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Triumph Over Tragedy

When the Grief Seemed Too Great, Family Urged Choir Director to Stage King Tribute

January 16, 1997|MAKI BECKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jeffrey Coprich, director of the Inner City Mass Choir, almost canceled the group's annual tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend.

The last year had been filled with too much grief for Coprich and his Watts community.

First, a 16-year-old girl in his choir was accidentally shot.

Then, in a highly publicized case, his 82-year-old godmother, Viola McClain, was slain on her porch, allegedly at the hands of two teenagers.

Then, just days after he helped organize a candlelight vigil for his godmother, Coprich's 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old niece were killed when the car he was driving hit a median ditch and overturned--exposing him to a misdemeanor manslaughter charge.

Finally, in yet another high-profile tragedy, his cousin was among the five young children who died last month in a converted garage fire--again in Watts.

It took his wife and Viola McClain's grandson to convince the 31-year-old Coprich that he needed to put on the King Day memorial to help the community heal.

And so on Saturday, Coprich and his 60-voice choir will host a ceremony at Beulah Baptist Church to commemorate King's dream and the "precious loved ones" lost to sudden tragedy.

Beulah Baptist's pastor, the Rev. Robert Taylor, will light a candle for King. He will be followed by relatives of the other victims who will do the same.

Viola McClain's grandson, Dumar Starks, who grew up with Coprich, says he will be lighting a candle not only for his grandmother, but as a sign of hope.

"This tribute is something that King would strive for," said Starks. "This is something that he would love to see: a community coming together."

In addition to the candle-lighting and choir performances at Saturday's event, Coprich will present Image awards to four local leaders: Los Angeles City Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., who represents part of Watts; Svorinich's field deputy Symone Starr-Parker; and actors Jamal Mixon ("The Nutty Professor") and Lamont Bently ("Moesha.")

The deaths of McClain and the five young children were particularly painful to the community because they raised the old specter of violence and substandard living conditions in Watts at a time when residents and city officials have been struggling to revitalize the area.

"It's sad. No one wanted to see this happen," Starks said.

The tragedies crushed Jeffrey Coprich, who has made a living in a variety of nonprofit and government youth programs and has run the choir for five years.

In the spring, Shameka Tucker, a teenager in his choir, died when a 14-year-old boy accidentally shot her in the head in a house. "I was devastated by that," Coprich said.

In July, McClain was gunned down. Two juveniles who were 11 and 14 years old at the time of the shooting have been charged with the crime.

The killing occurred after the boys and several other suspects allegedly gang raped a 13-year-old girl in a vacant house next door, then got into an argument with Starks. McClain was struck by a bullet when she walked onto her front porch.

Coprich organized a nighttime candlelight vigil in honor of his godmother.

Less than two weeks after McClain's death, Coprich was driving in a caravan of vehicles to Las Vegas with his family and choir. The car he was driving hit the median ditch near Barstow, went out of control and overturned several times. His daughter, Essence, and niece, Dejuanhe Greathouse, were thrown from the car and killed. Coprich's wife, Shantal, and his mother suffered serious injuries.

Although authorities will not comment on the cause of the accident, they have charged Coprich with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for allegedly not properly restraining the two children. Coprich has pleaded innocent, contending that the girls were wearing seat belts. If he is convicted, he faces up to a year in jail.

In the wake of the traffic accident, "I felt anger. Just anger," said Coprich, who has another child, a 3-year-old son. "I was already hurt" over McClain's death. "I just couldn't see how an 11-year-old holding a gun. . . . I couldn't fix my eyesight for that. It did something to me."

The death of his cousin, 10-year-old Danielle Smith, in the December garage fire in Watts further deepened his depression.

Since 1993, Coprich's choir had performed an annual King Day tribute somewhere in Los Angeles. Last year's was at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in the Crenshaw district.

But after all the death and sadness, he did not have the heart to organize another one.

"How can we live knowing we have suffered this?" he remembers asking Starks.

Starks, together with Coprich's wife, convinced him to change his mind.

"That's when we decided we would do it in Watts," Coprich said.

The Saturday ceremony, to be held at Beulah Baptist Church, 1454 E. 100th St., starting at 5:30 p.m., is free and open to the public.

"It's going to be meaningful," Coprich said.

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