About three weeks ago, while on vacation, I received the following text; ‘My name is Lavedia Williams Guys from Nickerson Gardens told me to contact you I have a story”
I text back that I’d get with her when I return to L.A. I did. This is her story.
On July 18, 2017, her son, Devaughn James, 23, on parole since February after serving time for a residential burglary in Cerritos, is stopped near the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts for driving a car – his girlfriend’s - with expired tags.
(I guess it should be noted up top that James, who grew up in Pomona before coming to live in Watts with his mother at age 16, was not a member of the Bounty Hunters, the notorious Blood gang that rules the projects.)
“The sheriffs pulled us over at 113th and Bellhaven for expired tags,” says Lawren Huff, 24, James’ girlfriend of three years. “It was my car and he had a valid license.”
During the stop, the deputy, a guy named Rothwick (who I didn’t reach), is, according to Huff, “very polite”.
“He asked Devaughn if he was on parole and when Devaughn said ‘yes’, he asked ‘what for?’,” says Huff.
“A residential burglary,” James replies.
“Was it a bullshit charge or legit?” deputy Rothwick asks.
“No, it was legit. I did the crime,” answers James, who did the time, too, 17 months, much of it at a fire camp near Santa Clarita.
Rothwick - or his partner in the cruiser - run the address James gave them as his current residence. Their in-car computer shows a gun is registered to that address which is his mother’s home located a few blocks away on 113th and Wadsworth Avenue.
They place James in the patrol car and drive to the address. They knock. Lavedia Williams answers the door. Deputy Rothwick explains the situation.
She invites him into her spotless four-bedroom home. She shows him the gun in her bedroom, which has a lock on the door. He calls in a sergeant. They video the scene. They take the gun and take her son to the sheriff’s station.
They explain to the mom they will get a hold of James’ parole officer and then he will be released.
But, they can’t reach his parole officer. Instead, he is charged as a felon with access to and in possession of a firearm. He is sent to the county jail facility known as Wayside, near Magic Mountain.
And Devaughn James is facing seven years in prison for that gun.
By the time I get to Williams’ house. In late August. she’s a nervous wreck.
“This could ruin my son’s life,” she says, “I was honest with the sheriffs. I shoulda lied and or just not let them in the house. But, I told them the truth. It was my gun. My mom gave it to me so many years ago. It’s an heirloom. An old .32 revolver. It wasn’t even loaded. I only have two bullets and I keep them nearby, but not in the gun.”
Bam! And just like that. I have the lede for this story. This woman has twice the fire power of Barney Fife. I’ll get to that later.
Williams tells me about herself. She’s a former rabble-rouser from Nickerson Gardens who is tight with several guys I've known for decades. I mean she knows Loaf, Kartoon, Big Hank, Big Donnie. She’s impressed I know all these guys. It vastly helps my credibility and her comfort level. On the other hand, her knowing them lets me know I’m not dealing with Mary Poppins.
And just like that, she admits to being “in the life” back in the day. She fought. She dealt. She used. She represented. But, that was then. This is now. She’s been clean for 15 years. Now she’s a protective mother.
I take more notes. And vow to keep in touch. She gives me the next court date. I say I’ll try and make it. But, when that court date rolls around, I’m outta pocket.
Nothing happens in court that day anyway and the case is postponed until Sept. 15. This past Friday.
A week ago, I talk to Williams. She is more worried than ever. He son was at Wayside when a race riot breaks out. Two inmates are seriously injured. It’s an unsettling experience for James – 5’ 8’, 145 - and probably more so for her. She says her son told her he was “surrounded by 30 Hispanics.” at one point. This is not fire camp in Santa Clarita. Wayside don’t play.
Lavedia says again she hopes I can make it to court.
So, Friday, I come to Compton Court. 10th Floor. High security. I have lot of memories here. Most of them bad.
But, I’m not thinking of the bad times here: my namesake, Michael Jr., being sentenced to a long prison term; me in the lockup downstairs twice; the many tearful testimonies of kin of the killed.
Instead, I am gratefully thinking of one glorious memory here, a moment as liberating as I’ve ever known. It was about 30 years ago and I’m facing several years for a bar room brawl that spiraled out of control. I didn’t start it, but I ended it. I had thirty times the firepower of Barney Fife and all of it loaded.
I’m hoping, praying I get a year, maybe two, when the lawyer my dad hired, one brilliant attorney named Paul Geregos, (father of Mark) tells me the deputy district attorney and the judge have agreed to cut me a ton of slack. Time served and a month at Men’s Central.
I’m deep into this grateful thought – partly thinking with dread about where I would have ended up if I got the years - when an attractive young woman asks me “Are you Mike? Mike the writer?’ It’s Devaughn James’ girlfriend, Lawren. We talk. She details that traffic stop. Then Lavedia shows up. And then Devaughn’s sister. Then Lavedia’s boyfriend, Anthony.
Lavedia is thinking the worst case. I try to calm her.
“You ever hear that line by Mark Twain about worries?” I ask.
“Some of my biggest worries never happened,” I tell her, paraphrasing one of the great quotes.
She repeats it.
Then James’ public defender, A. J. Bayne, exits another courtroom and speaks to the family. He seems surprised that a reporter is there. I explained I’m a former Times staffer, and Watts – and South Central - was my beat and though I’m no longer on staff, I write an occasional op-ed for them. And I have this website.
“I know this isn’t a big front-page story,” I explain. “A triple murder or something. But, it’s a front-page story to this family.”
He seems to get that Bayne is clearly a busy public defender. He points to yet another courtroom and says he’s on a trial in there, too. Maybe we can talk later. Before he rushes off, he gives me a little on this case.
“This is not a strong case,” he says as he shuffles some papers, “I think if we go to trial, we will win.”
However, he says “the 459 (Burglary) conviction will taint him with some jurors, but at worst they would be a hung jury.”
He adds the value of the family being at the courtroom. “It’s very important the family shows up,” Bayne says. “Plus, they have credibility. I believe the mother. And another good thing for Devaughn is the D.A.. She’s reasonable.”
We wait outside. Lavedia asks me to repeat that Mark Twain quote.
Then deputy district attorney. Linda Davis arrives. She’s seen it all. About 10 years in Compton Court. Countless cases based in or near Nickerson Gardens.
Presiding in the court room, Dept. F, is Judge H. Clay Jacke II. Beside the court reporter, the Deputy D. A. , the P.D., it’s just the family on one side of the courtroom seats and me on the other. I’m closer to the attorneys and try to listen in one their whispers.
P.D. Bayne is showing deputy D.A. Davis a video his investigator took that shows the lock on Lavedia’s bedroom door. They speak too softly to eavesdrop. But, there are some nods.
Then about four, five minutes later, A. J. Bayne walks over Lavedia and says, not too softly. “He’ll be home for dinner tonight.”
She briefly convulses in joy. The girlfriend drops some tears. The sister does, too. Anthony smiles. I think back 30 something years.
Devaughn comes out and pleads, as agreed, “no contest”, a version of guilty, but usually associated with a good deal. He is sentenced to four years in prison, but suspended. Suspended means if you stay clean, don’t violate parole or probation, you don’t go to prison. The gun will be destroyed.
The family is thrilled, though Lavedia hopes to get it completely wiped off his record one day. The public defender is proud he got the guy a deal. Even the deputy D.A. is satisfied. She says that family showing up was important. And she got a gun destroyed.
The only person who was a little disappointed in the outcome was my crusty old editor Morty Goldstein, Jr., a curmudgeonly, nearly-fictional character.
He had hoped, after hearing about the two bullets laying near the gun, not even in the chambers, to use the following lede.
In the “Andy Griffith Show” of 1960s television. bumbling deputy sheriff Barney Fife was issued an unloaded Colt .38 caliber revolver. Sheriff Andy Taylor allowed him a single bullet that was to be kept in his uniform’s pocket and- only in an emergency – loaded into the gun.
Lavedia Williams of Watts had double the fire power of Barney Fife. Lavedia had unloaded “heirloom” .32. caliber revolver – a gift from her mother – stashed in the night stand of her usually-locked bedroom with two bullets laying nearby.
That old gun and those two bullets could cost her son seven years in prison.
But, even ‘ol Morty Goldstein is happy we don’t have to go with that lede.
“When that public defender,,, What's his name? A. J. Foyt?”
“A. J. Bayne.”
“Yeah. When A. J. tells the mom ‘He’ll be home for dinner tonight’, man, even I got a little misty.”
Coming from Morty Goldstein, Jr., that’s saying a lot. So Devaughn James, stay outta trouble.
Lavedia Willaims at home.