Sometimes he hears voices. Often they are quiet, just whispers. On December 2, 1999, it’s the voice of David Foster, gang leader. Blood. Convicted felon. David is 35 and one of the most feared people in the neighborhood. Alonza is walking home from school, wearing a light-blue shirt. “Hey,” David says. “Come here.”
Alonza runs, but the man catches him, sliding his heavy arms below Alonza’s thin armpits, locking the boy into a full nelson. “Why you wearing blue?” David says. “You a Crip?” David’s gang pours from the alley, surrounding the child. Some of the gangsters are children too, younger than Alonza. Three are girls. They kick Alonza’s legs, hit him with elbows, smack him in the head with a 40-ounce beer bottle. Alonza falls to the ground. A foot stamps on his face; the voices are screams. He digs at the cement, the rocks catching under his fingernails, lost in the bodies chanting, “Bloods, Bloods, Bloods.”1
Fifteen-year-old Alonza Rydell Thomas lives in Bakersfield in the sprawling desert of the Central Valley. The city is expanding. It’s now the 13th largest in California, with 221,000 people. They’re putting up pitched roofs faster than stoplights. People keep arriving from Los Angeles, snatching up the cheap houses. There are parks on the map, but the parks aren’t built yet. There are parts of Bakersfield with every chain restaurant you can imagine but no post office and no library. Drive half an hour just to send your mail. And there’s a ghetto not far from downtown in the eye of the sprawl, filled with low, dark bungalows, marked by their lack of air conditioning. It’s like living in an oven.
Alonza is 6-foot-3, thin as straw. He has a child’s shoulders, a child’s smile. He’s knobby and loose, like a puppet on a string. There’s something almost handsome about him if he wasn’t so awkward; there’s something wrong with his head. He’s not a bad kid; he doesn’t get in trouble. He’s not in a gang. His record is clean. His mother is a schoolteacher. Her name is Janice, but everybody calls her by her last name, Venus. His father lives in San Diego. He stayed with his father for a year when he was 12, but his father got rough and Janice had to call the police, bring him back home. He has two brothers, normal as can be.
Janice and Alonza see David Foster stopped by the police. Janice tells the police that this is the man who beat up her son. Alonza appears in court to testify against David Foster. Foster is sentenced to 13 years for a series of offenses and parole violations.
February 2000, desert winter. A note comes from school — Alonza has been failing his classes. In response, his mother takes his money, four dollars. Alonza thinks his mother doesn’t love him anymore. He’s never had a keen understanding of consequences.
He sits near the tracks east of Truxton Avenue, just down from the Kern County Superior Court. The slow-moving train passes overhead while the underpass tunnels beneath the rails. Alonza swings just for a second, long fingers gripping the steel-gray container, hauling himself into the empty car, traveling north toward Sacramento. He has become a statistic, one of 2 million American children who run away every year.
It’s been two weeks since Alonza grabbed the edge of the freight car, and it’s late at night. He stands at the door of his own home, but the door is locked. He thinks his mother has locked him out. Maybe she has. She says later she just didn’t hear him. He disappears into the city.
Alonza meets a man known as Baby Boy. Now they are partners. The man gives him food, beats him, molests him. Tells Alonza if he wants to go home, he’ll have to rob a store. At least that’s what Alonza says later, after he’s been sitting in a jail cell for a couple of weeks. No way to know if it’s true. But there’s some evidence to support it.2
March 21, 2000, 6:20 p.m., the Fastrip convenience store on Mount Vernon, right out there where those new houses are being built and the streetlights don’t work. A quiet neighborhood; never any crime. The store sells gasoline, alcohol and snacks. Alonza Thomas ties a scarf over his nose and behind his neck as the sun falls behind the mountains, leaving a hazy twilight for the moon. The gun is a .22, the second most stolen gun after the .38 and the third most popular for criminals, accounting for 16 percent of all crimes involving guns.3 Juveniles tend not to use them, preferring larger bores and semiautomatics. Alonza could close his fist around the gun and it would disappear.
He wears latex gloves, entering through the side door. He holds the firearm sideways, like he’s in a rap video or a Hong Kong action flick, waving the gun at the three men behind the counter. One of the men is Nassri Jaben, the owner of the Fastrip. Jaben is not supposed to be there. His briefcase sits on the counter.
For a moment the three men think it is some kind of joke, the scarf and the latex gloves and the way he holds the gun.
“Give me the money,” Alonza says. He doesn’t look behind him. He doesn’t seem afraid. He walks straight to the counter and presses the gun against Nassri’s chest, and the men no longer think it is a joke.
“You want the money?” Nassri states calmly. “If you want the money, I’ll give you the money.” He opens the register, takes the bills out, hundreds of singles, also fives, tens, twenties. Must be three hundred dollars. But he misses a twenty, and Alonza sees it.
“Money, money!” Alonza says. He’s getting irritated, and the men are becoming frightened. “I thought he was going to kill me,” Nassri says later in his deposition. The owner opens the register, gives Alonza the last twenty. There are no customers. It’s time for Alonza to leave, but he doesn’t. There is something wrong with him. His eyes are like glass.
Alonza slides the gun from Nassri’s shoulder. “Open the safe,” he says. The safe is on the floor beneath the register. Nassri bends toward the countertop. Alonza isn’t paying attention. Ali Salah, the clerk, grabs Alonza’s wrist and yanks him forward. “He made me do it!” Alonza cries, a stack of beef jerky tumbling to the floor.
Othimini, the other clerk, hops the counter. The gun goes off. A pop like a paper bag, followed by smoke. Nassri grasps the phone. “My employee has been shot,” he says to the police. But he’s wrong. The gun discharged, but no one was hurt. The bullet has lodged in the Formica, where it will stay.
Othimini hits Alonza in the head. They struggle through the store, bottles and snacks falling from the shelves. It takes several minutes to subdue the boy. He seems stronger than his size. He bucks like a man possessed. His gun sits on the floor. Finally, the two clerks pin the delinquent. Nassri places his own gun, a .40 Glock, against Alonza’s temple, warns him to stop moving. Eight squad cars, a helicopter and an ambulance are on their way. Nassri’s so angry he wants to shoot. Alonza’s scarf is snatched from his face. Nassri thinks, “He’s just a child.”