PART I - "The Night the Crips Became Infamous"
In the week before March 20, 1972, all you had to say on the Southside of Los Angeles was “You going?” and people would know what you were talking about. It seemed as if everyone would be "going", going to the Hollywood Palladium. “Soul Train”, the popular Chicago-based dance show, was hosting its first Hollywood event. The buzz humming - through Watts, South Central, Compton Inglewood, Gardena - was electrified. I didn't go to the show, but, as a senior at Gardena High, I remember the excitement.
On that spring night in 1972, the Palladium’s marquee heralded Curtis Mayfield and Wilson Pickett and the promise of unrestrained soulful joy. This evening would be a groovin’, mass sing-a-long to Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman”, “It’s All Right” and “Super Fly”. A night of hearing Pickett pound out “In the Midnight Hour”, “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Don’t Knock My Love.”
This was to be a concert to remembered. And it still is. But, not for the music.
The show lived up to the buildup. It was a smashing success. But, the aftermath turned out to be a tragedy of monumental proportions that still reverberates 42 years later.
Shortly after the concert ended, on Sunset Boulevard, east of Vine Street, James “Cuzz” Cunningham saw a boy with the long black leather jacket. He told his crime partner, Judson Bacot, “I want that coat.”
The words sent a charge through Judson. He knew what was coming. He was ready. He put his hand on his Smith and Wesson .22.
The coveted leather jacket was known as a maxi coat, the type that goes nearly to the ankles, something Shaft would wear. Cuzz and Judson crossed to the south side of Sunset and zeroed in on 16-year-old concert-goer Charles Alexander Foster, whose two friends were walking slightly ahead of him. One of them was Robert Ballou, Jr..
In front of Mark C. Bloome Tires, Cuzz called out from about 20 feet away. “Hey dude, hey dude.”
“Me?” said Foster.
“Yeah. What’s up, man? I like that coat.”
“I do too,” Foster said.
By then, Bacot, 22, and Cunningham, 19, were on him..
“Take it off. I want it,” said Cuzz.
Judson pulled his revolver and growled menacingly , “This is a robbery. Don’t make it a homicide.”
Judson Bacot did not fire his gun.
The coroner’s office would summarize the death of Robert Ballou, Jr . as “Beating – Fists & Feet”
It was after midnight when the grandma entered the interview room at Hollywood Homicide, six blocks from the Palladium. Inside waiting was her 16-year-old grandson and LAPD Detective Al Gastaldo. She told her kin "Tell him what you know."
The boy hesitated, shrugged his shoulders, tilted his head. Grandma knew he knew something. Tell him, she demanded. He said nothing. She moved in close and,without warning, slapped him hard. Then slapped him back handed. Then forehanded. All the while yelling at him in front of the stunned detective. "Tell him! Tell him what you saw!" Smack! "Tell him was happened." Smack!
Finally he did. "It was the Crips."
The Crips? What the hell is the Crips?, thought Gastaldo. He had never heard the word before. Most people in Los Angeles hadn't either. But soon, after the sun rose and the glaring headlines of the Herald Examiner and the Los Angeles Times hit the corners, the Crips, the black street gang now known the world over, were on the fast lane to infamy.
"After his grandma smacked him around and he said the Crips did it, that was the first time I had ever heard of them," recalled Gastaldo as he sipped a ice tea at a San Fernando Valley Marie Calendar's. "After the juvenile said that, everything fell into place. By the next day, we had all the suspects in custody. But, if it wasn't for that grandma, I don't know if we would have solved that killing.”
The killing was shocking. It was brutality in a tourist location. It featured an ominous gang of suspects that brought fear to the entire city. There might be gang killings in Watts and Compton, but in in the heart of Hollywood? Was anywhere safe now?
It became known as the Hollywood Leather Jacket Murder, the stomping of Robert Ballou, Jr. at the Palladium on Sunset near Vine.
As it turned out, It would be the paramount killing that spawned the deadliest gang war in the history of the United States - The battle of the Crips and the Bloods. It is the seventh deadliest war in United States history after the Civil War, World War II, World War I, Vietnam, Korea and the American Revolution.
In the way that the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria sparked World War I, the war between the Crips and Bloods was ignited by the killing of Robert Ballou, Jr..
"It was definitely a landmark killing,” said Ken Bell a retired investigator for the District Attorney’s Hard Core Gang unit. “Nobody doubts the impact of this killing. That killing has become the status of the shot heard round the world in terms of gang killings. We had entered into a different world.”