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THE INGLEWOOD BEATING

A Life of Ups and Downs, Then Fame

Aftermath: Mitchell Crooks stepped forward knowing it could get him in trouble. It did. His mother and a best friend defend his motives.

July 13, 2002|ERIKA HAYASAKI and ROBIN FIELDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the moments after he videotaped Inglewood police beating 16-year-old Donovan Jackson, Mitchell Crooks cried, disturbed and horrified by what he had captured.

Hours later, however, the down-on-his-luck rave party deejay was all business, calling media outlets from 3 a.m. on offering to sell the violent images.

The way his best friend, Dan Hanna, tells it, a jumble of impulses--some noble, others mercenary--drove Crooks' decision to thrust himself and his video into the public eye.

Crooks urgently needed a payday, Hanna said. Homeless, with a hardscrabble resume that included a drunk-driving charge and a theft from his own mother, Crooks had fallen far short of the success and stardom he sought after moving to Los Angeles three years ago to spin dance beats.

But when the 27-year-old Crooks' celebrity instant finally came, it helped land him in jail, drawing attention to outstanding warrants stemming from a night of reckless behavior in February 1999.

As the news storm he triggered raged on, prompting hundreds of protesters to march on Inglewood City Hall on Friday, Crooks was headed for a Placer County jail cell.

Fueling the controversy, an Inglewood police report obtained by The Times revealed that Jackson was punched twice by another officer even before the action on Crooks' tape begins. The report also described the youth as violently resisting police, a contention his attorneys denied.

Crooks could not be reached for this story. Hanna, his mother and his attorney defended him, insisting that his arrest was retaliation for his part in exposing police brutality.

"It's a shame that the spotlight is going on my son, instead of the videotape of this officer," said his mother, Patricia Crooks, in a telephone interview from her apartment in Placer County. "This is not how it's supposed to go down. He did something good and it's backfiring on him."

Crooks' sudden prominence came at the tail end of a two-month road trip with his friend Hanna, 42. The same tape that shows the beating also contains highlights from the pair's visits to New York, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and other places, said Hanna, an out-of-work prop man.

The two spent the last couple of weeks staying in cheap hotels in Los Angeles. Then came the moment six days ago when Crooks heard screaming, grabbed his $400 Sony video camera and recorded the two-minute snippet in which a handcuffed Jackson, who is black, was slammed on a squad car trunk, then punched in the head by a white cop.

Crooks knew that publicizing the tape could bring his three-year-old charges of drunk driving, hit-and-run and petty theft to light, but did it anyway because he thought it was right, his mother said.

She, of all people, knew her son was no angel: The theft in question involved her. He took two videocassette recorders from her home, intending to sell them.

"He's done some bad things in his life," his mother acknowledged. "I knew they were going to catch up with him. [But] he was more concerned about justice. I know that about my son."

Police at the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles, where Crooks was held Thursday night, were quick to label his actions opportunistic.

"He is just getting an opportunity to get more publicity and money," said a female officer who did not want her name disclosed. She said he just wanted to "get rich off somebody's sorrows or woes. It's like pimping."

Hanna says Crooks was pleased when TV stations offered him $150 apiece for use of the videotape.

Hanna also has been thrust into the spotlight by his friendship with Crooks.

Thursday night, CBS put Hanna up in the upscale Renaissance Hotel at Hollywood and Highland after he agreed to appear on "The Morning Show" to talk about Crooks.

Still, some things counted more to Crooks than money.

He told ABC he wouldn't give the network the videotape unless they put Bill Maher's recently canceled "Politically Incorrect" back on television, Hanna said.

A Green Party supporter who adores Ralph Nader and hates President Bush, Crooks also withheld the tape from CBS because he said it "blew the [presidential] election" by calling a winner too early, Hanna said.

Ultimately, whether or not his intentions were pure, Crooks' actions have brought what many consider an injustice to light.

"His first instinct was to make sure somebody else saw what happened," his mother said.

"He always hated seeing the poor guy that's down, because he's been down in his life. He's had troubles, too."

Born in Auburn, Calif., Crooks was raised by a single mother in a household almost always under financial strain. He met his father, who left his mother when she was pregnant with him, just once, when he was 9. He still refuses to talk about him, his mother said.

Her son grew up independent and strong-willed, Patricia Crooks said.

He got into trouble as a youngster, when a scuffle with another kid landed him in juvenile hall, Hanna said. Patricia Crooks said her son was abused there, and it left an "ugly taste in his mouth" for the police.

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