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No End to Murder's Grief

COLUMN ONE

A year has passed since Kevin Blanchard died -- yet another young black man gunned down in Compton. Family and friends struggle to cope.

August 09, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

A year ago Thursday, on a warm summer evening in Compton, Kevin Blanchard was murdered.

There was nothing especially noteworthy about the killing. Kevin, 19, fit a typical profile of homicide victims in Los Angeles County. The young black man's death came and went, and his name was added to the list of nearly 15,000 slain in the last decade.

Events of this week, though, tell another story -- that of an explosion that ripped through a community after the bullet hit, and has reverberated since.

As the day marking Kevin's murder drew near, members of his family braced themselves for what they called "the anniversary," a modern ritual, like sidewalk memorials and candlelight vigils, that has grown around urban homicide. August has become the peak time for such anniversaries in Los Angeles County.

With Kevin's approaching, his mother, Patricia, listlessly made plans and changed them, discussed prayer vigils and poetry readings. Nothing seemed adequate.

Her plans still in flux, she rose the morning of Kevin's death and felt a familiar shock.

It was as if no time had passed. "My body felt the same weakness, everything. Just like it was," she said, "Just like on that day a year ago."

Kevin DeShawn Blanchard was shot in the head as he drove down a residential street on the west side of Compton.

He careened into a garage. Neighbors heard him try to restart his car. Then there was silence.

The killing was like many in Compton: It seemed to make no sense. The shooter was probably involved with gangs, detectives said. Maybe the killer thought Kevin was someone else.

Awkward as a Child

Kevin was good with his hands and didn't talk much. He had an embarrassed manner, and would hold a hand over his mouth when he laughed to cover a crooked tooth.

As a child, he had been chubby. He collected baseball cards and comic books as soon as he could read. In his teenage years, he seemed to grow tall and lanky overnight.

By 19, he was a handsome youth, with prominent arching black brows, always groomed, his shirts matching his shoes, his hair styled. His friends teased him, calling him "Pretty Boy."

Kevin's confidence was slow to catch up. He was ever hanging back, letting others hold the stage. When he went to clubs with his girlfriend, Angel Beazer, he would lounge along the wall, refusing to dance.

He had been attending community college, and was thinking of becoming a police officer.

His mother had just got him a white 1999 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and he was proud of his new rims.

The night Kevin died, he was driving the new car to pick up Angel.

He was late. Angel couldn't understand why Kevin did not respond to her phone messages. By midnight, she was frantic. At least five of her high school classmates had been murdered.

"Kevin, I am not mad. I am not going to holler at you. Now I'm just worried. Please call," she pleaded into his voicemail.

Single Mother of 5 Children

Kevin's mother is a single parent of five from Missouri, with broad features and straight, graying hair.

Her own parents did not finish high school. But Patricia Blanchard returned to school at age 48 to earn her nursing degree. She works at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, treating many young victims of gunshots.

She prodded her children to follow her example. "No one can take your knowledge away," she would tell them.

At age 61, she could proudly claim that four of her children had gone to college. One had earned a master's degree.

On this night last year, she got a phone call while watching TV.

From the caller's voice, Blanchard knew something was wrong.

Worry is constant for black mothers raising sons in Compton. Every morning, Blanchard prayed for their safety. "You are a young black man," she would tell Kevin. "You have to be careful."

The caller said Kevin had been shot. The paramedics were taking him to King/Drew. Blanchard dropped the phone without hanging up, and ran out, forgetting her purse.

At the hospital, she couldn't get answers.

She tried to sit, but paced the halls instead. Nearby, she could see the double doors to the trauma bay. Whenever a doctor passed in or out, she strained to get a glimpse.

At one point, a gurney came rolling down the hall. Blanchard stepped aside to let it by and saw it carried a naked baby.

The infant had been shot. A short while later, she heard a woman screaming. Blanchard had worked at King/Drew long enough to know what that meant: a mother being told of her child's death.

Shortly after, a doctor she knew came into the waiting room.

Four Patients in 30 Minutes

A surgeon from Ethiopia, Dr. Gudata Hinika is compact and bespectacled, with an elegant accent and a warm personality. Blanchard used to call him "Dr. Sunshine."

Ethiopia's murder rate is a fraction of Compton's, and Hinika did his training in a suburban U.S. hospital where gunshot wounds are all but unknown.

But at King/Drew, his first patient eight years ago was a 19-year-old woman shot in the chest. He couldn't save her. "I was just destroyed," Hinika recalled.

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