By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On the night of March 30, 1974, Watani Stiner and his brother George hugged their mother and stepfather good night, trying to hide the fact that this might be the last time they would ever see each other. In only a few hours’ time, Watani and George would either be free or they would be dead.
The brothers waited until they were sure their visiting parents were asleep, then rolled up their pillows and blankets and stuffed them in large lumps under the sheets of their beds to resemble sleeping bodies. They dropped a brief goodbye note behind before quietly sneaking out a back door into the cool night air.
“Dear Moms and Pops — Sorry we had to do it like this, but circumstances demanded it .?.?.”
Under cover of darkness, the brothers raced 50 yards to an 8-foot-high concrete wall and hopped it quickly. Once on the other side, Watani spotted a cigarette’s red glow in the distance and immediately shoved his brother to the ground. Praying they hadn’t been seen, they waited silently, faces in the grass, hearts racing, until the smoker got into a car and drove off.
It was time to move again — fast.
Conspicuously avoiding guard towers and gun turrets, the brothers made it to a tall chainlink fence, which they were able to scale quietly enough to avoid detection and the subsequent hail of bullets their discovery would bring from any nearby guards. Scampering up a hill on the other side of the fence, they eventually reached a road, where they climbed into an awaiting car and sped off. Still panicked, they turned around to check for the flashing lights of any police cars trailing them. There were none — the plan had gone perfectly.
Watani and George had just escaped from San Quentin Prison.
For the next 20 years, Watani lived the life of a free man, eventually winding up in the South American country of Suriname, where he got married and fathered six children. George was never seen or heard from again — in America, at least — but freedom was not Watani’s fate, and now he’s back in San Quentin again, serving out the same life sentence he escaped 33 years ago.
“I never thought I’d see this place again,” he says, shaking his head with a wan smile.
A former member of the black-nationalist group Us, Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga’s radical organization, Watani stands convicted of two counts of second-degree murder as well as conspiracy to commit murder, stemming from the killings of two Black Panthers — John Huggins and Bunchy Carter — during a shootout on the UCLA campus in 1969.
Now 59, tall and lean with a closely trimmed salt-and-pepper Afro that’s thinning in front, Watani isn’t what you would expect of a fiery black revolutionary. The anger of his youth has faded into an almost Zen-like tranquillity — an elegance that stands in marked contrast to his current surroundings.
Dressed in loose-fitting prison blues, he’s sitting opposite me in a room roughly 3 feet by 3 feet — enough space to stand up or sit down, but not much else. Metal bars enclose him from behind, and a concrete wall with a small, television-size window allows him to look out into the visiting room, where I’m sitting. The yells of various guards and the chatter of prisoners come through the intercom system through which we’re supposed to talk. If it sounds like a madhouse back there, the visiting room hardly seems better. The wails of crying children compete with the clanking and crashing of bars for auditory supremacy — making Watani, soft-spoken by nature, that much harder to hear.
Next to me, a prisoner and his wife bicker loudly through the glass: “I take off work to bring your daughter to come see you and you fucking curse me out like this?” she says.
“Bitch!” he replies.
Watani pays it all no mind. I’m the first visitor he’s had in weeks, and any break from the regimented monotony of prison life is a welcome reprieve.
“It’s a pleasure,” he says with a warm smile that I imagine is a rare sight in these parts. Life in San Quentin doesn’t hold much to smile about.
Every morning at 5, Watani and his cellmate awake in their 12-by-4 cell to get ready for breakfast. The cell is so narrow, he says, “there’s only room for one of us to stand up at a time. So I usually get up first to get dressed.”
After breakfast, Watani showers and is then allowed to go to an office, where he spends most of his day working as a clerk for the watch commander. In his moments of downtime, he writes.
“Inside this prison, my writing is all I’ve got,” he says. “It’s what gets me by day after day.”
By nightfall, he’s back in his cell, lying down because there’s no room to stand, trying not to let his thoughts and the clamor of the hundreds of prisoners caged alongside him keep him awake too late.
Every day for the past 13 years, this has been his life. But as much as he despises it, it’s a life he chose for himself. In his 20 years on the outside after his escape, federal authorities never had a clue as to his whereabouts. None of the countries he passed through in his travels captured or extradited him. Nor did a guilt-ridden conscience drive him to turn himself in — in the 38 years since the UCLA shooting, he has, without wavering, maintained his innocence of the charges against him.
Watani Stiner didn’t have to return to San Quentin. He’s here for his family.
Born in Houston in 1948, Watani grew up drinking from the “colored” water fountain in the segregated South. Christened Larry Stiner, the oldest of five children, he was raised in a strict Catholic household with a picture of white Jesus next to his mother’s Bible on the kitchen table. Racism was an omnipresent reality for his family — a reality whose orthodoxy a young Watani accepted without question. “At the time, I didn’t think about it as the injustice it was,” he says. “I thought about it in terms of sin. It was a sin for me to want to drink out of the ‘white’ fountain. It was a godly privilege to be white.”
For his father, however, a World War II veteran and a Ph.D. in mathematics, having to stoically bear the indignities of racism and segregation was too much for his pride to handle. He turned to alcohol to nurse the humiliation and betrayal dealt to him by the country he fought for.
As Watani grew older and his father’s alcoholism worsened, his mother began to fear for the safety of her children. “My father was really two people,” says Watani, “the man I loved and the man who drank.”
By 1958, his mother had had enough and bought three Greyhound bus tickets to Los Angeles — for herself, Watani and George. The trio would eventually settle in Watts, while the boys’ other three siblings stayed behind in Houston with their grandmother. Watani would see his father only once again.
Although his fractured family situation hurt, Watani discovered a sense of freedom on the West Coast. There were no more “colored” and “white” water fountains, no more having to go through the back door to buy groceries from a store.
“We had a relative degree of autonomy in Watts, compared to Houston. We could pretty much do what we wanted — with the exception of occasional police harassment and brutality.”
But though he relished his newfound independence, Watani found the smothering racism of East Texas replaced by the aggressive street culture of Watts.
“The first thing I noticed about Watts was how much everyone cursed. ‘Fuck this and fuck that.’ Texas was pretty sheltered — I wasn’t used to hearing those things.”
Curse words were the least of his troubles. Watani, with his shy disposition and polite Southern temperament, soon became a target for the street-hardened neighborhood kids. “I used to have to run home from school every day,” he says. “If I didn’t, the other kids would beat me up pretty good. Outsiders were not readily accepted.”
Watani struggled to fit in, but his efforts were aided greatly when his mother remarried. His stepfather, James, provided Watani with the fatherly guidance he desperately craved. “We started out calling him ‘Mr. James,’ but we wound up calling him ‘Daddy,’ ” says Watani. “He was everything you could want in a father — working hard every day, teaching us discipline, and there for us whenever we needed him.”
Despite his early traumas, Watani developed into, by all accounts, an intelligent, well-adjusted young man. Even with an aggressive, often militant, police presence in his neighborhood, he never had any serious run-ins with the law. He graduated from Manual Arts High School in June of 1965 and married his high school sweetheart, Jackie, who was already pregnant with their first child, Larry Jr. As to his feelings on racial injustice in America, for Watani, as for most residents in South-Central at the time, the civil rights struggle was secondary to just getting by.
“We saw Martin Luther King on TV,” says Watani, “but Watts was a long ways off from the South.”
That was about to change. Months after Watani’s graduation, on the night of August 11, 1965, black motorist Marquette Frye was pulled over in Watts by a white police officer on a routine DUI stop. As Frye began to struggle with the officer, hundreds gathered to watch his arrest. When Frye’s mother, who lived nearby, got involved, she was arrested too — enraging the crowd and setting off six days of riots. Watts exploded, and the blast awakened the racial-political consciousness of L.A.’s black youth.
“Watts was a cathartic experience,” remembers Watani. “It brought all these deeply buried feelings of anger to the surface. After the riots, a whole new range of possibilities opened up. We didn’t want to ‘turn the other cheek’ like our parents and Martin Luther King. Our generation suddenly wanted to be like Malcolm X — to assert our rights by any means necessary.”
Though he contemplated joining the Nation of Islam, Watani eventually came across his niche in the civil rights struggle accidentally. Walking home past the Aquarius Bookstore on a December night in 1966, he found a group of African-inspired, colorfully dressed black men and women, chatting and celebrating in a language he didn’t recognize — Swahili. When he went to investigate, he was immediately embraced by the group and invited in to celebrate alongside them.
“I had never had such rich feelings of racial pride and self-worth,” he remembers. Watani had inadvertently stumbled upon the very first Kwanzaa celebration and Maulana Karenga’s Us organization (“as in us and not them,” says Watani).
As he learned more about Karenga’s philosophies and about Us, Watani liked what he heard — discipline, self-determination and cultural pride, as well as self-defense against an oppressive white society. “I found Maulana was able to capture and articulate my deepest rage.”
Soon after the Kwanzaa celebration, Watani persuaded his wife and younger brother George to join Us alongside him. He formally renounced his “slave name,” Larry, for the more “African” Watani, a name that he imbued with the meaning “He who rises in the east and strikes in the west.”
But as Watani immersed himself in the philosophies of Karenga and Us, another black revolutionary group was making its presence felt in South-Central Los Angeles — the Black Panthers. Though the two groups initially maintained cordial relations, ideological differences that began as topics of intellectual debate evolved into points of hostility. The Panthers scoffed at Us’ African-inspired clothing, hairstyles and use of Swahili. They argued that blacks in America had already established their own cultural legacy — through music, dancing, singing and soul food, and didn’t need a return to Africa. Us, meanwhile, mocked the Panthers’ financial dependence on their cult following of wealthy, white supporters and their intellectual reliance on the foreign philosophies of Marx and Mao.
As tensions rose, the FBI, which was keeping a close watch on both revolutionary groups through its infamous COINTEL program (developed to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups), picked up on the friction and used it to sow chaos. FBI agents, masquerading as Panthers and Us members, crafted insulting missives and death threats and began sending them between the two groups.
“It is hoped this counterintelligence measure will result in an ‘Us’ and ‘BPP’ vendetta,” one internal FBI memo explained.
The FBI saw its hopes realized on the UCLA campus on January 17, 1969. During a meeting between Us and the Panthers to discuss the appointment of a new head of the black-studies program, Us member Tawala Jones approached Panther and future Green Party presidential candidate Elaine Brown in a hallway outside the meeting and grabbed her.
“Why are you so fiery?” he condescendingly asked her before inquiring about her “sign.”
According to Watani, who was working security at the event, Brown knew Jones well enough to have played strip poker with him several times. She brushed Jones off to join her fellow Panthers in the cafeteria, where the meeting had just concluded, and reported what Jones had said to her. Enraged, Panthers John Huggins and Bunchy Carter stormed over to Jones and began beating him in the middle of the cafeteria. Within moments, Us member Claude Hubert pulled his gun and shot Huggins in the back and Carter in the chest. Before dying where he lay, Huggins unloaded several bullets from his own gun into the crowd, clipping Watani in the shoulder. The crowd scattered, and a bleeding Watani grabbed Jones and Hubert and fled the scene.
Two days later, the LAPD put out an arrest warrant for Watani and his brother George, who had also been present at the meeting, as well as for Hubert and Us member Donald Hawkins. Not having fired a shot, and thinking they had nothing to fear, the Stiners turned themselves in. Hawkins was arrested, while Hubert, the actual shooter, was never caught — he escaped to Guyana.
Watani, George and Hawkins were brought up on conspiracy charges — the most serious charge possible due to the implication of premeditation — stemming from the testimony of several Black Panthers, including Elaine Brown, who claimed the defendants were armed during the meeting and had fled with Hubert, the shooter. Strangely, Jones, who had initiated the conflict, was never charged with anything. Although none of the guns were ever accounted for, and though several of the Panthers, including Huggins and Carter, had shown up at the meeting armed themselves, all three defendants were found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Because he was 18 at the time of the shooting, Hawkins was sent to detention at the California Youth Authority, where he wound up spending seven years. Though neither man pulled the trigger that killed Huggins and Carter, Watani and George were sentenced to seven years to life.
The UCLA shootout caused a media frenzy, and the Stiner brothers arrived in prison as celebrities of a sort. When Truman Capote came to San Quentin in 1973, looking to do a story on prison life, it was Watani he spoke with.
“He was definitely a strange character,” says Watani of Capote. “That voice — and the questions he asked.”
Watani remembers that Capote asked him if he “liked being in prison.” “I just shook my head and told him that was a pretty silly question. He got kind of flustered.”
But increased attention inside a place like San Quentin wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The same clashes between youth and the establishment that took place on the outside were magnified tenfold on the inside — often with deadly results. “It was like the Wild West back then,” one longtime guard says of San Quentin in the ’70s. For Watani, the attention from the Capote interview would come back to haunt him.
Watani suggested to Capote that one of the guards had conspired to kill prisoners. After the interview concluded, a sympathetic guard approached Watani. “ ‘Saying those types of things can get you killed,’ he told me.” Watani soon came to believe him.
Shortly afterward, two Chicano inmates confronted Watani in the yard — and one came at him with a knife. When another prisoner jumped in to protect Watani, the man was stabbed to death. Guards intervened before the attackers could finish the job with Watani.
“I had no problems with these guys,” says Watani of his attackers. “To me, it was an obvious case of guard-prisoner collusion. Someone wanted me dead.”
Though the laws of the time made it likely he would have been paroled in only a few years, Watani suspected he wouldn’t make it that long inside San Quentin. He and George needed to escape. It would force him to leave behind his wife, Jackie, and their two sons — Larry Jr. and Lionel — but Watani felt he had no choice. The year was 1974.
Because both Watani and George had received no disciplinary demerits during their five years in prison, they were eligible for an overnight visit at a minimum-security facility on the prison grounds. When a visit was arranged with their parents, the brothers figured it would be the perfect pretext to launch an escape. After witnessing a series of other near-fatal incidents involving the brothers, the same sympathetic guard agreed that Watani and George were marked for death and helped them coordinate their plans.
After their escape, the brothers laid low in Oakland until arrangements were made to get them out of the country. With the assistance of a man named Lige, who ran an underground network of black revolutionary ex-prisoners, the brothers traveled to Memphis in the back of a U-Haul van. For the next several weeks, they disguised themselves as itinerant preachers and made their way to Miami, where they eventually secured a flight to Guyana.
At the time, Guyana was a major epicenter for the pan-African black-power movement, and Watani and his brother immediately became immersed in the revolutionary dialogue. They resumed contact with Claude Hubert, the shooter in the UCLA killings. But though satisfying politically, life in Guyana wasn’t easy.
“Next to Haiti, Guyana was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” says Watani.
As the economic situation worsened, the government cracked down on a growing civil unrest. Students rallied in the streets and were beaten for their trouble. Unable to stay silent, once again, the outspoken revolutionary in Watani nearly got him killed. After he was caught by the Guyanese government attending a student protest, one government official unceremoniously told him, “The U.S. government would not even claim your corpse if it should mysteriously wash up on our shores.”
Watani got the message — it was time to move on. In 1980, he fled to neighboring Suriname, a former Dutch colony and one of the few places a black American could travel freely without having too many questions asked. As it happened, Suriname too was in the midst of social unrest after the democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup. Nonetheless, Watani managed to survive, making money buying coffee and sugar and selling it across the border in materially destitute Guyana. Watani’s work forced him to regularly frequent the Surinamese markets for cheap goods, and it was there that he found new purpose. Her name was Nisha.
“She was beautiful and charming,” remembers Watani fondly. “And what a businesswoman! She was incredibly sharp with numbers.”
Though he spoke no Dutch and she spoke little English, they fell in love and decided to raise a family together. Nisha already had a 4-year-old boy, Raoul, whom Watani agreed to adopt, and over the next decade, the couple had six children of their own together — Kishana, Latanya, Natisha, Tamania, Lige and Mtume.
But life in Suriname was hard, and Watani struggled to feed his family. “I grew cassavas — traded in the markets. Nisha and I managed to scrape by, but just barely.”
As the political situation in Suriname deteriorated into borderline civil war, national instability became more than just an existential dilemma and an economic burden. Soldiers raided the Stiners’ house on more than one occasion, driving them away in the middle of the night and seizing their property. Outbreaks of malaria and tuberculosis ravaged the country, and the inept medical system couldn’t deal with the problem. By November of 1993, Watani and his family were living in the bush in a cinder-block home with no electricity or running water. “It was terrifying to be completely powerless to protect my children and provide for them.”
For Watani, it was all too familiar. “I had seen firsthand how fast the situation deteriorated in Guyana. I saw children selling cigarettes in the street just to keep from starving to death. I didn’t want my kids to end up suffering the same fate.”
But what could he do? He was an outlaw — there were no other countries he could safely travel to, and staying in Suriname wasn’t an option. Finally, Watani realized there was only one solution — he would sacrifice his freedom for the safety of his family.
In November of 1993, he entered the American Embassy in the Surinamese capital of Paramaribo and initiated negotiations for his surrender. After nearly a year of back-and-forth discussions, a surrender agreement was reached — Watani would return to America to serve out his sentence, and in exchange, the American government would pay for Nisha, Raoul and the other kids to come to America.
On a warm November afternoon in 1994, Watani said goodbye to his family and turned himself in to the American Embassy in Suriname for extradition back to San Quentin.
Kishana Stiner remembers the day her father left home. “I was 10 at the time,” she says. “My father gathered all of us together and told us he had to cross a giant bridge, and when he got to the other side, he’d come back and help us cross too.”
The oldest daughter in the family, Kishana obediently kissed her father goodbye and waited anxiously for his return. But Watani wasn’t coming back, and despite the deal he brokered with the government, Kishana would have to wait 11 years before she could stand on the other side of the bridge he talked about.
As it turned out, after Watani turned himself in, arrangements were made to send the family to live with Watani’s sister Tamu in San Francisco. But the government reneged on its deal after the state of California determined that Tamu and her husband weren’t financially capable of supporting Nisha and the children, and they were all in danger of becoming wards of the state. Despite the lobbying efforts of several extremely powerful political figures, including Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Nisha and the children were left to fend for themselves in Suriname.
As time passed, Kishana and her siblings still had no idea where their father had gone and why he hadn’t returned as promised. Nisha didn’t want to let the children know their father was in prison — protecting them from a harsh truth but also leaving them to wonder if they’d been abandoned.
“Other kids would tease us that our father was in prison,” says Kishana, “but none of us had any idea what they were talking about.”
The psychological toll left by Watani’s departure aside, if the day-to-day struggle to find adequate food and shelter was dire with Watani present, it completely broke down after he left. Nisha proved unable to handle the tremendous pressure of raising the children on her own and turned to drugs to cope. Her habit worsened over time, increasingly leaving the burden of caring for the family to Kishana and 13-year-old Raoul.
“I was pretty much the mother,” says Kishana. “I did all the cooking and cleaning.”
One of the few fortuitous breaks in the children’s lives came in the form of Elaine Belle and her partner, Sheilah — a San Francisco couple who had become friends with Watani in rather unorthodox fashion. Upon his return to America, Watani was brought up on charges stemming from his escape from San Quentin, and Elaine happened to be in the jury pool for his trial. Though she was dismissed before the trial began, something about Watani intrigued her, and she couldn’t get him out of her mind.
“Watani was such a presence, and I was so moved by his story, that I felt compelled to do something to help him.”
Elaine and Sheilah met with Watani, then began sending money, books and medicine to Suriname. They had semiregular phone conversations with Nisha to keep apprised of the situation, but as time went on and their conversations with her became more erratic, Elaine and Sheilah realized that something was wrong.
“Nisha would call at all times of the night and tell us absolutely horrible stories,” remembers Sheilah. “Soldiers coming in the night to beat her and take her money . . . sexual assault . . . I’m sure many of the stories were at least partially true, but it became apparent that the money we were sending wasn’t going to help the kids — it was being spent on drugs. So we eventually had to cut back.”
Three years after Watani’s departure, Nisha lost all control over her addiction and was committed to a mental institution. With their mother gone, the children were scattered in foster homes across Paramaribo.
Raoul, meanwhile, moved in with his girlfriend’s family and tried to keep in close contact with Elaine and Sheilah. Despite their occasional financial care package, and the best efforts of Raoul to look after his half siblings, life in foster care was, for the most part, horrific. Being the oldest child, Kishana was forced to wake every morning at 5 to cook breakfast for the rest of her foster family. This was only the beginning of her daily chores; after that she spent the rest of her day cleaning. The duties imposed on her prevented her from going to school.
The other children didn’t fare much better. Any education past an eighth-grade level cost money, and the children weren’t able to go. Foster caretakers ranged from negligent to abusive.
“These kids were being absolutely traumatized by their experience in foster care,” says Sheilah. “They needed to come to America — and they needed to get here as soon as possible.”
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.
“We can’t have that,” Larry remembers thinking at the time. “After all they’ve been through, entering foster care in South L.A. without knowing anything about this country or even speaking the language — these kids would be completely lost. And on top of that, they were going to separate the kids and only send the four youngest over. I just thought, ‘Well, we can’t have that either.’ ”
After deliberating with Diane, Larry called Social Services back. The kids could stay with them — all of the kids.
“We were running around all over the place, buying towels and air mattresses — trying to figure out where we were going to put everybody.”
When Monday morning rolled around, the Stiner home had six new additions. (Raoul, now married with a child, stayed behind.)
Watani was overjoyed. “A huge weight was lifted,” he says. “The kids were with Larry, they had someone to look after them, they would be able to get their education — they were safe. I could finally relax.”
But Watani’s ease was premature. Life in America — especially life in South L.A. — has its pitfalls. For Larry and Diane, relaxation seems like a distant dream.
Says Larry: “We had no idea what we were getting into.”
On July 19, Watani enters his parole hearing dressed in mandatory prison blues and sporting a thin, stylish pair of violet-tinted glasses. Calm and poised, he politely sits down opposite the two-member parole board and their massive, imposing desk, cluttered with documents and files relating to his case. Across the room, a Los Angeles district attorney, sent to fight Watani’s release, eyes him carefully. Watani simply waits patiently to make his opening statement. It’s a moment he has been anticipating for quite some time, and when it comes, Watani goes for broke, telling the parole board that he refuses to participate in what he labels a “sham hearing.”
“I think that if more prisoners would stop participating in this system, it would be harder to justify those exorbitant salaries taxpayers are paying them,” he reads from a written statement. Watani then stands to be led back to his cell, while the shocked parole board continues the hearing without him.
It’s a legal maneuver — one designed to earn Watani a concrete release date. In 1976, while Watani was in Suriname, California passed the Determinate Sentencing Law, which eliminated vague sentences like Watani’s seven years to life, in favor of definitive, set terms. Upon his return, Watani and his lawyers argue, he was supposed to have had a hearing to come into compliance with the new law, but this never happened, and his freedom remains the sole prerogative of the parole process.
“I’d rather they slapped me with 30 years than have to deal with the politics of parole,” he later tells me. “Even if I got through the board, my case would go to the Governor’s Office. Since Willie Horton, politicians just stopped letting people out.”
Watani’s faith in the system wasn’t always so compromised. “When I first came back to San Quentin, I thought I’d serve my time, do a few years and then get paroled. So long as I played by the rules, stayed out of trouble and did what they asked of me, they’d let me out so that I could take care of my family.”
But reality has proved itself far more severe. Including the time prior to his escape, Watani has now served 18 years. He’s been denied parole eight times in the past 13 years and holds little hope that any subsequent parole boards will see the light — “not with all the lies and misrepresentations that willfully distort my case.”
He has a point: A letter from Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton’s office, signed by Commanding Officer Captain Greg Hall and sent to the parole board on February 14, 2005, indicated the LAPD’s strong objection to Watani’s parole based on his “disregard for the life and suffering of another.”
“[Watani] Stiner murdered two victims by shooting them with a firearm for unknown reasons,” the letter said.
Of course, Watani was never accused of shooting anyone, leading one to wonder whether Bratton’s office even reviewed Stiner’s file before finding him unfit for parole.
Even more infuriating to Watani is the confusion of charges against him. He was convicted of both second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder — two charges that should be legally irreconcilable for the same crime.
“Conspiracy to commit murder necessarily means first-degree murder because it involves planning, premeditation and deliberation,” says David Feld, a Bay Area lawyer who has taken an interest in Watani’s story. “Second-degree murder excludes premeditation and deliberation. The verdicts are inconsistent.”
At least one Black Panther agrees. Geronimo Pratt, who was Bunchy Carter’s chief of security at the time of his killing, has since said he doesn’t believe the UCLA shootings were a conspiracy, but were instead the tragic result of a spontaneous altercation.
“One of the Panthers pulled out a gun, which subsequently caused Us members to pull their guns to defend themselves,” he’s quoted as saying in UCLA professor Scot Brown’s book Fighting for Us: Maulana Karenga, the Us Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism.
But parole hearings are not courts of law, and members of the parole board are political appointees of the governor — neither judges nor lawyers. Evidence not present in an inmate’s prison file is disallowed, and, as revealed by the letter from Chief Bratton’s office, standards for truth and accuracy for evidence in this file are not the same as in a court of law — where the threat of perjury or rigorous cross-examination is present.
“The results of these hearings are the completely subjective opinions of political appointees,” says Patricia Fox, the attorney who represented Watani at his most recent hearing. “Opinions that are subject to the scrutiny of the governor who appointed them.”
The subjective nature of the parole board’s decisions was on ample display at the termination of Watani’s recent hearing. Despite a 2006 San Quentin prisoner evaluation that asserted Watani would “re-integrate into society with ease and prove himself to be a responsible, crime-free citizen,” and a psychological evaluation that lauded Watani’s “strong and genuine desire to provide and care for his family” and deemed him “little to no threat for repeat offense and a strong candidate for release,” the parole board decreed him an “unreasonable risk to society” due to the “callous nature of his crime.” He was given a two-year denial of parole.
After the hearing, one of the guards manning the hallway outside the hearing room pulled me aside to ask how things went.
“A two-year denial?” the guard said, head shaking in disbelief as I repeated the news. “I’ve dealt with Watani for years, and he hasn’t once been a problem. It takes about five minutes speaking with him to know he doesn’t belong in here. It makes you wonder what this whole thing is about.”
Larry, too, is exasperated with the system. “My father and I have done everything the parole board has asked of us over the years,” he says. “I’ve sent letters on his behalf, we’ve arranged him a place to live when he gets out, he has a job offer, and my father has attended practically every self-improvement seminar the prison offers. There’s nothing more anyone can do. If they don’t want to let him out, they’re not going to let him out.”
The parole board’s decision reinforced what’s become increasingly clear to the Stiners over the years — Watani won’t be coming home to raise his children anytime soon. Larry and Diane are on their own.
On a recent warm summer evening, Larry Stiner stands on the front stoop of his South Los Angeles home, surveying his neighborhood in the dusk light. Dressed in immaculate tan slacks and a stylish black silk shirt, he watches as a group of wife-beater-clad children play a halfhearted game of basketball in the street, using only their right hands while clasping a single dollar bill in their left — biding their time until the ice cream truck comes around.
Sandwiched halfway between Inglewood and Watts, the neighborhood is one Larry knows well — it’s been part of his family for generations. “My father spent his teenage years in that house right there,” he says, pointing up the block to a single-story blue house with an overgrown yard.
Larry’s house, a charming pale-yellow stucco with a cactus garden in the front yard, was once his maternal grandmother’s. “A few years ago, Diane and I were living in Lawndale when my grandmother took ill. I really had no intention of moving back to the neighborhood, but my grandmother needed looking after, and then when she passed, we just decided to make this place our own.”
Inside the house, 16-year-old Tamania, Watani’s youngest daughter, glides through the hallway on the way to her room, chatting softly into a cordless phone. Tall, lean and fast on her way to becoming a beautiful young woman, she arrives and shuts the door gently behind her — a slight girlish giggle escaping her lips before she can close it entirely.
In the living room, across from Tamania’s bedroom, a rather large, blanket-covered lump on the couch, which appears to be Lige taking a nap, stirs slightly as Larry opens the front door and enters the house. Larry passes quietly down the front hallway, through the kitchen and into the television room at the back end of the house, where Khyra and Diane sit on the couch reading a story. Next to them on a reclining chair, Mtume, at 14 the youngest of Watani’s six Surinamese children, sits quietly watching basketball on a massive, 50-inch television.
Seeing her father come into the room, Khyra immediately gets up and approaches him with a large stuffed horse.
“Daddy, pet Pony,” she demands, holding out the stuffed animal for her father to stroke. Larry obliges and then walks over to join Diane on the couch. Khyra grabs Pony and sits down between her parents, waiting for Diane to continue reading her a story. It’s a peaceful scene of domestic tranquillity, and Larry looks genuinely perplexed by the whole thing.
“I don’t remember the last time it’s been this quiet in here. From the day the kids arrived, it’s been a struggle,” says Larry of life with his half brothers and half sisters. “This is definitely not The Cosby Show.”
When his siblings first got here, the most obvious problem was language. Though Kishana and Latanya spoke some English, communication was a constant difficulty. The younger children spoke no English at all — only Dutch — and teaching them had to be an immediate priority so they could start school as quickly as possible. Thankfully, both Larry and Diane have degrees in early childhood development — a field that focuses heavily on language acquisition.
“I now tell everyone I meet to take some classes in childhood development,” says Diane, “because you never know when you’re going to need it.”
Language aside, there were the obvious financial concerns — English lessons, new clothes, school supplies, and food for 10 people aren’t cheap. Making matters worse, Larry’s income barely exceeds the financial threshold to qualify for financial aid from the state. “If I made a fraction less than what I do, I could get some help,” says Larry. “But as it stands now, we’re on our own.”
Cementing that reality was Larry’s decision to secure legal guardianship over the children: “That means I’m not only legally obligated to care for them, but if they do something, I could be held legally responsible for that too.”
To prevent such a scenario, Larry sat everyone down to establish the rules of the house — rules that he deemed essential to safely navigating the often dangerous streets of South L.A. But after 11 years of taking care of themselves, the kids were skeptical of the need for Larry’s rules — especially his stance on what colors they could wear.
“I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard,” remembers Kishana. “Don’t wear blue or red — what kind of ridiculous rule is that? But he was absolutely right — Larry lives in the ghetto, and the gangs are crazy there.”
But though the kids came to accept the wisdom of Larry’s neighborhood-survival tactics, simple rules — rules designed to maintain sanity and order when 10 people are living under the same roof — were ignored.
“I know they’re all teenagers,” says Larry, “but you would think it would make sense to them that Diane can’t cook dinner if all the dishes are dirty. But our efforts to get them to help out were met with such resistance it was mind-boggling.”
“I think that the kids finally felt safe,” reflects Watani on his children’s situation, “and with that feeling of safety came the opportunity to express and to act out on some of the anger they’d kept bottled up over the years — even if that anger was completely misdirected.”
This, however, was small consolation to Larry and Diane.
“It was enough to make you wonder why you’re killing yourself trying to make this situation work if you can’t even get someone to take out the trash,” says Larry. “The first year they were here, I had to go see a doctor because my blood pressure was getting out of control from the stress. But Diane and I said when we took the kids in, we’re not just going to put a roof over their head and feed them. We’re going to raise them like our own — and worry, worry, worry that they’re doing okay.”
Tensions in the house eased slightly last year when Kishana decided to quit school, start working and get herself a place with her sister Natisha. “I’ve basically been looking after myself since I was 10,” says Kishana. “It was tough for me to follow someone else’s rules.”
After a brief spell working at Del Taco, she now has a job as a “personal banker” for U.S. Bank in Gardena — arranging loans and selling investment opportunities. Now 23, tall and thin with a quick wit and huge personality — traits that make her a natural businesswoman — Kishana is doing well on her own.
“I have the fourth best sales numbers in my company for the Los Angeles area,” she boasts. But though she seems relatively satisfied with her professional career, she’s yet to make a close friend in the two years she’s been here. “I wanted to make friends here, I really did,” she says, “but it just didn’t work out. Everyone is always scheming in America. I met a bunch of people when I got here, but it turns out they all smoked weed, and I don’t mess with that. So I decided I don’t need anybody — I have my family and that’s enough.”
A perceptible tinge of pain beneath her veneer of toughness, however, seems to indicate that this isn’t the whole truth. The disappointment she felt at finding out her new friends used drugs must have been a stinging reminder of her troubled mother, Nisha, left behind in Suriname — a mother she may never see again. Nisha has struggled with overcoming her addiction, and though she and Kishana still speak on occasion, Nisha’s prospects for coming to America to get help are slim. She and Watani have divorced since his return — punching another hole in the American dream Watani promised his family. Trust, then, may not come easily to Kishana or her siblings, yet another obstacle Larry must face in helping them adjust to America.
“Even when the kids are no longer in my house,” he says, “I'm going to keep pushing them to do their best — in all aspects of life. My biggest concern is making sure that my father’s sacrifice was worth it. He turned himself in so these kids could have an education and advance in life. He hasn’t spent 13 years in prison so his kids could come over here and just scrape by.”
Latanya, the second oldest, has done remarkably well in this pursuit. Despite receiving what could best be characterized as sporadic education in Suriname, she was able to graduate from her charter high school in L.A. in a year and a half.
“Even though I wasn’t in school much of my childhood,” she says, “the education I did get was far more advanced than schools in America.”
Quiet and pensive, with dark, serious eyes, Latanya is the reserved intellectual to Kishana’s outgoing businesswoman. She’s now entering her third semester at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, a small college town amid the slaughterhouses and farms of the San Joaquin Valley.
“I wanted to be somewhere quiet,” she says of her decision to go to school in such a remote location. One can hardly blame her.
As they were with her father when he moved from Houston, the children of South L.A. can be less than accepting of outsiders. Her first few weeks in high school, Latanya was harassed and nearly beaten on a daily basis. The situation got so bad that Larry went to the principal, coincidentally an old acquaintance of Watani’s, to make sure the physical threats would stop and that the school would protect Latanya and her siblings.
But even though the threat of physical violence ceased, things at school didn’t get any easier.
“My English still wasn’t that good at the time, and when the teachers made me read in class, the other girls would laugh and insult me. They did the same thing to my sister Natisha — made her feel awful, so she just would stay quiet all the time.”
But Latanya wouldn’t stay quiet. “I didn’t go through all I went through to be intimidated by these girls. I came here to get an education.”
Fed up with the laziness, cruelty and tragically misguided priorities of her fellow students, she went to the principal and told him to call an assembly. Latanya needed to say a few things. The principal agreed to her request, and a schoolwide assembly was called. Latanya strode to the podium alone, in front of the very same people who had chastised her all year, and for the next several minutes, she spoke.
“I told them that in Suriname, we would kill for these opportunities,” she remembers. “I asked them why anyone would want to gangbang when they have access to a free education — to a better kind of life.
“They listened,” she says. “Nothing changed — a lot of the kids stayed ignorant, didn’t care about their education. And the gangbangers still did whatever it was they do. But at least they listened to me.”
After her speech, Latanya was approached by several students who were curious to know more about her and her life in Suriname. She might not have changed any minds about their lifestyles, but Latanya had earned their respect.
While Latanya has thrived under adversity in America, her brothers and sisters have found it more difficult to adapt. In particular, Lige (pronounced like “oblige,” after the man who helped his father escape the U.S.) has struggled to find the balance between meaningful assimilation and losing his way in the minefield of American culture.
A handsome boy of 15, having just passed the awkward stages of adolescence into early manhood, Lige looks and speaks like any other 15-year-old in his neighborhood — with the not-insignificant exception of his lingering Dutch accent. Preferring to dress in the long, spotless T-shirts and baggy jeans of hip-hop fashion, he’s able to converse as freely about American pop culture as a native. It’s a transition that didn’t come easily.
As with his sister Latanya, kids in school confronted Lige for his differences. But while girls can be cruel and even violent, in the gang culture of South L.A., for a young man, such conflicts can be deadly.
“In Suriname, we had our troubles,” says Lige, “occasional fistfights and whatnot. But here, every day you hear about people getting shot.”
What’s startled and troubled Lige most since his arrival in America are the battles between blacks and Hispanics in South L.A.
“Where I’m from, it was diverse — we had black kids, white kids, Hindustani, Chinese . . . and for the most part, everyone got along,” he says. “No one ever called me nigger in Suriname.”
The irony that in bringing his children here, he inadvertently exposed his son to racism — the thing he reviles most in this world and spent his youth fighting to eliminate — weighs heavily on Watani.
“In my wildest dreams, I could never have predicted the conflict between blacks and Hispanics,” says Watani.
But while Lige was shocked at his initial confrontations with racism, his family has noticed him slowly starting to adopt the South L.A. gang mentality that allows such attitudes to thrive — and they fear the company he’s keeping.
“He thinks he’s a gangster,” says Kishana of her brother. “I told him to knock it off or he’s going to wind up dead, and I’ll have to mourn. I hope he listens — I have enough to mourn about.”
Last year, Lige began having trouble in school — acting out in class and failing to turn in assignments. He was eventually expelled, and now must attend Fremont High School, away from his brothers and sisters.
“Growing up in this neighborhood, I’ve seen it a thousand times before,” says Larry. “These kids reach a certain point — a threshold that if they cross you just might lose them to the bad elements forever.”
The situation deteriorated to the point that this past spring, Larry sent Lige and Mtume up to San Quentin to visit their father, hoping Watani could talk some sense into his son.
“I had no idea what I was going to say to him,” says Watani. “I knew from Larry that the situation was bad — but I hadn’t been free in America for 30 years. I had no idea what he was up against.”
Watani began by trying to lecture Lige. His arguments fell on deaf ears. “How can you expect to lecture someone who barely knows you?” Watani admits.
At a loss for how to reach Lige, Watani called his friend Shahid over. Shahid ran a program inside San Quentin that targeted troubled youth, and Watani felt that if anyone would be able to reach his son, Shahid would. Watani’s instinct proved prescient.
“Lige told Shahid that if he were in my situation, he wouldn’t have abandoned his family in Suriname. He would have stuck it out. I hadn’t really considered how much anger and resentment he had over my leaving. I had just assumed my children would be undyingly grateful for my sacrifice, and grateful to Larry and Diane for taking them in. But while that seems rational intellectually, up until that time I hadn’t really understood all that they had went through.”
But while his meeting with Lige may have been a revelation for Watani, Lige’s struggles are perhaps too complex to be solved in one meeting.
“All of the kids have internalized their adversities differently,” says Larry. “Latanya is compensating by being so determined with school. Kishana deals with what she’s going through by getting a job and working hard. Lige comes at it differently — and that’s really been the struggle for us, figuring out that one child’s needs are not going to be the same as the others’.”
With Lige, Larry is just now beginning to think he has a handle.
“I think, growing up in foster care, feeling abandoned, Lige had to fight for everything that was his. If there were some shoes, or a book that he liked, he better be prepared to fight to keep them — because if not, someone was going to take it from him. There was no one he could trust to look out for him, so he had to rely on himself.”
Recently, Larry sat Lige down to explain that this wasn’t foster care — he was in a family now.
“I felt I really needed to let him know, man to man, that I wasn’t going anywhere. That my love for him and his brother and sisters was real and that my advice was from the heart. I didn’t have to bring him into my home — why would I do that only to lead him astray?”
Since that talk, Lige’s grades have improved and the calls home from school have ceased. Larry has also noticed a change in Lige’s attitude.
“Just recently, we were driving in the car and he told me, ‘I’m done with all the things that cause drama in my life. I’m just going to walk away from now on.’ I just about pulled over and parked,” Larry says, laughing. “It was the wisest thing I’ve heard him say since he got here, and I was just overjoyed. It’s little moments like that that make all the sacrifices worth it.”
But what of Watani’s sacrifice? Is life in America worth losing your family for? No one seems to really have an answer. Even Watani isn’t sure.
“It’s a question I wrestle with every day,” says Watani. “I go back and forth. Obviously, there are more opportunities here for the kids than in Suriname, but sometimes life in America can be like a prison — all its violence and cruelty and callousness. If there has been one unequivocal blessing in any of this situation, it’s been the opportunity for me to reconnect with Larry.”
“None of us really knows our father,” says Larry, weighing in. “We all know pieces of him. And so all of us combined have been doing our best to put those pieces together. I think that’s been good for us.”
For the kids, the question is no less difficult.
“I’ve thought about that quite a bit, but it’s impossible,” says Latanya. “How can I choose? I want it all. I want an education, and I want my father too. Is that really so much?”
Kishana is more blunt. “My father is my hero,” she says, her normally bright smile fading to anger. “I plan on taking full advantage of the sacrifice he made for us. But if they keep him locked up for the rest of his life, after all I’ve been through, that will be the ultimate injustice. None of this will have been worth anything. It’s impossible for my brothers and sisters to really appreciate his sacrifice, because they don’t know him. They need to know him like I do, so they’ll understand. He’s been punished enough — his family needs him. If I don’t get to hug my daddy without bars surrounding us, or only when he’s on his deathbed in the hospital, I will never forgive this country.”