The mothers who meet in South-Central Los Angeles have three things in common: Their sons have been murdered. The murders remain unsolved. And they remain unsolved for the same reason.
No witnesses will come forward.
Their organization is called Justice for Murdered Children, and the mothers gather to devise ways to convince reluctant witnesses to testify.
They pursue rewards. They meet with homicide detectives, politicians and city officials. They discuss their plight on a weekly cable television show.
And sometimes they simply find comfort in sharing their frustrations with other mothers who have suffered the same two terrible blows of losing a son and then never seeing justice done.
"I met so many parents in the community who were saying the same thing: 'My son was murdered and no one will come forward,' " said group founder LaWanda Hawkins, who is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with her son's picture above the words: "Loving You Always. RIP." Hawkins' 19-year-old son, Reginald Reese, was shot to death about two years ago in San Pedro.
"The No. 1 reason that murders aren't solved in the 'hood is witnesses are afraid to come forward," Hawkins said. "I wanted to do something about that."
She said the 35 mothers in her group, who are from South-Central, Compton, Inglewood and other minority communities, now have some hope because of a bill the state Legislature passed and Gov. Pete Wilson signed last month. The legislation established a $3-million program to provide extensive protection for witnesses, including relocation and new identities. If it had been in place years ago, Hawkins said, her son's case and those of many others in the group might have been solved by now.
"This will have an immediate impact on murder cases in Los Angeles," said Michael Genelin, who heads the hard core gang division of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. "This allows us to protect witnesses in a substantial way and make real progress on some of these cases that, in the past, probably wouldn't have been solved."
When Sergio Robleto, former head of the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau homicide division, spoke last year at a Justice for Murdered Children meeting, it was the final fillip for him, the latest in a long series of frustrations over witness intimidation during his 26-year LAPD career.
"It was so chilling at that meeting," said Robleto, who retired in 1995. "All of them had children who were murdered, knew who the murder suspects were and knew who the witnesses were. But all the witnesses were afraid to come forward."
Robleto had been trying to generate interest in a witness protection bill and had just joined forces with Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), who agreed to sponsor the measure. Meeting the mothers only reinforced Robleto's commitment to the issue.
"These mothers are the real reason for this legislation. They're the ones who have suffered the loss," said Robleto, who helped draft the bill. "To have their backing was very helpful. They were ready to go to Sacramento and do whatever it took to get this bill passed. No politician wanted to go against them."
It is "scandalous," Robleto said, that politicians and police officials are crowing about falling homicide rates. There are still almost 20,000 slayings every year in the country--and about 1,400 in Los Angeles County--so boasting about the slightly lower rate, he said, shows the level to which violence has permeated our society.
Robleto's obsession with witness protection began in 1977, when he was a young homicide detective in the Rampart Division. He was investigating the case of two young men who were slain in front of a hamburger stand in the Pico-Union district. Robleto interviewed a key witness to the killing, gave him his business card and planned to re-interview him the next day.
That night, a coroner's investigator called Robleto at home shortly before midnight. A man had been found shot to death in the Los Angeles River. Robleto's card was in his pocket.
"I immediately knew who it was," the former policeman recalled. "It made me sick. It was one of the most traumatic things I'd ever gone through."
Nearly 20 years later, the stress and guilt and anger Robleto felt after seeing witnesses killed in the South Bureau's jurisdiction led to his retirement. The year before, the LAPD purchased a moving van and Robleto's detectives relocated 39 homicide witnesses and their families from South-Central. But simply offering to move them, Robleto said, was a woefully inadequate response to a ubiquitous danger. Although there are no available statistics on the subject citywide, in South-Central, a dozen witnesses to homicides were killed during 15 months in 1993 and 1994, Robleto said.