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MORTAL WOUNDS

The Untold Agony of Black-on-Black Murder

An endless scourge of killings of and by African Americans is little noticed elsewhere, but those who must live with the aftermath are changed forever.

January 26, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Lewis Wright Sr. was at a pay phone when he learned his son had been murdered.

He was staring into morning traffic, and a deep weariness swept over him. He wanted to close his eyes and make it go away.

Wright is lean, a musician and security guard from Alabama. His son, Lewis Jr., was a bright, sometimes troubled boy. He had a long, narrow face like his father's, played the clown at school and liked to joke about his skinny legs. At 16, he still called his father Daddy, still came running when his father's car pulled up.

Wright could hear the boy's mother, Debra Steadman, crying into the phone that day. Police were saying Lewis Jr. had been shot on a South-Central Los Angeles street, she told him. Wright hung up, and sped to her house.

They spent the rest of the day trying to track down Lewis Jr.'s body. The hospital had no record of him. Things weren't adding up. Secretly, Wright began to hope. He concocted a story: They had switched Lewis Jr.'s name with someone else's. Maybe it was all a mistake.

The truth caught up with him at the Los Angeles County coroner's office, a sprawling concrete building in Lincoln Heights.

Wright and Steadman were called to a small briefing room.

A man in a suit brought a photo, and laid it face down on the scratched hardwood table. It still might be somebody else, Wright thought.

The man slid the photo across the table.

Wright watched: A white rectangle, moving slowly toward him.

When it reached him, he found his hands were shaking.

"I was scared," Wright recalled two years after the death of his only child, "afraid just to actually turn it over."

*

People across Los Angeles know there is a murder problem.

But most don't have to see it.

Residents in black neighborhoods have that burden. African Americans have long lived with a homicide epidemic that one veteran detective calls "the Monster."

Young black men in Los Angeles County for years have been far more likely to be murdered than anyone else. Four times more likely than young Latinos. Eighteen times more likely than young white men.

Last year, homicides in Los Angeles jumped 10%, prompting Police Chief William J. Bratton to call for a new anti-gang campaign. The rise in homicides made headlines. But the killings fell into an old pattern. For the fifth year in a row, about 40% of the victims were African American, even though blacks compose just 11% of the city's population.

Such numbers put black and white communities at the extremes of personal safety. Santa Monica, for example, has a murder rate similar to that of the safest European nations. By contrast, South-Central L.A. -- just a few miles away by freeway--has a murder rate double that of Bogota, Colombia.

Authorities say most black homicide victims die at the hands of other blacks. Witnesses often are afraid to step forward. Few killers are caught. They live alongside law-abiding neighbors, bragging, bullying, daring justice. Or they have been killed themselves.

People know where these murders take place: Slauson, Florence, Manchester, Century, Imperial. Residents from elsewhere in Southern California see these exits along the Harbor Freeway and drive past.

They know. But they don't know.

To lose someone in this way is to endure a catastrophe the world scarcely seems to notice. It is to wait behind yellow tape as your child dies beneath the hands of paramedics. It is to pull up your son's T-shirt and count the bullet holes in his back. It is to feel angry at blacks, angry at whites, angry at police, angry at killers still on the loose.

In interviews over four months in homes, hospitals and police stations and on city streets, dozens of people who have been affected by homicide spoke of the invisibility of this pain.

Nearly all expressed the sense that society cares less when victims are black. For all the notoriety of gangs and urban violence, they said, the suffering caused by the black-on-black homicide problem remains largely unseen.

The accounts that follow are from those forced to look.

*

This is the first in an occasional report on murder in Los Angeles. Monday: Surgeons work to save a gunshot victim at Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center.

A Mother's Loss: 'My Everything'

Wanda Bickham was in bed when the phone rang.

She picked up the receiver and heard a voice talking.

"Tyronn's been shot -- " the voice said.

Bickham reacted instinctively. She hung up.

Tyronn was 22, an aspiring fireman, just finishing the academy. He was broad-shouldered, striking, with eyes lined by thick black lashes. He had been homecoming king of Compton High School.

At night, after work, he would sprawl in his favorite corner of the couch and talk about his day as Bickham cooked him dinner. To Bickham, who never married and had no other children, Tyronn was "my everything," she said. "My whole life."

When her phone rang again, she let it go to voice mail. She sat staring.

It rang a third time.

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