|Photo by Ted Soqui|
Terrell Sherrills had big ears and hazel eyes. He loved to dance. And he loved women. Of the five archetypes of human imagination, Terrell was The Lover.
The 18-year-old from Watts — son of peace activist Aqeela Sherrills — was fatally shot by someone who crashed a house party in Ladera Heights on January 10. Around midnight, a Sheriff’s detective says, a group of uninvited visitors with possible gang ties barged in and became violent. There are no leads or suspects. Neither Sherrills nor the host of the party appeared to be a gang member, the detective says.
Last Saturday, friends and family gathered at the Agape Church in Culver City. Inside the church they shared stories and prayers. For hours they cried, wailed, and laughed at times.
Outside in the parking lot, a group of young men wearing hats and bandannas huddled silently, their hardened faces masking grief. “These young men are angry,” Salesian High School football coach Pete Morado warned adults at the memorial service. “Don’t walk away from here today and just shove your hands in your pockets.” Then, addressing the youths, Morado intoned, “Terrell would want you to forgive the shooter, and help him heal.”
Aqeela Sherrills says he wants to reach out to his son’s killer. Sherrills helped negotiate a truce in 1992 between gang leaders from four housing projects in Watts: Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Hacienda Village and Imperial Courts. With the help of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, that truce was renewed in 2001, Sherrills says. While he wants to see the killer punished, he wants to meet the killer’s parents to explore what inner pain led their child to take a life. “We suppress so much,” he says. “We’ve got to open up.”
As he has for 15 years, Sherrills, a survivor of child molestation, and the founder of the Community Self-Determination Institute, is treating a senseless murder as a vehicle to spread a message of peace. He aims to reverse unwritten rules of the street, which call for revenge, he says. “The bigger the tragedy, the bigger the opportunity,” he says. “When a body dies, it releases energy. That can be harnessed for good or bad.”
The shooting occurred at 11:51 p.m. at a home in the 6000 block of Flores Avenue, in Ladera Heights, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. A group of 10 to 15 possible Crips members showed up uninvited and had a fight with someone at the party, Sheriff’s Homicide Detective Martin Rodriguez says.
Witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity, say a doorman, hired by the DJ, had been frisking visitors for weapons. But after being turned away, several of the party crashers climbed a backyard fence in the quiet, manicured neighborhood in the breezy hills near Los Angeles Airport. After a fight broke out, the host asked partygoers to leave, witnesses say.
Sherrills, a first-year theater student at California State University Humboldt, was home for the holidays and had gone to the party with a former high school classmate, according to the classmate’s father, a taxicab driver from an unincorporated area of South Los Angeles. The father, who asked that he and his son not be identified, dropped the young men off at 10:45 p.m., he says. “They were going to call me to pick them up later,” the father says.
Sherrills and his friend were standing in the driveway just before midnight with their backs to the house as people were leaving, witnesses say. Sherrills was shot in the back from close range, they say. Sherrills may have exchanged words with one of the party crashers, but his friend denied that there was any beef.
Sheriff’s deputies had been to the house two other times that night because of noise. The shots rang out just after Sheriff’s deputies left the second time. According to Rodriguez, the suspect is between 16 and 22, 5-foot-9, with a medium complexion and tightly braided hair. He fled in a black Honda or similar-model car, detectives believe.
Sherrills arrived at UCLA Medical Center at 12:23 a.m. on January 11, and died at 12:42 a.m., according to the coroner. “The only thing we can think as far as motive is that Terrell wore a red sweater in a predominantly blue or Crip gang area,” Rodriguez says of nearby Slauson Avenue, while referring to Sherrills’ red Mickey Mouse sweater, which was draped over his shoulders.
Sherrills wore Mickey Mouse a lot because of his big ears, his father says. And maybe he was mistaken for a gang member by someone looking for a beef. But relying too heavily on colors and style of dress is “ridiculous,” the elder Sherrills says. “Every Latino or African-American kid can be mistaken for a gang member based on their cultural identity or hip-hop style of dress,” he says.
Residents of the ordinarily serene Ladera Heights neighborhood are upset, and are calling for a meeting with local police. Residents of Watts are tired of pain. “I mention Ladera Heights, and you say ‘Oh no!’” one of Sherrills’ boyhood teachers proclaimed during the ceremony on Saturday. “But oh yes! It can happen anywhere in Los Angeles.”
Sherrills lived a peaceful life, according to loved ones. He was an excellent dancer and an aspiring model and actor. He had many girlfriends and loved them all, according to his sisters, who had to share a phone with him. “When Terrell died, God was surprised. It was not his time,” said his sister Lashawn Caldwell, breaking down before the congregation in the Agape Church.
“I wanted to play football because of Terrell,” his younger cousin Joshua said, shaking and gasping for air. “I learned to dance because of him. Everything I did was because of him. I don’t want to live anymore.”
Travis Mann, one of Sherrills’ best friends, said, “Terrell was my lung, my spare kidney, the left side of my heart . . . I should have been with him.”
Last Sunday, Aqeela Sherrills is sitting in the sanctuary of the Community Self-Determination Institute, at Hooper Avenue and 91st Street. He says he knows what the young men in the parking lot were thinking the day before. The elder Sherrills is not worried about retaliation for his son’s murder, however. He talks with his son’s friends every day. “It’s not about who did it, it’s about what made them do it,” Sherrills says.
He recalls a revelation he had as a teenager living in Jordan Downs, in the 1980s. “My best friend was killed in ninth grade, and I decided I wanted no part of gang life,” he says. “I stayed tight with my homies, but I would not participate. I’m proud of being from Watts. You can be from the hood and not caught up in it.”
His son made similar decisions, Sherrills says, and was raised in the bosom of a peace movement. He embodied everything his father has fought for, says Sherrills, who shares his son’s hazel eyes. “Terrell was living his life, the life of a free spirit, a natural leader,” he says. “He enticed people with his heart.”
But conflict is inevitable, both internal and external, Sherrills adds, frustration rising in his voice. And left unabated in either form, violence follows. He points to 11,000 shooting deaths in Los Angeles County over the last 20 years. “We are stuck in a cultural construct of revenge.”
Sherrills acknowledges that a gangster likely has taken his son. Yet gangs are not the problem, he says. “Gangs are the scapegoats for government officials to justify their budgets.” “The real violence occurs at home, and manifests itself on the street.”
Christine Pelisek contributed to this report.