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Dispatch: 'My son’s death was senseless and selfish'

December 7, 2009 |  5:00 am
Click to visit The Times' interactive project on Homeboy Industries' gang intervention efforts in South Alabama
Trayvon Jeffers left prison in the spring of 2007 determined to turn his life around. He'd been paroled after serving 4 1/2 years of a seven-year sentence.

He was just 21 when he pleaded no contest to two counts of assault with a firearm, one on a police officer. 

The prison stint capped off what, by his own admission, had already been a long history of gang banging.

Raised in Compton, Jeffers was involved in gangs by the time he was 12. As a juvenile, he had multiple encounters with the law. As an adult, he spent time in jail on narcotics and vehicular violations.

But prison was life-altering.

“Trayvon told me, ‘It was no joke, bro.’ In prison he had to play the race game. His decisions were not his decisions and he realized you couldn’t trust even your best friend," said Raul Diaz, who befriended him after Jeffers went to work at Homeboy Industries following his release. "It was clear he didn’t want to go back.”

At Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit organization that assists at-risk youth and former gang members, Jeffers found full-time employment. At first, Jeffers managed the front desk, greeting visitors and helping support numerous activities.

After a little more than a year, Jeffers was promoted to data collector, creating reports for financial contributors and monitoring client jobs, parole housing and new arrests.

Jeffers, who never earned a high school diploma or GED, was hesitant in the new role.

“Tray didn’t know if he could do it,” Diaz said, “but he was on it. I work with people who have bachelor's, master's, you name it, and Tray was one of the best. He relieved me from a lot of my stress. I never second-guessed him.”

Diaz said his friend knew it would be a struggle to stay away from his old ways, but he was determined. Another prison term would be unbearable. His resolve increased even more after Kim, his girlfriend of six months and coworker at Homeboy, became pregnant with twins.

Jeffers never knew his own father. As a child, he floated among family members while his mother battled health issues and a recurring drug problem. Jeffers decided he wanted a fresh start for his new family.

Jeffers relocated from Compton to the City of Commerce and moved in to an apartment with Kim.

“He liked it there," said David Gomez, another co-worker who often carpooled with Jeffers. "Sometimes it would get boring, but that’s where Tray wanted to start his family.”

In November 2008, not long before his twin girls were due, Jeffers left California for the first time to assist Light of the Village ministry in Prichard, Ala. Homeboy Industries had been making pilgrimages to the organization to extend ideas of social justice, education and providing services to the poor.

Along with two other Homeboy Industries staff members, Leslie Schwartz and Agustin Lizama, Jeffers spent more than a week teaching, playing with and mentoring children living in an area devastated by unemployment, poverty and crack cocaine.

“I thought I had seen it all," he later wrote in an essay for the Homeboy Review titled “A Journey for the First Time.” "I made a journey for the first time that taught me what real poverty is like.” In Prichard, half the roads were unpaved and most houses looked as though they'd been firebombed.

“Tray came back from that trip so deeply, profoundly moved. He came to see how lucky he was in so many ways. His geographic boundaries were expanded. He realized he was no longer imprisoned by his environment. It gave him perspective,” said Schwartz, who initially went to Homeboy Industries on a grant to teach a creative writing class and stayed on as a volunteer .

While in Prichard, Jeffers met an 11-year-old boy named Sean.

“This kid Sean stuck out the most,” Jeffers wrote in his essay, “because I saw in Sean the all around goodhearted 14-year-old cousin I lost to street violence. It was like Sean was almost carrying the spirit of my cousin in his heart.”

Later on, Jeffers learned Sean had been shot trying to protect his sister. Although Sean and his sister were hit, they both survived.

"I was hurt and saddened to see his life, in some ways, repeating the hardships of my own," Jeffers reflected.

Jeffers had to leave Alabama abruptly to rush to his girlfriend's side in the hospital. She had gone into labor. 

Jeffers went straight to the hospital to be by Kim’s side. He arrived holding a suitcase and wearing no shoes. He told his girlfriend he had given them to someone at the orphanage.

His daughters were born less than 24 hours later.

“He was trying really hard to be a good [partner]. He was transitioning from being a man to a responsible father,” Diaz said. “Family meant a whole lot more.”

Within months of his daughters birth, Jeffers was dead, apparently victim of the gang violence he had been working to escape.

Shortly before 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 6, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies in San Dimas were called to the north shore of Frank G. Bonelli Park. They found Jeffers shot several times. He was taken to Pomona Valley Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Authorities said a female, whose identity has not been released, was also wounded by gunfire.

Investigators determined that Jeffers was at the boat launch area of the park with a group of men when an argument began.

Det. Gene Okada from the Homicide Bureau said no one who was at the park is willing to talk about what happened. The other shooting victim, who is recovering from her injuries, could not identify the gunman, he said.

Okada does not believe Jeffers was involved in any illegal or suspicious activity when he was killed.

Those close to Jeffers suspect he had gone to the barbecue to show active gang members that a person could change. 

“The thing is you’re bound to get back together with some of those people,”  Diaz said. “Gangs are like high school friends.” 

At the park, Jeffers got into a wrestling match with another male. After Jeffers won the match, his friends and family were told, the other man got angry, leaving the area and returning with a gun.

“My son’s death was senseless and selfish,” said Jeffers’ mother, Londria Austin. “I’m sad. I know he didn’t deserve that.”

Since his death,  his friends -- many of whom have lived through the loss of others to violence -- have continued to grieve.

“Other homies' funerals never bothered me, but this one devastated me,” said Gomez, with his head bowed. Car rides to work, he said, are a lot quieter. “I try to do things the way he would, but it’s not the same.”

Those who knew the 28-year-old speak of countless ways Jeffers changed their lives.

Gomez, also a former convict, admits when he met Trayvon, he was a racist.

“Being in and out and of prison, you learn to be that way," he said. "I built this hatred for races that weren’t mine. Little by little, I opened up to him and he helped me break that. He helped take that out of me. Tray helped break my prison mentality.

“I told him that I owed him my life. And he said, ‘I’m glad to be assisting you.' " Gomez shook his head and chuckled, recalling his friend bluntly telling him that he wasn't screwed up, although what he had gone through had been.

Not long before he was killed, Jeffers had enrolled in one of Leslie Schwartz's creative writing classes. Schwartz described Jeffers as a “rock in the class. An eager writer and just as willing to share his work.” In his poetry, she could see Jeffers was dealing with struggles and was at a crossroads.

“I saw him with a dawning sensibility on his life and sense of the world,” Schwartz said.

The first class after Jeffers' homicide, Schwartz had her students write lamentations, poems of mourning. Once everyone shared their work, Schwartz read poet Amy Quan Barry’s: “If I don’t meet you in this life, Let me feel the lack.”

“Once I read the poem, the room was quiet for about five minutes. No one moved. It was as if Tray was with us. We were all holding each other up in the most profound way,” Schwartz noted. “It was one more example of Tray holding us together, even in death.”

Now there is almost no sound and at night I am not afraid.
The next world will be made of paper and everything
will have the capacity to fly. Promise me it will be there
as it is here -— the raspberries climbing the trellis, the rivers
blue scripts. Because every story has two endings, I see your body
breaking down, I see you soaring in the light. Be taken with me.
Come pouring down unified.

Amy Quan Barry

Anyone with information concerning the death of Trayvon Jeffers is asked to call the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500.

-- Sarah Ardalani

Related: Prior to Jeffers' death The Times' Katy Newton and Liz O. Baylen met with him and other workers from Homeboy Industries to chronicle their gang intervention efforts in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in South Alabama. After he was killed they continued to follow his colleagues, including Agustin Lizama. Watch a video about those efforts and share your thoughts about gang intervention programs through their interactive project Alabama Homeboys.

Photo: Trayvon Jeffers, 28 Credit: Katy Newton/Los Angeles Times

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