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Reliving Their Pain for Others

Ruett and Rhonda Foster visit juvenile prisons to tell of their little boy, who died from a gang bullet. They hope their anguish alters lives.

August 30, 2003|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

Wearing yellow visitors badges and an air of resignation, the couple make their way through locked gates at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier, past lines of denim-clad young men and on to the prison's library.

Inside, Ruett Foster tries to meet each set of eyes, as 20 inmates file in and take their seats around the library tables. His wife, Rhonda, busies herself rummaging through her canvas bag stuffed with pictures, poems and newspaper stories about the life and death of their boy.

They wait until the room is quiet, then begin their story in voices so soft and measured that the inmates have to strain to hear.

"We're here because someone else's impulsive decision ... devastated our family," Ruett tells them. "We're begging you to consider your ways.... We don't want to have to be afraid of you."

Four years ago, the Fosters' 7-year-old son, Evan, was shot to death by gang members as he sat with his mother and baby brother in their car at Inglewood's Darby Park. The family was there to pick up Evan's soccer trophy and sign him up for basketball.

Rhonda spares no detail in her recitation. She begins with Evan's birth and how she quit her job so he would have a stay-at-home mom. She tells about his soccer team, his piano lessons, his flair for poetry, his love of God.

She pulls his photograph out of the canvas bag and walks it up and down each aisle. She plays news clips of the hunt for his killers and a video of his funeral.

Her steady voice breaks only once, when she recalls the moment she realized her son was dead, buckled in the back seat of her car, his T-shirt soaked with blood. She pauses for a moment and soundlessly sobs, and the silent room resonates with the raw pain of loss.

Around the tables, many of the teenage killers, gangbangers, rapists and robbers shift in their seats uncomfortably. Some stare, noses red, eyes watering. Others turn away, unwilling to be moved. "It was a devastating thing for us, young men," Ruett Foster tells them, his voice calm but heavy with understatement. "There's not a day that goes by that we don't hurt."

And yet almost every month, the Fosters choose to relive their son's death, resurrecting painful memories for the sake of young men much like the ones who took Evan's life.

As part of the California Youth Authority's Impact of Crime on Victims Program, they venture into some of the state's toughest juvenile prisons to speak to inmates in classes aimed at cultivating a sense of empathy and personal accountability in young offenders.

The program, required by the state for most CYA inmates, is part therapy, part penance, part education. Crime victims, police, prosecutors and former inmates come in to talk to the wards, most of them boys and men ranging from 12 to 25 who have been convicted of serious crimes but are considered amenable to rehabilitation.

Instructors say the Fosters bring a rare mix of compassion and reproach to the classes they lead at Nelles and the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino. Although most visitors abide by an unspoken agreement not to pry into the inmates' lives, the grieving couple do not settle for that.

"I want to know your age and what you did," Ruett announces to the class at Nelles. The young men look around and the shifting resumes. He asks again. "Each of you, please tell me your age and what you did." Silence.

He nods toward Lee Adams, a strapping 19-year-old from Watts who is serving his fifth term in jail. "Would you start us off, please."

"Nineteen," Adams says. "Possession of PCP."

The rest offer up their criminal credentials: Fifteen, assault and battery. Sixteen, murder. Seventeen, sexual assault. Sixteen, accessory to second-degree murder. Sixteen, armed robbery. Eighteen, sex crime. Twenty, murder. Sixteen, assault with a deadly weapon. Seventeen, sex assault on an individual while already in custody.

A social worker and minister, Ruett nods at each confession, staring squarely at each inmate with eyes that betray nothing behind his glasses.

"We're not trying to humiliate you," he says. "We know we all make mistakes. We don't come here to make you feel any more ashamed." But it's important, he tells them, to own up to what they have done, to be accountable for the pain they have caused.

Two of the three men who killed his son were gang members released from Stark and Nelles not long before the shooting. At their sentencing four years ago -- one got 26 years to life; the other two, 21 years to life -- Rhonda read a poem urging them to repent, and Ruett gave such a stirring account of his son's short life that he had sheriff's deputies in tears. The triggerman, who had once taunted the family and flashed gang signs in court, even rose to apologize.

The killers were not aiming for Evan. They were just trying to even a score, to retaliate against a rival gang for a shooting a few hours before.

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