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For Some, Redemption of Killer Rings Hollow

October 29, 2005|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Gene Hetzel is aware that death row inmate Stanley "Tookie" Williams has written books and been the subject of a movie. Hetzel even heard talk of a Nobel Prize nomination some years ago. And he knows that influential people are lobbying to win him clemency.

But for Hetzel, these details are eclipsed by older, clearer memories he links to Williams: the smell of garlic hovering on a cold morning over three people crumpled in a motel living room, their bodies blown apart by gunfire.

Williams was convicted of these 1979 murders and one other, and is scheduled to be executed Dec. 13. An admitted former gang leader, he has said he changed his outlook in prison, though he has maintained that he didn't commit these murders.

But Hetzel, 65, a retired homicide detective who investigated Williams, said he would never be convinced -- not by Williams' contentions that he is innocent, not by his professed change of heart that has drawn so many local and international religious leaders and other opponents of the death penalty to his defense.

"I don't know," Hetzel said. "I try to rationalize this every time I hear about it, and I don't know. I just don't know."

Hetzel belongs to a small cadre of skeptics -- victims' loved ones and police officers, mostly -- who recall a time before the world had heard of Tookie Williams. They remember how little was said, over the years, of Albert Lewis Owens, a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Pico Rivera, and the Yang family, who ran a motel on Vermont Avenue. Their deaths hardly made the papers.

Williams, 51, was convicted of killing four people in two robberies in 1979. The first crime took place Feb. 28, when Owens, a father of two working the night shift at the 7-Eleven, was shotgunned twice in the back at close range.

The second crime occurred 11 days later, after robbers crashed through the office door of the Brookhaven Motel, on Vermont Avenue just south of Century Boulevard, court documents said. Shot were motel owners Yen-I Yang, 65; Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, 62; and their daughter Yu-Chin Yang Lin, 42, according to coroner's officials.

Owens' stepmother, Lora Owens, said she was outraged that Williams' story of redemption (he was the subject of a television movie of that name) had eclipsed the story of Albert, a beloved son and father who served in the Army.

Albert was slim, 5 foot 9, with red hair, freckles and blue eyes, she said, adding that he was outgoing and "liked to do anything that was physical, anything manly."

She has one memory that sticks with her. It's just a random moment, a sunny afternoon: Albert is on the front lawn, showing off for the neighbors, doing push-ups with one hand. The neighbors laugh. His young stepbrothers watch, awestruck; they worshiped Albert. Lora Owens recalls chiding her stepson: "Pretty good! Now can you use those muscles to push the lawnmower?"

He later married, had two daughters and settled in Whittier. The marriage ended in divorce. At 26, Owens, unsteadied by the breakup, "was trying to figure things out," Lora Owens said.

He had always had a practical, willing attitude about work, and he wasn't above a job as a night clerk at 7-Eleven. Owens laughed off his stepmother's worries. "I need the money," she recalled him saying.

It was 4 a.m. when the four robbers came in.

One of them took Albert into a storeroom and made him kneel or lie down, according to police accounts and court documents. He was shot twice in the back at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun. A customer found his body later, according to press accounts.

Afterward, an accomplice of Williams who turned informant said Williams bragged that he "blew some white guy away, shot him in the back, for $63," according to court documents.

Charles and Lora Owens were notified by phone. Charles' health went downhill after that. On his deathbed in 1995, Albert's father turned to his wife and asked, "You won't forget Albert, will you?"

When the television movie got Albert's name wrong, calling him "Alvin," Lora Owens tracked down the producers and complained. They apologized and changed it, she said.

She favors the execution and views Williams' fame as a betrayal. She tells people who disagree that they don't know the agony of the loss.

"Albert was so vibrant and alive. Then, in the next minute, he was dead," she said.

The triple slaying had the same style as the Owens murder. Relatives of the victims could not be reached for comment, but others who were there say they won't forget it.

The Yangs were Taiwanese, according to police. They owned the Brookhaven Motel. Daughter Yu-Chin Lin had just joined them from Taiwan.

Sgt. David Longshore, a Los Angeles County sheriff's detective, knew the name "Barefoot Tookie" Williams at the time, in the loose way that police track local gang members thought to be shot-callers and shooters in the areas where they work.

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