“They shot my cousin in the head. They shot my cousin in the head.”
Two more times, Bennie Barrow Jr. repeated this aching refrain, a mixture of disbelief and horror. As he stood last Friday at the podium of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, his body began to sag. His living cousins rushed to him and led the nearly limp 22-year-old off to the sidelines. But in the stillness and silence of the crowd of nearly 1,000 mourners, even from the back of the church, Barrow could still be heard softly mumbling that haunting line: “They shot my cousin in the head.”
His cousin was Anthony Wayne Owens Jr., 25, gunned down in the Imperial Courts housing projects in Watts. He was not a member of the PJ Crips, who rule Imperial Courts. But he lived in there, and that is why he was shot to death.
Though hundreds of the standing-room-only crowd were there to mourn, and to celebrate his life, others were there to reach out and try to lift up his devastated mother, Cynthia Mendenhall, 44, better known throughout Watts as “Sista Soulja” (not the rapper), a former PJ Crip who has devoted her adult life to trying to stop gang violence.
“It is ironic that Tony had his life cut short by wanton violence, because his mother is a peacemaker,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who sat between Sista Soulja and Anthony Owens Sr. during the funeral. “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Owens was standing with friends in a parking lot off 115th Street inside Imperial Courts shortly before noon on August 30, when someone in a passing car shot him. When Sista Soulja arrived at the death scene and the cops realized who the victim was, even they got emotional.
“I have never seen the LAPD officers so human,” said Sista Soulja on the Tuesday morning after the funeral. “Some of them were even crying. I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s true. They were hugging me.”
Police later found the suspect’s vehicle inside the Jordan Downs housing project, fueling speculation that the shooter was from the Grape Street Crips, who run that project and who are longtime enemies of the PJ Crips. But word is that the suspect was not from Grape Street. No arrests have been made, but one is expected soon.
“This should be coming together this week,” said LAPD homicide detective John Skaggs. “We have the car and are getting a ton of evidence, DNA, fingerprints.”
Owens was most likely not a singled-out target.
“When you do a drive-by, you don’t target any one person. They just shoot,” said Sista Soulja.
Owens was very popular in the Watts community, with friends in all the Watts housing projects. He was a star running back at Locke High School, where he was elected homecoming prince, and he went on to play football at El Camino College. But Owens, who loved to go to clubs in Hollywood, was best known as a charming ladies’ man with girlfriends all over the United States.
“I think he had over 100 girlfriends,” his mother said.
Even after his shooting, when he was taken to St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, proof of his playboy status was evident. In the waiting room, two of his girlfriends got into a fistfight over which one should be there. It was a bizarre scene, provoking a grieving Sista Soulja to lash out at them. She had to be restrained by guards.
Sista Soulja, introduced by the Rev. Carl Washington as “a mother of many of us,” even mentioned her son’s love of the ladies at his funeral, prompting much laughter.
“Tony never wanted to kill or hurt blacks or Latinos or Caucasians or Chinese or Samoans, because he loved all their women,” she said. Then she got serious.
“I wear a lot of hats, and this is one hat I wish I could give back. I never thought this would happen to me. But they call me a mother for peace. This just makes me want to fight harder.”
The crowd roared. “If you love me and Tony, don’t go do anything to nobody after the repast. Shooting someone else won’t make me feel better. We need to stop making this a hood thing. It’s not about Imperial Courts or Nickerson Gardens or Jordan Downs. It’s about people. It’s about individuals. When they arrest someone, I want to speak to their parents, because they are going to lose their son too. We need to stop this killing. We have got to keep on with the fight we started for peace, and we are going to stop this mess.”
Owens’ younger brother Darrian Cole continued with the peace theme. He addressed all PJ Crips in attendance. He told them all to stand up. About 100 did, most of them dressed in white T-shirts.
“To the homies,” said Cole, 21, who had asked for — and received — a cease-fire to honor his brother. “We gotta stop trippin’ on each other. We can’t do this to each other anymore. We gotta love each other.
“To the homies. We gotta come together. I was supposed to go before my brother. He was older, but I was supposed to go first.
“To the homies. Good lookin’ out for my mom.”
After that came Owens’ cousin Bennie Barrow Jr. He told the story of how, when he had no place to live, his cousin opened his doors to him. How he helped him get back on his feet. How he never called him by his name. Always “little cousin.”
“Everyone here, whether you’re young or old, Tony looked up to you,” said Barrow, voice cracking. “I never got a chance to tell him, but I looked up to him.” Voice broken.
By then, it was too much for “little cousin.” He started sobbing. He couldn’t believe they shot his cousin in the head.