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A Life In the Balance

If the City, the County, His Family, His Counselors, His Teachers, the Police, Even Bullets Can't Rescue a Kid Like Joe Jones, Who Can? Is He, at 16, Already Doomed to a Cell or a Casket?

January 04, 2004|Michael Krikorian | Times staff writer.

On a winter night almost three years ago, joe jones dialed a popular party line where young thugs trade insults and try to pick up girls. The 13-year-old gangbanger seemed to have struck gold. A sweet-sounding teenager was coming on to him. She wanted to hook up. Tonight. So Joe did something the party line managers adamantly warn against--he gave her his address.

Jones, a Blood from the Fruit Town Brims, didn't know the girl was undercover. She'd been recruited by a Rollin' 30s Harlem Crip to find out where his rival lived. Shortly after 9 p.m. at Joe's mother's Inglewood apartment, there was a knock on the door. This is gonna be my night, Joe thought. He opened the door and a scowling young Crip shot him between the eyes.

The paramedics hustled Joe into their van, stuck him with two IVs and raced to Martin Luther King Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center. Luckily, the assassin was packing light. The .22 didn't have enough firepower to finish the job. It did leave Joe Jones blind in his left eye, deaf in his left ear and determined to change his life.

"I thought I was tough, but I wasn't," Jones said during his recovery. Separating his eyebrows is a small, puckered scar, the chilling souvenir from that February night. "Now I just want to get back into school."

But it wasn't long before Joe figured that one eye was all he really needed to see what was important in his life--his mother, pretty girls and, still, his homeboys and his enemies. So just four months after he was left for dead, the street beckoned again, and Joe Jones went back to the Bloods. He soon had a revelation: The bullets that dragged him right up to death's door had given him a certain prestige.

"It's hard to take a young boy away from glory," says an uncle who is familiar with the life. "Even if the glory you get is from hurting people."

Joe started banging again with renewed dedication -- fighting and getting revenge. His reputation grew. Then, on the night after Christmas in 2002, he walked out of an alley off 35th Street. Rollin' 30s Harlem Crips drove by and fired.

But this time there were no .22s--a .45 caliber bullet streaked straight for Joe Jones' brain.

Joseph Jones III was born July 3, 1987, at Gardena Memorial Hospital, descended from a long line of gang members.

His maternal grandfather was Carl Simmons, a legendary leader of the Businessmen, a black gang of the 1950s and '60s. Simmons died in 1973 in Folsom Prison after balloons of heroin he swallowed to hide from guards erupted in his stomach.

Joe's uncle, Carl Simmons, Jr., was an original gangster from the Fo-Tray Crips. Simmons, 43, shakes his head when reminded that he was a Crip and his nephew is a Blood.

Joe's father, Joseph Jones Jr., was born in 1950 in the now-leveled Aliso Village housing project in Boyle Heights. His family moved to Compton, where he attended Centennial High School. He hung with a rough crew who helped keep Compton's violent crime rate among the nation's highest. He ended up doing nearly five years in state prison for drug offenses and hijacking trucks.

After prison, he met Carla Simmons in 1985 at an unlikely spot--the Roxbury Recreation Center Park in Beverly Hills. They were there as part of a program called New Beginnings, which helped adults with drug problems. (Carla says she has been drug- and alcohol-free for 10 years.)

Jones, then 35 and working at Amtrak as a heavy equipment operator, was smitten with Carla, who was 24 and, as he describes her, "fine." Soon they moved into an apartment in South-Central.

''I gave her something no other person could give her--a son,'' boasts Jones, a powerfully built man who, at 53, still has his street toughness operating.

Two years after Joe III was born, his parents broke up.

''It kinda hurt 'cause I always wanted a son,'' says Jones, who also has a 25-year-old daughter. ''But I stayed in touch. I'm the one who taught him how to walk.''

But Joe II was not around long enough to teach Joe III how to walk away.

"My dad," Jones once lamented, "I don't see him that much. Probably if he was around more, I wouldn't have joined the Bloods."

Even with his gang-rooted family tree, even on the dead- end street where he hung out with the Brims, even on the emergency room operating table with blood oozing from his skull, Joe Jones was never a hard and hopeless case.

He could be an intelligent, curious, respectful boy, quick with a "thank you" and a "please." A kid who wrote poems, who had opinions on Bush and Saddam as rational as any, who could recite the 50 states of the union in alphabetical order with the speed of a county fair auctioneer. But, like thousands of other Los Angeles gang members, he got in trouble early, starting--as he once put it--"bumping heads with Crips'' in the fifth grade.

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