A mother’s prayer
It’s not easy raising kids in Valley Hi, one of Sacramento’s most violent neighborhoods. Just ask Rhonda Erwin.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today at the Progressive Church of God in Christ to witness the passing of Michael Lamar Barron, yet another victim of south Sacramento street violence. Had he not been gunned down while sitting in his car in front of a home on Valley Hi Drive on March 9, Barron would have turned 28 tomorrow. See him through the coffin’s acrylic window, dressed in his Sunday’ finest. He’s at peace now; he’s going home. The undertaker has done his work well.
He leaves behind six children; hear the youngest daughter read a poem. “If I had to live my life over, I’d have chosen you to be my dad once more,” she speaks softly. “My heart is completely crushed, but nothing loved is ever lost and you are loved so much.”
There are some 200 people gathered in the chamber; another 100 or so who couldn’t fit await the viewing in an adjacent hall. Many weep openly. One of the elders consoles the bereaved with a soulful rendering of the traditional blues song “Jesus on the Mainline”:
I know Jesus is on that mainline,
Tell Him what you want.
Jesus is on that mainline,
Tell Him what you want.
Jesus is on that mainline,
Tell Him what you want.
You can call Him up and tell Him what you want.
The mourners clap with the rhythm and some even sing along. But as the viewing begins, the tears flow freely once again. In the back room, an anguished young woman nearly collapses from grief. “I can’t believe my niggah’s gone!” she cries. “I can’t believe my niggah’s gone! My niggah’s gone!”
It’s a scene that plays out all too frequently in south Sacramento. If you’re Rhonda Erwin, perhaps Sacramento’s most outspoken advocate for disadvantaged at-risk youth, you attend such ceremonies on an almost-weekly basis. You feel the pain of families and friends who’ve lost loved ones to street violence. As a good Christian, you know the Lord can take their pain away. But you also know that people must hurt before healing can begin.
You worry that some of today’s youth are deaf to the minister’s eulogy, the words from the Good Book offer no salvation to them: The stony-faced girls and boys who hold their anguish in until sooner or later it boils over and south Sacramento’s never-ending cycle of violence makes its way ’round one more time again.
So you try to comfort them. In the parking lot, you approach two teenage boys, baggy jeans sagging halfway to the knees, shirttails flapping in the breeze. You talk to them, try to see how they’re feeling. You hug them. In south Sacramento, everybody knows just about everybody to some extent; these boys know your oldest son, Douglas. They don’t know that Douglas has been in jail for more than a year, and when you tell them he’s being sentenced next Friday, their eyes widen. They know that is not a good thing.
You don’t tell them your son is facing 22 years in prison for shooting and wounding a girl in the leg outside a south Sacramento convenience store. You haven’t really told anyone except your immediate family. You empathize with the pain of others, even as you hide your own.
For the past two years, you have tirelessly struggled to halt the cycle of street violence, to ease the pain of countless victims, but you could not save your own son. For this you blame yourself. The anguish is unbearable, but from pain comes your strength.
A world gone mad
The Valley Hi neighborhood in south Sacramento is a mixture of single-family homes, block-long apartment complexes, schools, churches and strip malls bordered by Franklin Boulevard on the west, Mack Road on the north, Center Parkway on the east and Valley Hi Drive on the south. Nothing marks it as out of the ordinary, as a potentially dangerous place, other than the occasional yard cordoned off by a chain link security fence. Nevertheless, it is a veritable shooting gallery, featuring live ammunition and living, breathing human targets.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, if you’ve been living in Valley Hi for years, the deaths have become a blur. Your son’s friend Jack Lawrence, murdered in a Valley Hi mini mall. Jesse Rogers, murdered in a Valley Hi apartment complex. Gregory Dockery, murdered behind Lamppost Pizza. LeWayne Carolina, murdered in a Valley Hi apartment complex. Wesley Hunter, murdered in a Valley Hi apartment complex. A 17-year-old shot in a Valley Hi park. A 19-year-old shot in the head at Denny’s in Valley Hi. Christina Cheatman, 18, shot and killed while driving her car in Valley Hi. Two black males, pistol whipped and shot numerous times in Valley Hi, killing one of them. Rojelio Garcia Santana, shot to death outside of a Valley Hi 7-Eleven.
In March of 2005, after 10 such killings in a matter of weeks, if you’re Rhonda Erwin, something awakens in you.
You’re not exactly certain when you fell asleep. You were born in 1961, you’ve lived in south Sacramento all of your life. You grew up in a law-enforcement family, attended John F. Kennedy High School, listened to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. on TV. They sold ginger ale and sour balls at the corner store. It was a great time to be black.
Then you drifted off with the rest of your generation.
Slim, attractive, you fell in love, married. You gave birth to your first child, a daughter, in 1984. When you were eight months pregnant with your second child, Douglas, your husband went to prison for the first time. He spends the next 20 years in and out of the joint while you raise three children. The music changes, from soul to gangsta rap. You gain a few pounds. And a few more. The corner store now sells hair weave extensions and blue and red bandannas. Baby-faced killers stalk Valley Hi Drive and no one does anything about it. All of the leaders are gone.
Brothers and sisters, this is not a world anyone wants to bring a child into.
Small for his age, Douglas becomes a target for bullies as soon as he enters grade school. At age 11, he is struck in the head with a brick. At age 13, he and a friend use a bathroom at a Valley Hi pizza parlor. The friend has diarrhea and has an accident on the floor. He attempts to clean it up while Erwin waits outside. As they are leaving the pizza parlor, the manager and another employee begin screaming at them. The boys run. The friend escapes. Douglas doesn’t.
The manager twists Douglas’ arm behind his back, herds him into the bathroom, shoves him down into the shit. Then he makes him clean up the entire bathroom.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin and you arrive at the pizza parlor to find your son in a state of panic, his arm sprained and his shirt stained with feces, well, it’s understandable that you might blow a fuse. You rush your son to Kaiser and report the assault to the police. The first officer on the scene is sympathetic, tells you it sounds like you have a pretty good case for a civil suit. Then a second officer arrives, with the pizza parlor manager in tow. The officer cites your son for vandalism and fingerprints him. Even though the friend’s mother eventually tells juvenile authorities that her son was the one responsible for the mess, your son is in the system now. You call the police to report an assault on your son, and the victim becomes a suspect.
You see the pattern repeat itself again and again, with other children, as well as your own son.
At age 14, Douglas is robbed at gunpoint for the first time. At age 15, he is stabbed in the back. At age 16, he is robbed at gunpoint again. The thieves take the brand new leather jacket you gave him for Christmas, his shoes and his cell phone. When Douglas is late coming home, you call him. “Douglas is dead!” the thieves answer. When Douglas finally calls home, you call the police. When they arrive, they ask Douglas what he was doing wrong. He must have been doing something.
These lessons are not lost on Douglas. Policemen are not his friends. Violence is a means to an end. If you think something belongs to you, take it.
When he is 17, your daughter Sharonda, who is one year older than Douglas, drops her brother off near a Valley Hi Drive apartment complex,where his girlfriend lives. Then she drives to Cosumnes River College, about 15 minutes away, to pick you up from school. Douglas arrives at the complex’s main entrance just as police cars pull up, responding to a burglary in progress. Four youth bolt from the direction of the complex. Douglas freaks and runs the opposite direction. The four boys escape. Douglas doesn’t. You’re climbing in your daughter’s car when the police call to tell you your son has been arrested.
You arrive at the apartments to find Douglas handcuffed near the main entrance. The police have found a gun dropped by one of the four boys they were pursuing. They charge Douglas with attempted burglary and possession of a firearm. He is already in the juvenile system, and even though the burglary charge is eventually dropped, even though his prints are not on the gun, the firearm possession charge sticks. He is placed in the Sacramento County Boys Ranch.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, and you’ve spent years struggling to keep your son in school, to get treatment for his mild learning disabilities and chronic depression from ambivalent social-service agencies, to keep him out of trouble in a neighborhood where trouble begins outside your front door, you begin to wonder why you ever let your child out of the house in the first place. Police cruisers and helicopters are a constant presence. Hardly a week goes by without some youth getting “smoked” by another youth. No one does anything about it.
All of the leaders are gone.
Then it dawns on you. When you see a young man in handcuffs, you see chains. When you see him fleeing a police dog, you think bloodhounds. When you see him on work-project detail picking up trash, you think cotton. You see an entire community subjugated to terror and violence, from within and without. What you see is another form of slavery, and if no one else is going to do anything about it, then by God you will.
It is March of 2005, and you are fully awake.
You begin attending funerals and community meetings and organizing your own marches. You get a computer and begin blasting e-mails to politicians, social-service agencies, newspapers and TV stations, anyone who will listen. Miraculously, people do listen. You become the conduit to a brutal, inhumane world outsiders are either unaware of or pretend doesn’t exist. You’ve given voice to the victims of violence, and put forth the notion that putting young men in jail and prison may not be the best way to prevent crime. Astonishingly, for the first time that anyone in south Sacramento can remember, the community at large is listening.
But change comes too late for your son. For a short time, a window to normalcy opens for him. Your sister gives him her old car, a white Saturn on its last legs. He spends all day and all night learning how to shift its manual transmission. He enters his first serious relationship, with an older woman from Valley Hi.
Then, in the summer of 2005, everything goes bad.
On July 19, Douglas and several friends park the Saturn in the driveway of the Erwin home on Valley Hi Drive. Four boys in a white pickup truck pull up across the street, get out of the truck and start walking toward Douglas and his friends. One of the four boys carries a shotgun. He levels it right there in the middle of the street and opens fire.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, it sounds like bombs going off from inside the house. You rush out the front door and find your son shivering behind a hedge. You have never seen him so frightened. No one is injured. The assailants are long gone by the time police arrive. No one is arrested.
It’s not clear to you how or if what happens next is related to the lifetime of violence and abuse your son has endured growing up on the streets of Valley Hi.
Early in the morning on July 26, he walks into a Circle K on Vintage Drive to buy a pack of Newports. His image is captured on one of the store’s security cameras. According to the Sacramento Police Department detective’s report, he exits the store and asks a woman parked outside, Feven Voldeyohannes, for a light. She asks him if he wants to buy some marijuana. He says no, but he has a friend who might.
Several minutes later, the report continues, Douglas returns to the parking lot in a van with his best friend, Kenneth Lomack. Douglas sticks a pistol in Voldeyohannes’ face and demands she hand over her purse. Lomack allegedly attempts to grab the purse through the passenger side door. Voldeyohannes and Lomack struggle with the purse until the strap breaks. As Lomack and Douglas walk away with the purse, she tells them there isn’t any money in it. According to police, Douglas turns around and shoots Voldeyohannes in the leg.
The .22 caliber bullet passes through her thigh. The wound is not serious. She spends the rest of the night at the UC Davis Medical Center, where she is discharged in the morning.
Two days later, at a Valley Hi apartment complex, police responding to a reported shooting find Douglas, Lomack and two other boys in an apartment that belongs to a female acquaintance. They also find and confiscate three pistols. Douglas has not yet been connected to the shooting at the Circle K but, a week later, a juvenile-detention officer recognizes his face from the security-camera image distributed by police. Douglas is arrested in September. In October, detectives match fingerprints on one of the pistols found in the Valley Hi apartment to Douglas. His bail is raised to $1 million.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, you can’t help but notice the inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case. After initially telling police Douglas was wearing a gray shirt, the color changes to tan and then, after prompting from a detective, to yellow. She failed to identify Douglas from a photographic line-up. She first said the pistol was silver but, again after prompting from a detective, changed it to black, the color of the pistol with Douglas’ prints on it.
There are other discrepancies and mitigating factors but, nevertheless, strong circumstantial evidence connects Douglas to the shooting. His face is on the video tape. His prints are on the gun. The gun matches a shell casing found at the scene of the crime. The case almost ends in a mistrial when police lose the video tape from the store. But the tape turns up at the last minute and, thanks to a little-known law known as 10-20-Life, Douglas faces the possibility of life in prison if the case goes to a jury.
It’s rough justice, the 10-20-Life law, sometimes referred to as “use a gun and you’re done.” For those found in possession of a firearm while committing select crimes, including robbery, the law tacks on 10 years to the sentence. For those who actually discharge the weapon, it’s an additional 20 years. Those who actually shoot someone, such as Douglas allegedly did, face a 25-to-life sentence. Sacramento offers him a deal: Plead guilty to discharging the weapon and the sentence will be reduced to 20 years, plus two years for the robbery.
Twenty-two years in prison. It is his first offense.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, you’re torn. You believe your son is innocent, but you’re not sure if it can be proved in open court. Lose, and it’s 25-to-life. You argue about evidence and mitigating circumstances with his attorney, Karol Repkow, and even try to have her taken off the case. In the end, you’ve got no other choice.
So you reluctantly agree to let your son take the deal.
Brothers and sisters, having a friend or a loved one locked up in Sacramento County is an incredible pain in the ass. The Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, where Douglas is incarcerated, is located 20 miles from Rhonda Erwin’s south Sacramento home. On Saturdays, family and friends nurse their tired vehicles to the sprawling facility on Twin Cities Road, where they’re met by members of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, who ticket and tow cars without proper registration.
The center houses 2,100 inmates and serves as an overflow facility for the downtown Sacramento jail. Its stated goals are “to prevent escapes and wrongful releases and to increase vocational and educational opportunities for inmates.” Double rows of chain-link fence topped with razor wire circling the complex ensure the first goal is met. From somewhere within this cage, Douglas wrote his mother last February.
“My nerves are really bad because I am tired of this bullshit,” he complained. “I have spent Christmas, New Years and my Birthday in this hellhole. I just pray to god that He can keep feeling my pain and that justice can be served for the best.”
Visitors sign in at a squat concrete guardhouse just inside the main gate. They must possess a valid ID and are prohibited from wearing the following items: tube tops, see-through mesh materials, short shorts, micro mini skirts, tank tops with thin straps, backless or sleeveless tops, midriff or cutoff shirts, bathing tops, clothing with profane or gang-related logos, under wire bras, boots with heels over two inches, and jewelry, with the exception of wedding rings and medical-alert tags.
They walk from the guardhouse to a small door hewn into the main building’s cement edifice. The door leads up a stairwell into a bare, cavernous hallway as gray and ominous as a mausoleum. At the opposite end of the hallway, another door leads into the low-ceilinged, claustrophobic visitor’s room, where anxious, haggard men in orange jumpers wait behind bullet proof glass for their only living contact with the outside world.
Two days before his sentencing hearing, your son Douglas sits behind the visiting room glass and listens as you recount the day-to-day activities of various friends and relatives: His older sister back East, his younger brother at home, his girlfriend in Valley Hi. Make sure she writes, he asks. Tell her to send pictures.
Sitting down, he seems taller than 5 feet 6 inches. He has your good looks, an oval-shaped face with soft yet angular features, a high forehead over almond-shaped eyes and full lips. He leans in toward the glass on his elbows, telephone receiver scrunched tightly against his ear, orange sleeves rolled up, revealing a crude jailhouse tattoo, “O-A-K,” freshly carved into his right forearm.
You’re convinced of your son’s innocence, so you have to ask him, one last time, if he’s willing to prove it in open court. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Twenty-two years verses freedom, presuming a young African-American male with a court-appointed attorney can beat a case built on strong circumstantial evidence, or life in prison, presuming he can’t. The odds are not good.
“I can’t take no hard elbow,” he says, equating a life sentence to a basketball foul.
He won’t talk about how his prints got on the gun. He looks up and all around, indicating the guards who are no doubt eavesdropping on the conversation. He won’t talk about guns, period. He remembers when things were “copasetic” after the last time he got out of juvy, when he was 19 and your sister gave him the car and he learned how to drive and he had his first serious relationship. But that was before that night at the Circle K on Vintage Park Drive, before his face turned up on the surveillance camera, before his prints turned up on the gun, before things went bad. Now, he seems resigned to a fate behind bars.
“I’ve grown accustomed to it,” he says.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, you realize that time did not stand still for the boy who entered jail almost two years ago. He’s gained a level of acceptance—not just resignation—that he never had before. Your son has grown up without you. In jail, he has become a man.
On March 23, 2007, family members and friends gather with you outside Department 38 on the fifth floor of the Sacramento Superior Court building for his sentencing. Just before court begins, the county chaplain gathers the group in a circle outside the courtroom doors and leads them in prayer.
“Lord, we need a miracle today!” he says.
Inside the courtroom, Douglas sits straight up in his chair before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Savage. Karol Repkow, his attorney, sits to his immediate left; his co-defendant and best friend, Lomack, sits next to her with his attorney. Lomack’s attorney asks for and is granted a continuance. The court’s attention shifts to Douglas. The judge reads off the list of applicable statutes, never stating the charges by name, only by number and the corresponding prison term.
Discharging a firearm during a robbery. Twenty-two years.
“Do you understand, Mr. Erwin?” the judge asks.
The judge read the charges exactly the same way, and asks again if the defendant understands. Douglas sits speechless.
“You have to answer,” the judge insists.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, and your son’s about to be sentenced to spend more years in prison than he’s been alive, you get up and walk out of the court. You’ve had enough—the crimes and the killings and the funerals and now this. The latch clicks softly as the door closes behind you.
Your son turns around and sees your empty seat. He slumps dejectedly as the judge pronounces sentence, 22 years in prison.
“Good luck, Mr. Erwin,” he says flatly.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, you pace the hallway outside the courtroom, wondering if your heart’s going to explode. No one could fight harder for their son than you have. Twenty-two years! What kind of a deal is that? Why didn’t his attorney do something? You plant yourself outside the doors and wait for her to come out. The doors open, friends and family members reach out to comfort you. You don’t want their comfort. Where’s his attorney? There she is, heading for the elevator.
For nearly two years you have dreaded this day. Your son was not yet born when his father first went to prison. Now your son, not yet a man, is about to disappear into the same maw. Deep down inside, you blame yourself. But you also blame the system, personified by Repkow, your son’s attorney. Family members restrain you as Repkow enters the elevator. You lunge toward her, almost break free from your family’s grasp, look her right in the eyes.
“Get out of my face!” Repkow screams.
Then the elevator door closes and she’s gone.
A sheriff’s deputy in the hallway reports the disturbance on his radio. Friends and family members try to touch and comfort you. You do not want them to hold your hand. You do not want to cry on anyone’s shoulder. From pain comes your strength. Each tear drop forms a puddle that lifts you higher. The more you hurt, the clearer you see. You will not roll over like all the rest. You will not disregard the lives and freedom of others.
They took a child who believed and trusted in you and they said it was your fault. They brought you to your knees. But even though they won the battle, they will not win the war. You are Rhonda Erwin, and every moment of your life is dedicated to destroying the roots of youth violence, the causes and conditions that lead to the crimes and the killings that are sucking the lifeblood out of your community. This is your fight.
It’s not just wishful thinking. You’ve made contacts during two years of high-profile activism, friends and professionals willing to lend a hand. Already, an attorney has volunteered his services pro bono to work on your son’s appeal. There are signs that society is becoming frustrated with mandatory-sentencing laws that take power to decide cases on the merits away from judges and juries and lead to overcrowded prisons. There’s hope, so you fight.
If you’re Rhonda Erwin, it’s the only thing you know how to do.