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Eagle Scout's Achievement Is Shared

Activism: Troop formed after trick-or-treaters' slayings is seen as symbol of changes.

February 07, 1999|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a neighborhood where others may flash gang signs, here hands are raised in crisp, three-finger salutes. Where others sometimes wear baggy pants and oversized black jackets, here uniforms are filled with insignia pins and patches.

Those are just the visible changes in Pasadena, where a Boy Scout group has sprung from a neighborhood torn apart five years ago by the slayings of three young Halloween trick-or-treaters by gang members.

The killings horrified Pasadena, sending community leaders and city officials scurrying to find ways to make it safer for youngsters living the northwest corner of town.

When they noticed that the neighborhood lacked a Boy Scout troop, Pasadena police and firefighters and members of the First AME Church of Pasadena organized one.

Then they scoured the community's streets and schoolyards trying to recruit boys to fill it.

The work paid off recently when Troop 40 celebrated the neighborhood's first Eagle Scout--the highest achievement a boy can make in scouting.

It was a triumph for everyone in the room when the red, white and blue-ribboned Eagle badge was pinned on 18-year-old Bryan Hart's chest.

"In the beginning we had some rough kids. It was a challenge to create something for them that was more compelling than what they were finding on the street," said Scoutmaster Ted Few.

Some of those who sauntered into early troop meetings came wearing the red or blue bandannas that serve as the signature of some street gangs, he said.

Scouting's blend of educational programs and camp-outs that mix fun with work slowly caused allegiances to shift.

"It wasn't easy. But we substituted Boy Scout brown for the gang colors," Few said.

The two dozen Scouts taking part in the troop's premier Eagle ceremony made that look easy, though.

They confidently conducted an elaborate Eagle Court of Honor, recited the steps of the Scouting Trail and staged a flag ceremony in a church hall filled with family members and community leaders.

In the crowd was Pasadena Police Lt. Richard Sandoval, who was one of the first officers at the scene of the 1993 Halloween murders of trick-or-treaters Stephen Coats and Reggie Crawford, both 14, and Edgar Evans, 13.

Police soon arrested suspects in the killings. Eventually, three gang members were convicted; two years ago they were sentenced to death.

At first, however, the ambush-style shootings were as perplexing and infuriating as they were tragic. Police quickly determined that none of the victims had ever been involved with gangs.

"It was a difficult night for the citizens of this town and a challenge to police officers," Sandoval recalled. "There was a moment of near panic that maybe things in Pasadena were getting out of control."

Parents certainly felt a sense of panic, according to Collin Davis, whose 13-year-old son, Ryan, is a current member of Troop 40. Like many of the troop's parents, she was less worried about her son becoming a gang member than an innocent victim, and welcomed scouting's wholesomeness.

"No longer could we send children out to do something like trick-or-treat. We didn't feel safe sending them to the market, or anywhere," Davis said.

Suddenly, she said, she was worried about her child venturing "into the wrong neighborhood or wearing the wrong color" when away from home.

Melinda Rice would not let her three boys leave the house after the murders.

"There weren't enough positive programs in the community," she said. So she signed all three of them up with the troop when she heard about it.

Single parent Deborah Whitley, looking for positive male influences for her son, Dion, made certain he joined.

"I could see kids going the wrong path," said 15-year-old Dion. "I could see the danger signs."

Fourteen-year-old Joshua Smith said it saddens him to see boys his age hanging out with the wrong crowd. He said he has encouraged some to join the scouting crowd.

"Two people I've invited are thinking about joining," Joshua said.

Added 12-year-old Anthony Cisneros: "They may think we're geeky until they see what we do. We have fun--a lot more fun than we'd have being on the streets all the time."

Ron Schoenmehl, an executive with the San Gabriel Valley Boy Scout Council, said groups such as Troop 40 are unusual. Many start-up troops flounder because of leadership problems, he said.

Pasadena officials said they don't intend to let that happen. Police administrators have assigned Janet Pope, an assistant to the chief, to work with the boys and their scoutmasters.

Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian suggested that the thriving troop represents a turning point for the northwest part of the city.

"The significance of this night can't be overstated," Melekian said after Thursday's Eagle ceremony.

"A great many of these kids come from difficult circumstances. Kids have to have hope, and this gives them that."

New Eagle Scout Hart agreed.

"There are a lot of at-risk kids in this troop. There are a lot of others out there that could be saved from the street if they had something positive to do," said the 18-year-old Blair High School senior.

Hart said youngsters in the community are starting to notice Troop 40.

"When people at school found out I was close to being an Eagle, they pushed me to keep going and get it," he said.

"That was something that made me proud. I wasn't expecting that."

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