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A Steep Fall Into Gang Life

A standout youth full of promise gives in to the lure of the street. Getting shot, testifying despite peril, growing 'tired of running' all play a part.

August 05, 2004|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

At 16, he was a top student, star athlete and police Explorer.

At 21, he was a Crip bent on avenging a murder.

How one black teenager, nicknamed Gizmo, went from promise to catastrophe in a few years reveals the complicated relationship between African Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department in the city's most violent neighborhoods.

Police in South Los Angeles mix it up with the same people all the time, mostly young black men. They alternate between friendly persuasion and ruthless confrontation, tactics they say they used to try to save Gizmo. His family says they only made things worse. Both sides describe a relationship that was tense, emotional and strangely intimate.

As with many South L.A. stories, this one begins with a bullet.

Gizmo was shot walking home on a spring morning in 2001. He was 16, advanced in high school for his age, and two weeks shy of graduation. The gunmen were gang members from another neighborhood.

He tried to run, but made it only as far as two parked cars. He crouched between them and listened to bullets hiss by his ear. "Sip, sip, sip," he said, recalling the sound. One clanged against metal, inches away. Then something slammed his body forward, and he went numb.

He was lucky. The bullet damaged organs but didn't kill him.

Among the first to visit him in the hospital was Officer Gary Beecher.

Beecher, 38, ran youth programs in the LAPD's Southwest Division, and had recruited Gizmo to the Explorers.

A former outfielder once drafted by the Angels, Beecher was a seasoned patrolman who had worked gang units.

He has also worked with hundreds of black and Latino youths in South Los Angeles as a coach and as a volunteer in sports leagues.

Gizmo was among Beecher's favorites.

"A super kid," the officer said. "He always went above and beyond what I told him to do. Always, 'Yes, sir, what do you want me to do next?' "

Recovering in the hospital, the bullet still inside him, Gizmo told Beecher that LAPD investigators had asked him to identify his attacker.

Gizmo was reluctant -- loath to be known as a snitch.

Beecher urged him to cooperate.

Are you a gang member or not? the officer asked.

A Model Student

Gizmo was slim, with very dark hair and skin, large, wide-set dark eyes, and a way of tilting his chin high when he spoke. He was sharp, a fluid talker full of lithe, quick movements -- always busy and darting soundlessly around the house.

As a toddler, he had been tiny for his age, and family members borrowed his nickname from that of a very small toy. As Gizmo grew up, he remained slight, but was superbly agile, a sprinter and natural baseball player who was also a model student.

He had a half brother, five years younger, whom the family called "Red" because of his light, ruddy skin and red hair. Red had more brawn than Gizmo and was also more gregarious and defiant. Unlike his studious older brother, Red hated school.

(Gizmo and members of his family insisted that the brothers' full names not be used and that their mother and grandparents remain anonymous. They said they feared further violence from gang members if their identities were revealed.)

Children of a single mother and absent fathers, the boys were raised by their grandparents -- a retired teacher and aerospace worker. The family thought it best to raise the boys in a two-parent home; their mother visits daily.

The elderly couple were devoted to the boys. They took them on fishing expeditions. Sports trophies, dozens of them, accumulated six deep in the couple's living room.

The grandparents were delighted when, at age 14, Gizmo told them he wanted to be a police officer. They signed him up as an Explorer at Southwest, which neighbored the 77th Street Division where they lived.

LAPD Explorers is an educational program for teenagers interested in law enforcement careers. Beecher thought Gizmo a great candidate.

And the grandmother welcomed Beecher into the family. "A loving person," she called him. She felt she and Beecher shared a goal: to steer Gizmo away from the local gang, a subset of a larger gang and consisting of about three dozen young men.

Gizmo couldn't walk out his front door without seeing one of the gang, Beecher said.

"You live in that neighborhood, you are going to be associated with them," he said. "You've got to say, 'Hi,' to them or they're going to kick your ass."

Being an Explorer took courage. The toughs called him blue boy, police flunky.

But he seemed impervious. He was a college-bound baseball infielder at Manual Arts High School and took weekend Advanced Placement courses at USC. He was named the Southwest Division's outstanding Explorer recruit.

His grandmother treasured that trophy above the others, giving it a special place in front of the piano.

As Gizmo lay in his hospital bed, Beecher told him he was confronted with a choice: Testify, and demonstrate that he was not a gang member, or decline, as gang members nearly always do. The teenager understood.

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