, a robber posing as a painter knocked on her door. Stephen, then 3, innocently opened it.

The robber handcuffed Coats' hands behind her and threw her into a bedroom while he ransacked the house. Despite the handcuffs, she managed to pry open a bedroom window. Her screams attracted neighbors, who called police. But the man escaped.

The two incidents prompted her to move her family to Altadena. A search for a job with medical benefits led her, in 1987, to answer an ad for a Pasadena police assistant. She quickly found out that what she assumed was a clerk's job was instead a spot on the front lines at crime scenes.

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