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Dispatch: "I thought to myself: 'I can't let these dudes take me out'"

August 5, 2009 |  3:32 pm

Phase 1 Barber Studio in Compton, where Jamal Kelly, 25, was shot to death while robbing the shop.

Early on the afternoon of July 3, Phase 1 Barber Studio in Compton was crowded with men, women and children waiting to get their hair cut before the Fourth of July.

About 1 p.m., three young black men entered the barbershop, a long white, black and gray room with five salon chairs in the 2700 block of Wilmington Ave. One of the men asked a barber how long the wait would be to get his hair cut.

“I told him there were at least two to three people ahead. I had never seen these guys before in my life,” said the barber, Levert, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he feared he could be targeted for retribution.

The three young men exited the shop, only to return five minutes later. This time, Levert said one of them brandished a knife at him while another stood behind him.

Seeing the commotion, barbershop customers ran out of the building.

Levert, who was wearing two gold chains around his neck, said the man holding the knife “said some gang [talk] and yelled at me to give him my chains.”

Levert said the man then swiped the knife at him, cutting his forearm and pulling the chains off his neck. Two of the assailants backed him into a corner, he said. One, later identified by authorities as Jamel Kelly, 25, of Compton, took out a gun.

In response, Levert pulled out a Ruger .357 he had concealed in his back pocket and shot Kelly. Kelly stumbled and dropped the gun he was holding, Levert said. The other assailants ran out of the barbershop, as Kelly grabbed for his gun on the floor. Levert shot Kelly again. He said he feared for his life.

“Once I got into that corner, there was nowhere else to go,” Levert said. “I don’t feel good about what I did, but I thought to myself, I can’t let these dudes take me out. I have a lot to live.”

After shooting Kelly, Levert went outside, where he found a coworker going after the other men who had fled with his gold chains. Levert said the coworker shot at the men with his own 9-millimeter gun.

Det. Kathleen Gallagher of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said authorities believe at least one of the men was shot because there was a trail of blood on the street. The two men who fled on foot  have not been apprehended.

When deputies reached the barbershop they yelled at everyone to get down on the ground and arrested Levert and his armed coworker.

After the incident was explained, the barbers were released. Because both guns were registered and the barbers were acting in self-defense, they were not charged, said Deputy Rick Vargas of the Compton sheriff’s station.

Kelly was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:13 p.m., according to coroner's investigators. Court records indicate at the time of his death he was on formal probation for a December conviction on charges of selling ammunition.

Since the robbery, Levert has not returned to Phase 1 Barber Studio. The most recent incident proved to be the last straw.

“I’m just trying to stay away, because you know how people are out here,” Levert said. He’s looking for work in an area outside of Compton.

Anyone with information about the whereabouts of the two suspects is asked to contact the L.A. County sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at (323) 890-5500.

--Sarah Ardalani in Compton

Photo: Phase 1 Barber Studio in Compton, where Jamal Kelly, 25, was shot to death while robbing the shop. Credit: Megan Garvey/Los Angeles Times