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Community mourns activist's son

The Watts man shot himself Dec. 9. Friends say he was upset over his brother's slaying.

December 21, 2006|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

The photos said it all: The slide show at Darrian Cole Sr.'s funeral featured snapshots of him taken at another funeral, just three months earlier, for his older brother Anthony.

On Wednesday, about 500 mourners, including City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and other officials, came to grieve for the second son of Watts activist Cynthia Mendenhall-Walker to die since August.

Cole, 22, reportedly died by his own hand after a police pursuit Dec. 9. His brother Anthony Owens, three years older, was killed Aug. 30 in a drive-by shooting in the 2000 block of East 115th Street inside the Imperial Courts housing project in South Los Angeles.

Mendenhall-Walker, the manager of a senior-citizen home, is a well-known activist who runs a community group in Imperial Courts that bears her nickname, "Sista Soulja."

The details of Cole's death remain sketchy, and the Los Angeles County coroner's office has not issued a formal ruling on whether it was an accident or suicide. But some of Cole's acquaintances said they believed grief drove him to self-destruction.

"I want to be with Tony," he had told several of them.

"After his brother died, it clouded his path," said lifelong friend Rodney Moore. "Things were not even for real for him anymore."

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said that Cole had been driving erratically early on a Saturday morning in unincorporated Willowbrook when deputies picked up the chase.

The pursuit ended in the 2300 block of Santa Ana Boulevard, where deputies struggled with Cole, who broke free and ran. He struggled briefly with his stepfather, then reached into a bag, pulled out a gun, and shot himself in the head, they said.

Cole's sudden, violent death came as a surprise to many who knew him. The act was "very unlike him," said LAPD Officer Rich Suviate, who works in Imperial Courts. Cole and his older brother were "good kids in a bad area, trying to do the right thing."

"I didn't see it coming," said Perry Crouch, a gang-intervention counselor and spokesman for the family. Although Cole was clearly upset after his brother's death, he did not seem angry or hostile, he said. Instead, he was unusually hurried and seemed to have "lost steam," Crouch said.

But others said Cole's moods had been unpredictable in recent months. And Crouch said that once or twice he had found Cole sleeping in his car at the spot where his brother was gunned down.

Both Cole and his brother helped their mother with community activities -- including youth clubs, toy drives, job fairs and basketball programs -- based in Imperial Courts. Mendenhall-Walker has long been known as a kind of "Queen Mother" of Watts, said Duane Faust, 38, a businessman also involved in the community's service work.

Mendenhall-Walker was present when Cole died. Known as a peacemaker, she helped appease an angry crowd at first inclined to blame deputies, police said.

Now, Mendenhall-Walker may take a break from her outreach work to reflect and "keep her health intact," after losing two of her four children in quick succession, Crouch said.

Mendenhall-Walker sat in front during the funeral. Dressed in all black with a formal boater-style hat, she rose often to greet and hug mourners. At one point she stepped away to hug and rock one of Cole's sisters, who had become almost hysterical during the service.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton sent representatives to the service. Speakers included Hahn, who presented Mendenhall-Walker with a City Council proclamation in Cole's honor and praised Cole's community service work.

Cole, who had attended Jordan and Locke high schools and graduated from a technical school, often spoke to groups of young people about staying out of gangs, and organized youth clubs.

"In his short, short life, he worked for peace," Hahn said. "We know in this battle for peace there will be casualties, and he is one."

Crouch then made one of many appeals to nonviolence during the service. "Just once, can we figure out what we are doing wrong as a people?" he asked.

Cole, a father of four whose nickname in Imperial Courts was "Iceberg Shorty," had been trained in construction and roofing by the county Housing Authority and wanted to work in construction, friends said. He had worked for the gang-intervention group Unity One, and worked with youth clubs in housing projects.

The blue-and-white interior of New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles was packed with teenagers and children for the service. Some wore T-shirts or sweatshirts bearing Cole's photo.

Marcus Witherspoon, 13, said he had looked up to Cole, whom he called a jokester who wore quarters in his ears. "He was a good man. He was caring," he said.

Because of a late start, and many speakers, the service ran more than three hours, and planned speakers had to be cut short at the end to make sure mourners got to the burial on time.

As the slide show ended, featuring images of Cole and his brother arm in arm and Cole at his brother's funeral, Mendenhall-Walker abruptly stood, and began crying out in apparent anger.

She made gestures of frustration, hacking the air with her hands, before being led weeping from the church. She returned a short time later.

jill.leovy@latimes.com

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