The mother and father of a 7-year-old boy who was slain by errant gang gunfire addressed a full courtroom in Torrance on Wednesday, turning the sentencing of the three young men who were responsible into an emotion-packed plea to end youth violence.
"I urge you . . . do not let your having killed my son Evan be in vain," Ruett Foster said, exhorting the three to repent and embrace the deep Christian faith he credited with enabling him and his family to bear the senseless death of Evan Leigh Foster and the wounding of the boy's baby brother.
Ruett Foster's remarks came shortly before Superior Court Judge James R. Brandlin pronounced sentences that could keep the defendants in state prison for the rest of their lives for the Dec. 8, 1997, shooting.
Evan had arrived at Inglewood's Darby Park--a favorite spot since his preschool days--with his mother and 10-month-old brother, Alec, on that evening to pick up a soccer trophy and register for a basketball league before heading off to a school fund-raiser at a pizza parlor.
But as his mother buckled her sons into the back seat of the family's car, three members of a Crips set from Los Angeles roared into the parking lot, looking for revenge, police said, for shootings that had occurred two hours before. They opened fire on a man beside a red Cadillac next to the Fosters' car, mistakenly assuming that he was with the rival Bloods faction that had shot their fellow gang members.
Rhonda Foster tried frantically to back her car out of the line of fire, but Evan was struck three times in the head, dying instantly. Alec was hit in the nose and left eye by metal fragments. He has undergone three surgeries and other painful treatments and must wear a contact lens until he is big enough for further surgery, his father said.
Within days of the shooting, police arrested Ollie Antoine Wilkins and Kevin Anthony Bookman, both of Los Angeles, as well as a 17-year-old believed to have set fire to their car to destroy evidence. The hunt continued for the third suspect, Charles Baker, for about six months before he tripped himself up by getting involved in a domestic dispute that brought officers to the Watts housing project where he had been hiding, police said.
In June, the three agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and other charges. Deputy Dist. Atty. Valerie Coleman said the plea bargain spared the Foster family the ordeal of three separate trials.
On Wednesday, Brandlin denied motions by defense attorneys for each of the defendants to withdraw their guilty pleas. He pronounced the previously agreed-upon sentences: 26 years to life in state prison for Baker, 23, who fired the MAC-90, an assault-style weapon; Wilkins, 20, whose .22-caliber rifle jammed before it could discharge, and Bookman, 22, the driver, each received sentences of 21 years to life.
The fact that the sentences were already known did not diminish the drama in the courtroom. Rhonda Foster recounted her son's last day--how he sang his favorite religious songs on the way to school and offered up a prayer. She spoke of the terror of realizing her family was suddenly in danger, the horror of seeing her firstborn mortally wounded, a hole in his forehead.
"When the paramedics told me he was gone, I stroked his cheek and told him I was sorry I didn't [get out of the way fast enough]," Rhonda Foster said as relatives in the courtroom cuddled Alec nearby. She read a poem urging wrongdoers to repent, mend their ways and find salvation.
Ruett Foster told of his pride in his son, an excellent student, a promising athlete and a sunny, loving child. He described his rage and agony--"the loss is a monster"--and displayed photographs of Evan, at his preschool graduation, playing in a Batman costume and receiving an award for a spelling bee. (The judge would not allow the Fosters to display the coroner's photographs that they hoped would help the defendants realize the enormity of their act.) The mourning father played an affectionate message Evan had left on his aunt's telephone answering machine so those in the courtroom could "hear Evan's voice."
By the time Ruett and Rhonda Foster had finished, even some of the seasoned sheriff's deputies standing guard in the courtroom were wiping away tears.
Wilkins and Bookman stared straight ahead most of the time, but Baker looked intently at the Fosters as they spoke and offered a lengthy apology for his acts. "I feel bad about it, I think about it every day," Baker said, facing Evan's family as he spoke.
"I don't have no excuse. . . . I grew up with a church upbringing, that's the sad part about it," added Baker, who said he had made bad choices "all my life."
Before leaving the courtroom, Baker's mother asked to hold Alec, embraced Rhonda Foster and whispered she was sorry.
Outside the courtroom, the Fosters said they were relieved that the court case was over. As for Baker's apology, Ruett Foster said, "I'd like to believe that he meant it."
Evan's family and friends have established the Evan Leigh Foster Foundation to help youngsters and plan to use a videotape they made of Wednesday's court proceedings to dissuade prisoners and juvenile offenders from further violence. They plan a rally from 1 to 4 p.m. on Oct. 2 at Edward Vincent Jr. Park in Inglewood.
Evan was one of six Los Angeles County children under 10 who died when caught in gang gunfire during 1997.
Friends, church members and family rallied around the Fosters. The school library at Parent Elementary, where Evan was a second-grader, was dedicated to his memory, and a local car dealer gave the family a new minivan to replace their bullet-riddled sedan.