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Wrong Place. Wrong Time. Wrong Ending?

It Wasn't Supposed to Be This Way for Ex-Gang Leader Robert Leon--Back Behind Bars and Facing a Murder Charge. That's Not the Way It Happened in Hollywood, Where He Had a Promising Career.

August 24, 2003|Celeste Fremon | Celeste Fremon is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who regularly covers gangs and the police.

When tragedy occurs, those who are most drastically affected often find themselves searching for the exact point at which another path could have been taken, as if by doing so, fate can be rewound and played again, this time without a devastating ending.

Robert Leon has imagined a million times what he could have, should have done on the night that shattered his own and another's life. So has his former girlfriend, his mother, his younger brother, his three sisters and the various friends and co-workers who invested in him emotionally. That was the thing with Robert Leon. People didn't just like him, they endowed him with their own hopes. In particular, those who worked with him became convinced that, in this young man, they were witnessing an extraordinary success story, the kind that resurrects your belief that human nature is essentially good, that genuine redemption is possible, that even those who have made significant mistakes--with hard work and a little luck--can still fundamentally turn things around.

The arc of Leon's self-initiated rescue was undeniably dramatic: A hard-core kid with a four-year prison record earns a second chance and respect in the city's most competitive and status-conscious business.

Raised the fifth of seven children in the poorest and most crime-ridden of Los Angeles County's public housing projects, by age 15 Leon had joined a gang. By 16 he was a "big head," a gang leader. By 17, he was a juice-wielding, shot-calling, adolescent legend, known on the street as Crazy Ace. By 21, he was convicted of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and served 4 1/2 years in the California State Prison at Norco. In March of 1996 he was paroled, at age 25, with $200 gate money in his pocket, no material assets and no job prospects. What he did have was an 8-year-old daughter whom he adored, and a ferocious determination to yank himself from the wreckage of his history and become a good father and a good man.

For a long time, it appeared he had done exactly that.

In his first months out, Leon landed an entry-level job in the movie business, then worked so diligently that he attracted the attention of some influential Hollywood veterans. By the fall of 1998 he'd set a goal of becoming a cameraman, gained a famous cinematographer as a mentor and put in nearly enough hours as an assistant to qualify for Local 600, the cinematographers guild. This meant a big bump in earnings and a considerable boost up the professional ladder. Along the way, Leon had even been profiled on the pages of this magazine, and the editors and I found it hard not to expect wonderful things from him. So how was it possible that at 1 a.m. on March 31, 2001, Robert Leon stood outside a downtown nightclub, a .45 pistol in his hand, another young man dying on the pavement a few feet away?

For a boy coming of age in L.A.'s poorest minority communities during the late 1980s, there were three elements that, when found together, almost guaranteed gang membership: poverty; violence and dysfunction in the family; and the lack of a male parent--meaning a father who was absent, drunk, drug-addicted, incarcerated or, worst, all of the above.

Robert Leon's childhood hit every mark dead on. His mother, a soft-spoken, pretty woman named Peggy, worked two jobs to support her seven kids. His father, Jose Leon, was mostly unemployed. He was also prone to drunken, mean rages that got the family regularly kicked out of apartments. When Leon was 6 years old, he remembers his dad and uncle grabbing Peggy by the hair and holding a gun to her head, shouting that they were going to kill her. The shooting was prevented when all four Leon boys jumped on their father's back, screaming to let their mother go. It took Peggy another year and a half to gather the money and the nerve to load her kids into a borrowed station wagon and drive away for good.

For weeks the family lived out of a second borrowed vehicle until they found an apartment in the Pico-Aliso housing projects of Boyle Heights--the largest public housing facility west of the Mississippi, and one of L.A.'s poorest communities. The move to the projects provided Leon with his first real stability. He enrolled in the local elementary school, began playing football and soccer in nearby Pecan Park and made friends with kids whose family histories were similar to his own.

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