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COLUMN ONE : Mystery Surrounds Death of a Cheerleader : Why was bright, young Jolie Watson slain at a drug house? As police try to find the answer, her mother mourns girl she says was an innocent victim of violence.

August 15, 1995|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sick with grief, Barbara Schwab spent days hunched over her daughter's tiny computer diary, trying to access the secrets inside. If only she could crack the code, she told herself, perhaps she could learn why her beautiful high school cheerleader was gunned down in a filthy drug house. Maybe she could prove that the girl died an innocent.

She typed in names of singers, friends, even the family dog. But no luck. She couldn't figure out the password. The hidden truths of Anitra (Jolie) Watson's life, and perhaps the solution to the mystery of her death, remain locked away in the palm-sized Casio diary.

When Jolie was killed execution-style almost 10 months ago, the college-bound senior at Dorsey High in Southwest Los Angeles was the latest heartbreaking symbol in a parade of good kids claimed by violence. Newspapers and television stations chronicled her death, and "America's Most Wanted" joined the chase for her killer. The Los Angeles City Council, expressing sorrow, offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the gunman.

But behind the frenzied sympathy--and to the mother's horror--police began pursuing a darker theory: The 17-year-old girl and several of her gang member friends were attempting to rip off a drug dealer when the plan went awry, and Jolie--wielding a gun--was killed.

Driven by raw nerves and deepening sorrow, Schwab has responded with an extraordinary personal campaign to pressure police into abandoning their hypothesis--setting into motion an extraordinary struggle between a mother trying to protect the memory of her daughter and investigators trying to solve a homicide.

In long phone calls several times a week, Schwab frantically urges authorities to only consider the possibility that Jolie--an ambitious student who liked to scuff around the house in her floppy Bugs Bunny slippers--was coerced or tricked into going to the drug house. Never, detectives say, have they been lobbied so intensely by a parent so convinced of her child's purity.

"Jolie was not living a double life," says Schwab, an elementary schoolteacher. "She was used--like a sacrificial lamb. . . . Jolie was not in a gang. Jolie always tried to help people she thought were going the wrong way. That is the part that is so ironic.

"It's totally inaccurate to paint a picture that says, 'How did a wonderful girl end up on the dark side?' "

Police acknowledge that they don't have much to go on. With little physical evidence, they have based their suspicions of the girl's activities on statements attributed to two men believed to have been involved in the crime. Although there are inconsistencies with the theory, it's the best they've got.

"Jolie's mom doesn't want to hear that there may be something else to this murder besides pure innocence," Los Angeles Police Detective Paul Masuyama said. "We just go by what we know."

The powerful competing forces in Jolie's life were evident at her funeral, attended by more than 1,000 people. There were the eight teen-agers who each claimed to be her best friend. There were Dorsey's varsity cheerleaders. And there were a group of gang members.

"Ninety-seven percent of Jolie was good," said a close friend of the family. "Maybe the other 1% or 2%, maybe that's what got her killed."

Clue in a Backpack

On the night of Oct. 28, 1994, sometime about 10:30, Jolie was shot in the head at point-blank range in a Century Boulevard duplex, identified by police as a "marijuana house," on Los Angeles' border with Inglewood.

The next morning a neighbor, who happened to walk by the duplex's front window, saw the girl's body on a couch. Her white 1988 Nissan Pulsar was found in an alley behind the apartment, her cheerleading uniform laid neatly across the back seat.

Police carefully combed through Jolie's nylon backpack in her car. Inside were books and quizzes, SAT information and the first big clue in the murder case: A scrap of paper with a name and gang moniker scribbled in ink: "Mr. Carlton, C-Dog, Compton FHC"--an apparent reference to the man who is believed to have killed Jolie, and who is still at large. From there, detectives began their investigation, searching through the light and shadow of her life to find clues to her death.

Jolie was, according to numerous accounts, a considerate girl who would always help a friend in need.

"She was somebody I knew I was going to know for the rest of my life," said Serena Pierre, who worked with Jolie during a summer internship at Warner/Chappell, a music publishing company. "She just cared. She cared about people. She had this ability to see if you were upset. If you were upset she went out of her way to make you feel better."

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