It was a warm Friday evening in Los Angeles, about a month before Dovon Harris was murdered.
Sea breezes rattle the dry palm trees in this part of town. It was about 6:15 p.m., a time when homeowners turn on sprinklers, filling the air with a watery hiss. The springtime sun had not yet set; it hovered about 30 degrees above the horizon, a white dime-sized disk in a blinding sky.
Two young black men walked down West Eightieth Street at the western edge of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Seventy-seventh Street precinct area, a few miles away from where Dovon Harris lived. One was tall with light brown skin, the other shorter, slight and dark.
The shorter of the two young men, Walter Lee Bridges, was in his late teens. He was wiry and fit. His neck was tattooed and his face wore the mournful, jumpy look common to young men in South Central who have known danger. His low walk and light build suggested he could move like lightning if he had to.
His companion, wearing a baseball cap and pushing a bicycle, appeared more relaxed, more oblivious. Bryant Tennelle was eighteen years old. He was tall and slim, with a smooth caramel complexion and what was called “good hair,” smooth and wavy. His eyes tilted down a little at the corners, giving his face a gentle puppy look. The two young men were neighbors who whiled away hours together tinkering with bicycles.
They were strolling on the south side of Eightieth. Bryant carried in one hand an unopened A&W root beer he had just bought. Thirties-era Spanish-style houses—updated with vinyl windows—lined the street, set back a few feet from the sidewalk. Each had a tiny lawn mowed so short it seemed to blend with the pavement. Buses roared by on Western Avenue. Crows squawked and planes whistled overhead as they descended into Los Angeles International Airport, so close you could read the logos on their tails. Groups of teenagers loitered at each end of the street. An elegant magnolia loomed near the end of the block, and across the street hunched a thick overgrown Modesto ash.
The ash tree stood in front of a tidy corner house. Behind that house, in the backyard on the other side of the fence, a man named Calvin Abbot was cleaning out a tile cutter. He had just retiled his mother’s bathroom.
Walter and Bryant were taking their time walking down Eightieth, chatting, their long shadows stretching behind them. They walked in sunshine, though dusk engulfed the other side of the street. Three friends emerged from a house at the end of the block behind them and called out a greeting. Walter stopped and turned to yell something back. Bryant kept walking toward the ash. A black Chevrolet Suburban pulled up to the curb around the corner, on the cross street, St. Andrews. A door opened and a young man jumped out. He pulled on gloves, ran a few steps, and halted under the tree, holding a gloved hand straight out gripping a firearm. Pap. Pap-pap.
Walter reacted instantly. He saw the muzzle flashes, saw the gunman—white T-shirt, dark complexion, gloves—even as he sprinted. Calvin Abbot, toiling with his tile cutter behind the fence, couldn’t see the shooter. But he heard the blasts and dropped instinctively. Abbot, forty, had grown up a black man in South Central and had the same battle-ready reflexes as Walter. He lay flat on the ground as gunfire boomed in his ears.
Bryant’s reflexes were slower. Or perhaps it was because he was looking straight into the setting sun. To him, the gunman was a dark silhouette. Bryant staggered, then reeled and fell on a patch of lawn overhung by a bird-of-paradise bush. Silence. Abbot drew himself to his feet, crept to the fence, and peeked over.
The shooter stood a few feet away, next to the ash tree on the other side of the fence.
He was still holding the gun. Abbot watched as he walked a few paces, then broke into a run: there must be a getaway car nearby. Abbot made a brave decision: he followed the shooter, watched him jump back into the Suburban, and tried to read the license plate as it sped away. He turned and saw Bryant lying on the grass.
Teenagers were converging from three directions. One young man dropped to his knees next to Bryant. Joshua Henry was a close friend. He took Bryant’s hand and gripped it. With relief, he felt Bryant squeeze back. “I’m tired, I’m tired,” Bryant told him. He wanted to sleep. Josh could see only a little blood on his head. Just a graze, he thought. Then Bryant turned his head. A quarter of his skull had been ripped away.
Josh stared at the wound. Only then did his eyes register Bryant’s cap, lying on the ground nearby, full of blood and tissue. He heard his own voice chattering cheerfully to Bryant, telling him he would be okay.
Standing over them, Abbot was pleading with a 911 dispatcher on the phone, straining to keep the details straight as his eyes took in the scene. “Eightieth and Saint Andrews!” He took a breath and muttered hoarsely: “Oh my god.”
Abbot put away the phone. He turned Bryant over. He administered CPR. All around him, teenagers were screaming. Someone thrust a towel at him. Abbot tried to blot it against Bryant’s shattered head, wondering what he was supposed to do. Bryant vomited. His mouth was filled with blood. Abbot, too, found himself staring at the brain matter—flecks of gray and yellow. Yellow? With one part of his mind Abbot recorded his own bewilderment: Why was it yellow? With another part, he fought to stay calm.
One thought kept crowding out the others: Please don’t let this kid die.
Officer Greg De la Rosa, P-3, LAPD Seventy-seventh Street Division, was cruising around Fifty-fourth Street at the north end of the station area when his radio buzzed.
“Ambulance shooting” was the generic way most South L.A. murders and attempted murders came to the attention of police over their radios. In the three station areas that encompassed most of South Los Angeles—the Seventy-seventh Street Division, Southwest Division, and Southeast Division—such calls, at least in this year, came more than once a day, on average.
The location of the shooting was almost thirty blocks south from where he was. De la Rosa went “Code 3,” lights flashing, down Western Avenue, and got there first. It was warm, and still light.
He took in the scene. A chrome BMX bike down on the sidewalk. A baseball cap. A victim on the lawn. Male black. Late teens. Medium complexion. De la Rosa was on autopilot, filling out the police report in his head. He had been called to so many shootings just like this one. So many “male black,” he could barely distinguish one from another. De la Rosa pondered the bike, cap, and victim, arranged in a straight line on the sidewalk and grass. The young man must have dropped the bike and run for the shelter of a porch, De la Rosa thought. A few more steps and he would have made it.
De la Rosa had grown up in an English-speaking family of Mexican descent in mostly Hispanic Panorama City, a rough patch of the San Fernando Valley, and was Los Angeles to the core: his great-grandfather had been evicted from Chavez Ravine when they built Dodger Stadium. He was also an Army veteran. He was still unprepared for what he found when he was assigned to the Seventy-seventh a dozen years before. The station area lay between Watts and Inglewood and spanned the heart of what many locals still called South Central, though the name was officially changed to South Los Angeles in 2003 to erase its supposed stigma. But people on the streets didn’t use the new name much, nor the polite new city designations for its various sections—“Vermont Knolls,” for instance. Instead, people said “eastside” and “westside” to denote the old race-restrictive covenant boundary along Main Street, and retained South Central for the whole. Florence and Normandie, the intersection where the 1992 riots broke out, was in the Seventy-seventh Street Division, near where De la Rosa now stood.
Over time, De la Rosa had grown used to the texture of life here, but it still baffled him. In Seventy-seventh, everyone seemed to be related somehow. Rumors traveled at lightning speed. Sometimes it seemed that you couldn’t slap handcuffs on anyone in the division without their relatives instantly pouring out of their houses, hollering at the police. De la Rosa’s old home of Panorama City was also poor, but it didn’t have the same homicide problem, the same resentment of police. He found that he avoided talking to outsiders about his job. He didn’t want to waste his breath on people who didn’t know what Seventy-seventh was like and wouldn’t understand even if he tried to explain it.
The tasks he walked through that evening were so familiar they were almost muscle memory: Secure the perimeter. Secure witnesses. Hold the scene for detectives. Get out the field interview cards. And get ready: onlookers would soon swarm them, asking questions.
De la Rosa remembered these “ambulance shootings” only if something exceptional occurred. Like the time he had been called to Florence and Broadway, right in front of Louisiana Fried Chicken. The victim, an older black man, had a small hole in his skin, the kind that often hides severe internal bleeding. “Get the fuck away from me!” the wounded man had snarled. De la Rosa tried to help him anyway. The man fought. In the end, De la Rosa and his fellow officers tackled him, four cops piling on, a team takedown of a possibly mortally wounded shooting victim. Even in the midst of the chaos, De la Rosa registered the absurdity, the black humor, so typical of life in the Seventy-seventh.
Black humor helped. But it still got to him—the attitude of black residents down here. They were shooting each other but still seemed to think the police were the problem. “Po-Po,” they sneered. Once, De la Rosa had to stand guard over the body of a black man until paramedics arrived. An angry crowd closed in on him, accusing him of disrespecting the murdered man’s body. Some of them tried to drag the corpse away. The police used an official term for this occasional hazard: “lynching.” Some felt uncomfortable saying it. They associated the word with the noose, not the mobs that once yanked people from police to kill or rescue them. De la Rosa held back the crowd. “You don’t care because he’s a black man!” someone yelled. De la Rosa was stunned. Why did they think race was a part of this? Sometimes, in Seventy-seventh, De la Rosa had the sense that he was no longer in America. As if he had pulled off the freeway into another world.
That May night unfolded in the midst of an unexceptional period of violence in the traditionally black neighborhoods of South Los Angeles County. All across the ten square miles that stretched from Slauson Avenue to the north end of Long Beach, black men were shot and stabbed every few days.
About a month before Bryant Tennelle was shot on May 11, 2007, Fabian Cooper, twenty-one, was shot to death leaving a party in Athens. With him was his neighbor and lifelong friend Salvador Arredondo, nineteen, a young Hispanic man, who was also killed.
A week later, on April 15, twenty-two-year-old Mark Webster walked out of a biker club on Fifty-fourth Street near Second Avenue and was shot by someone who opened fire from a distance. It seems unlikely that the attacker knew who he was.
That same night, some black men caught up with Marquise Alexander, also twenty-two, at a Shell gas station at the nearby intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson avenues and shot him dead. Four days later, on April 19, forty-one-year-old Maurice Hill was hanging out in his usual spot in front of a liquor store at Sixty-fourth and Vermont Avenue at about 10:30 p.m. when a black gunman killed him; Hill, who had lived in the area all his life, spent most of his time sitting in a grassy median on Vermont Avenue drinking beer. The same day Hill died, Isaac Tobias, twenty-three, succumbed to his wounds at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, where he lingered for several days after being shot during an argument with two other black men near 120th Street and Willowbrook Avenue.
Three days later, in North Long Beach, Eric Mandeville, twenty, was shot and killed while walking outside, almost certainly targeted by black gang members because he was young, black, male, and looked like one of their rivals. Mandeville was a McDonald’s employee, clean-cut and well liked, a former foster child who had overcome a difficult childhood. Hours after his death, Alfred Henderson, forty-seven, was killed nearby. The next day, on April 23, eighteen-year-old Kenneth Frison died at California Hospital after lingering on life support for three weeks. He had been shot in the head at the corner of Ninety-fourth Street and Gramercy on April 1. Four days after Frison’s death, Wilbert Jackson, sixteen, was sprayed by a lethal volley of bullets from a passing car as he stood in front of a fish store on Figueroa Avenue south of Fifty-first Street. Early the next day, April 28, thirty-four-year-old Robert Hunter was attending the funeral at Missionary Baptist Church on Adams Boulevard for his cousin—Isaac Tobias, the young murder victim mentioned above. An argument broke out at the church; Hunter was shot dead and two other mourners were wounded. Later that same day, Ralph Hope, twenty-eight, was shot and killed in Inglewood.
Copyright © 2015 by Jill Leovy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.