She spent two decades as a local reporter covering L.A.’s grisliest crimes. But when one bullet strikes too close to home, she learns what hard news feels like from the other side.
To be a reporter in a city like Los Angeles is to understand the redundancy of crime.
Bullets strike—and then strike again. A young life ends—and then another. Grieving parents wonder how to survive the aftermath, when birthdays and Christmas mornings arrive and their child is gone.
The reporter who covers the crime won’t be present for the aftermath. The reporter will move on to the next story. Such is the reality of big city reporting. For years, that reporter was me. At the Los Angeles Times for nearly two decades and then as a freelance writer, I experienced the “on-to-the-next-story” life.
Then one sunny afternoon, I found myself at the 77th Division of the Los Angeles Police Department for a press conference about a twenty-two-year-old man who’d been fatally shot while driving in South Los Angeles early in the morning of April 21, 2012.
This time the tearful relatives standing before the cameras and the reporters were mine. The victim wasn’t somebody else’s child. He belonged to us. Kendrick LaJuan Blackmon, a.k.a. Lil Bit. My nephew.
At scenes like this, for so long my place had always been among the reporters, asking the questions, gathering facts and taking down quotes before rushing off to make deadline. Now I stood on the other side of the podium watching the journalists scribble notes as we pleaded for the killer to come forward.
This time there would be no moving on to the next story. I wouldn’t write about this for the next day’s paper. I would live it for years to come, because grief has no deadline.
* * *
There is a time of night when a phone call almost always means some kind of trouble, some news that will make your heart sink.
On April 21, 2012, at about two a.m., my house phone rings and awakens me from sleep. The voice on the other end is my niece, Shanae.
“Jo?” she says.
“They shot Lil Bit!”
In one motion, I am out of bed, dressed, and in my car on the freeway, headed to South Los Angeles. At that hour the freeway transition road is empty except for my car. This part of the freeway is elevated, so high you can see miles and miles of city lights, neon signs and billboards. All of it sits beneath you, seemingly peaceful, even surmountable. This is a good place to talk to God.
Not Lil Bit. Please Lord. Let him live.
On the block where Lil Bit and I were raised, cars are parked in front of my mother’s house. A black wrought-iron fence surrounds the house where I grew up. It wasn’t there when I was a kid. But things in the neighborhood kept getting bad, and wrought-iron fences kept going up. Finally we got one too, along with security bars on the windows and door. Nearly every house on this end of the block has them. As I drive toward the house, the next steps play in my mind: We’ll all head to the hospital. We’ll gather in Lil Bit’s room and pray. Lil Bit will be fine. We’ve just got to get to him.
This street is the homestead; it is a short drive away from the Watts Towers. To grow up here is to know a sad fact: A bullet can find you before you find yourself. Before you have gone to the prom or gotten a driver’s license.
That line appeared in a story I wrote in the Los Angeles Times, about living with violence in South Los Angeles. Lil Bit and his brother were only eleven years old in 2001, when the story ran. A bullet had not yet found them, but in a place like this the worrying begins early.
I call Lil Bit my nephew, even though we are not related by blood or marriage, because we share a kinship. Our families have lived on this street next door to each other for more than forty years. I grew up playing hide-and-go-seek and freeze tag with Lil Bit’s father, uncle and aunt, who my oldest sister used to babysit. We attended the same school and the same church and were raised with the same values. Lil Bit grew up in the same house next door, raised by his grandmother, Alberta. My mother, Ida, and Alberta are close. Alberta is the godmother of my youngest sister. To Lil Bit, I am auntie. To me Lil Bit is another nephew, one I watched grow up.
Lil Bit earned his nickname at birth. He weighed only three pounds. His fraternal twin Kenneth weighed four pounds. The family nicknamed him Biggum. What Lil Bit lacked in size he made up for in personality: He had a big heart, big plans for a good life in law enforcement and a big heaping dose of charm.
Once a skinny kid who giggled his way through his first Easter play at church, he grew into a confident young man who was coming into his own. At 5’11, Lil Bit was clean-cut, with a preppy style of dress, and wore a stud earring that gave him an air of cool. He was still slender, but he carried himself with bigness, especially with his younger brother and sisters. Setting a good example for them mattered to Lil Bit.
As he grew from a boy to a man, we shared a special bond and an unspoken agreement. He, like his twin brother, would keep doing the right things. I would push, nudge, support, mentor, encourage and love. We spent lots of time together, in part because I was youth director at the church our families attended. For years our weekends were filled with trips to amusement parks, car washes, play practice, choir practice, Bible lessons, planning for college and preparation for the future. We each held up our end of the bargain.
I drive up behind my niece’s car and while I’m parking she looks at me and shakes her head “no,” as if I’ve asked her a question. She’s been crying. I jump out of the car.
She interjects, before I can ask where he is.
“Jo, he didn’t make it.”
I stand in front of the wrought-iron fence, head down, hands gripping the bars as if their cold strength will somehow keep me standing. People behind me are talking. In the distance, the silence of the night is ripped open by pow-pow! Pow-pow-pow! And now, somebody is shouting.
“Get in the car, they’re shooting!”
And now I realize the shouting is for me.
“Jo, get in the car!” Either my sister Fawn or my niece Shanae grabs me and I’m sitting in a car packed with family driving off.
The streets of South L.A. are insatiable, not satisfied to have taken Lil Bit’s life. Somewhere close, on another block, somebody else is a target.
Memories of that night are a mosaic: the flashing lights, police cars, yellow tape, and Lil Bit’s car, stopped in the middle of the intersection of Century and San Pedro, where the shooting took place. Then to the lobby of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where we multiply—more family, more friends. We form an entourage. A guard directs us to the hospital’s chapel, where the matriarchs of the family are sitting—Lil Bit’s grandmother, Alberta, and my mother, Ida. The room fills with us: aunts, uncle, sisters, brother, stepmother, cousin. Then his twin walks in, not knowing what has happened—until he looks around the room at everyone who has gathered, at everyone’s faces, and he knows. “No!” he says, and I remember wanting to make this go away, to bring Lil Bit back for all of us, but especially for him.
Had I been reporting the story, I would have taken notes to remember the details, like the tears in the eyes of the hospital’s social worker as she talks to us. Details place a reader in a time and place, like the ones I included when I wrote about the killing of sixteen-year-old Jamar Jones in a 2001 story:
At his funeral, little boys wear the posture of old men. They slump in grief, heads in hands. Young men and women wear T-shirts airbrushed with Jamar’s image and a pledge of love. Jamar is buried in a powder blue casket. Next to it stands an arrangement of white carnations and light blue ribbons. “From Daddy” is written on a white ribbon.
That day at the funeral, I sat toward the back of the small church where I could see everything, writing down telling facts.
The night Lil Bit died I sit in the middle of it all and write nothing.
* * *
That morning, detectives know very little about what happened. We learn that Lil Bit had been at a party. He was driving home at about 1:30 a.m. A few friends were in the car with him. Somebody in a passing vehicle opened fire. Only Lil Bit was hit, struck once in the cheek.
In the days that followed we expect to learn more, the identity of the killers, and an answer to the question of why. But we don’t.
“I don’t hate the people who did it,” Alberta says one day, as she sits on her living room couch, bouncing a grandbaby in her lap. “I feel sorry for them.”
It’s one thing to take a life; it’s another to take the life of an innocent person like Lil Bit, who had strived to have a better life than the one the streets offered him. Lil Bit and his twin brother were hardworking men when they were still teenagers. The two always managed to find jobs; they tried hard in school, they were always active in youth group at church. They stayed away from trouble: they were never arrested and never spent time in juvenile hall or in jail or on probation. Ask older people in the neighborhood who know them, and they’ll tell you: “Those boys were raised right.”
Over the years, I’d written stories about others who were raised right. They were innocents, caught in the middle of a pointless war. Gregory Bowens was one of them. The twenty-five-year old worked as a security guard at the Los Angeles Times, held a second job at FedEx and was a student at Santa Monica College, studying to become a juvenile probation officer. In 1997, he was shot to death and left to die on a street in Inglewood. I interviewed his sister Racquel Bowens for the story I wrote. She told me:
He was working real hard to get in a better position in life to be able to take care of his son and do some of the things he wanted to do. He wanted to finish school and get started in his career. He wanted to purchase a house and have a nice car. I guess he wanted the American Dream.
Over the years these stories seemed to resonate with readers. It’s not just a story about a violent death, but the incongruity of such a death with the victim’s life.
Once, when Lil Bit was in high school, he performed in a play at church. He played the role of a boy who dreamed of stardom as a performer. He was headed to an audition on Christmas Eve when the bus broke down. Lil Bit had several lines, but there was one that he had to sing: “I’m gonna be a star!” Through weeks and weeks of practice, that was the one line he never forgot. The line was perfect for Lil Bit, because he was charming, with a big personality. He loved receiving applause, and worked hard for it. We held an Oscar night at church one Sunday and Lil Bit proudly accepted the award for best actor. It didn’t matter that every kid walked away with an Oscar trophy for best actor. Lil Bit was proud.
People at the bank across town knew Lil Bit as their armed security guard. People at churches in South Los Angeles knew him as their drummer who, along with the pianist, accompanied the choir; he’d also played drums at Locke High School, his alma mater. Some kids knew him as a dancer. On the block where we grew up, Lil Bit knew everybody and they knew him. He was the block’s ambassador.
About 400 people show up at his funeral, people from the neighborhood and from his high school and all the churches came to the service to say goodbye. Inside the sanctuary of Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, we laugh as people share funny stories about Lil Bit, how he loved cakes and pies; how he worked but was good for bumming five dollars from you if he needed it; how he was determined to be a good drummer—you heard his determination if you passed by his house while he was practicing.
We call it a homegoing celebration. The Bible says to be “absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” For believers that’s something to celebrate, even as we mourn. We hear music that Lil Bit loved: a mass choir, young people from different churches, come together and sing Hezekiah Walker’s “Grateful,” and other gospel favorites. At least thirteen pastors and ministers sit in the pulpit. The pastor who delivers the eulogy was once a gangster; he found the Lord and now ministers to young people like he once was. The church is packed with the tear-stained faces of young people who needed to hear a good word, and he gives it to them and even raps, lyrics with a wholesome message.
Lil Bit looks good that day. His twin brother Kenneth selected a sharp outfit: a burgundy shirt, black vest, black pants, diamond stud earrings in each ear and a silver watch. “No matter what I will always have a part of you,” Kenneth writes in the obituary program, which includes photos of Lil Bit and letters written to him by family and friends. “I hate that we were only able to spend twenty-two years together, yet I wouldn’t trade any of those years for nothing in the world.”
Lil Bit would’ve loved the attention.
* * *
The year Lil Bit is killed, 660 people die by homicide in Los Angeles County. Every one of them is written about in “The Homicide Report,” a blog on the website of the Los Angeles Times. The blog gives humanity to those who might otherwise be just another sad number.
But Lil Bit’s story receives even more than that. His loved ones speak before the City Council and the council members vote to offer a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of his killer and possible accomplices. Police announce the award at a press conference and explain they had no motive for the killing and have exhausted all leads. After months of investigation, police still don’t know much more than they knew the night it happened.
Sometimes people who kill someone will brag about a murder. “We believe there’s people out there who know about this,” Detective Mel Hernandez tells the crowd at the press conference.
They invite family and friends to speak. Alberta pleads through tears for anybody who knew anything to come forward, because her grandson didn’t deserve this.
“I’d like to know before I leave this earth who did this,” she says. “My grandson was shot and killed for no reason.”
The detective asks if any other family want to speak. I step to the microphone, absorb the gathering of reporters, and speak to the killer:
You took his life, but it wasn’t yours to take. He didn’t belong to you. He didn’t belong ‘to the streets.’ He belonged to us, to his family, to his church, to a neighborhood who loved him.
To the killers’ friends and family I plead the most: Call the police, tell them what you know, because this will happen again. “Next time it could be your family standing here.”
It feels surreal to be on this side of the podium, but not more surreal than the reality of Lil Bit being dead. The major local televisions news stations have reporters here, as do the local radio stations, as well as the Los Angeles Times, including two friends I’d once worked with. I feel proud to belong to a profession that, at a moment like this, can do such good.
We all leave with fliers that the L.A.P.D. created with information about the killing, the reward, and Lil Bit’s photo. It is the same photograph that was on the obituary program, the one my sister Glenda took on his prom night. That night he was dressed to the nines. He looked good and he knew it. His story airs on the local stations and the Los Angeles Times runs an article under the headline: “Reward offered in death of twenty-two-year-old South L.A. church musician.” Being interviewed for the story is like speaking at the press conference: Again, I am on the wrong side. But as a reporter, I know what she needs for a good article. She needs to know the facts, but she also needs to understand what Lil Bit’s life was—and what it wasn’t.
* * *
One day, more than a year after the killing, I am walking through the parking lot of a drug store with Lil Bit on my mind. In the newspaper a defined space exists for corrections. It’s the way reporters set the record straight when they make a mistake in an article. A good reporter will check and check again. Did I spell the name right? Did I double check the date? Did I verify the location? Lying in bed that night, long after the copy desk has shut down for the night, you might find the reporter still worrying, “Did I get it right?”
Life is not always so forgiving. Sometimes we don’t get a chance to add what was omitted. Yet that fact doesn’t stop the questions that chide you post-tragedy. In the drug store, I ask myself: What else could I have done or taught Lil Bit to keep him alive, to hold up my end of the bargain? What didn’t I do?
As I walk out of the drug store, Russell waves and walks over. This parking lot is his workplace. Armed with newspaper, Windex, and cheerful conversation, he washes the windows of shoppers, and helps them carry bags to their cars. In exchange, people give him dollars and handfuls of change.
“I saw you on TV,” Russell says, as he takes the bags from my hands and walks with me toward the car.
“On TV? Me? Nah, that wasn’t me,” I say jokingly.
“No, I saw you. It was about the young man, the one that got killed.”
Right after the press conference, I heard from people who saw the newscasts about Lil Bit or read the article in the Los Angeles Times. But now months have passed.
“How old was he?” Russell asks as we stand by my car.
“Twenty-two. He was a good kid. A church kid. He kept a job.”
“Yeah. It was his time. When it’s their time there’s nothing anybody can do. He just went home. That’s all. There was nothing you could do.”
“Okay,” I thought. “God. I hear you.”
Russell had no way of knowing the questions that tugged at me. We never talked about my mind chatter. And yet he’s answered the one question that bound me the tightest. Russell didn’t wash my windows that day, but when I drive away my view is clearer.
* * *
Somebody decided that Gregory Bowens should die.
Without knowing who shot Greg and left him dying on a street in Inglewood one day last November, it is safe to say the killer did not fully understand Greg’s potential, and probably did not pause to consider just how much would be lost the second the trigger was pulled.
Of course people who kill usually don’t ponder such thoughts.
Those lines appeared in my Times story about Bowens.
But the same can be said for Lil Bit.
Nearly two years have passed since Lil Bit’s death, and we still don’t know who killed him. So far, not even the $50,000 reward has drawn out the assailant. He could pass one of us on the street and we’d never know.
Two scenarios play in my mind: In one the killer wakes up, gets dressed, goes about his business day after day, as if killing Lil Bit is not worthy of much thought. In the other scenario the killer’s conscience nags at him. Maybe he has a child, a baby boy. Maybe he’s starting to wonder if karma will bring the same fate to his family that he brought to ours.
One day we will know who the killer is. I believe this. Eventually things done in the dark will be brought to light, if not because of a guilty conscience, perhaps for the cash.
Inside the lobby of the Southeast Division of the L.A.P.D., a large photo of Lil Bit hangs behind the counter.
The Wanted poster hangs on the security door of Alberta’s house. Next door, the obituary program sits on the living room table of my mother’s house. Another sister keeps hers on the piano, where music sheets should sit. On the desk where I write is a photo of Lil Bit and his brother when they were babies. They are dressed alike, sitting underneath the Christmas tree like gifts. On a shelf in the living room sits another keepsake that reminds me of a happy time in his life. I received it one day, not long after the homegoing celebration. Lil Bit’s brother and I planned to meet to wrap up loose ends from the service. He walked into the kitchen with a something in his hand.
“Jo-Jo, do you want this?”
He was holding the “Oscar” trophy from our Academy Awards. The trophy says, “Kendrick Blackmon, Best Actor, 2005.” I can practically hear Lil Bit sing that line from so long ago: “I’m gonna be a star!” And in his own way, he was.
To be a reporter on the other side of the news is to dwell with loss.
On Lil Bit’s first birthday after the killing, friends and family gather in Alberta’s front yard. We pray and sing a sad rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Then each of us release a white balloon in memory of Lil Bit, and watch them until they disappear. Birthdays, holidays and everyday he is gone, yet still with us.
Shortly before his death, Lil Bit became an uncle. Kenneth is the deeply devoted father of a beautiful baby girl, who reminds us all of Lil Bit. Sometimes she’ll have an expression on her face and we’ll look at each other and say, “That’s Lil Bit.”
Before writing this piece for Narratively, I run the idea by Kenneth.
“Jo-Jo, my brother would not mind,” Kenneth says. “He’d probably say, ‘Can we put some pictures with it too?’”
And we laugh.
I was a hard news reporter, so I didn’t write first-person pieces for the Los Angeles Times. But loss changes you. It puts you in front of a microphone, it rewrites your story, it pushes you out of your comfort zone.
When the opportunity arose I couldn’t not write about Lil Bit; just like I couldn’t be silent at the press conference. I don’t know how to find Lil Bit’s killer, but I know how to tell a story.
“You never know. Maybe somebody who knows something will read it and call the police,” my mother says when I tell her about this piece.
That was always my secret hope when I wrote stories about victims of crime for the paper.
“You never know,” I say.
That’s still my hope. Maybe something good will come of it for us, for Lil Bit, and for the next family who will lose a child when the bullet strikes.
* * *
Anyone with information about the killer or killers of Kendrick Blackmon is asked to call police at 877-LAPD-24-7 or TTY (877-275-5273)
Josh Simmons was born in Connecticut in 1977. He is the creator of the graphic novels House, Jessica Farm and The Furry Trap.