By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Larry Stiner Jr. was raised not to talk about his father. Not because of any overt animosity at Watani’s having left his family behind in 1974, but because you just never knew who might be listening in.
“Growing up, we never really knew if the FBI was tapping our phones or if LAPD was bugging our conversations to find out about my father,” says Larry. “You didn’t want to say anything that was going to spark some huge manhunt and get him caught, so even though I thought about him, I learned not to say anything at all.”
For most of his life, that’s where his father stayed — as a lingering thought in the back of his head. A secret.
Now 41, tall, with a shaved head and a sturdier build than his thin father, Larry works for the communications department of the city of Los Angeles and lives in a comfortable three-bedroom home in South L.A. A father himself, he has a 3-year-old daughter, Khyra, with wife Diane, and a 19-year-old, Jasmine, from a previous relationship. Whether by coincidence or genetics, Larry shares his father’s thoughtfulness and easygoing demeanor. It certainly wasn’t learned.
Larry was 3 when his father went to jail and 8 when he escaped to South America.
“Even before he moved to Suriname, I never really knew my dad,” says Larry. “He was never around. I was always the little man of the house. My mom, my brother Lionel and I were like an iron triangle — we were unbreakable.”
Like Watani’s stepfather before him, Larry’s maternal grandfather stepped up to offer him the paternal guidance he craved. “My grandfather was that rock I needed,” says Larry. “I really attribute his presence in the family as one of the reasons I was able to grow up as normally as I did.”
Larry spent all of his life in the Los Angeles area, and met Diane here in 1989. Even though the two dated for nearly six years before getting married, Diane never knew the full extent of Larry and Watani’s story. “I knew a little bit about the situation with his father,” says Diane, “but it wasn’t something we really talked about that much.” To say that would soon change would be gross understatement.
In 1994, Larry came home from work one day and turned on the TV to see something startling. “I was watching the news and suddenly realized, hey, there’s my father.”
Watani had just returned from Suriname, and his extradition was the lead story. Larry knew immediately that he needed to get in touch and sent a letter to his father in prison asking to meet.
“I was nervous about how Larry was going to react to me,” remembers Watani. “I didn’t know what kind of resentment might have built up over the years — what kind of anger. It certainly would have been deserved. But then he contacted me and we fell right in.”
“I was just happy to get the opportunity to finally get to know him,” says Larry.
Over the next few years, as Larry and his father grew close, Larry learned of his half brothers and half sisters and the situation in Suriname. But Larry would soon have his own trauma to deal with. In 2000, Larry’s brother Lionel suffered a massive and unexpected heart attack.
“It was his 33rd birthday. I was driving over to his place to hang out when Diane called me with the news,” says Larry. “I went straight to the hospital, but he died before I had the chance to say goodbye.”
Larry was devastated: “Ever since we were kids, growing up the way we did without a father, Lionel and I were inseparable. It was like a piece of me died that day.” If there was any solace to be had, it was that Lionel and Watani had had the chance to reconnect before his death.
“I just thank God I had that opportunity,” says Watani.
But while Larry mourned the loss of the only brother he knew, a new sibling prepared to enter his life. In 2001, Elaine and Sheilah paid for Kishana to come visit Watani in San Quentin. When she arrived and learned of the existence of her half brother in Los Angeles, she wanted to meet him too.
“We took her all over the place,” says Larry. “We went to Disneyland, to the beach — we had a good time. After Kishana left, we really tried to keep in touch — to send money and medicine down there as often as we could and to make sure they were all right. I also got more involved with the legal situation — in trying to finally get the kids over here as soon as possible.”
On the latter front, he was perhaps more successful than he was prepared for. On a random Friday in January of 2005, Larry received an unexpected call from Los Angeles County Social Services. The kids were on their way from Suriname and would be in Los Angeles on Monday morning. If a suitable home wasn’t found immediately, the children would be sent to foster care.