On a summer evening in late June, a few months after he was paroled on what was supposed to be a life sentence, Tyree Dabney returned to the corner of 45th and Western. The West Liquor and the parking lot with the payphones were gone, the doughnut shop was a cash advance place, and there was a new junior high named after Barack Obama. But the changes were mostly superficial.
The car's AC was broken and heat drifted in through the lowered windows. Dabney had just left his part-time construction job in Torrance and was heading to the halfway house where he lives east of Culver City. When he stopped for the light at Vernon and Western, the traffic backed him up precisely to the burger stand where he almost died when he was 15.
Master Burger was as square and yellow as he remembered it. From his spot in traffic, he could see down the driveway to the alley where he'd escaped that night. Someone had put up a tall metal fence that blocked the exit. Had the fence been there that night he would have had nowhere to run.
The outward signs of gang membership have become more subtle in the years since Los Angeles police began enforcing gang injunctions, court orders that make it a crime for suspected members to congregate in known gang territory. One such hotbed was the Vernon Avenue corridor — home to gangs the Rolling 40s, 46 Top Dollar Hustler Crips and 46 Neighborhood Crips. But Dabney didn't need to see anyone decked out in blue. "You can tell by where they're hanging at," he says.
There was a young man with an easy air about him standing with his back to a wall near the barred window where customers ordered burgers. Gold earring, skinny jeans, a new T-shirt and sneakers bright as fresh linen. "Same gang, different people," Dabney says.
The traffic light turned green and the cars ahead of him began rolling northward on Western. Dabney kept his eyes on the gangbanger; it was like being shown an alternate reality, one in which he hadn't been locked up and had never left that corner.
"I was shot in the same spot there," says Dabney, who has a symmetrical face with round eyes that convey at turns a childlike openness and an adult wariness. There is one single bristle of gray in his trim beard.
He shows three dark scars in the shape of cigar ends rising above his skin at the hip, ankle and leg. He uses short sentences when prodded to relate unpleasant memories: "Place was surrounded. They had AK-47s. I happened to be off to the side and escaped."
On the morning of Feb. 22, Dabney was jogging around A Yard at the California State Prison at Lancaster when he was called to the prison program office and told he was being released after 23 years. "I was nervous," he says of his reaction to the news. "I spent more time in jail than I had on the streets."
Dabney had been waiting 133 days for word from the office of the governor. He got rid of nearly everything in his cell, keeping only an address book, a few letters, and a tracksuit and sneakers wrapped in plastic under his bed. He'd bought the latter in 2014, the day a judge made him eligible for a chance at parole.
Not everyone agreed with the judge's decision. Those letters under his bed, sealed in a Ziploc bag, include ones addressed to the court from two of his victim's adult children. He says he has read them many times. "The innocent victim who gets killed leaves without suffering," one of the letters states. "The innocent victim's ... family, friends ... are the ones who suffer." Another letter says there's no place for Dabney in society and informs the judge: "Regardless of your decision, I cannot forgive nor forget."
Asked why he has kept the letters, Dabney says they reminded him of one of the sources of his own anger: not having a father. "I read them and I realized I did the same thing that was done to me — and there wasn't a reason why."
It is very uncommon for someone like Dabney — who was sentenced to life without parole for a homicide he committed as a juvenile — to be granted parole in California. Had it not been for recent changes to state law, he almost certainly would have had to be carried out of prison in a box. But in 2013, California became the first state to give a shot at parole to formerly violent offenders who have served long sentences and are deemed to no longer pose a threat to society.
Over the last 25 years, more than 2,600 juvenile offenders in California were sentenced to life in prison. Of them, between 268 and 283 (estimates vary between advocacy groups and state officials) were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Even with the reforms, fewer than 10 juvenile "lifers" have been paroled in California, according to Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. An additional 60 juvenile lifers have become eligible for parole and are going through the parole process, Calvin says.
The underlying premise of the revised law is that even a crime as heinous as the one committed by Dabney shouldn't carry a mandatory life sentence if the offender was under age.
In 1994, Dabney had recently turned 17 years old and had no criminal record. "I scalped tickets and sold weed," he says.
Nineteen-year-old Ricardo Grant was Dabney's closest friend, a sort of antisocial older brother. Grant beat up boys who gave Dabney trouble at middle school. He taught Dabney how to survive on the street, how to fight, how not to walk with the direction of traffic lest he be shot in the back. They came from similarly broken homes; Dabney, deserted by his father, his mother absent for much of his childhood, quit school and left home in eighth grade. He lived at Grant's house and hid in the closet when Grant's grandmother was home.
His voice softens as he recalls the crime. "Rick asked me to help him out."
Grant had done "lifts" before, armed robberies, though he was no master criminal. Dabney says they drove around aimlessly for a while before stopping at a furniture store near the USC campus. "Long story short: I don't even think he knew who he was going to rob."
Dabney says the harebrained plan was for him to pose as a customer and distract the sales lady while Grant lingered at the front. They both went in carrying loaded guns. Dabney recalls that he would hurry out in a daze, dragging his crime partner's body.
"We go in for the robbery ... and he never initiates it," Dabney says. "The lady shows me bunk beds. I'm standing at the desk. She gives me a pen and I fill out the invoice. I gave her a deposit. I wrote my real name on the invoice. Then the shooting erupts."
Dabney says his back was turned and his first thought was that they were near Bloods territory and rival gangbangers must have followed them into the store. In truth, the store's owner had shot Grant once in the chest. Dabney says he dove for cover beside the sales lady, who was the owner's wife.
The emotion rises in his voice and his sentences shorten: "I take out the gun. Counted to three. Jumped out. I shot toward him. I went down, waited again. Didn't see him. He was on the ground."
The car ran out of gas about a mile from the furniture store. Grant made an awful gurgling noise that sounded to Dabney like a death rattle. Dabney pulled his friend's body from the passenger seat to the curb. He ran into the street and flagged down a bus; the driver called 911.
Dabney was arrested about a month later.
For the first 14 years in prison, a period of life that spanned what would have been his junior year in high school until his early 30s, Dabney says his life was a desert. Sentenced to "life without," the law required he be locked up at Level 4 — the most violent prisons in California.
Every disagreement was a challenge to one's manhood. There were stabbings, riots, rapes. Guards shot inmates. Inmates joined gangs. No one in maximum security even knew his name; he went by a nickname bestowed by a gang that today he is too ashamed to tell me.
As a result, he has immense gaps in his knowledge, like a man awakened from a coma. Ask him anything to do with computers or the internet, for one, and he is guarded. "I'm still not too good on computers," he says. "I was focused on how not to get killed."
Juvenile offenders who, like Dabney, have been locked up for more than 20 years entered prison at the peak of the tough-on-crime decade. "It was this big wave pushing for more people getting locked up for an incredible amount of time, with very few people getting out," says Marc Morjé Howard, director of Georgetown University's Prisons and Justice Initiative.
The stiff sentencing reforms of that time launched the era of mass incarceration, including California's three-strikes law.
"They entered California prisons at perhaps the darkest point in California prison history," says Calvin of Human Rights Watch, "with high levels of overcrowding, high levels of violence, decreasing access over the years to programming and treatment. You can talk with anybody who was young when they entered prison in the '90s and they'll tell you they walked into prison and everyone, including their lawyer, told them they were never getting out."
Calvin has worked closely with juvenile offenders serving life without parole in California, including Dabney. She says many of them undergo a kind of personal transformation in their mid-20s. "Something happens that helps them decide I don't want to live like this anymore. They're being told this is a sentence to die in prison. Yet many of them make a decision that they're going to live as if they're going to be released."
Dabney says that after a lost decade behind bars, one night he was up late watching TV in his cell at Folsom when Nightline came on with a program about child soldiers in Africa, and it affected him deeply.
Dabney changed his group of prison friends. ("Started hanging with people trying to teach me something.") He started to read books, beginning with the self-help section of the library and Anthony Robbins' Awaken the Giant Within. He gravitated to stories about people he found were resilient in the face of great difficulty. People, he says, "who failed and refused to accept the failure." Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Elie Weisel, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X.
He was struck at how the warlords on the Nightline program became like surrogate parents to the child soldiers, even though in many cases they had killed the boys' real parents. "They would feed and clothe and shelter the boys, and the boys were loyal to them in return," he says. "That's sort of how I became a gang member."
While still at Folsom, Dabney had a religious conversion. According to state records, he completed a 12-step program for ex–gang members, founded a support group for lifers and stayed violence-free for his final 13 years in custody. In 2012 he was admitted to a pilot program for model inmates and downgraded to a Level 3 area at Lancaster. He worked as a plumber on an inmate construction crew.
"One of the things prison taught me was don't live your life in fear," he says. "A lot of bad things that happen happen because people are living their lives in fear."
Ali Zarrinnam, a presiding commissioner of the Board of Parole, praised the transformation at Dabney's second parole hearing, on Oct. 13, 2016.
"There are a few individuals, very few, a minority of the population, that change because they want to change," Zarrinnam said. "Irrespective of ... how their life has gone, they just change because they want to become a better human being. And you fall into that class of individuals, and [it is] a testament to your behavior and your work."
And in the course of an afternoon, Dabney — after spending more years of his life locked up than not — was determined to be fit for the free world again.
"Ultimately, we have made a decision, Mr. Dabney, to grant you parole," Zarrinnam said, "finding that you ... do not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society."
Of the 392 lifers released by Board of Parole Hearings, 0.8 percent returned to prison with a new term, according to a 2015 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The return-to-prison rate for non-lifers was 43.6 percent.
At 7:30 on a Monday morning in late August, a dozen tough-looking men dressed in buttoned-up work shirts and wrinkle-free slacks — and two women in pantsuits — sit in desk chairs arranged in a semi-circle. The stems and loops of inked-in letters and drawings peek above many of their starched collars. A black outline of Darth Vader's helmeted face glares from the back of one man's head.
The Anti-Recidivism Coalition occupies the ninth floor of an office building off Pershing Square. The nonprofit is perhaps the preeminent organization in California in the field of re-entry services for the recently incarcerated. The men and women in the office — nearly all of whom have been incarcerated for the better part of their adult lives — are enrolled in ARC's 12-week "boot camp," which prepares them for a career in the building trades. Dabney is one of nine ex-lifers (and the sole juvenile lifer) in the cohort of 27.
When I first saw him he was standing in the hallway, a cellphone pressed to his ear, waiting on hold. He was following up with a foreman who had mentioned the possibility of hiring him. "Yes, I'm a new member of the union," Dabney said. "I'm calling about the construction job with Metro in Burbank."
Scott Budnick is a Hollywood producer (he did The Hangover movies) and a prominent advocate for youth in the criminal justice system (he was named California's Volunteer of the Year by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012). Budnick is the ARC's founder, and he pulled together the boot camp in partnership with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, L.A. Trade Technical College and the L.A./Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.
Budnick has an unvarnished way of speaking that appears to resonate with members of the program. He says the idea here is simple: "Folks who were formerly incarcerated were not reliable. They did not show up on time. They would relapse and have to go to a rehab or would get rearrested. The building trades and L.A. Federation of Labor said to me if you find the right guys and you train them and you prepare them and they can compete and outwork the rest of the people applying, then these jobs will be available for them. And so we started this training."
He says he set the bar high for the people in the program. "I want you guys to strive for a career," he says. "I want you guys to be put into something where you can have a livable wage, you can pay rent, you can have a car, you can raise a family, you can send your kids to school.
"To me it's like the greatest public safety program, because you can stop the cycle of crime."
Every person who has completed the program — about 50 men and women — has secured a union job in the building trades since the program began, says Isaac Lopez, the program's coordinator.
Dabney was one of five members from the program who completed a grueling physical test the previous Friday at the Laborers' Local 300 Union. Like participants in a cage match in mixed martial arts, the men had a singular focus on not tapping out. You arrive late for the 6 a.m. start time, the union taps you out. (ARC members were waiting outside at 3 a.m.) Fail the drug test, they tap you out. Struggle to haul a 60-pound bag of cement or a 12-foot plank or cement block after cement block after cement block — get your stuff, leave your helmet and get out of here; this is not for you.
Sergio Rascon, business manager of Laborers' Local 300 Union, says the program is a testing ground to see who can do the work. "We want to make sure that people who are interested in it understand and know what they're getting into."
All five of the ARC members made it through. No one from the program has ever tapped out.
There is a lot of work in L.A.'s booming construction trade: the $2.6 billion Rams stadium in Inglewood, the $2 billion Crenshaw/LAX Metro line, the $1.8 billion Regional Connector, the $6.3 billion Purple Line extension. The men and women dream aloud of the union wages for electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, sheet metal workers, laborers, ironworkers, painters and operating engineers.
"Right now we're in the biggest building boom since the 1920s," says Ron Miller, executive secretary of the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council. "A lot of our members are baby boomers and within five to 10 years of retirement. We have to supplement our ranks."
Miller says the building trades are working with various programs to recruit more women and more veterans. But there's nothing like its partnership with the ARC.
"This is not a job readiness program, this is not a job handout program — this is an economic opportunity program," says Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "It's up to the individual to grab hold of that opportunity and take full advantage of it. I really see the role of the labor movement as helping to train workers to gain opportunities that they may not have had ever before."
Tony Vergara got a life sentence when he was 18 years old and served 23 years. Vergara completed the electricians boot camp with IBEW Local 11 and gave a valedictory speech at the ARC's graduation ceremony at L.A. Trade Tech.
"No one takes a chance on you," Vergara said of the difficulties he experienced finding work. "You either check the box or lie. Thank you for giving us a chance and an opportunity to succeed."
Dabney says people look at him through a different filter after he tells them he went to prison. The scars, the tattoos, the muscles, how he stands and how he holds a fork. Everything looks different the moment they know.
"I used to love telling people where I was from," he says. "Now I despise it."
The flow of traffic up and down Western Avenue, from Dabney's halfway house to his job and back, carried him past the Master Burger dozens of times. He was hoping to find better work in another part of town. He'd joined the Laborers Union and was angling for an $18-an-hour job grading the earth for a Metrolink subway platform in Burbank.
Over the course of weeks that he commuted to Torrance, he had ample opportunity to observe that one particular gangbanger — his self-contained movements, his effortless rapport with people in the street. Dabney says he studied his stylish clothes and sometimes thought of pulling over and sharing some pearl about the dangers that lie in wait. It was too dangerous to pull over. "Besides, someone like that isn't going to listen until they're ready for change," he says. "Just like I wasn't when people used to talk to me."
On a Friday afternoon in late August, Dabney's drive up Western Avenue was blocked by a police cruiser parked sideways in the street. Officers were diverting traffic. Dabney caught a glimpse of yellow tape. He saw the things he knew to look for. "If it's just a black-and-white [car], then it's nothing. But suits and Crown Victorias, you just knew." The men at the scene were homicide detectives. The gangbanger was dead.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The Los Angeles Times reported that 31-year-old Gerome Lee Thomas was standing in front of the Master Burger at about 6 p.m. when a person walked up to him and shot him multiple times.
"He put himself in a closed space," Dabney says. "He was trapped. There was nothing he could do."
Dabney got the job in Burbank. The days are long and tiring but the money is good. As a prison inmate at Lancaster he did the same work and it paid $1 an hour. "I tell the construction guys all the time," he says.
"I'm 40 and I'm starting over. But it feels good to accomplish something."