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SANDY BANKS

A High Price for Hangin' With the Wrong Guys

February 20, 2001|SANDY BANKS

It was a brutal crime that captured media attention around the world because of its victim and its setting: a German tourist slain on a late-night stroll with his wife and friends along the Santa Monica oceanfront during a robbery attempt by gun-wielding thugs.

The killers registered on the public's radar screen as little more than garden-variety thugs--two young men with gang ties and criminal records, and their teenage female accomplices. "Street kids" looking for easy money, said prosecutor Anthony Manzella. "No story there."

Or is there?

*

My mother used to have a saying, hardly original, I imagine: You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Roughly translated, you cannot escape the consequences of the friendships you choose.

It's a lesson that Roshana Latiesha Roberts, like countless other young people, is learning the hard way.

Prosecutors say Roberts, now 21, was driving the stolen car used in the robbery attempt that led to the October 1998 killing of German tourist Horst Fietze. Roberts was convicted of murder Wednesday--along with Lamont Santos, 23, and Tyrina Griffin, 20. One suspect is still sought by police.

Roberts, a chubby-cheeked girl with a baby face, whose friends call her "Babydoll," was 18 when the killing occurred. She was linked to the crime by fingerprints on the getaway car's rearview mirror.

Her family was "shocked and astonished, just devastated" by her arrest, her lawyer said. "It came out of the blue. She's never been arrested before. She's just kind of a typical kid who nobody in the world could have imagined being in this situation," said Deputy Public Defender Stuart Glovin.

"She didn't kill anyone. She didn't think about killing anyone. She didn't even try to rob anyone. Now she's facing 16 [years] to life" in prison, he said. Under California law, anyone participating in a crime that leads to murder can be held responsible for the death.

Glovin wouldn't tell me much about Roberts' background, because he plans to appeal her conviction. Her friends say she stopped attending Paramount High several months before the crime and began hanging out with a pretty rough crowd.

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It's no secret that young people--girls and boys--are often thrill-seekers, attracted to dangerous activities and risky relationships. Girls seem to be particularly vulnerable in the current youth culture, with its glamorization of the so-called "thug life."

"These guys are good-looking, cool, exciting, and young girls are attracted to that," says attorney James E. Blatt, who is not connected to this case. "They don't realize that along with all this excitement often comes a price to pay."

Blatt sees the phenomenon often in his criminal practice. Four years ago, he represented a teenage girl in the San Fernando Valley--"private school, upper-middle-class family"--in a similar murder case. She was driving around with a carload of friends, including her boyfriend and his buddy, both 18-year-olds with criminal records, members of a tagging crew they called "Every Woman's Fantasy." The young men began arguing with a group of teenagers outside a mall, then fired from the car into the crowd, killing a 16-year-old.

"One minute you've got a carload of kids going to a movie. The next, somebody's dead, and they're all involved," Blatt said. "It was not what these girls had in mind when they headed out that night."

The girl he represented was lucky. Her case was handled in juvenile court, where she was allowed to plead guilty to being an accessory and placed on probation.

But even innocence can't deliver immunity when you land at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong guy.

Lori Gonzalez, the granddaughter of Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks and a Mission Viejo Sunday-school teacher, was giving a ride to a lifelong friend, a hard-core gangbanger with a long criminal record, when she was killed in a drive-by shooting by a torrent of bullets aimed at him.

"These kids don't understand the dangers that can develop from associating with the wrong people, Blatt says. "So they're sort of swept away, and end up either participating in a crime, or as a victim, dead."

*

Prosecutor Manzella says Roshana Roberts is not the right person for me to use to represent the innocent child drawn into a crime. "This wasn't the first time she's done anything wrong, just the first time she's gotten caught," he said.

Next month at her sentencing hearing, he'll try to portray her as more gun moll than good girl. Her attorney will counter by trotting out a line of character witnesses to testify to her good deeds and her kind heart.

At this point, I'm not sure how much it matters. Whether Roberts gets six months or 16 years in prison, it's a lesson learned too late. Much of the promise of her young life was drained by wrong choices the night Horst Fietze died amid a fusillade of bullets and the squealing tires of a robbery gone bad.

*

Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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