Neighbors remember Cleamon as a sweet child with a big smile and an eagerness to help ladies bring groceries from their cars. He'd scan the bags, grab the most overflowing and wobble toward the porch, peering through the leafy contents to avoid curbs and steps. As a member of Boy Scout Troop 374, he earned many merit badges, including one he is still proud of: Survival. Like all boys with brothers, Cleamon learned to roughhouse from an early age, to fight back when the older boys slugged him, and to fight back tears when the punches hurt.
That was a time when South-Central's gangs still fought with fists, an occasional tire iron, a rare knife, and street trouble seldom spilled into homes. No one had yet heard the rumblings of an Uzi or AK-47 here. But in 1970, when Cleamon Johnson was 3, an epochal event occurred: Less than a mile away, some young men got together and started calling themselves the Crips. Things in South-Central would never be the same. Enter the era of families routinely ducking for cover, of sleeping on floors, of burying babies. Soon the "The City of Angels" was better known as the "Gang Capital of America."
In response to the Crips, various groups of young men and boys from rival gangs--the Piru, the Bounty Hunters, the Brims and the Swans--banded together into a loose confederation that became known as the Bloods. Over time, large, well-armed Crips factions--East Coast Crips, Avalon Gardens Crips and, directly across Central Avenue, the Kitchen Crips--hemmed in Johnson's neighborhood on three sides. That embattled horseshoe engendered the 89 Family Bloods.
One sweltering afternoon, when Johnson was 8, he was sitting on a fire hydrant at 84th and Towne when a car drove up. Teenagers got out and opened fire, shredding the body of his friend Darryl. It was Johnson's first numbing, close-up view of death. Within a year he saw another boy murdered. Violence became part the backdrop, like the sound of jets descending toward LAX. Soon Johnson was caught up in it.
When word got home that he'd been fighting, Cleamon Johnson knew what to expect: "An ass-whipping." But he doesn't begrudge his parents their attempts at discipline. He says he enjoyed his childhood, and by all accounts, even during this time of schoolyard fistfights, he remained a good student, a curious, intelligent boy with a certain charm and bright smile. Cleamon's parents took him and his brothers camping throughout the West. They understood the advantages such experiences offered, and because they sympathized with the children who came from broken homes, they often took along some of the pigeon coop boys. Cleamon was particularly fond of Oregon's Crater Lake, a tree-sheltered pool of serenity atop a dormant volcano.
Though far from rich, the Johnsons spoiled their boys. At Christmas, when other kids received roller skakes, the Johnson boys got go-karts. What they couldn't give them was immunity to the forces transforming the city. By the time he was 12 or 13, attending Drew Middle School near Watts, Cleamon was encountering young Crips hourly.
It was there, in the seventh grade, that he first tasted the thrill of being a bad ass. A larger and older Kitchen Crip had been bullying some youngsters. Johnson charged the boy, got the upper hand, and kept on going, smashing the boy's face into a basketball pole until blood spurted onto the court. From then on, the other boys looked up to him. So did some of the girls. Nearly two decades before he received the death penalty, the battle for his life had begun.
From that point on, Johnson's family found itself in a tug of war with the 89 Family. His parents dug in, pulling steadily; the gang yanked with adrenaline-filled spasms on the other side. The family pulled with love. The gang with power and fear. The gang won.
Johnson graduated to hanging with older, hard-core men, many of them ex-convicts. They were glad to have him on their side. "Evil was a great street fighter," says Ricky Parker, Johnson's half brother. "He was good with his hands, his elbows, his head, his feet, his knees, his teeth."
"He could really get down with his hands," says a rival Kitchen Crip, one street fighter appreciating another. "It takes more than a gun to get respect." Yet in this new Wild West, most gang members came to see a gun as survival gear. By the late 1970s, even the best street fighters had turned to firepower. Evil became as unfazed by shooting people as he had been at stomping their teeth in. From the most ruthless family members, Evil created a commando unit of sorts, which he called the 88 Monsters. Though he still lived with and respected his parents, on the street his rage would flow. Defending his outgunned 'hood became an obsession.