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Gang Life's Grip Proves Hard to Escape

Members talk about changing their lives, but breaking away is easier said than done. Parents, meanwhile, wonder what went wrong.

May 27, 1997|JOHN JOHNSON and CAROLYN COLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At her son's urging, she was making plans to move out of the neighborhood. Casper, 15, a handsome boy with his mother's fine features and too many girlfriends to count, was tiring of the gang life. He asked his mother to drive him to local colleges to watch the students rushing to class. "That's gonna be me, mom," Casper said.

On the afternoon of Nov. 3, 1990, Casper asked his mother for money to go to a party. He walked out on the street and a car pulled up. The occupants supposedly shouted, "Valerio Street!"

"This is Langdon!" replied Casper, walking over to the car. He fired first, some said, but his gun jammed. The intruders in the car shot him and two others. He was the only one to die.

Livy's second son, Armando, is in jail for shooting his cousin, the son of Livy's other sister, Martha. The shooting took place in a motel room where Martha Trejo was packing for Las Vegas to get her family away from L.A.'s gangs.

"The first time we moved to Langdon was '78 or '79," Livy recalled. "We haven't been able to get out of Langdon yet."

Some Langdon gangsters do manage to get out, she said, especially the older ones with mouths to feed. They get religion, find a straight job and try to settle down. But they have never done anything with their lives. The only work they can get is menial.

"They live on the line of poverty," she said. "They may move out of the neighborhood, but they don't get far."

As much as Livy admitted her own failures, she earnestly wanted to believe something larger was at work. When she was young, there were gang members, but not so many, not like this. It maybe had to do with drugs and uninvolved parents, but there was a lot more besides that she couldn't get into words.

"Something is wrong with us," she said. "We're not building something right."

Skrappy's Story

Skrappy, whose real name is John Aguilar, was the leader of the Langdon gang, a fact that took us weeks to discover. Because gang members like to think everyone is equal, leaders are careful not to act the part.

The gang cops had pegged another man as the leader. But it was Skrappy who called the Sunday meetings and ordered beatings for those who broke his rules. One day, his assistants beat 10 of their own in the middle of Orion Avenue, hospitalizing one, for showing up late to a meeting.

A stocky man with piercing eyes, Skrappy dressed simply, in a watch cap and sweatshirt, with a single gold chain around his neck. His analytical manner was well-suited to the small businessman he was--and the antithesis of the cliched, dressed-down gangster who calls everyone "homes."

Leading a street gang wasn't what Skrappy expected to be doing at age 25. After high school he attended Valley College, trying to leave the gangster life. He landed a $25-an-hour construction job on the Metro Rail project, had a townhouse, dental care for his wife, money in the bank. A regular life.

"I was going straight as an arrow," he said one afternoon over lunch in a Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood.

He only went back to Orion one day several years ago to visit friends. It was just bad luck that an enemy drove up and shot him in the throat.

Instead of causing him to put the gangster life behind him, his brush with death propelled him back to the one world he knew: the four littered blocks that Langdon claims as its territory. He was arrested for drug sales, lost his green card and was deported to Mexico.

Now he was back running the neighborhood, one of only three veterans left from the old days when the gang began. "Fifteen of us started this," he said, reeling off the names from memory.

There was a sad solemnity to the recitation, because most of the names belonged to people who were dead or in prison. "We're like the last of the Mohicans," Skrappy said of himself and the other two original members, Sal Saldana, 21, and Midget, 20.

Skrappy had a kind of calm self-assurance that would have made him stand out in any crowd, not just among gangsters. Just beneath the surface, however, was a brittle fatalism.

"You never stop being who you are," he said. His own experience taught him that. Casper's death taught him that. His girlfriend Carmen, killed in a drive-by, taught him that.

"I can't focus because there's too many problems in my head," he said at one point.

This should have been a particularly good time to take the reins of the Langdon gang. The San Fernando Valley's 3-year-old peace treaty among Latino gangs had been a boon to the gang's drug business. They didn't have to worry anymore about rivals shooting up their streets and driving off customers.

"They got it easy now," laughed one gang member, just out of jail. "All they do is kick it and make money."

Still, there were problems. Gang membership was soaring, but many of the new recruits were hotheads who didn't see why they should make nice with old rivals like Blythe and Columbus.

Skrappy, a vocal supporter of the peace treaty, said the younger generation was hard to control.

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