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Besieged by Violence, Family Grieves Again

October 12, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

For the family gathered at the small one-story home in South Los Angeles, the scene was far too familiar.

Outside, children rode bikes and played on their great-grandparents' porch, blissfully unaware. Inside, adults sat stony-faced, trying to comprehend how yet another member of their family could be snatched away by gun violence.

Letisha Stephens, 25, was driving on the Artesia Freeway in North Long Beach when passengers in another car opened fire on her black SUV and at least three other vehicles Saturday before 12:30 a.m. Police said one of the vehicles was the shooters' intended target.

Stephens, the mother of two girls, ages 3 and 6, was the only person wounded, according to police. Family members said doctors at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center told them that Stephens, shot in the head, was brain-dead. No arrests had been made as of late Saturday.

Already, Stephens' name was being added to a litany of relatives gunned down on Los Angeles-area streets. Her uncles, Tyrone and Jesse. Cousins Terrance, Corey, Ja'mee.

In all, said Charlotte Austin-Jordan, Stephens' aunt, 13 members of the extended family have been killed since the late 1970s.

At the family home Saturday, Shalon Allen, 27, Stephens' cousin, closed her eyes and shook her head, a napkin wet with tears wadded in her right hand.

"Not again," she cried. "Not again, not again."

Other family members described, from experience, the onslaught of emotions that will, inevitably, come next. They spoke of how to keep faith when there is no hope. They described the awkwardness the mother of a dead child often feels when she is asked how many children she has. They told Stephens' mother, Cheryl Allen, 42, about the pit of loneliness that will undoubtedly envelop her on holidays and birthdays.

Allen listened stoically to their advice. "I'm preparing myself for what's going to happen," she said. "I'm dealing with it. Day by day. That's all I can do."

But a few minutes later her demeanor changed. Tears welled up. Her head turned away. "It's a little too much for me now," she said softly.

Members of the family said they had scant information about the circumstances of the shooting. Stephens had been returning home with a female friend from a roller rink in Cerritos. That woman jumped into Stephens' lap and guided the car to a stop near the Atlantic Avenue offramp after the shooting, they said. And they said the woman had spent most of Saturday being questioned by police.

Cheryl Allen said that a man -- a family friend who had accompanied Stephens to the rink and lived near her in Los Angeles -- had also been shot at by the assailants. His pickup was pierced by 13 bullets, she said.

Long Beach police said they believe that the shooters were in a white SUV with chrome rims. Officer Jana Blair said they think other people witnessed the shootings and asked anyone with information to call homicide investigators at (562) 570-7244.

Austin-Jordan thinks her niece was an innocent victim of a random, horrible act.

"I just don't get it," she said. "I don't know what frame of mind, what mentality you can have to pull upside somebody and just open fire. Her children could have been in the car."

Austin-Jordan became an activist after her own daughter, Ja'mee, was killed in 1988. She lost a second child in 1996, and since then has spent much of her time helping young offenders and counseling families who have lost children to violence.

But Saturday she wondered whether those efforts were in vain. "Am I doing enough?" she asked. "Is it worth it? When is it going to stop? When are people going to realize what is going on in our community?"

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