By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
In leaving Los Angeles, the Scotts acted on a popular impulse. Migration from the sprawling cities and suburbs of Southern California to inexpensive, mostly rural Kern County has increased in recent years. Once settled in, however, they found that a cleaner, safer, more affordable environment comes with a price. Scott has also found that retired gangsters who avoid the penitentiary or the grave may become popular public figures for a time, but they still get treated like gangsters if they question authority in a place where most people know better.
According to the state Attorney General’s Office, Kern County, with a population of 650,000, sends as many people to prison each year per capita as Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties combined. Most of those convictions are not for murder, rape or robbery, however. They are for low-level drug offenses, welfare fraud and workers’ compensation fraud. Kern County also boasts the most prisons and is responsible for the highest rate of reversed convictions in the state. So, in addition to its oil, cotton and grape fields — and less visible meth labs — Kern County is tagged as a mostly white, conservative Republican stronghold where cops kick ass, prosecutors play hardball, judges and juries are heartless, and defendants take a raw deal or suffer the consequences.
Many take issue with Kern County’s rap as a redneck backwater that metes out draconian punishment to nonviolent offenders for sport. Chief among them is District Attorney Edward Jagels, who has ruled with an iron fist for more than 20 years.
“A salaried person can own a house with a pool, a barbecue, live in a clean neighborhood and attend decent schools — things most people in Los Angeles can only dream about,” Jagels says, heralding Kern County’s virtues. “But this is a working-class county with high rates of teen pregnancy, dropout and illiteracy, which translates to [single mothers], unemployment, poverty and crime.”
Jagels is tired of the flack from city slickers to the south. “We’re used to being stereotyped and treated with amused contempt by [Los Angeles],” he says. “Our justice system functions like theirs or any other. And compared to other similar counties, we have a lower crime rate because we send more criminals to prison. We stop them from committing more crime.”
Despite Kern County’s law-and-order ethos, it has gained a seedy reputation based both on sensationalistic trials and salacious accounts of local corruption.
The county seat of Bakersfield and its 54-year-old D.A. are no strangers to unflattering, and sometimes lurid, media depictions. In 1999, a former Orange County Register reporter wrote “Mean Justice” — a scathing indictment of allegedly corrupt law-enforcement officials and local power brokers, including Jagels for sanctioning wrongful convictions. In 2003, The Bakersfield Californianpublished an in-depth report in response to stubborn rumors that a corrupt, gay elite has ruled Bakersfield for years. Jagels, whose slain former assistant and close friend, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Tauzer, was the catalyst for the series, bore considerable scrutiny for Tauzer’s allegedly inappropriate relationship with a troubled teen.
Jagels dismisses “Mean Justice” as a “screed.” He has characterized Kern County conspiracy theories as “lunacy.” He accuses The Californian of “making bedfellows with the fringe.” Yet controversy hounds the D.A., who has run unopposed in the last three elections. One local defender says of him, “Jagels is reviled by the common man around here. He’s turned the D.A.’s Office into an empire. And to maintain an empire, you have to boast statistics.”
Scott is convinced that truth is worse than legend. “It’s bad in Kern County,” says Scott, who has seen the inside of Lerdo Detention Facility in Bakersfield, which can be violent. “Up here they got guys trying to kill themselves like I’ve never seen before.”
Kershaun Scott was born in Los Angeles in 1965, one of six children, to Ernest and Birdie Mae Scott. He had a normal upbringing in Crenshaw until the family moved to 69th Street and Denker Avenue, in South-Central, and his father faded from the scene.
“Despite popular opinion, I was not born with an AK-47 in my hand,” he says. “I played football and Little League baseball and went to the library. But eventually there was nothing there but the Crips. You could be a victim, or not. I chose not to be.”
In the 1980s, “Li’l Monster” Scott cut a menacing figure. “Unfortunately, like everything in my life, I gave it my all,” he says. “I was an all-around gang member. I would get out in the street and fight, write my name or my gang’s name on the wall, I would rob you, shoot you, do whatever it took to promote my hood and my name. I believe my brother and I took gangbanging to another level. We lived by a creed: If you hit me, I will kill you. It wasn’t get even, it was get one up.”
Scott rose quickly within the Eight Tray Crips, until his conviction for avenging the shooting of his brother in 1981. Fresh out of prison in 1986, he renewed the gang life, which by then included dealing crack. Although he says he never touched the drug, he concedes enabling it to ravage others. In 1989, however, he had a son, whom he named Kershaun II, and began studying history and talking to people in the community about ending gang violence.
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