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COLUMN ONE

A Murder That Woke Up L.A.

A random slaying in Westwood forced the city to confront gang violence head-on. Now, 10 years later, Karen Toshima's death still evokes emotions.

January 30, 1998|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Convicting drive-by shooters, for example, often meant convincing a jury that one teenager was willing to kill another simply because he wore a rival gang's color.

"For many jurors, there was no conceivable reason for kids to fire shots at other kids they didn't even know," Goen-Harris said. "It was just a foreign concept to them."

She quickly called police investigators, offering help in reviewing and filing search warrants, one of the myriad details that go into filing a major case.

In the mayhem-filled hours after the shooting, police had questioned dozens of possible suspects. Working with witness accounts and photo lineups, they narrowed their investigation to Collins and several other Rolling 60s members.

Lead LAPD investigator Will Thurston--soured by past run-ins with prosecutors, whose skepticism he believed had weakened some cases--wasn't sure he wanted Goen-Harris' help this early in the game.

But her energy won him over. Working long nights, authorities quickly were ready to serve search warrants on Collins' house in Southwest Los Angeles.

At 7:30 a.m. on the Saturday after the shooting, officers took Collins into custody, waking him from his bed.

"We felt it was critical to make the arrest as soon as possible," Goen-Harris said. "The whole community had become unglued."

Outpouring From Witnesses

The Superior Court judge in the Collins case, James A. Albracht, was stunned when he saw the gang members called to testify. He anticipated greasy Hells Angels-like creatures.

"These young men came in looking attractive and very well dressed and they were surprisingly articulate," he said. "And that just floored me. Had they been sitting down and having a glass of white wine at a Hollywood party, they wouldn't have looked out of place.

"It showed our cluelessness to the whole gang world."

Prosecutors were already used to gang members intimidating witnesses, but in this case there was a surprising outpouring of people who came forward, despite their fear of reprisal and the reality that they would require police escorts to and from court.

There were college students, a security guard, a street minister, even a San Fernando Valley high school student who wrote a poem about the death--many so affected by the case that they would keep in touch with prosecutors for years after the trial.

But the star witness was a 16-year-old Inglewood High School student who had gone to Westwood that night with his sister to buy a pair of basketball sneakers.

Prosecutors needed a believable eyewitness because there was little physical evidence linking Collins to the killing: the gun used in the murder was later discovered hidden in the ivy near UCLA, but no fingerprints were found on it.

In a strong, clear voice, the teenager pointed out Collins as the person who fired the gun.

"He was on the street and Durrell started hassling him because he wore red sweats and Durrell thought he was a Blood, but he was just a kid," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Duarte, who took over the prosecution after Goen-Harris took maternity leave.

"He remembered Collins pulling out the gun, recalled the scar over his eye. Thank God for that kid. He was the key."

Prosecutors were already reveling in newfound public support. The district attorney's gang unit, understaffed with only 16 attorneys, had already more than doubled to 35 and would soon rise to 50.

"I went to Washington and within two days got a million and a half dollars for a prevention program," Genelin recalled.

"Before Toshima, they wouldn't even have talked to us. They would have laughed in our face."

Father Mourns Son Behind Bars

Standing on the front porch of his Southwest Los Angeles home, a world away from Westwood, DolDean Collins described how the years have dragged since his son went to prison.

"We can't get an appeal for Durrell. We can't get justice," said the father, a school mechanic. "Black or white, it still hurts a family to endure this."

The senior Collins had testified at Durrell's trial that he didn't believe his youngest son was a gang member. He still calls him a good kid, a high school graduate who once planned to attend trade school to work on machines like his father.

When he learned of his son's conviction, DolDean Collins hung his head over a rail in the courtroom and wept.

"My son was convicted by the media," said Collins, who visits him twice a month at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. "It didn't matter if he didn't do it. He was their excuse to put somebody away. It was a white-black thing in a white neighborhood. It was a violation of the white rules."

In the years after the Toshima killing and subsequent racial divisions, many local newspapers and television stations have tried to be more sensitive to minority concerns that innocent victims of gang violence should receive the same attention in poor neighborhoods as they do in rich ones.

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