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.


Gordon Parks To Students in Watts - "Nothing Can Stop You"

Published L.A.Times Feb. 28, 1997

Internationally celebrated photojournalist Gordon Parks was on his own at 15, with both his parents dead. Hungry, broke and shivering on a freezing evening in St. Paul, Minn., he confronted a train conductor who had a wad of money. Parks pulled a switchblade.

It was the only time he almost committed a major crime, Parks, 84, told a group of Verbum Dei High School students Thursday in Watts.

"At that moment, in that white man's face, I saw my father's black face," he said. "And I heard my father say, 'What the hell are you doing?' So I looked at the conductor and said: 'You wanna buy a knife?' "

He has inspired generations of African Americans through his photography, writings, movies, music and, perhaps most importantly, his never-say-die spirit.

And that spirit was out in full force Thursday when Parks spoke to students from Verbum Dei High School at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee Center.

"We have brought you history today," said Janine Watkins, the center's special events coordinator. More than 100 students sat in rapt attention as Parks took them through highlights of his life.

For an hour, the dapper former Life magazine photographer delighted the group with his humor, philosophy and tales of growing up black in the Midwest during the Depression.

"If you want to do something, nothing can stop you," said Parks, who wrote and directed feature films such as "Shaft" and "The Learning Tree." "You can do anything you want to do if you want it bad enough."

Parks credited his deeply religious parents with giving him the proper values. In order to provide a skin graft for a young girl who had been badly burned in a house fire, Parks' father, Jackson, donated skin from his back.

Later, someone asked Parks' father if the girl's family had thanked him and sent flowers.

"My father told the man, 'I didn't do it for thanks. I didn't do it for flowers. I did it for the girl.' "

One student asked Parks, who has inspired so many, who was his inspiration. After mentioning his parents again, Parks said his life changed when he viewed Farm Service Administration photographs depicting the devastating effects of the Depression.

"I thought I could show racism the way the FSA showed the Depression," he said.

A short while after seeing those photos, he sold his first photograph to the Washington Post. It showed a black cleaning woman holding a mop and a broom standing before the American flag. Parks compares the shot to Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic." Today, it is Parks' most famous photograph.

In 1949, he became Life's first black staff photographer and traveled the world. One of his most famous articles was a profile of Red Jackson, a Harlem street gang leader with whom he lived for three months. A generation later, Parks' reputation helped him gain access to the Black Panthers.

"Once we were riding around in Berkeley and one of the Panthers had a gun," Parks said. "I told him my 35 [millimeter camera] was more powerful than his 45."

Three weeks later, Parks said, that Panther was dead.

Margret Triplett, an English teacher at all-boys Verbum Dei, said she wanted her class to take away an appreciation for the past.

"He shows that it doesn't matter where you're from, you have an opportunity to move forward," Triplett said.

Derrick Hogan, 13, who appeared somewhat awe-struck by Parks, said: "I learned about history. People think it's bad now, but it was worse back then."

Parks, who is still busy writing and composing and who was honored Thursday by the Director's Guild of America, had high praise for the Watts Labor Action Community Center. In all his travels around the world, he said, he had never seen a place so committed to the youth of the neighborhood.

Wearing a stylish double-breasted blue blazer, silver handkerchief and brown plaid pants, the legendary photojournalist posed for pictures with the group and left the students with one last bit of advice:

"Don't let anybody tell you you can't do something. Be prepared and make yourself so special that they'll have no choice. They'll have to hire you. There is no obstacle you can't overcome. There are no excuses."

Gordon Parks was born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. He died in 2006 in New York City, The photograph is by Alfred Eisenstaedt, if that means anything to you. 

A 2008 Lakers Team Dinner at Osteria Mozza; "But, the Coolest One was Lamar Odom."

MAY 7, 2008, reprinted from the L.A. Weekly

Around 7:30 on Friday night, the crew at the EZ Lube on Highland and Melrose lined up and started cheering. Three of them pulled out cameras and started taking shots like paparazzi. A fleet of SUVs filled with very tall men had pulled up across the street at Osteria Mozza to have a dinner in the private dining room. Somehow word had leaked out. “My guys were very excited,” said EZ Lube’s manager.

Celebrity sightings at Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza occur almost daily and rarely cause a stir. But this was different. The Lakers were having a team dinner.

“Luke Walton called me and said the team wanted to get together and watch the Jazz-Rockets game,” said John Black, vice president of public relations for the Lakers, who swept the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the NBA Playoffs and wanted to get a good look at their next opponents, either the Utah Jazz or the Houston Rockets. Black, who claims to eat out 350 times a year and is an expert on the Los Angeles restaurant scene, recommended Mozza’s private dining room and made sure a huge flat-screen TV would be available for the team.

Around 8 o’clock, I arrived at the restaurant with Max, 15, a Phoenix Suns follower, and Oliver, 14, a die-hard Lakers fan, who can give you stats on the whole team. Outside, near the parking valet, a kid about 3 feet tall and wearing a Pau Gasol jersey was holding a basketball signed by many of the Lakers. We were at the right place.

Oliver’s mother is Mozza co-owner Nancy Silverton, so I took Max and Oliver into the private dining room through the kitchen entrance — and there they were, your Los Angeles Lakers. The game was on the screen and you could have heard a linguini drop, it was so quiet. Everyone was studying the game; nobody was talking. Except one guy. Kobe Bryant’s security guard. He came up and "suggested" we leave.. “The Lakers are watching the game.” The guy was about 5 feet 9 — no taller than I am — but with arms like the trunk of the General Grant Christmas tree at Kings Canyon National Park. He wasn’t mean, but he was firm. Max and Oliver gave me a look that said, “Let’s just go.” The Lakers, I explained to the disappointed kids back in the main dining room, were working. Studying.

About five minutes later, the security guy came out and said, “When the game is over, the team would be glad to meet the boys.”

I took the guys to a friend’s house to watch the game, but with the Jazz up by something like 20 points we headed again to Mozza and found ourselves back in the same private dining room we’d been kicked out of an hour before. This time, the bodyguard was a sweetheart and got all of the Lakers, no longer in study mode, to come by and shake Oliver’s and Max’s hands and sign a team picture. Kobe, who got word during dinner that he would likely win this year’s MVP award, was nice. Derek Fisher was nice. But the coolest one was Lamar Odom, who was completely sincere when he was talking to the kids.

When they finished their dinner, the Lakers, who had entered the restaurant silently through a side entrance, left publicly amid the chaos of a packed dining room. The restaurant went still. People couldn’t take their eyes off the team as the players made their exit.

In case you’re wondering, MVP Kobe paid for dinner, and yes, he left an awesome tip.


The Original Wild Ones - Wino Willie Forkner and J.D. of The Boozefighters

 The Day That Kicked Bikers' Wild Image Into High Gear

"What's wrong with society today is there are no more fistfights."

--Sonny Barger, leader of the Hells Angels

Before there was Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels, before there was Marlon Brando and "The Wild One," there was Wino Willie and J.D. and a South-Central Los Angeles motorcycle club called the Boozefighters.

On the Fourth of July, 1947, the Boozefighters invaded the Central California hamlet of Hollister and, as Life magazine memorialized it, took over the town.

The incident set off a growing fascination with outlaw bikers, culminating in Brando's legendary "The Wild One" in 1954, with one exchange that still reverberates: "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" Brando's character was asked. "Whatdaya got?" he snapped.

Today, 75-year-old Wino Willie Forkner and 80-year-old J.D. Cameron--the last surviving founders of the Boozefighters--look back on their legacy with amusement. To visit with them in Cameron's La Mirada home is to recall a distant time when postwar America was bursting with unfocused energy.

"It was a time when you could have a fistfight with someone and when it was over, you'd have a beer together," says Cameron, who made his living in the freight-unloading and trucking businesses, where he employed Willie. "This was way before all this guns and dope crap."

"Yeah, we just had a little fun," says Forkner, a barrel-chested World War II vet with pinkies as thick as thumbs who lives in Fort Bragg, Calif., and still rides his motorcycle. "We didn't do anything wrong."

What happened in Hollister, they remember, started with city-approved street racing on the main drag, San Benito Street.

Well, maybe a little more. J.D. allows that he may have had a few fistfights.

And then Wino Willie begins talking about a town drunk who came into one of the bars.

"Me, Kokomo and Gas House Wilson started buying him wine," Willie says. "After his third glass, he fell over. So we tied him to this wheelchair, tied the chair to some car and dragged him around town. I looked back and he had fallen out of the chair.

"So we put him on the hood and started driving again. Slowly. But he looked like he wasn't breathing, so we thought he was dead. We dropped him in an alley, covered him up with papers and took off.

*"Man, later that day, when I was in jail, I looked over, and there he was, making a ruckus. It's damn hard to kill a drunk."

Wino Willie, who got his nickname as a 7-year-old boy in Fresno when he would visit local wineries and indulge in the latest vintage, had landed in Hollister's jail on the charges of inciting a riot. Of course, he tells a different story.

"They had arrested Red [another of the Boozefighters] for drunk and disorderly, and a bunch of the guys had gone over to the jail to break him out. Man, I went over there and told the fellas, 'Let's forget this Wild West stuff. Red needs a rest.' But, of course, the cops figured I was the leader, and they grabbed me. Later that day, the judge says he'll let me out if I listen to my wife. I told him, 'Hell no. I haven't listened to her yet and I'm not gonna start,' " he said, laughing.

What caused a national stir was not the incident itself, or a San Francisco Chronicle article that described the events as "the worst 40 hours in the history of Hollister," but a single photograph in Life magazine. It showed a large, leather-jacketed man guzzling beer on a Harley with a pile of broken beer bottles lying near his front tire. J.D. and Wino to this day are infuriated by the photograph, saying it was staged.

Life's one-page layout led to a Harper's Weekly article by Frank Rooney, "The Cyclist's Raid," which led to the Brando movie, which sent the image of bikers downhill faster then a wheelie on a steep hill climb.

"I hated that movie," says Cameron.

The most glaring discrepancy between the actual event and the movie was that, unlike the film, in which a sleepy town is stunned by an unexpected invasion of a motorcycle gang, Hollister was waiting with open arms for thousands of bikers to converge there.

For more than a decade the American Motorcycle Assn. had sanctioned an event in Hollister. So on the Fourth of July weekend in 1947, an estimated 4,000 motorcyclists descended on the city of 5,000.

What set that year's event apart from the others was that this time 15 members of the Boozefighters rode north from Los Angeles.

Although the Boozefighters were never mentioned in the Life spread or the Brando movie, word of mouth spread. Their name was a perfect fit, and soon all the biking world knew.

The Boozefighters had been formed in 1946 at the All American Cafe, a small beer joint on Firestone Boulevard near Hooper Avenue, just north of Watts. Many of the members, including Cameron and Forkner, were married. They were, by and large, a bunch of guys who loved to race motorcycles and drink beer.

John Cameron was born in 1915 in Oregon and began racing motorcycles when he was 15. He was rejected for the war because of injuries from a series of crashes. He came down to Los Angeles and bought a small freight train unloading business, where he met William Forkner in 1942.

Forkner, five years younger, had grown up in Fresno, where he expanded his early appreciation of fermented grape juice. Survival in the Pacific during World War II developed his zest for kicks. One day, the Army Air Corps took him off his B-24 bomber because it needed him on another. While on a mission over Iwo Jima, he watched in horror as his regular B-24 exploded and crashed.

"When I came back, we were hanging out at the club and we figured, 'Let's have fun. This is what we fought to protect,' " Forkner said.

The days after the vets came back were "a special time," added Cameron. "People were happy the war was over and we just wanted to enjoy life."

Goldie Miller, a Fremont High graduate, met Cameron and Forkner at the All American Club.

"They were some real characters," says Miller, 74, herself "a free spirit back then. They just loved to party. They wanted to be big-time professional racers, but that never happened. Sometimes they'd go out to the parking lot and duke it out, then come back in for another beer."

Miller was at the Hollister event, but her recollection is fuzzy at best.

"I don't remember a whole lot. I was into having fun too. If I was making book, I wouldn't have given any of them a chance to make it to 40. But, really, they were very nice people. And you knew nobody was gonna mess with you if you were with them."

The next year in Riverside, another ruckus promoted the Boozefighters' reputation for wildness. The club continued to be active through the 1950s, then simmered down. By 1970 the aging members had scattered throughout the country. Cameron bought a trucking business and kept in touch with Forkner, who was working as a trucker.

Forkner--and Cameron, if heart problems don't hold him back--may be heading back to Hollister.

Now a city of 24,000 that bills itself as the earthquake capital of the world, Hollister is already vibrating about the 50th anniversary of the "invasion" next year. Police and merchants believe that as many as 100,000 motorcycle enthusiasts from around the world may converge there on the Fourth of July weekend in 1997. Several groups are vying to put on a trial run celebration this summer.

At Johnny's, one of the bars the Boozefighters patronized in 1947, owner Charise Tyson is looking forward to the day when the bikers return to Hollister.

"I can't wait. We're gonna do big business," Tyson said. "I'm not really concerned about violence. Heck, even the Garlic Festival (in nearby Gilroy) has its problems."

Across the street at Bob's Video, owner Bob Valenzuela is also in favor of the event. "People will be coming here from all over the world because they know about Hollister from the movie," he said. "This is truly holy ground for motorcyclists. It is Mecca."

Today, the Boozefighters motorcycle club still exists, but it is centered in Fort Worth. Comparisons to the original club are like comparing the cushy, soft-tailed, muffled rides of today's bikes with the rigid framed, roaring Harleys of old. The club, with chapters in Virginia, New York and California, has strict rules of conduct and members include doctors, lawyers and law enforcement officers.

Wino Willie and J.D. sneer at the new leadership. "When I met them they came dressed like business people," Wino Willie says. "Today, it's all about greed. We never made a dime off of this whole thing, and we don't care either."

Wino Willie visited J.D. again last week.

"He told me, 'Well, Wino, I'm dying,' " Willie said. "And unless he gets this pig valve operation, he will. But he's not a complainer."

Cameron, a tall, well-built man, says merely that he's going in for an operation Tuesday. Then he says, "We just wanted to have some fun. And we sure did."

One more question lingers. What were the real Wild Ones rebelling against?

J.D. pauses for a few seconds.

"Well, I guess I'm rebelling against discrimination. Ya know, all kinds, but for me, just because someone's a biker, they got rules against you."

And Wino Willie?

"I guess it's the establishment that I spent three years fighting for," he says. "You take off the khakis and the blue and put on some jeans and a leather jacket and immediately you become an asshole."


Wino Willie Forkner 90_s.jpg

Thuglandia - Los Angeles Magazine Article on the State of L. A. Gangs

As a journalist who has covered the street gangs of Los Angeles off and on for the past 17 years, I have often stated, with perverse pride, “L.A. has the best street gangs in the United States,” the way someone might boast about Yosemite’s waterfalls. Big and gaudy and violent, they’ve been rapped about and emulated the world over. But lately if you don’t live in a gang-infested neighborhood, you’d be forgiven for thinking that thugs are forsaking the thug life. Annual city homicide totals are down dramatically from the early 1990s, when there were more than 1,000 killings (nearly half of them gang related), to fewer than 300 in 2012.

But don’t be mistaken. The gangs are still here causing nightly heartbreak. They just aren’t as flagrant as they once were. Among the reasons: the huge drop in crack use, intense gang intervention efforts by former gang members, and police strategies that include upping their presence (along with surveillance cameras) in the Watts projects and bettering their relations with community leaders. There’s also the sheer number of dead and imprisoned gang members to consider as well as the exodus of thousands of others to “expansion cities.”

Those aren’t the only theories. “I think it’s more about business,” says Los Angeles Police Department sergeant Richard Lozano, who works in the Rampart gang unit that oversees the area around MacArthur Park. “The violence brings too much attention from us, and that ruins the potential for making money.” In the park itself several gang factions manage to sell their drugs without killing one another. You’ve got the Columbia Lil Cycos, the most notorious clique of the 18th Street Gang, in the northeast quadrant. Almost half the park is held by two large factions of Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS13. Another large chunk belongs to the Crazy Riders, and several other gangs exist in the surrounding area. This year’s death toll so far? Zero. 

Miles south of MacArthur Park, the quest for illicit financial gain has produced some strange partnerships. “It’s not unheard of anymore for some guy from Grape Street to team up with a Hoover [Street Criminal] to go rob someone or break into a house,” says LAPD detective Chris Barling, head of homicide at the 77th Street Division. Acting on street intelligence that no one will be at a residence, members from two or three gangs clean the place out—what they call “flocking.” Or they might get together for a little “OTM,” as in Outta Town Money: Someone has connections in, say, Phoenix, and L.A. gangsters go there to burglarize houses with the local as their guide. 

Gangs aren’t just less openly hostile to one another, though. They’re less specialized than they used to be, too. In the 1980s, the Rollin 60s and Rollin 90s were infamous for brazen bank robberies. Inglewood Family Bloods did “smash and grabs” at jewelry stores. The Bounty Hunters, operating out of Nickerson Gardens, robbed motorists along Imperial Highway on an hourly basis. In Boyle Heights, Big Hazard from Ramona Gardens earned a reputation for their convenient “drive-ins,” where customers copped drugs without leaving their cars. Home invasions? They were a trademark of Asian gangs. But these days “there’s no secrets in the gang world,” says Cleamon “Big Evil” Johnson, who led the 89 Family Bloods and won an appeal in 2011 after spending 14 years on death row and is now in county jail awaiting retrial. “When other gangs heard that someone was doing good with a crime, they’d be on it, too.”

That said, no gang can do credit card or medical fraud like Armenian Power (I’d recommend paying cash at a 99 Cents-Only store). The Avenues have a notorious specialty as well: The region’s preeminent gangster racists, they’re known for trying to rid Highland Park of blacks through intimidation and murder. 

But no matter how heinous the Avenues’ crimes, for sheer violence Highland Park can’t compare to the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which encompasses Green Meadows and Watts, among other neighborhoods. During the first four months of this year, there were 16 killings in 11 of the LAPD’s 21 divisions. In Southeast there were 17. In fact, the last gang-related funeral I went to, back in February, was for a guy from Southeast, and I can tell you nobody at the church that day was celebrating that gang deaths are down.

One Park, Three Worlds

Macarthur park is too big, crowded, and profitable for a single street gang to control. So for many years a détente of sorts has existed that allows three or four gangs to run the drug trade—nowadays mostly meth—in a park that in the 1990s saw several killings a year.

Northwest Corner
The Wanderers had a presence in the northwest portion of the park, but this less-trafficked area has been taken over in recent years by cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS13.

Southwest Corner
Running the quadrant at 7th and Park View streets, the MacArthur Park Locos and the Rampart Locos are factions of MS13, the gang whose members are as well known—and feared—for their face-covering tattoos as for their violence.

Northeast Corner
The busiest section of the park, by 6th and Alvarado streets, has long been the bastion of the Columbia Lil Cycos, a clique of the 18th Street Gang. Though 18th Street is considered L.A.’s largest gang, with as many as 15,000 members, it’s actually an amalgam of 20 cliques. 

Southeast Corner
The Crazy Riders, a mix of mainly Mexicans and Central Americans but also some blacks and whites, control the park’s southeast section. Far smaller than MS13, they began as a group of guys who played American football in the park.



L.A. Times Op-Ed on the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, "They Tried. We Survived."

Remembrance Day: The Turks tried. The Armenians survived.

On Friday, thousands of Armenians, my people, my comrades — em ynker — will march to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first recorded genocide of the 20th century. Thousands of us will demand recognition from the leaders of the Turkish government, an admission from them that their Ottoman Empire forefathers carried out atrocities, that it was a genocide: “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

I say “us” with a renewed personal sadness. Just last year my cousin discovered our fathers — Zaven, a.k.a. Sam, and Antranig, a.k.a. Tony — had a brother, Azad, who died between 1915 and 1921 near Van, in eastern Turkey.

Will I be in the proud and crazy crowd Friday? Yes, but I won't be making any demands. I don't demand things anymore that I don't think will happen.


I respect the fiery youths who will make the loudest noise, who will wave the red, blue and orange national flag from their black AMGs and silver M5s, who will chant for justice and carry signs and banners. I am proud of them. I admire them. I used to be them (to a fanatical point — I condoned violence), but it's just not me anymore. I think we should focus the march equally on how far my small-in-numbers people have come from the horror we endured.

 The Turks know the genocide happened. The pope knows it happened. President Obama knows it, even though he won't say it today. I mean, come on. There's DNA evidence to support a 5th century historian's claim that Armenia dates to 2492 BC. So on one fine spring day in 1915, did all the so-called Western Armenians suddenly decide it would be a good idea to just pick up and move to Beirut and Fresno and Watertown, Mass., and Aleppo, Syria? (Boy, we sure know how to pick 'em.)

Besides, who would claim to be a victim of a genocide that didn't happen? Who wants to be a genocide survivor? Even on our strange planet, that makes less-than-zero sense. Who is going to insist for 50 years that history be corrected (we were still too shellshocked to start the demonstrations before 1960), if they don't know that history in their bones? Who is going to keep saying, “Hey world, what about us? The Turks tried to exterminate us”?

And to me that's the thing. They tried; we survived. Today, I honor the dead from the early massacres in the 1890s and the death marches, from the deportations and the killings from 1915 to 1923. But I also honor the Armenians alive today.

I'm not going to cite the usual lineup of famous Armenians (but did you know Steve Jobs' adoptive mother, Clara Hagopian Jobs, was Armenian?). Instead, I have a personal honor role of great Armenians — the children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins and in-laws one or two or three generations removed from the ones who got away and the ones who didn't. The proof that my people live.

There are Vic and Greg Yedikian, my mechanics in Gardena. There's my preferred public defender, Alexandra “A.K.” Kazarian, and Krikor Tcholakian, the owner of Carousel restaurant in East Hollywood. There's David Arzouman, my favorite local artist; Harry Kasbarian, an advocate for Armenian causes (who also sells tires in Glendale); Lisa and Sevan Nahabedian, whose cleaners I go to in Larchmont. And there's my favorite Armenian priest, Father Mesrop Ash of St. John Armenian Apostolic Church in San Francisco, who just happens to be my nephew. All told, they are the makings of a small-town Main Street, from a people ordered annihilated.

Not long ago, I was driving east on Los Feliz Boulevard when I spotted a man standing in front of a SUV holding out jumper cables for passing motorists to see and get the desperate hint. I stopped and gave him a jump. After his car was running, and I disconnected the cables, he shook my hand and thanked me. I said, “I'm Armenian.” I just wanted to let him know we're still here.



"A Slice of Runyon" Closes Downtown, Hank's Bar Is Knocked Out

February 11, 1997

If Damon Runyon were alive and looking for a watering hole in downtown Los Angeles, five'll get you 10 he'd be hanging out at Hank's Bar.

Runyon would find plenty of colorful characters to write about in the New York-style saloon on Grand Avenue near 8th Street.

There's Racetrack Charlie, who won't talk to a reporter because he might be "a copper." There's Liquor Mary, who can put 'em away with the biggest drinkers. There're undercover cops, ex-showgirls and Playboy bunnies, lawyers and gamblers, Wall Streeters and office workers.

But first and foremost, there is the bar owner, Hank Holzer.

Holzer, a former prizefighter, approaches a customer sitting on a bar stool. He fakes a right hand to the customer's ribs, then brings an uppercut to within an inch of the man's jaw. It happens so quickly that the customer, an athletically built man in his 30s, cannot react. He only smiles and shakes his head at the speed of the impressive combination. Nothing unusual about an ex-boxer showing off his skill.

Except that Hank Holzer is 88.

"I still have the punch, but it's my reputation that gets me by," says Holzer in a New York accent as thick as the pastrami at Langer's Deli and decked out in his trademark captain's hat.

His mind is as sharp as his fists used to be. Once a sparring partner for Rocky Graziano, he tells you in vivid detail (including the weather) about the three legendary middleweight championship fights in the late '40s between Graziano and Tony Zale.

The narrow bar--a few booths and 14 stools--is attached to the 80-year-old Stillwell Hotel. The jukebox, full of Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Barbra Streisand, Smokey Robinson, Patsy Cline and Louis Armstrong, is almost always spinning.

Near the bottles of booze is a sign that old-timers say Holzer put up a decade before the hit TV show "Cheers": "Welcome to Hank's, where everyone knows your name, where everyone's glad you came."

"There are no racial barriers in this bar," says one of the youngest regulars, Greg Meyer, a 32-year-old stockbroker. "Everybody gets along good here."

Almost on cue, two customers out of earshot at the other end of the bar--one black, one white--start singing "I've Got You Under My Skin" along with Sinatra.


Holzer was born in Greenwich Village in 1909. By the time he was 16, he was fighting professionally as Steven Terry. ("Back then, you took on an Irish name because they were the most popular.") Though never a champion, he fought well enough as a welterweight to make a good living and marry a successful model. He earned several medals and commendations for bravery while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

When his wife, Frances, became ill with diabetes, doctors advised Holzer to move from New York to California for the warmer climate. He opened Hank's Bar in 1959 and ran it for 14 years until Frances' illness forced him to quit to take care of her.

A decade later, in 1983, at her urging, he bought back the bar.

"She told me 'I'm getting well, go on back to the bar, you love it too,' so I did."

Shortly afterward, she died.

The vast majority of the regulars are friendly to strangers. Of course, this is a New York-style bar. Five-foot-one Fast Eddie Schrodeski, 76, balls his fist up at a reporter who asks about Hank.

"How do I know you're the real deal, maybe your some kinda agent?" says Schrodeski, who proceeds to cuss out the reporter from beneath a cap that hides his eyes. Holzer intervenes and vouches for the reporter. Schrodeski slowly acquiesces.

"Hank's kind of like an inspiration to us younger guys," he says.

"Hank is like the father I never had," says bar regular James Watson, 46.

Holzer looks healthy but says, "I'm pushing 90, I probably only got a couple years left. I don't like to dwell on past glories. I've had a good life. I was married 42 years to a beautiful woman. She gave me a good son. I have plenty of friends. I've known all types of people, from killers and shylocks to millionaires."

One millionaire who used to frequent Hank's Bar was the late philanthropist Ben Weingart, whose name now graces a large homeless center in Skid Row.

"Weingart used to look at these guys sleeping in the gutter and tell me, 'Hank, one of these days I'm going to do something for these people,' " Holzer recalls.

Inevitably, the conversation turns again to boxing. Holzer reels off his all-time favorites: Rocky Marciano ("If he fought Tyson, they have to indict the Rock with murder"), Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Zale and Harry "The Human Windmill" Greb, who had 294 bouts.

Behind the bar is a small box with markers of the few people who owe Holzer money. Holzer takes the box and pulls out a IOU slip.

"This one is from Henry Armstrong," a legendary champion of the '30s who died in 1988. "That guy still owes me 48 bucks."


2007 L.A. Weekly Article on the Mayor and LAPD's List of the City's Worst Gangs and a Reporter's Counter List

The Mayor's Fake "Worst Gangs"  L.A. Weekly  March 7, 2007

It's not unusual for a top-10 list to cause controversy. Top 10 movies of all time. Top 10
restaurants in the country. But recently the Los Angeles Police
Department and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced with great fanfare
a top-11 list of the worst and most violent gangs in the area. While
movie buffs and foodies might lightheartedly argue their cases in bars
and cafés, the LAPD list is being scorned and laughed at on gang
corners, in patrol cars and in squad rooms.

When asked about the top-11 list, one Los Angeles officer and expert
on gangs said, "It's laughable. There was pressure from the [brass] to
get out the list, but they didn't ask the right people. They didn't
ask or listen to the experts."

The lead homicide detective of LAPD's deadly Southeast Division found
the list odd. "I can't imagine that those are the worst gangs in the
city," said Detective Sal LaBarbera. "I think they were trying to
spread it out over the whole city, because we've got five gangs alone
in Southeast - the PJs, Grape Street, the Bounty Hunters, Hoover and
Main Street - that could be on that list."

Southeast Division and neighboring 77th Street Division suffered 136
homicides in 2006, representing more than 28 percent of all killings
in Los Angeles. Yet only two gangs from Southeast and 77th got onto
the apparently geographically and politically correct list - Grape
Street Crips and Rollin' 60s Crips.

The list does contain some truly dangerous gangs. But it also leaves
out very powerful gangs: the Hoover Street Criminals, East Coast
Crips, Bounty Hunters, Florencia 13 and Quarto Flats - the old-time
Boyle Heights gang with close ties to Mexican cartels.

"It's a bunch of bullshit," said Antony "Set Trip" Johnson, 17, a gang
member from Five Deuce Hoover, a subset of the notorious Hoover
Criminals. "We should be on that list. Fuck it. We the most hated gang
in Los Angeles."

Johnson, who was very familiar with the list, scoffed at some of the
gangs on it. "204th Street? That's bullshit. That ain't a rough
neighborhood. What they got, 10, 20 members? And Canoga Park Alabama?
You gotta be kidding me. That ain't a gang hood. La Mirada Locos?
Never in my life have I heard of them."

A few miles away, in Rollin' 60s turf on Brynhurst Avenue, a group of
Crips studied the list of top 11 gangs set out on the hood of a
battered dark blue Nissan Sentra. They had not yet heard about it
until shown the list by the L.A. Weekly.

"I never heard of some of these gangs," said Steven Smith, of the
Rollin' 60s. "This has got to be political. Where's the Bounty
Hunters? Where's the Eight Treys? Who the fuck is 204th Street?"

The politics of this strange list, announced by LAPD Chief William
Bratton and Villaraigosa as part of their crackdown on a purported
explosion in gang violence, shows itself most vividly when it comes to
204th Street - a predominately Latino gang that is not considered
among the city's worst.

That gang apparently made the list almost solely on the basis of the
racially motivated killing of black 14-year-old Cheryl Green, as a nod
to angry black community leaders and intense media interest. Green's
killing put the gang on the map, but its members have attacked several
black victims in recent years. However, the 204th is not active enough
to be seriously considered one of the worst in L.A.

On 204th Street turf near Western Avenue and Del Amo Boulevard, a gang
member who would not give his name seemed offended when it was
suggested that 204th Street is not one of the 11 worst gangs. "No,
cousin, there's a lot of stuff that goes on around here," he said as
he walked away.

Two young men who live nearby, however, said the area was "all right."
Said Herman Galvez, 17, "It's not that bad here." Jesse Ortega, 27,
his cousin, said, "Well, it's politics and 204 is on the list because
of that shooting of that little black girl. Now that was terrible."

In the sprawling San Fernando Valley, while attempting to research the
one Valley gang that made City Hall's list - the Canoga Park Alabama
(CPA) - I spent three hours driving and walking the streets. I was
curious to see how the CPAs felt being on a widely publicized list
with some of the nation's most infamous gangs.

I struck out, unable to track down even one member.

An office manager of a pest-control business on Alabama and Gault
streets in Canoga Park said he sees the gang often in the afternoon,
but never has had a problem with them. "I'm not here at night, but
they are cool to me," said Preston Foster. "When I heard five years
ago I was coming to work here, I thought it would be kinda dangerous,
but it's not like that at all."

In the parking lot of Mission Hills Bowl on Sepulveda Boulevard in
Mission Hills, a woman in a van was "shocked" to hear Canoga Park
Alabama had been named the worst Valley gang. "I'm very surprised to
hear that because it's worse in Mission Hills and Pacoima than it is
in Canoga Park," said Pamela Saldy. "I would have thought it would
have been the San Fers."

Turns out, she was right - City Hall was wrong. Lieutenant Gary Nanson
said that, when asked by LAPD brass to come up with a list of the
worst gangs in the Valley, he and all six LAPD gang details in the
Valley put the San Fers at No. 1.

The San Fers are a decades-old, 700-member gang based mainly in the
Valley's northern reaches - concentrated in Mission Hills and the
tiny, heavily Latino city of San Fernando, which is encircled by Los

Based on a combination of crime statistics, gang intelligence and the
level of community fear, Nanson and his detectives ranked the Valley's
top 10, starting with the worst, as: the San Fers, MS 13 Fulton,
Vineland Boyz, Canoga Park Alabama, 18th Street, Project Boyz, Barrio
Van Nuys, Langdon Street, Blythe Street and the Van Nuys Boyz.

>From 2005 to 2006, gang crime in the Mission Division, home to San
Fers, rose 165 percent, while the West Valley, home to Canoga Park
Alabama, saw a 55 percent rise. (The percentages sound huge. But the
number of actual crimes are fairly small because Valley gang activity
is modest compared to city-side gang crime.)

So Nanson, based in the northern Valley, was a bit surprised when the
announced top-11 list omitted the San Fers. On one hand, Nanson agrees
with naming the gangs, a departure from the previous LAPD policy,
saying, "I think it's a very positive step for law enforcement to come
out and name these gangs because they can no longer remain

"When we gave the list to Chief [Gary] Brennan, I noticed they pulled
out Canoga Park Alabama," said Nanson. "I was surprised, because the
San Fers were the Valley's most problematic gang. But I now believe I
know why they picked out CPA: It was because of the new racial twist
which makes it very topical."

The Canoga Park Alabama is a Latino gang. Nanson said that in the last
six months or so Canoga Park Alabama has been involved in racially
motivated attacks against blacks. Squashing attacks by Latinos on
blacks is a political priority right now.

Some think releasing the list could result in even more bloodshed. Jose
Ramon, a barber in Gardena, worried that the list could inspire gangs
to "go on a killing spree" just to get on the list. "I think the gangs
that weren't nominated might try to do something crazy so they can get
nominated next year," said Ramon, whose girlfriend lives near Jordan
Downs, domain of the "nominated" Grape Street Crips.

The executive director of the California Gang Investigators
Association is against publicizing the list, which he feels is flawed.
"No, these are not the 11 worst gangs in the city, but they had to
pick some from a variety of divisions," because of political pressure
to spread the list over a broad geography, said Wes McBride.

"If you are going to name the top 11 worst gangs, then name the 11
worst gangs. But my problem in naming the 11 worst gangs is that the
12th worst gang might get upset."

McBride said there is no definitive list of the top 10 or 11 worst Los
Angeles-area gangs. "It's like a top-10 restaurant," he said. "They
might be one of the best restaurants in the city, but then the chef
leaves and it's not the same. Same with the gangs. They might be very
active and then a couple of their shot callers [gang leaders] get
busted and the gang is put in shock."

Daude Sherrills, a former Grape Street Crip turned community activist,
agreed, saying, "I seen that funny-ass list, but it didn't amount to
nothing, just some more political rhetoric." Sherrills said his family
moved into the tough Jordan Downs housing project when it was new, in
1942. Today, he said, "They spend a billion dollars to arrest a
motherfucker, but they don't spend enough to educate a motherfucker."

Sherrills' brother, Aqeela Sherrills, said the list is a waste of
taxpayers' money. "It's ridiculous that they are making this top-11
list like they are taking on the Mafia," he said. "They are making it
like these gangs are centralized organizations. I wish they would just
go after the most violent individuals rather than put a whole
community down."

Former Grape Street gang member Kmond Day, 32, was in a parking lot
near Building 47 at Jordan Downs talking to older homies about the
list, which he found bizarre.

"I can understand why Grape [Street] is on the list, but what I don't
understand is why are we the only one around here on it," said Day,
who says he volunteers his time to stop gang activity.

Bow Wow, 28, another former gang member, said putting Grape Street on
the list won't make a bit of difference in Jordan Downs: "We already
got a gang injunction on us. They got helicopters flying over here all
the time. They got these million-dollar security cameras all over this
place. What else can they do?"

He suggested that Bratton and Villaraigosa, rather than issue a
meaningless list crafted with racial politics, geographic politics and
media coverage in mind, "get four, five respected individuals from
each project and have them run some good training programs. They got
the money to do it, but they sending it to the wrong people."

With so many complaints about the city's supposed worst 11, the L.A.
Weekly crafted its own Dirty Dozen list of worst gangs, based on crime
statistics and numerous interviews with LAPD gang experts, officers in
gang details, homicide investigators, gang members and community
leaders. The results:

Rollin' 60s Crips

Grape Street Crips

Florencia 13

Hoover Street Criminals

18th Street Westside

Family Swan Bloods

Quarto Flats

East Coast Crips

PJ Crips


Main Street Crips

Mara Salvatrucha

Several sources said the Bounty Hunters, a Bloods gang from Nickerson
Gardens public-housing project in Watts, should be on the list.
However, crime is down substantially in Nickerson Gardens, with three
2006 homicides in the general area, as well as 45 robberies and 53
assaults. It's not a safe place. But it's a far cry from 1989, when
the area was racked by 11 homicides, 139 robberies and 162 assaults.
By 2003, the violence had dropped to six homicides, 52 robberies and
153 assaults.

Behind these stats are concerned Nickerson Gardens residents and
workers who volunteer their time reaching out to younger gang members
and youths who haven't yet joined gangs.

Respected community leader Donny Joubert, 46, said he was proud of
the work that "younger brothers have done to make things better in
Nickerson Gardens." Standing in front of the project's gym one recent
evening, he added, "We are not trying to say Nickerson Gardens does
not have problems, but we're trying to make it better, and we have had
some success in dealing with the gang members. I thank God we were not
on that list."

In the end, the top-11 list announced with great fanfare by
Villaraigosa and Bratton, and accepted largely without question by Los
Angeles media, has resulted in a curious outcome: gangs, antigang
activists and police say it's packed with politics. In a matter of
days, the Weekly crafted a more realistic list, sans politics,
according to the rank and file - not the brass, but the officers and
detectives who know the gangs and deal with them on the streets every
day and night.

Dec. 31, 2014 LA Weekly Aritcle on The Legendary Career of LAPD Homicide Detective Sal LaBarbera

Sal LaBarbera sees dead bodies.

Driving from Watts to USC — up Central Avenue, west over on 83rd, up Figueroa — the LAPD homicide detective can envision the slain bodies of his cases. Hundreds of them. Hell, no, thousands of them.

"There is not a street, not a corner, from the Nickerson Gardens to the Sports Arena [where] I haven't been part of a homicide investigation," LaBarbera said as he drove that route recently. "I don't remember all the names. How could I? But I remember the bodies."

Detective Sal LaBarbera's days of seeing dead bodies are winding down. After 33 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, 27 of those investigating homicides, he is retiring. On Jan. 31 he will be, as police say, "KMA367." End of watch.

He'll leave a legacy as one of the best homicide cops in the history of LAPD, meaning one of the best anywhere — built on a foundation of loyalty to his peers but, even more, to the victims and their families.

"The level of compassion and the commitment he has are unsurpassed by any detective," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who has worked with LaBarbera his entire career. "We're really going to miss him. Not just because he's a great detective but because he's a great friend."

LaBarbera said the best part of being a detective is "driving Code 3 in reverse around LAX chasing somebody." The worst? "Statistics are bullshit. One murder is one too many."

LaBarbera, 55, was raised in New York's Westchester County by his detective father and homemaker mother. He played semipro baseball in New York as an outfielder.

But his grandparents lived in the San Fernando Valley, and when he visited them he would sit outside the LAPD Van Nuys station and watch the officers come and go. "I was so impressed by their size, their professionalism and that sharp uniform," he said. "They were unlike what I was used to seeing in New York."

He graduated from the Los Angeles Police Academy in 1981 and fairly quickly was assigned to the wild 77th Street station, becoming a detective trainee. By 1990, he was working homicide at South Bureau amidst the era's gang bloodbaths.

"It's the most rewarding and demanding job. Thirty-six-hour shifts were normal," he said. "My goal was always to catch the bad guy before the victim's funeral. To get suspects to cop out, that's so rewarding. I have a half-dozen assholes on Death Row."

The worst thing about being a homicide detective: "Seeing the carnage left behind." The best: "A little bit of closure for families."

LaBarbera's boss, Lt. Jeff Nolte, said the detective is "going to be impossible to replace."

"There's more art to homicide than science," Nolte said. "It's a feeling. It's about tension. It's about having relationships. There is no one like Sal when it comes to naturally building a relationship. When a witness senses that feeling, they become comfortable, and that's when they come forward. Sal is unwavering in his oath to make things right."

Thirty-one years ago, at Manchester Avenue and St. Andrews Place, LaBarbera was on patrol when a man got shot, his femoral artery taking a potentially fatal hit. But the detective reached his fingers into the victim's leg and pinched off the artery, saving him.

The best thing about his job, LaBarbera said: community contact. The worst: "Department bullshit."

Det. Chris Barling, supervisor of the 77th Street homicide unit, has known LaBarbera for 27 years and calls him "Hollywood Jack," a nod to the detective's frequent press conferences and oft-stated desire to "go Hollywood" after he retires.

When Barling heard L.A. Weekly was profiling the detective, he asked, "How much is he paying you?"

But then Barling got serious. "Sal's compassion and caring about people both on the force and on the street, the victims, the families, is second to none. He is a compassionate and a passionate advocate for victim's families."

Det. Tim Marcia of the Robbery-Homicide division explained that the detective taps into something deep in these families, then turns it into a tool that propels him forward.

"He's carried the loss of a victim close to his heart, and he used the pain and anguish that violent crime brings to a family as motivation to do the job right," Marcia said. "Sal was a real murder cop, and the city of L.A. is a better place because of him."

It's not difficult to tap into compliments from co-workers. What's unique about LaBarbera is that he gets compliments from "the other side."

Infamous 89 Family Swans gang member Cleamon "Big Evil" Johnson lauded LaBarbera for his "come at you as a man" straightforwardness.

Johnson is incarcerated at Men's Central Jail, awaiting his retrial for two murders for which he served 13 years on death row. In 2011, the California Supreme Court overturned his conviction, finding that a juror leaning toward acquittal was wrongly excused by the trial judge. A few months ago, asked by a reporter about the guest list for his "homecoming party" if he wins at retrial, Johnson said, "Hey, you gotta invite Sal. Just tell him to leave the badge at home."

Homicide detectives who listen to Johnson's jailhouse phone conversations gave LaBarbera a full ration of shit for that.

Betty Day, the mother of Wayne "Honcho" Day, a former Grape Street Crip whom the FBI once labeled the "Godfather of Watts," also praised LaBarbera

"That Italian is retiring, and I'm just now hearing about it?" Day said. "He knows my son, and he was after him, but Sal was and is always fair. A good cop. He better invite me to his party."

Donny Joubert, a respected Nickerson Gardens peacemaker who convinced the project's Bounty Hunter Bloods not to retaliate against a rival gang — and to instead let LaBarbera do his job — remembered, "Sal sat down with me, and I could feel his determination, his concern for my family."

"Sal got the killer," Joubert said. "We have nothing but respect for Sal in Watts."

LaBarbera said his best moments include "hijacking an ice cream truck and treating the neighborhood." His worst: "The nightmares, the not sleeping."

LaBarbera's dedication to families of the murdered came at a cost to his own family. He recalled "getting yelled at for almost not being there for my own child's birth," even as he celebrated the fact that he delivered "three babies over the years."

When asked if her father ever left a special occasion to rush to a crime scene, LaBarbera's oldest daughter, Marissa, 21, replied with a laugh, "Which special occasion would you like me to start with? Easter, Christmas, my birthday?

"My dad would get home from a 12-plus-hours workday, sit down at the dinner table, ask us girls how school was, and all of a sudden his cellphone is ringing and he is out on the porch, smoking his cigarette, with his work face on. His demeanor would stiffen, his tone would become more stern. And I would watch through the window and realize my dad is going back to work."

Younger daughter Emily, 18, said she has some of his traits.

"I don't want to be a cop, but what I will do, to follow his footsteps, is to be a wolf, not a sheep. Meaning, I'm going to be a leader; I'm going to help others, and I won't be afraid of anything."

For LaBarbera, the worst part of the job has been "someone dying in your arms."

The best: "Being there with prayers and kind words for someone dying in your arms." 


This story was edited by Jill Stewart.

Sal and a suspected assassin . As the above photo shows, , Labarbera's style was to get close to suspects before arresting them 

Sal and a suspected assassin . As the above photo shows, , Labarbera's style was to get close to suspects before arresting them