Limited "Nancy Dog" At Sumo Rated #1 Hot Dog In America, Proceeds Go To Midnight Basketball League In Watts

For the first time since 1947 when hot dogs were first rated nationally, a version available in Los Angeles has awarded the prestigious "Top Dog"  honors by the Restaurant Critics Association of America, it was announced Wednesday.

The winner, the "Nancy Dog", the creation of Nancy Silverton for Sumo Dog on Western Avenue in Koreatown, will only be available until January 22  and cost $9  with 20% ($1,80) of each sale going to help fund the Nickerson Gardens Recreation Center participation in the Midnight Basketball League in Watts.   

The Silverton creation - with contributions from Osteria Mozza chef Elizabeth "Go Go" Hong and chi Spacca chef Ryan DeNicola -  consists of a beef hot dog from the renowned Snake River Farms, provolone cheese, Calabrese aioli, pickles, onions, pepperoncini and wild oregano on a Martin's potato roll. One good bite and you'll know why the RCAA voted it best hot dog in the country. The worrisome news is the Nancy Dog will only be available until January 22.

The Midnight Basketball league is a nationwide non-profit founded in 1986 by G Van Standifer, a Army veteran and government worker who died in 1992. Here is a quote from him on the website   "The Midnight Basketball League is is not just about playing basketball. It’s about providing a vehicle upon which citizens, businesses, and institutions can get involved in the war against crime, violence, and drug abuse”,

In Watts, the league plays not only in Nickerson Gardens, but at the nearby Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts projects as well.  The gym at Nickerson Gardens features a mural created by Brian "Loaf" McLucas - an old friend - which reads "Nobody Can Stop This War But Us"  That is a purpose of the basketball games.

(To read about the Wall  check  this

Back to the Nancy Dog. Wednesday was the first day the special treat was made available to the pubic, but several restaurant professionals were given an advance taste over the previous weekend. They were stunned by the depth of flavor. 

"When I first bite into it, I thought I should get out of the haute cuisine life  and try the top the Nancy Dog," said Joel Robuchon.  the world's most honored chef. "But, then I thought there was no way I could top a hot dog made by Nancy Silverton."

Sumo Dog is at 516 S. Western Avenue. The website is  Sumo Dog opens everyday at 11:30 a.m. and closes at midnight on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 10 p.m. other days. 




A Mom, A Son, A Public Defender, A Deputy D.A., Mark Twain and Barney Fife

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.

John Skaggs, Big City Homicide Detective With A Mayberry Heart, Retires From LAPD

June 30, 2017

February, 2005 – LAPD Officer Sam Marullo and his homicide training officer Det. John Skaggs are driving past the sprawling U.S. Post Office facility on Central and Florence avenues in South Central Los Angeles.

 “You know, Marullo, this is the largest mail facility west of the Mississippi.”

 Murullo looks up from a Grape Street murder book he’s been studying and says “Dayum!”

Besides his father Ronnie, who was a homicide detective for the Long Beach Police Department, there was a fictional detective who inspired John Skaggs to go into law enforcement. But, it was not super cool Steve McQueen with his ’68 Mustang 390 GT of “Bullitt” or deadly Clint Eastwood with his .44 magnum of “Dirty Harry”. It was that soft-spoken, kind and – most of all – respectful Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

 “My favorite TV show as a kid and today was the cop show ‘Andy Griffith’,” said Skaggs, a 30-year veteran of the LAPD who is retiring today. “There was some life lesson learned from every episode about morals and relationships.  I have taken away many ideas from that show on how to treat people with respect, and deal with courage and bravery.”

Although Skaggs, 52, grew up in Long Beach around cops – his uncle was a deputy chief for the LAPD who retired in 1986 – he didn’t seriously consider law enforcement as a career until he was about 17. 

“I got into some trouble as a kid and decided I needed to get away from some bad influences. Soon after, I developed my desire to be a police officer and joined the police academy and never looked back.”

After graduating, he requested to be sent to either of the city’s two highest crime rate areas. 

“I chose 77th Street Division, which covers South-Central, and Southeast Division, which covers Watts.  These two were the busiest Divisions, and they had the largest gang problems.”

Skaggs knew from going to high school in Long Beach and witnessing what was happening on inner city streets and in schools that gang enforcement would be where he could have the biggest impact on people's quality of life.

“The main reason I joined LAPD, was because they were the only police department with a true gang unit.  Their Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) Unit was devoted to one thing, gang suppression.  I joined the LAPD to be a gang officer. I could chase gang members that were responsible for most violent crimes and completely ruined communities with fear and intimidation.”

But, along the wide ride, Skaggs discovered something many cops, journalists and regular folk don’t realize; Gang members are humans, too.

“One thing that stands out is the number of gangsters I built friendly relationships with that were later killed,” Skaggs said. “Many tried to get out of 'hood life.  I observed very often that I was the only person in their lives that ever encouraged them to go legit and get an education or job that would lead to a career.  So many of them had no positive influence in their lives and no role models.”

Rob Bub, who recently retired from the LAPD after 22 years in homicide, was Skaggs' field training officer.

“If you are a training officer, John was the guy wanted to have,” said retired LAPD homicide detective Rob Bub, who was Skaggs’ training officer.

“John knew what he didn’t know and what he needed to learn,” said Bub

The very first day Bub was training Skaggs, they got a call for a man with a knife in a domestic dispute.

“We roll up on the scene and we go around the back of the house on Figueroa,” explained Bub. “And there was this Hispanic guy with a 12-inch kitchen knife. I’m thinking John’s first shift and we are gonna end up dumping somebody.”

The two took up tactical positions and Bub had an idea. He knew Skaggs was fresh out of the academy where they teach rudimentary Spanish.

“Knock him dead with your Spanish,” Bub told Skaggs. “And John talked him out of it. He dropped the knife. It was refreshing to see someone on their first day who knew what to do.”

Christopher Barling, homicide coordinator of the 77th , met Skaggs 30 years ago at the police academy. They were at CRASH together and partners on and off for five years at Southeast. 

“Without a doubt John is one of the best homicide detectives in the LAPD thanks, in large part, to his persistence and stubbornness,” said Barling.“  The characteristics of persistence is not unique among detectives, but John Skaggs has perfected it. "He’s like that old salesman who is about to get shut down and told to leave and at the very last moment, he sticks his foot in front of the closing door.”

It’s not breaking news that the most difficult part of the murder investigations, especially on the Southside of Los Angeles, is getting witnesses. There is the fear of retaliation. Fear of going to court. Fear of being labeled a snitch. And, coming in first place, the fear of getting shot to death for cooperating with the dreaded enemy; the police.

Barling said Skaggs had and knack for getting people to open-up.

“One of John’s greatest gifts was the ability to get someone on his side. He is going to take care of a witness. He has this talent for building a bond with people. And he is very sincere.”

Skaggs also had the talent for pissing people off, Barling said. His fellow detectives, the younger officers, and even his captains and commanders were fair game..

“As his partner, sometimes John’s stubbornness drove me crazy,” Barling said. “He is so strong willed, so strongly opinionated that sometimes he did not want to listen to anyone.”

And Skaggs was never one to apply a coat of sugar.

“People don’t like to hear they are wrong, but Skaggs had no problem telling people what he thought of them,” said Barling. “Me, I might try and finesse a situation. But, John would just tell them 'You’re wrong'."

“In John’s world, you are either helpful or you are a dumb ass.”

LAPD Chief of Police Charlie Beck lavished praise on Skaggs.

“There is nothing more honorable in policing than detective work,” Beck said via E-mail.  “The dogged determination and intelligent pursuit of the truth required are the best of our qualities.  John Skaggs was born to be just such a detective. He is relentless and brilliant in his hunt for the worst mankind has to offer.  I have depended on him to solve our most important cases.”

In 2009, Beck promoted Skaggs to head the West Bureau Homicide which is currently located at the Olympic Division on Vermont and 11th Street.

“I was proud to promote him so he could pass his skills to those under his command,” Beck said.  “I will miss having him to rely on, but his retirement is well earned.”

Skaggs will expand his role as a teacher and consultant for government programs that assist police departments across the country with high homicide rates and low clearances.

Skaggs will likely teach these departments the value of a good CI.  A CI, or Confidential Informant, is an essential player for a successful homicide detective. Skaggs had some of the best.

“We would be stuck on a case, and John would go off somewhere and talk to one of his informants,” said Sal LaBarbera. another storied LAPD homicide detective who retired in 2015. “Ten, 20 minutes later, he’d come back with some vital information. I’d say ‘How the hell did you get that?’ Even though I knew.”

One of Skaggs prime CI’s talked about him with the proviso her name would not be used.

“I was arrested for prostituting on Figueroa 19, 20  years ago or so and I told the officer ‘What if I told you about a murder?’ Next thing I knew I was taking to John Skaggs. He told me to trust him and I did. Was one of my best decisions. One thing about John. If he gave you his word, he honored it. His word was his bond.”

The woman, hooked on crack, was later involved with a carjacking and did six years in prison. When she got out, she called on Skaggs.

“He was there for me. He helped me stay sober.   I got in a [drug and alcohol] treatment place and John would come visit me.”

She has been clean and sober for six years now.

“Five of those six years John was there to hand me my sobriety cake,” she said. “When life shows up and I need that shoulder to cry on, John is there for me.”

August, 2005 – LAPD Officer Sam Marullo and his homicide training officer Det. John Skaggs are driving by the sprawling U.S. Post Office facility on Central and Florence avenues in South Central Los Angeles.

 Marullo’s head is deep into a Mad Swan Bloods vs. Main Street Crip killing.

 Skaggs points at the post officer.

 “You know, Sam, this is the largest mail facility west of the Mississippi.”

 “I didn’t know that. Must be a whole lotta letters up in there.”

 LaBarbera said Skaggs solved more of his cases than anyone he knew.  “More than me. More than Barling. He had great persistence.”

Skaggs most famous case was detailed in L.A Times reporter Jill Leovy’s outstanding book “Ghettoside”. All of Skaggs talents are revealed as he successfully investigates the killing of Bryant Alexander Tennelle, son of LAPD homicide detective Wallace Tennelle. 

“If you read the book,”. Leovy said, “It might seem like John is a caricature of a homicide detective, But, in reality, I downplayed him. He really cares deeply about the cases. He has this laser focus. By the way, he thought “Ghettoside” was a book about the [Tennelle] case and everything else in it was just filler.”

Two men were convicted of Tennelle’s murder and both are in prison.

Of, course, all the murders weren’t solved. One of them was the 2006 Watts killing of 25-year-old Anthony Wayne Owens, Jr. shot to death at Imperial Courts housing project.

But, mention Skaggs to Anthony’s mother and she passionately praises him.

“That there is a good man,” says Cynthia Mendenhall, much better known in Watts as community activist Sista Soulja.  When she is told Skaggs is retiring, Sista gets silent for several seconds before saying “For real? You’re gonna make me cry.”

“John Skaggs treated me and my family like we were his family,” said Sista, a former PJ Crip who turned peacemaker and community activist more 20 years ago.  “John was hurt he couldn’t solve Tony’s murder. But, he just couldn’t get what he wanted from the people that knew.  He took it personally.  He is, I guess now was, a great detective. He wasn’t there for the check. He was there for the people.  It was like he was on a mission to catch killers before another innocent life was lost”

Lashell Lewis is mother whose son’s murder was solved by Skaggs. 

In March, 2004, Edwin Johnson, 18, was visiting friends at 97th and Hickory in the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts. A car of rival drove by and Edwin was shot five times.

The mom said that though her son was born in L.A. , he was raised in Big Bear which did not prepare him for the mean streets.

“My son, not being raised in Watts, didn’t know how to dodge bullets,” said Lewis. “I was devastated. I put my faith in John.”

Eight months later, Skaggs having pulled out his main tools – perseverance, charm, trust, sincerity and respect –  solved the case.

“John treated me as a human person with love, kindness and respect,’ said Lewis. “He assured me he would not give up. He treated me, ya know, with love. I think of him not so much as a friend, but more like a big cousin or an uncle.”

March, 2006 – LAPD Officer Sam Marullo and his homicide training officer Det. John Skaggs are driving by the sprawling U.S. Post Office facility on Central and Florence avenues in South Central Los Angeles.

Marullo’s preparing himself to give a “notification” to mother whose 17-year-old son has been killed near Nickerson Gardens.

 Skaggs points at the post office.

 “You know, Sammy, this is the largest mail facility west of the Mississippi.”

 Marullo doesn’t even look up and just says “They must have stamps for days.”

Marullo, who formally became a homicide detective in February, 2014, is grateful for Skaggs’ mentorship. Still, he enjoys chiding Skaggs about the mail facility.

“Every single time we passed that place he would say that. ‘This is the largest mail facility west of the Mississippi.” And most every time I would act as though I hadn’t already heard that.  

When it came Marullo’s time to train officers, he followed his mentor’s tradition of telling them about the mail facility.

“I would then say, ‘Did I already tell you that?’ and they would say “Yeah, about three times.’ Millennials. I guess I came from a different era because each of the 15 times John told me that, I act as though it was the first time I heard that useless fact.”

Marullo said Skaggs had high expectations of him and that made him work harder and smarter.

“I find myself placing those same expectations on the trainees with whom I've worked.”

Marullo went on.

“John was dedicated to working murders.  He sacrificed half of his life to chasing killers.  He always left a positive impression on the victims' families and always followed through with his promise to do all that he could to find the person who killed their loved one. He is not only a mentor, but a friend.”  

This morning, shortly after 9 a.m., Skaggs landed at LAX after a week in Memphis and headed for his last shift.

“I’m leaving with a ton of great memories and a few bad ones after 30 years of service,” said Skaggs. “It was an awesome ride.”

Maybe if Frank Bullitt and Dirty Harry Callahan were real, they coulda learned a few things from John Skaggs, the big city detective with the small town heart. Check out the photo below. That’s a real homicide detective. Ain’t nothing Hollywood about it.


The Ground Breaks At Mud Town Farms In Watts

Grape Street and baby kale are about as synonymous as Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis and the Peace Corps.

Yet Wednesday afternoon in Watts, baby kale - along with roasted brussels sprouts, grilled eggplant and red and yellow bell peppers  - starred in a buffet lunch at the groundbreaking ceremony of Mud Town Farms, a 2 1/2 acre plot near 103rd and Grape streets designed to be a model for the working urban garden. Mud Town Farms will have a mixed fruit orchard and a wide variety of crops, the first of which could be ready to harvest this summer.

"This is a dream project that was not supposed to happen, but it is happening," said Janine Watkins, a community activists whose family moved to the area in 1921. "This is a gift to the babies of one of the poorest  and most maligned communities in our city."

She said Mud Town Farms will help people of Watts form a special bond with the land that for many, if not most, has been missing.

"When you disconnect with Mother Earth, Mother Earth forgets who you are," she said. "Let's make this suffering ground come to life. Put down your cell phone and pick up a shovel. This dirt right here is Watts happening."

The Los Angeles City Council was represented by Councilman Joe Buscaino of the 15th District which includes Watts. He called Mud Town Farms the "re-imagination of 103rd and Grape Streets," as he thanked,  among others,  gang interventionist and social architect Aqeela Sherrillsand chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson whose restaurant LocaL is a half block away. 

Tim Watkins, the CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, the non-profit that owns the land, looked at the chain link fence separating the farm from the Jordan Downs housing project and announced it would be replaced by "an edible fence", overflowing with fresh vegetables.

"People from the neighborhood will be welcome to come to the fence and pick what they need," Watkins told crowd of 150. "They won't have to sneak in at night.  If they take a little more than they can use, that's okay with me. It's here for them,  And if they want to get a little more involved in the garden, they can come inside the fence."

All the speeches went on. chef Eugene Johnson was at the grill, getting the buffet ready; The eggplants, the chick peas, the balsamic pomegranate vinaigrette, the tahini, the pumpkin seed pesto and, yes, the baby kale.  


Howard Bingham, Legendary Photographer of Muhammad Ali, Dies At 77

On June 12, 1994, when O.J. Simpson left LAX. for Chicago shortly before midnight and roughly 90 minutes after Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed, storied photographer Howard Bingham was on the same flight. At Simpson’s fiery trial he was called to testify as to Simpson's demeanor

Naturally, Bingham was the only witness both defense and prosecution liked.

Johnnie Cochran, approaching the witness: “Are you a world-renowned photographer?”

Bingham: “The world's greatest.”

Cochran: “So, we’re clear about that.”

Later, on cross-examination, when Marcia Clark made a passing reference to Bingham as an outstanding photographer, Judge Lance Ito interrupted: “Uh, the world’s greatest.”

Bingham: “You’re a smart man, judge.”

Howard Bingham died Thursday, Dec. 15 at the age of 77.

"Howard, one of the kindest people I've known, used that kindness to win friends around the globe and help mankind by using his lens to reveal humanity in its stark, unblemished beauty." said Tim Watkins of the Watt Labor Community Action Committee who knew Bingham for over 50 years. "He photographed the greatest of greats yet never lost his connection and love for Watts where his family settled many decades ago.".

Bingham was a photographer for the African American newspaper Los Angeles Sentinel in 1962 when he was assigned to cover a professional fight by an up-an-coming young boxer named Cassius Clay. 

The rest, as has often been said, is history.

One of the great phone calls of my life came from Howard. I was at my desk at the Los Angeles Times after having covered Muhammad Ali coming to Watts in 1996 or '97..

The phone rang. I picked up.

"This is Howard Bingham. The Champ wants to talk to you."

An Oasis Blooms In Watts; Dorothy Sampson and Her Roses

More than 19 years ago, I was H2H, ( heading to a homicide) on 102nd and Grape when I noticed a profusion of color to my left. Hundreds of rose bushes were in full bloom near the corner of Grandee Avenue and Century Boulevard. It was the rose garden at the Watts Senior Center. I went back later and talked to the caretaker of the garden, the lovely and spirited Dorothy Sampson.

Yesterday, I stopped in on the way to Jordan Downs and learned Dorothy, now 82,  had retired two years ago. In 2007, the city council voted to renamed this oasis as the Dorothy Sampson Senior Center and Rose Garden.Rose.

I wrote the story below that ran in the Los Angeles Times on January 1, 1997.  


Today in Pasadena, hundreds of thousands of people will watch the nation's best-known celebration of the rose. On Thursday in Watts, one person will continue her work on a quieter tribute--the smallest nationally accredited rose garden in America.

Dorothy Sampson will don overalls, grab pruning shears and lovingly tend the Watts Senior Citizens Center Rose Garden.

"I love this place," said Sampson, 63, the gardener at the center, pruning her way through the 480 rosebushes.

The rose garden near the tracks of the Metro Blue Line grew from a dream that germinated eight years ago.

In 1988, Dolores Van Rensalier, then the director of the center, took a group of seniors citizens to Exposition Park's rose garden near the Coliseum. A member of the group, Arvella Grigsby, taken by the beauty of the roses, sadly remarked that it was "too bad there will never be a beautiful public rose garden in Watts."

"I said, 'Why not?' " Van Rensalier recalls. "From that moment on, I was determined to have a rose garden in Watts. Everybody laughed at the idea. They thought the roses would be stolen. Even Arvella patted me on the back and said, 'That's OK, dear.' "


But it wasn't OK with Van Rensalier, a native New Yorker who vowed to create a place of beauty in a neighborhood too well-known for its negatives.

"It doesn't take a lot of people to make a difference," Van Rensalier said from her office at City Hall, where she works for the Department of Recreation and Parks. "Just a few people is all it takes."

Thanks to Van Rensalier, Sampson and crews from the parks department, Watts now has a true garden spot at 1657 E. Century Blvd.

The first roses were planted in 1990. By 1994, the garden was given national accreditation by All-America Rose Selections, based in Chicago. The organization usually requires a garden to have a minimum of 800 bushes before it is accredited, but waived that for the Watts garden, which at the time had fewer than 300.

"We think that a garden is such a wonderful place to reflect, especially in an urban environment like Watts, that the community deserved accreditation," said Patti Tobin, the organization's director of communications. Being accredited allows the garden to receive about 40 of the year's top-rated new roses from the accrediting group.

Today, the garden still has fewer roses than any of the nation's more than 130 other accredited gardens. Nonetheless, there are 480 rosebushes and 25 varieties at the Watts garden, which is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

One month after the first bushes were planted, Sampson was hired as the full-time gardener. She had developed an early love for gardening while growing up in Louisiana. Her father would come home from his day job and work on his plot until dark.

"I'd hear that old hoe go 'chomp, chomp,' and I would have to go out and help him," Sampson said.

Sampson married a man who didn't care for the outdoors, so they made a deal: He'd make the breakfast, she'd work in the yard.

"It worked out fine, until he had company over," she laughed. "He would say, 'Look at you, look at you.' "

After she retired in 1983 from her manufacturing job, Sampson began to work as a professional gardener. Not until last year, at 62, did she stop cutting lawns. Now she has only roses to tend.

"It's nice to go by and see this," Juan Mendoza, 19, said as he strolled by the garden on his way to a market.

Mendoza remembers the plot of earth before the roses bloomed.

"It used to be bunk. Now it's cool. The guys around here respect this place," he said, gesturing at the graffiti-scarred neighborhood, a stark contrast to the clean walls of the senior citizens center.

There were a few thefts of rosebushes during the early years of the garden, but they have stopped, residents said.

For motorists driving down Century Boulevard near the Blue Line tracks, the garden provides a stunning splash of color most of the year. This week, however, Sampson is finishing the yearly pruning of the bushes, and soon nothing but bare canes will be on display while the roses rest for two months.

As lovely as the garden is, Sampson is not quite satisfied. Many of its older bushes are not the top-performing varieties, and Sampson longs to replace them. However, there are no funds to buy new roses.


The rose she yearns for the most is Double Delight, one of the world's most beloved flowers: intensely fragrant, with a brilliant red edge and a creamy white center.

She grows dreamy-eyed when she talks about the flower.

"That's my favorite rose, but we only have one," she said.

On Monday morning, with the cloudy skies threatening, Sampson was out in the garden pruning. She came across the one bush of Double Delight, graced with one last strikingly beautiful rosebud. She cut the bloom, took a long whiff, gave it to a visitor and shook her head.

"God, I love that rose," she said.



LocoL Watts, A Soft Opening in a Hard Neighborhood Goes Beautifully

Location, location, location..  

That is said to be a major key to success when opening a restaurant. 

So where does Roy Choi open his newest venture, LocoL?  On 103rd, a street that during the 1965 Watts Riots became nationally known as "Charcoal Alley" and not for the coals used to grill steaks, but for the burning cinders of the torched buildings by African Americans pushed to the brink by mistreatment from law enforcement. To top that off, to defy the location, location, location pundits, it's a half block from Grape Street, which the mere - and threatening - mention of so often has preceded mayhem.  

But, on a dreary Monday afternoon, that location, 103rd and Grape, across the street from the Jordan Downs housing projects,  mighta been the most joyous, grateful and satisfied corner in this whole city.

"This is so good for the community," said Bow Wow,  a fixture in Jordan Downs, who is employed by LocoL as an "Ambassador".  The ambassador duties?  Well, let's just say Bow Wow, like any ambassador, represents the territory to other territories in a positive manner.

Some were in line to eat, Others were just hanging out, happy to be part of a celebration in a community that has seen so much sadness come its way. One of them was Daude Sherrills, who along with his brother Aqeela  - a prominent gang interventionist and owner/partner in this restaurant  - was one of the architects of the historic 1992 Watts Gang Peace Treaty. 

"This is what a community development business is all about," said Daude as he held court with old and new friends near LocoL's patio. "Plant the roots of the business deep in the community.  It won't tip over that way. There are 36 jobs here, and 99% of the workers are from Watts.  This is great."  

On Saturday, at LocoL's back patio, Nardo, another Jordan Downs stalwart who is employed here, was telling customers "It's a soft opening", He turned to a reporter he's known for decades who had chided him for that lingo.  "Hey, I'm learning the restaurant language."  

LocoL, which bills itself as a "revolutionary fast food restaurant", is the brainchild of Roy Choi and famed San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson. The next restaurant is set to open in SF's gritty Tenderloin district..   There's even one planned near the notorious Nickerson Gardens, a mile away from 103rd Street. . 

This is from Choi and Patterson  

"We are a company where the chefs think about what to feed you. Where the chefs think about how to take care of you. We fundamentally believe that wholesomeness, deliciousness and affordability don't have to be mutually exclusive concepts in fast food. We believe that fast food restaurants can truly empower the communities they currently underserve. We believe that the giant corporations that feed most of America have degraded our communities by maximizing profits over decades. We believe that chefs should feed America, and not suits."

Monday, one of Local's managers, well known as "Ready", was moving through the crowded restaurant with the ease of a maitre d' at Spago, greeting old friends, chatting up new ones.  "It's great to see you,"  "Welcome to LocoL." "Enjoy your meal." 

The line of customers went down Anzac Avenue for nearly a whole city block.They were not disappointed. 

"I'm not going to Burger King or McDonalds or Carl's Jr, anymore," said Dion Mangram, a life-long resident of Jordan Downs.  "This is my new restaurant, It's healthy and delicious and reasonable."  

Indeed, a fried chicken sandwich was four bucks and I'm craving it as I write this.   I might go back tonight.  Now, when I got to Watts  and I go often - LocoL will be my spot.

A local chef, Nancy Silverton, was at LocoL Monday afternoon and she raved about the hamburger and the chicken sandwich, but also about the concept. "This is delicious. I applaud Roy This is really something very special for our city."    

Inside, Roy Choi beamed when he saw a reporter who has covered Watts for 25 years.  They did a hard double-clutch handshake and - to the naysayers who doubted he could ever open on 103rd Street - he triumphantly roared  "Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em." 

It was the most beautiful restaurant opening I have ever attended.  And as tasty and healthy as the food is, LocoL is about location, location, location.


War and Peace in Watts, Part 2 of the Classic LA Weekly Article

Ronald “Kartoon” Antwine is sitting in his garage, looking out at the Union Pacific railroad tracks near 114th and Wilmington Avenue. Kartoon is one of the legendary Bounty Hunters. A former menace to society. A 6-foot-4½-inch, 260-pound thug who carried a pistol in one pocket and a sawed-off Winchester pump shotgun under his black leather jacket. He robbed people, shot people, beat up people in the wild days of the ’70s.

He paid for his crimes by doing more than 15 years at the toughest prisons in California, including thousands of days at Folsom back when Folsom made the Pelican Bay of today seem like juvenile hall. He walked out of prison in 1992 and has not been back.

Just days after he left Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe (“America’s Hottest Prison”), the peace treaty was being negotiated, and Kartoon became a key representative for the Bounty Hunters and Nickerson Gardens. He recalls that one of the biggest sticking points was that the Crips — PJs and Grape Street — were concerned about their safety in his Blood neighborhood.

“One day I said, ‘Let’s find out,’ and we all started walking through the Nickersons, Bloods and Crips. The young homies were stunned, but they joined in. It was beautiful.”

These days, Kartoon is a gifted writer, a Bounty Hunter historian, a community activist, and still a respected figure in Nickerson Gardens. “You see that field right there by the tracks?” he asks, pointing 50 feet away. “That used to be our Vietnam. That was the frontlines. That was the border between the Bounty Hunters and the PJs. There used to be weeds higher than me there, and we’d be sniping at them from our side and they’d be sniping at us from their side.”

But now that the PJs and Bounty Hunters are getting along, the weeds are gone, and so is the fear of gunfire. “I sit in this garage and it’s a pleasure to see the people cross the tracks, crossing enemy lines. It’s like walking through a force field on Star Trek. Used to be you cross those tracks, you die. Now people walk back and forth.”

Kartoon, 46, partly blames the local government and the lack of resources available to help stop the violence. But Kartoon (Bloods disdain the letter C) reserves his harshest words for those whom he considers the cause of the treaty’s demise and the latest upsurge in violence by young, reactionary gangsters. “All the projects are doing their part to stop the violence, but every project has those reactionaries who listen to no one and don’t want to participate in the peace movement,” he says. “All we ask is they don’t sabotage the peace. It’s like in Baghdad. They got that one religious sect doing all the bombing. But, the other sect refuses to retaliate.”

Kartoon says he’s been in the Nickersons during and after recent shootings. With other hall-of-fame Bounty Hunters Big Hank and Big Donny he tried to persuade the young homies not to retaliate. “Our young guys were saying, 'Fuck this. We gonna do something.' So Hank and Donny and everybody, we had to calm them. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

He doesn’t tell young Bounty Hunters what to do — to attack or not to attack — but rather emphasizes the consequences of their actions.

"All the guys getting busted, they don’t realize what a life sentence is. When the pop goes off, when their head pops out of their ass and they realize they ain’t going home after just five years. When they realize they’ll never be able to taste a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder again. To see them go crazy when they hear their moms is dying and they’re locked up and can’t go see her. When they hear their woman is pregnant by their best homeboy. When they realize they’ll never see a night sky again."

As I’m driving one evening through the 1,066-unit Nickerson Gardens, said to be the largest housing project west of the Mississippi, dozens of men and women are milling about, and children are playing near their apartment units, many of them with small, nicely tended gardens with roses in full spring bloom.

For anyone who has ever seen the nation’s worst housing projects, such as the now-destroyed, infamous Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago, the projects in Watts look almost pleasant during a quick drive-through. They are not high-rise prisons like Robert Taylor, Cabrini Green or Rockwell Gardens, but rather two-story buildings with small patches of lawn in front of them. A closer look, however, reveals the poverty and aura of hopelessness.

The Los Angeles city attorney has imposed a gang injunction against the Bounty Hunters here that makes it a misdemeanor for any of them to be together, although it is impossible to enforce all the time. In part of the city attorney’s report, LAPD Officer Victor Ross, one of the most hated men in Nickerson Gardens, writes, "When gang members are stopped by law enforcement they will say that they are going to visit their grandmothers, but in fact they are just hanging out with a bunch of other gang members, drinking, using drugs, playing loud music, gambling, loitering to be hooks or lookouts. They are doing anything but visiting their grandmothers."

Officer Ross describes a few gang members, like Aubrey Anderson, known as "Lunatic" or simply "Tic." "He is feared in the sense that he is short-tempered and is seen as crazy enough to do anything. He is not afraid to commit violence to further the gang." Another one is Israel Jauregui, a.k.a. Izzy, who has a tattoo on his arm that says, "Kill or Be Killed." "He is a violent gang member who is not afraid to commit shootings or other violent acts for the gang." Izzy, it turns out, is in federal custody now, and attempts to contact Lunatic were unsuccessful, much to the delight of my family.

Of the three projects in Watts, Imperial Courts appears the most run-down. The blue and green buildings that house 490 units look tired. Trash is rampant, flowers are few, and packs of young men evil-eye every stranger.

At Imperial Courts Recreation Center, which has a shiny full-size basketball court, no one is in the gym. But the narrow streets are full of young men. No one wants to talk about the breakdown of the truce. The four most common responses are "I’m not from here," "I’m just visiting," "Fuck off" and "Talk to PJ Steve."

PJ Steve is Steven Myrick, a tall, well-built 39-year-old who’s been a Crip almost his entire life, did nine years for kidnapping, robbery and assault, and has 2-inch-tall letters, "P" and "J," tattooed on his throat.

When PJ Steve heard about the 1992 treaty, he had mixed emotions.

"I was locked up when the peace treaty happened, and I was confused about it for a while. I couldn’t get it," says PJ Steve. "But then you realize it was a move for the kids. Kids need a better way than the way we had it. But now you got kids going back to the same ways.

PJ Crip "Cornbread" chimes in that he doesn’t feel safe in Jordan Downs.

In Jordan Downs, a group of Grape Streeters talk about the breakdown of the treaty, and the future. "I didn’t really like the peace treaty anyway," says Scrap, 29. "If I kill you today, then one of your homies who’s like 11 or 12 now is gonna remember it, and when he gets older he’s gonna blow my head off. That’s what’s happening today."

There is some hope in Jordan Downs that the infamous Grape Street shot caller Wayne "Honcho" Day may soon be free after serving nine years in federal prison on drug distribution and conspiracy charges. Day, now 48, was sentenced to more than 19 years, but he successfully appealed on the basis that he was poorly represented, and a decision on whether to reduce his sentence will be made within a month or so, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Terrell.

In a 1997 speech by Steven R. Wiley, then chief of the Violent Crimes and Major Offenders section of the FBI, Honcho was called "the Godfather of Watts." That’s a slight exaggeration, but when told that Honcho may be getting out of prison soon, both Kartoon and PJ Steve consider it good news.

"If Honcho was here, this wouldn’t be happening," says Kartoon.

Sitting on a wooden table near the closed Jordan Downs gymnasium on a fine spring afternoon as his friends prepare to barbecue and play baseball, Honcho’s nephew Kmond Day lays part of the blame for the violence on alcohol.

"Alcohol is not for peace," he says. "But some people drink cuz there’s nothing else to do. The reality is, if we have guys from our own hood who get high and we can’t control them here, how can we expect them to go to other hoods and not act stupid?"

But Kmond says most gang members don’t even know why they bang.

"A lot of so-called gang members could win Oscars. They’re acting like gang members. They’re doing the stuff gang members do — shooting, killing — but they don’t even know the whole purpose of representing the hood. If you ask them why they bang, they say, 'To represent the hood.' Represent what? There is no point in representing the hood. What’s the purpose? There is no purpose."

Many young kids gangbang out of fear, not fear of the other hoods but fear from guys from their own block.

"You got cats that’s killing cats from other projects, and the homies that are with them are afraid of them, so they try to impress their big homies," says Kmond. "But really, they are just scared. But they think it’s the only way to survive."

Some complain bitterly about what they consider the rough tactics of one LAPD officer, Christian Mrakich. They claim he harasses people and encourages the gang wars. "Mrakich is the Rafael Perez of Jordan Downs," says Daude Sherrills.

Captain Sergio Diaz says he has received several complaints about "an officer" in Jordan Downs, but nothing has been substantiated.

"While I can’t talk about personnel investigations, I will tell you, in the course of a criminal investigation earlier this year, we know from wiretaps that targets of these narcotics investigations encouraged each other to make complaints about a specific officer who they knew to be investigating them," Diaz says. "We checked them out and concluded he had done nothing wrong."

Attempts to interview Mrakich are rejected by the LAPD, but his commander laughs when told that many gang members spoke badly of the officer.

"We have a lot of bad things to say about Grape Street, too," says Captain Diaz. "They are killers, dope dealers and robbers. Mrakich and [Victor] Ross are very effective in the projects, and of course many people hate them, quite naturally."

Unlike some in the LAPD, Diaz praises the now-fallen peace treaty.

"There was a lot of skepticism in the department about the treaty, but I believe it made a significant difference in the violent-crime rate," says Diaz.

"Obviously, the truce thing was good in that people weren’t shooting each other. But now, unfortunately, that is over."

On the evening of April 9, Officers Oscar Ontiveros and Darren Stauffer, from Diaz’s Southeast Division, are involved in a shooting that kills Bounty Hunter Spencer "Fox" Johnson after, they say, he pointed an assault rifle at them near Bellhaven and 112th streets. Gang sources say Fox was on the lookout for a Grape Street attack at the time.

In the early-morning hours of May 9, another Bounty Hunter, Kemal Hutcherson, 24, is gunned down — not by police — on perhaps the most cruelly named street in the city, Success Avenue.

Though it has a nationwide bad rep (and this story won’t make it any better), citizens who live here have a great deal of pride in Watts. I’ve never heard anyone boast, "Man, I’m from Bel Air," but folks seem almost eager to tell you they’re from Watts. And because of their resiliency, and because of the mostly good memories of the 1992 treaty, there is much hope that this current battle of the projects will not be left to fester and maim and kill for years.

In the last two weeks there has been a call to fight the good fight. Not to cave in to the violence and accept it as in days of yore. Not to just be outraged when a cop kills a black kid, but be outraged when a black kid kills a black kid.

In the projects, a new group of respected, slightly older gang members — not just famous triple O.G.s like Big Hank from the Nickersons or Elementary from Grape Street, but adults in their mid-20s and -30s, men and women who are trying to reach the youngsters and quell the killings — have emerged.

One of those young men is Bow Wow from Grape Street, who has been meeting with his counterparts from the other projects and reporting back to the young homies.

"We need to keep conversating," says Bow Wow. "There’s a new leadership, and we just need to keep talking and not shooting."

The older guys can help, but much hope is put on the new generation of leaders.

"We are dealing with a new generation who are trying to maintain the tradition of peace, trying to make a difference in a positive way," says Gregory Thomas, supervisor of those gang-intervention workers at CSDI. "Young brothers with respect. Guys that have been through a lot and changed."

The spirit behind the new leadership is that the new violence has heaved the responsibility for peace on the newer generation, and a lot of younger men are stepping up in an effort to stop this madness. They are trying, for example, to prevent a 15-year-old from getting into a car with an AK-47 and shooting another black boy because he lives in a housing project that is similar to his own but has a different name.

"This is not about the Nickerson Gardens or the Jordan Downs or the Imperial Courts," says Michelle Irving, a former Sybil Brand regular turned gang-intervention worker. "Those are just names someone gave three housing projects."

Citing the same impetus that was behind the 1992 treaty, the adults say they are doing this for the children. "It’s sad to see a young person walking down the street worried about if he or she is going to get shot," says Irving, who was "a mother and father at age 14." "They should be walking down the street thinking about school. Thinking about a future. A bright one."

As Aqueela puts it, "Peace is not a destination. It’s a journey with peaks and valleys along the way."

In Watts, that journey just might be never-ending. But at least there’ll be a whole lot of people along for the ride.

War and Peace in Watts, Part 1 of the 2005 LA Weekly Classic Article

President Bush keeps saying America is safer now that Saddam Hussein is out of power. Prez hasn’t been to Watts lately.

The much heralded, often copied and never equaled Watts housing-project gang peace treaty of 1992 has officially imploded, leaving bodies, grieving families and shell casings scattered over the most infamous black neighborhood west of the South Side of Chicago.

The nights of mixing purple, blue and red are over. Gone are the days when the Grape Street Watts Crips from Jordan Downs (purple), the Bounty Hunter Bloods from Nickerson Gardens (red) and the Project, or PJ, Crips from Imperial Courts (blue) could encounter one another without fear of death.

During the wild year of 1989, in the LAPD reporting districts that cover the three main housing projects in Watts, there were 25 homicides. During the height of the treaty in 1997, there were four. So far this year there have been at least seven killings in and around the projects, dozens of shootings, a reported 187 violent crimes and, with all that, the acknowledgment that there is no more treaty.

Long gone are the joyous parties and rowdy football games that homies from the projects threw and played together. Gone are the days when a gangster from the Jordans who had a child with a lady from the Nickerson could have a lazy Sunday-afternoon barbecue in peace. “I can’t even go see my son,” says Grape Street member Dell (“like the computer”) Hester, 21. “I got a baby from a girl in the Nickersons, but I can’t even go there no more. It’s gonna be a real hot summer.”

While many in law enforcement say the treaty has been shaky for years, only recently have actual gang members themselves admitted it. The 1992 treaty, which became official the day before the Rodney King verdict set the city ablaze, was born from older gang members who did not want their children to go through the dread they had long endured. It was marked by celebrations, by families and friends being able to visit each other in different projects without fear.

But in the last year or so, as a new generation of gang members came of shooting age, which is about 13 to 16, word began to spread that the treaty was on the ropes. And in the projects, words, rumors, truth and fiction get spread fast. Soon residents of Nickerson Gardens knew it wasn’t wise anymore to go to Jordan Downs, and folks from there knew they weren’t getting the royal treatment if they popped in at the Nickersons or Imperial Courts.

“We ain’t even thinking about a peace treaty right now,” says Bow Wow, a respected 26-year-old from Grape Street. “We’re just trying to get a cease-fire. Just trying to stop all the shootings.”

Thomas “Tuck” Graham Jr., 20, a Bounty Hunter who was so young when he started banging he doesn’t even remember how he got his nickname, says the days of peace with Grape Street are over.

“We used to see Grape Street members come over here and we’d give them a pass,” says Tuck as he smokes a cigarette and sips on a small bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. “But now things are different. I see a Grape Streeter, especially in the Nickersons, he ain’t getting no motherfuckin’ passes, especially since they killed my homey.” His homey was Dwayne “Sexy Wayne” Brooks, 22, a Bounty Hunter renowned as a smooth-talking ladies’ man.

The Watts peace treaty certainly did not stop all violence in the housing projects. Internal, in-house disputes were often settled with Mac 10s and Sigs. There were also gang member–vs.–rival gang member acts of violence, but for the most part this was done on an individual level, a personal dispute between, say, a Bounty Hunter and a Grape Streeter over a range of things, from drugs to, of course, women. But the peace treaty pretty much squashed one gang firing on another gang simply because they were from a different hood. 

 The killing of Sexy Wayne marked a clear return of killing someone just for that very reason. On March 5, there is a minor conflict in Cerritos at a skating rink. For decades, such places have been magnets for many black gang members. Details of the incident are sketchy, but either words or a few fists are briefly exchanged. Bounty Hunters say Sexy Wayne is not involved in the incident. Later, a group of cars drives to the Artesia Transit Yard near Gardena, where there is a Park and Ride MTA station.

“Shortly before 2 a.m., a group of up to 70 cars that had been cruising just happened to stop there,” says Detective John Goodman of the LAPD’s Harbor Division. “There was some kind of confrontation, and there were a lot of shots fired. Brooks was shot and killed. A lot of people saw it. That may have started the escalation in the current violence.”

Street rumors quickly circulate that the shooter was from Grape Street. Brooks, decked out in Blood red, had been with members of the PJ Crips, who have become strange gang fellows of late with the Bounty Hunters.

Perhaps the most unusual result of the latest outbreak is that it has brought the Bounty Hunters, the city’s most notorious Blood gang, closer than ever to the PJ Crips of Imperial Courts, and that alliance against the Grape Street Crips is sending bewilderment throughout the black street-gang community. 

Nine miles away from Watts, in Hyde Park, a long way in gangland L.A., Kevin “Big Cat” Doucette, a notorious shot caller of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, is telling his cohorts about that distant gang war. “That’s about the craziest shit I ever heard,” says Big Cat, 45. “The PJs and the Bounty Hunters teaming up against Grape Street. Crips and Bloods teaming up to go at Crips.”

Even law enforcement is surprised by the alliance. “The alliance doesn’t seem plausible or possible, but that’s what we’re hearing,” says Detective Dana Ellison of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Century Station. “The so-called treaty is dead.”

And with the dead treaty comes the return of the payback shooting. Bounty Hunter or PJ Crip gets killed, supposedly by Grape Street, then a Grape Street must die in retaliation. Doesn’t have to be the shooter that gets hit with the payback. Sometimes, doesn’t even have to be a gang member. Just someone living in the rival project will do.

Someone like Jason Harrison.

A week after Sexy Wayne was killed, Harrison, 19, who is not a Grape Street gang member, is gunned down on 102nd Street inside Jordan Downs. It’s on. The next day, the Imperial Courts project is shot up. Then the Nickersons gets sprayed. Then Jordan Downs. Then, then, then.

Sal LaBarbera, the lead homicide detective for the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which covers Watts, says tension is as high as it’s been in a long, long time.

“You can tell the energy level is up in Grape Street,” says LaBarbera, a cool New Yorker straight outta Central Casting. “Guys are on guard duty. Trash cans are lined up at the entrance to the projects. Folks are ready to go. Ready to run into their apartment and get the guns.” He’s right, of course.

It’s a rainy late night inside Jordan Downs on 102nd Street near an entrance to the projects off Juniper Street and 103rd, where two dumpsters the size of Escalades are placed. Young men and teenagers of the 700-unit project are indeed on the lookout for strangers while they smoke chronic and sip Olde English 800, still a favorite after all these years.

Contrary to popular opinion, especially from Westsiders who’ve never been here, Jordan Downs can be a welcoming place, especially at a Saturday-afternoon barbecue or baseball game. You might get some curious glances at first, but then, after a few intros, a couple of beers, it’s usually cool. Certainly a warmer welcome than a Grape Street Crip would get on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills.

But at night, at least this one (and many others), the place is about as friendly as Uday and Qusay in a bad mood during the Persian Gulf War.

“The fuck you doin’ here? Get the fuck outta here, bitch,” booms a Grape Streeter to me as I slowly drive by. I’m in an Enterprise-rented black Chevy Aveo with doors so flimsy one burst from a Kalashnikov would turn them into Emmenthaler Swiss cheese.

“Hello, officer,” says another, which for years has been a common nighttime greeting to me in Watts. Not a lot of Armenians here. I stop in the lot between buildings 99 and 100 and inform the two Crips that I’m a reporter trying to find out what happened to Jason, trying to humanize him. From nowhere, two more Grape Street Crips appear, one of them standing in a doorway. “You need to leave. We ain’t talking to no reporters.”

I park the Aveo in the lot a short distance from my new buddies, get out of the car, and walk over to the makeshift memorial display of murder candles, yellow roses, a large purple bunny rabbit and a framed photo of Jason Harrison. Scribble a few notes — barely legible later — and head back to the Aveo.

A fifth Grape Streeter, older, like in his 40s, approaches, identifies himself only as Wes, and speaks quietly. “Jason was a good kid. Been knowing him since he was 12. Just had seen him an hour before he got shot, talking to some of the guys, and then I guess he was walking to his grandmother’s, right over there. Be careful.”

I want to talk to the younger gang members, but figure it’s early in my reporting and why push it. At least, that’s my excuse to myself. I drive away.

The next day, a former teacher of Harrison’s praises him. “Jason was just a great, great kid. When I heard what had happened, it felt like I’d been hit in the gut with a baseball bat,” says Gary Miles, a teacher at Markham Middle School and a longtime friend of the Harrison family. “Jason was never involved in any of the Grape Street gang stuff. He was a good, hard-working student. One of those kids, every time you saw him, he’d give you a pound and a hug. Always had a smile. A kid that loved life.

“Lots of people not from around here don’t understand how entrenched people are to their neighborhood, to their set,” says Miles. “Lots of these kids are third-generation gang members from these projects. Forget about being jumped in. These kids are born in.”

Miles, who is from Brooklyn, says the lure of the streets can often be too tempting for a project boy to resist. “Some kids would rather be a part of the hood thing than go on to junior college or a university if they could. It’s that lure. Plus, you throw in the music culture, MTV, and it just adds to the desire. Do I want to be a college football player or do I want to be hood famous? It becomes a seduction.”

Two weeks after he died, Jason Harrison is laid to rest. His funeral, at the Inglewood Mortuary, is overflowing with emotion and mourners. About a hundred guys, guys that grew up together, went to Folsom and Corcoran together, just mingle outside during the services. Jason’s father has “Kodak RIP” shaved into the back of his head. Jason’s nickname was Kodak because he blinked a lot.

His aunt goes on a tirade during her eulogy. “We are here today to take a real good look at our lives. There’s been too many deaths on our streets. When a person takes your life, you don’t take one life. You kill a family. You kill a community.”

The aunt ratchets up her voice. “Today, parents are burying their children. Kids are killing kids. Children are killing, then going to bed snoring.” A purple-clad teenage boy passes out. He starts shaking. Almost no one notices, even the three Crips standing directly behind him. The aunt starts to scream. “He coulda been a gardener, a chauffeur, a movie producer, a cook. We don’t know what Jason coulda been.” 

At the Community Self Determination Institute, on the northern border of Watts, executive director Aqueela Sherrills describes the current situation as a “powder keg.”

“It’s the worst it’s been since the treaty in 1992,” says Sherrills, whose own 19-year-old son, Terrell, was killed in 2003 in an unrelated incident. “It’s crazy out there right now.”

Sherrills and his brother Daude, both of whom have been active in the gang peace movement for more than a decade and who have traveled the world speaking about it, say the current problem is a matter of leadership.

The other gangs couldn’t agree more. Many PJ Crips and the Bounty Hunters lay most of the blame on the Grape Street gang, who they say have lost their leadership, which has cut loose a new generation of young gang members to go on shooting sprees.

Daude Sherrills admits the leadership in Grape Street is not what it once was, but also says, “Imperial Courts has a lot of enemies. We’re not responsible for their enemies.

“But the hopelessness and joblessness create an idleness, which can create apathy for life,” he continues. “And that creates a domino effect that leads to murder and mayhem in the streets. Our race is in worse condition than we were before the ’65 riots. Everyone needs to take responsibility. We are fortunate more lives haven’t been lost.”

Throughout the years, though, many lives have been lost in the three housing projects. According to LAPD statistics, from 1989 to May 21 this year, in the three reporting districts, or R.D.s, that cover Jordan Downs (R.D. 1829), Nickerson Gardens (R.D. 1846) and Imperial Courts (R.D. 1849), there have been 202 homicides. During that same period, there have been a startling 6,470 assaults in the three projects. These numbers cover just three reporting districts, not including all of Watts, out of a total of more than 1,000 in the city.

In 2003, as things started to heat up, there were 12 homicides in the three projects. In comparison, that year the entire West L.A. Division, with 63 R.D.s, had three homicides.

“There’s no denying it’s a very violent place,” says Captain Sergio Diaz, commander of the Southeast Division, which covers more than just Watts. “As of May 21, there had been 30 homicides in Southeast Division, an area less than 10 square miles and 140,000 people. That’s 10 times the national average.” 

To be closer to the late-night scene, when violence is most likely, and to get a better sense of the mood of the community at its most vulnerable, I decide to move in for a couple of nights at one of the two motels along Wilmington Avenue, between Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs.

I have been warned by several gang members not to do this. “But if you do,” laughs Daude Sherrills, “bring your own sheets.” I do. Red 300-count Egyptian cotton. I had been saving them for a special occasion. This wasn’t what I had in mind.

My choices are the Villa Hills, near the railroad tracks off 108th Street, and the Mirror Motel, down on 112th Street. I check out the Villa Hills first. I am somewhat intrigued by the name. There’s not a hill for miles, and to call this place a villa is like calling Fallujah a resort town. Later, I realize the Hills part must have been taken from the slight 5- or 6-foot rise on Wilmington for the railroad tracks, and I guess the Villa part comes from the small bougainvillea near the front of the motel. The rooms go for $40 a night. The manager shows me Room 16. As soon as the door opens, the stench hits your nose like a jab from Larry Holmes. A combination of odors I don’t even want to think about. I tell the guy thanks and head back to check out the Mirror.

The Mirror, painted a faded powder-blue, is a bit larger, two stories, and has 30 rooms. At 4 p.m., there’s only one car in the parking lot. I ask the Indian owner-manager how much for a room for the night. Thirty-five dollars. But then he says something very un-innkeeper-like — he fervently implores me not to rent a room here. “No, no,” he says. “No, you should not stay here. It’s not good around here.” He holds up his left hand and starts shooting off an imaginary pistol. “Boom, boom, boom. Every night, every day. Don’t stay here.”

I’m tempted, but head back and rent Room 16 at the Villa Hills. (I’ll go back to the Mirror another night.) I bring in the sheets. They’re full-size and don’t fit the queen-size bed, but I get two corners on, which is enough. There’s a television that gets Channel 7 and a few others. No porno. There’s a dirty sink and a tiny shower, a ratty dresser, a broken window screen, and walls that appear to have been splattered with something that was probably once cavity blood.

Across the street, Tommy’s Liquor is getting ready to close up at 7 p.m. “It’s not safe here at night,” the clerk says. A couple blocks away, a taco truck stays open later, doing a decent business in the early evening.

As night falls, cars start showing up at the Villa Hills. Some stay for maybe a half-hour. Others, all night. Some guests make a lot of racket arguing, and some are clearly having a good time.

Around 11 p.m., I take the Aveo out for a cruise through the three projects. They seem rather quiet on this night. In Imperial Courts, one lone, young PJ Crip, who won’t give even his nickname, asks, “What we suppose to do? Just let Grape Street shoot at us?”

Still, even at this hour, several front doors are open and many folks appear as relaxed as if they were at a Sunday-afternoon picnic in the park. It takes more than decades of homicide to lock down the residents of Watts.

A short time later, I head back to what Daude Sherrills calls “the only five-star hotel in Watts.” After a while, I go out for a short walk, past the railroad tracks, toward 107th Street. There’s a couple walking the same stretch of forgotten road. I hear at least five gunshots and instinctively duck down a bit, though the shots are not from a nearby passing car. The lady ahead laughs and calls out, “Fraidy cat.” Her companion laughs too.

The next morning, I learn from police that a few blocks away, Keith Moore, 19, of Jordan Downs, was shot to death at 105th and Lou Dillon, in an area of Watts called Fudge Town. These shots are not the only ones of the night. Two other times, gunfire is heard near the motel. Police later say the Fudge Town killing is the only shooting they are aware of. No one calls the cops in Watts just to report gunfire. Someone needs to be hit. If gang members here were good marksmen, the homicide rate in Watts would be world-class bad.