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Race of Compton Suspect Startles Police

White man held in the Price slaying grew up among blacks and was linked to the Crips.

September 26, 2003|Richard Fausset and Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writers

Except for the victim's ties to a famous family, the killing of Yetunde Price was distressingly typical for Compton, a late-night gang shooting with witnesses telling conflicting accounts.

But the arrest of suspect Aaron Hammer, 24, handed investigators a rare surprise: Hammer is white.

The detail was at once trivial and striking. Price, the half sister of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, was the victim of gang violence, police said. Hammer is believed to be an associate of the black Crips gang, police said, but his race appears to have no bearing in the case.

Still, a white associate of the Crips is so unusual in Compton that seasoned investigators did double takes.

"You don't get this," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Frank Merriman, head of homicide. He said he knew of only one other case in his 35-year career in which a non-Latino white had been linked in this way to a black gang.

"It was shocking to me," said Capt. Cecil Rhambo, head of the sheriff's Compton station, who grew up in South Los Angeles.

Such reactions speak to the racial segregation in Los Angeles County, and the corresponding segregation of crime. Compton is a black and brown city. Non-Latino whites make up only about 1% of the population. Gang members also are overwhelmingly African American and Latino.

Day in and day out, police confront an almost uniformly black and Latino world of victims and perpetrators in which gang affiliations follow predictable ethnic patterns. They almost never see suspects the color of "White Boy Aaron" -- Hammer's nickname in his Compton neighborhood.

In interviews, Hammer's acquaintances and family members said race had influenced his life in ways that went beyond the nickname. Some said that growing up white in a black neighborhood molded his choices, perhaps prompting him to try harder to fit in.

At the same time, though, their accounts highlighted ways in which race didn't seem to matter -- or at least mattered less than neighborhood conditions in shaping Hammer's life. The descriptions by friends and family members suggest that Hammer's connections to gangs had been woven of the same threads of geography and peer pressure as those of young black men commonly linked by police to gangs.

In the end, Hammer's race seemed to recede behind personal troubles, bad choices, brushes with the law and his desire "to kick it" with a tough but familiar crowd.

Hammer was charged Sept. 16 in the killing of Price, a 31-year-old mother of three outside a suspected drug house in south Compton early Sept. 14. His arraignment was scheduled for Tuesday. He was being held without bail at Twin Towers jail.

Detectives allege that Hammer and others opened fire from the frontyard at Price, a passenger in a white SUV. Merriman said investigators now believe that Price and her companion might have been just driving by, contrary to earlier reports that an argument had preceded the shooting.

Price has been described by friends and family as a devoted mother who co-owned a beauty salon and worked as a nurse. She had moved to a new house in Corona last year. Her death, one among several hundred homicide deaths in Los Angeles County so far this year, has sparked protests and drawn national attention to Compton.

Implicated in the crime, police said, are the Southside Crips, a long-standing Compton gang of about 150 members, nearly all black.

The racial makeup of Los Angeles County street gangs is reinforced by the culture of prisons, in which inmates commonly divide themselves along color lines, Rhambo said -- blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos. When whites enter the mix on the streets, Rhambo said, it's more common to see them join Latino gangs.

Exactly how closely Hammer was tied to the Crips is unclear. Lt. Dan Rosenberg, who is overseeing the homicide investigation, played down the connection. "I believe he may have been hanging out with them," he said. "I don't know if he was an active gang member."

His comments reflect one law enforcement view that gang membership can be ambiguous. Between those men identified by police as hard-core gang members and those called associates lies a "significant gray area," Rhambo said. On the edges of gangs are people who are related to gang members, or who have been intimidated or coerced into cooperating.

There are also those who have left the gang, or who simply spend time with members. "You may hang out with them, but you may not caper with them, or even drink with them," Rhambo said. "But then the cops pick you up with them ... and you are lumped in."

"It's possible," Rosenberg said, that Hammer "just hangs out with the fellas."

Acquaintances of Hammer voiced similar thoughts. Rogelio Alberto Tovar, 22, who is friends with many Southside Crips, said Hammer could never have been a true member of the traditionally black gang because he is white. Compton resident Ramon Sanders, who met Hammer two years ago, agreed.

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