In Search of Monster
In a chilling autobiography a former gang member portrays himself as the inevitable product of a hellish environment. The truth is more interesting.
During the 1970s and 1980s every Los Angeles street gang had its trademark. The Hoovers, or at least one contingent of them, were known for their ritualistic gang rapes. The Eight-Tray Gangster Crips were said to favor stealing guns and cars over drug dealing. And the Rollin’ Sixties' are still legendary for their ruthless perfectionism: Sixties hit squads would circle back after a drive-by shooting to make sure the intended victim was really dead, and if he was not, they would open fire again, even if the paramedics had already arrived.
It is now much in fashion to go to gang members in Los Angeles for the authentic voice of black experience—or at least the experience of the black underclass. The phenomenon is perhaps most visible on television, as in Ted Koppel's interviews with gang members in the wake of last year's Los Angeles riots. But it is by no means confined to television. When Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic (which has no connection with this magazine), announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year that he had acquired world publication rights to the autobiography of Monster Kody, a twenty-eight-year-old former gang member who shot his first victim at the age of eleven, the news spread rapidly through the exhibition halls. A buyer from Sweden tried to explain the excitement to Entrekin: "We see so much of the violence of the American inner city; now here's a voice that comes from inside that can explain it to us." The first chapters of the then-unfinished manuscript, written entirely in prison, circulated quickly through the halls, and within two days Entrekin had sold the foreign rights to publishers in seven countries.
Kody Scott, also known as Sanyika Shakur, and still best known on the streets of South Central Los Angeles as Monster, a member of the Eight-Tray Gangster Crips, is currently serving a seven-year sentence in Pelican Bay State Prison, a steel-and-concrete fortress in northern California. Inmates are subjected to extensive video surveillance designed to minimize direct contact with guards. Monster is in the Security Housing Unit, a prison within the prison, where he must serve out his full sentence in near total isolation. He has no telephone privileges, and is allowed only one package a year. He can be interviewed by journalists only once every ninety days.
The word after the Frankfurt Book Fair was that Monster had received an advance of at least $150,000, with more to come from the paperback sale (Penguin later paid around $60,000) plus future royalties. How did a handful of pages written in pencil in a windowless cell in a northern-California prison end up on the auction block at the Frankfurt Book Fair?
Léon Bing, a fashion model turned journalist, was the first to bring Monster Kody to the attention of the world beyond South Central—in a book about gangs called Do or Die. She became the woman to call when the media needed an authentic gang member. In 1991 William Broyles Jr., a journalist and Vietnam veteran who was writing for television, needed help researching an ABC pilot script set in South Central. He got in touch with Bing, and she took him to meet Monster Kody in the southern-California jail where he was then being held. "He reminded me so much of some of my Vietnam-veteran friends," says Broyles, a tall, soft-spoken Texan who has served as the editor of Newsweek and Texas Monthly. "He was like a combat vet, but of a very different kind of war." The network never filmed the pilot, but Broyles began encouraging Kody to write down some of his experiences.
Broyles sent him paper and pencils and reading materials, from Michael Herr's Dispatches to the Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews. The first chapter, meticulously printed in an angular hand on yellow legal paper, arrived in Broyles's Burbank office in April of last year, just days before the verdict in the first trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King, and the riots that verdict occasioned. More chapters soon followed, and Broyles gave a copy of the work in progress to Terry McDonell, then the editor of Esquire, who passed it to Morgan Entrekin. McDonell decided to print an excerpt, and Entrekin eventually decided to publish the book.
Entrekin scheduled Monster: The Autobiography of an LA. Gangmember for publication last spring, but the manuscript arrived later than expected, and plans to have the publication date coincide with the first anniversary of the Los Angeles riots fell through. The release was pushed back to June. It was a rush job but, Entrekin says, the book got enough editing. "I didn't want the voice of some white upper-middle-class publishing editor tube imposed on it. I wanted his voice. My rule was, the less editing the better, and honestly I don't think it needed it. . . . He's such a talented, natural writer." Early promotional material described "the most remarkable and important book of the black experience since Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and George Jackson's Soledad Brother."
"There are no other gang experts except participants," Monster Kody writes in the preface.
Our lives, mores, customs, and philosophies remain as mysterious and untouched as those of any "uncivilized" tribe in Afrika. . . . I have pushed people violently out of this existence and have fathered three children. I have felt completely free and have sat in total solitary confinement in San Quentin state prison. I have shot numerous people and have been shot seven times myself. I have been in gunfights in South Central and knife fights in Folsom state prison.
On the book's cover Kody is stripped to the waist, except for dark glasses and gang tattoos, and holds a MAC-11-type assault pistol. In the book he lovingly describes how he shot at least a dozen rivals, most or all of them black, killing more than a few. He confesses to drug dealing, countless robberies and brutal assaults, an automobile hit-and-run attack, and the humiliation of a prison mate by forcing him to drink a cup of urine. He claims his crew once captured and dismembered by machete one unfortunate "enemy." Half the time he was under the influence of alcohol or PCP. Though he has spent almost half of his life in jail, Monster has never been convicted of murder.
The first printing was 50,000 copies. Media response has been slow but favorable. The review in The New York Times compared the author to Richard Price and Tom Wolfe. Steve Kroft interviewed Monster for CBS's 60 Minutes. For better or worse, Kody Scott—young, violent, unemployed—has become the latest spokesman from the war zone of South Central Los Angeles.
Leonce Gaiter, a writer who lives in Los Angeles and works as a legal assistant, saw two prepublication articles about the book and was infuriated by the thought that the most highly publicized black male author of 1993 might be a murderous thug. In an article for the June-July issue of Buzz, a Los Angeles magazine, he accused Morgan Entrekin, Terry McDonell, Léon Bing, and William Broyles of participation in a white media establishment incapable of concealing its innate racism. Gaiter reacted to Entrekin's early characterization of Monster Kody as a "primary voice of the black experience."
"Another fascinating choice of words," Gaiter wrote.
To me, this is a white man who thinks that a monster who butchers African-Americans is a major voice for all African-Americans, a white man who thinks of all blacks as less than human, as a murderous sub-species. . . . Why? There is no conspiracy here, just ignorant, racist minds at work. I am an African-American man, and I have killed no one. My parents worked, educated themselves, and raised their children. I graduated from Harvard. This is the black experience.
Morgan Entrekin concedes that his use of the phrase was ill-advised, and he has stopped using it. Now he prefers to describe Monster as "a primary voice coming out of the black underclass." "My personal opinion of Sanyika is mixed," Entrekin says. "You read the book and see what he's done and it's frightening. On the other hand, you see the extraordinarily keen and subtle intelligence at work and it's impressive."
But Gaiter is still angry. "It would be one thing if every year there were five books by African-American males published with the same degree of hoopla, but there are not. . . . Since the white audience in general has preconceptions about African-Americans, they want those preconceptions satisfied, and the media are more than happy to oblige." He's sick of the focus on one side of the inner city. "There are a helluva lot of problems in an inner-city environment such as his, and yes, it's hard, but there are people who don't go his way. About them you hear nothing."
Entrekin agrees. Next year he will publish a book about the black middle class. "You know it will be harder for me to get attention for that book than it was for this one," he says. "The quieter stories that are not dramatically evil or violent or good or sentimental are harder to sell. That's just the nature of the beast."
"To be in a gang in South Central when I joined," Monster writes, "is the equivalent of growing up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and going to college: everyone does it." This is one of his central points, and it has been repeated uncritically in reviews. Law-enforcement sources seem to bear out the assertion. A May, 1992, district attorney's report estimated that there were 125,000 to 130,000 gang members in Los Angeles County, but it made no distinction between active, hard-core gang members and anyone who ever hung out with gang members, or was arrested once as a juvenile in the company of gang members, or even briefly flirted with joining a gang before pulling back. The reality of life in a gang-infested neighborhood is that every boy and girl must by necessity associate with gang members, because gang members are their classmates, their neighbors, their relatives. Though anxious parents have been known to bus their children to schools outside the neighborhood, sequestering them at home the rest of the time, these exceptions only prove the rule.
The police have their reasons for inflating the numbers, as do gang members and their supporters, but there are fewer active gang members than either the gangs or the police want us to believe—which makes their destructive power all the more impressive. Gang-related homicides in Los Angeles have risen steadily, from 212 in 1984 to 771 in 1991. Gang-related deaths as a percentage of the total homicide figure have also been rising: in 1991 they accounted for 36 percent of the total. But one thing is certain: in a county the size of Los Angeles, not every young man is an active gang member—not even in South Central and not even, for that matter, in Kody Scott's own house.
At an early stage in the writing of Monster, William Broyles urged Kody to delve more deeply into his personal motivations, but Kody's book contains almost no information about his early childhood. Kody starts with his entry into the gang at age eleven, and he tells us little more about his home life than that his family lived in conditions of "economic destitution" and that his parents had violent fights. Home was just one in long string of "man-made hell[s]" that turned him into a person who "didn't care one way or another about living or dying" and who "cared less than that about killing someone." Joining a gang was the only possible response to life in South Central, according to Monster, so further details about his past were irrelevant.
Interviews with Kody's family, however, suggest otherwise.
In 1957 Birdie Canada was working in a beauty parlor in Houston, Texas, when a customer introduced her son, who was visiting from Los Angeles. About a month later the young man—his name was Ernest Scott—telephoned Birdie and proposed marriage. She was twenty-one, with two young children, Kevin and Kim, but no husband, and she was restless, so she said yes. Kevin and Kim stayed behind with their grandparents, and Birdie moved to Los Angeles.
Ernest Scott was twelve years older than his wife. The marriage was rocky, but it lasted thirteen years. A daughter, Kendis, was born in 1959, and a son, Kerwin, two years later. In November of 1963 Kody arrived. In Los Angeles, Birdie met an old friend from Houston who had married the pianist and singer Ray Charles. Della and Ray Charles were Kody's godparents, and the Scott family frequently visited their home.
Scott earned a good living as a chef, but he was proud of his physique and yearned for more-strenuous work, so when there was an opening at the discount warehouse store Smart & Final—a well-paid union job at that—he grabbed it. In 1965 the growing family moved to a two-bedroom house with a large back yard on Hillcrest Drive. Birdie's sixth and last child, Kershaun, was born that summer, just weeks before the Watts riots.
Kody was always the daredevil. "He was like a demolition derby," his sister Kendis says, "reckless, wild, and intriguing." "He had no fear," says his older brother Kerwin. Kody built wooden ramps on the street and raced his bike at top speeds, jumping crates like a junior Evel Knievel. "No one else would do it," Kerwin says, "but he would."
Today Kendis lives in the Jordan Downs projects in Watts with three daughters and a newborn grandson. She is a trim, attractive woman, tastefully dressed, with a husky, animated voice. When I visited, her brother Kerwin had stopped by before heading off to work, and they were seated in the narrow living room of her small duplex apartment. Kerwin is a tall, warm man with the pumped up physique of a body builder: he competes in amateur body-building events, and once won a title at the Orange County Muscle Classic. At the time of my visit, because of a recent truce between the Bloods and the Crips in Watts, children were playing outside and no gunfire punctuated their laughter as it used to before the truce.
Kendis remembers that when her parents were together, they fought. "All of us would be crying whenever they started," she says, "and Kody just couldn't take it. He'd break out the front door, running to the neighbors, screaming for help." Kerwin recalls being beaten by his father because he stole a bite out of Kershaun's hamburger. "He had an orange extension cord, a real long one, and he beat us with it—over a hamburger."
By 1969 the Scott marriage was unsalvageable. Birdie asked Ernest to leave, and he did. She threw herself into work to support her family, holding down two jobs for three years, and then three jobs for another two years. For a while she worked for the Department of Recreation and Parks, but usually she was bartending at places like the Pied Piper and the Sports Lounge. When Kevin and Kim came from Texas to live with her, Birdie had six children, a German shepherd, a Persian cat, and a cockatoo—all in a two-bedroom house. Only once, she says, when she was ill, did Birdie ever take government assistance. "Seemed like she didn't have to sleep," Kerwin says. "It seemed like Mom never slept."
In 1972, Birdie bought a three-bedroom house on Sixty-ninth Street. She put a Ping-Pong table and a refrigerator in the large, three-car garage and converted it into a playroom. "I never really minded other children coming over to play, because that way I knew my children were home—that was my biggest concern. But then of course they still got away from me."
The new house was located in what would eventually be the southern end of Eight-Tray Gangster Crip territory. Kerwin was the first to hear the call. During the seventh grade he got caught trying to steal leather jackets from kids at a school in Westchester, near the Los Angeles International Airport. He spent the night in Eastlake Juvenile Hall. When Birdie arrived the next morning, he was the only one crying. "You want to be a Crip," she said, "I'll break both your damn legs and that's what you'll end up being, a crip." Kerwin didn't need persuading. The night behind bars made an indelible impression, and he never joined a gang. Two years later Kody was initiated into the Eight-Trays. He shot his first victim that night.
"One day I see Kody and he's wearing these plaid pants and he's jumping ramps on his bike," Kendis recalls. "And the next time I see him, his collar is buttoned up, he's wearing these nets on his head and dark [glasses]—and he's Monster." Kendis loves Kody and came to respect his rigorous commitment to gang life. One time they were watching a movie on television featuring an outlaw who blasts away with a gun in each hand. Afterward, Kendis remembers, Kody "went outside in the back with two guns and started practicing. And I just looked at him, and I said, 'You're really into them.' And he said, 'Because they were O. G.'s [original gangster, the highest rank in the gang].' So being an O. G. was something he was really working hard to achieve. He put in plenty of work. He put in overtime."
But another time, when Kendis and Kody were alone in the house, Kody came into the room twirling a gun on his finger. Kendis was lying on her mother's bed, pregnant, and the lights were off, so Kody didn't see her. She made a noise, and Kody spun around and aimed the gun at her head.
"Girl," he blurted out, "you should have said something! I could have shot you."
Kendis recalls just sitting there frozen, tears rolling down her cheeks.
With Kody as his role model, Kershaun, the youngest, also joined the Eight-Trays, calling himself Li'l Monster. Before he was out of his teens, Li'l Monster had already shotgunned at least one rival to death. But Kerwin and Kevin stayed out of the gang.
"Kerwin just seemed more into wanting to have things." Kendis says. "Kody was less materialistic. Kerwin's always been working. He doesn't seem to be a follower into things that don't seem right to him. But since Kody was a daredevil, running with the gangs and stealing cars seemed more like something he could handle better. I'm not saying Kerwin is scared, because Kerwin is not. But a challenge to Kerwin was going to work every day and seeing his paycheck."
"It's really a trip," Kerwin says. "Because, you see, we all slept in the same room. We slept closer than four feet apart, we ate at the same table, we came from the same mom."
They didn't come from the same dad, though, and that is one of the very few personal revelations in Monster. As a child Kody was never told that his biological father was Dick Bass, a professional football player with the L.A. Rams with whom Birdie had had a brief affair. As a child Kody didn't know why Scott treated him more coolly than the other children. Kody felt more alone, which explains a great deal, but Kerwin was also without a father in the home after 1969. The biggest difference in the two boys' lives may have been a man named Morrie Notrica.
THE 32nd Street Market is on Hoover Street across from the University of Southern California. It is one of four supermarkets owned by the Notrica family. Morrie Notrica was born down the street and has been running the market since his father died, in 1963. It began with a tiny convenience store located near where the parking lot is now, and expanded from there. The neighborhood is an ever shifting jumble of ethnic diversity: right now there are Cubans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans to the north, Mexicans to the east, and African-Americans to the west.
Fifteen years ago Kerwin Scott went into the 32nd Street Market and Notrica gave him a job as a box boy. "In the beginning I used to spend a lot of time talking to him," Notrica says. "He used to come up with some of the funniest things. I would say, 'Kerwin, you should write this down, it would be better than a TV show.' He told me where he lived, and I was always concerned for his safety." One time Notrica was driving down Century Boulevard at midnight and passed a murder scene at a gas station, all lit up by police lights. As he slowed, he caught sight of Kerwin on his bike, checking out the unfolding events. Notrica put him on the night shift for a while, to keep him off the streets. He bought Kerwin his first car, and when the teenager got into arguments with some of his other employees, Notrica would pull them aside and firmly lay down the law: "Leave Kerwin alone."
The 32nd Street Market was untouched during the riots last year, though every grocery store around it was burned to the ground. Notrica has no theory to account for that. "Just lucky, I guess," he says. Kerwin says it's because the market is well known in the community for being fair. Kerwin still works for Morrie Notrica, at the Carson store. "Kerwin just went and took him a father," Birdie observes, "and Morrie took him a son. You know, I think they both had needs."
Standing in front of the two-story house where she lives, on a quiet, tree-lined street in South Central, Birdie Canada points to a solitary rosebush that was planted decades ago by the current owner's grandmother. "Isn't it something," she says, "how things survive?" At the other end of the street residents have erected barriers to try and stem the flow of drug dealers who drive through the neighborhood at night.
Apart from a few brief mentions, Kevin, Kim, Kendis, and Kerwin are nowhere to be found in Monster. There's no childhood, and there's very little about Kody's mother. They don't fit Monster's version. Kevin became an actor and lives in Burbank. Kim joined the Air Force and is currently stationed in Japan. Kendis raised her family and is studying to be a data processor. Kerwin went to work for the 32nd Street Market. Only Kody and Kershaun became gang members.
"It was something they wanted to do," Birdie Canada says of the choice her two youngest sons made. "Because they didn't have to. My children are very strong-minded, very strong-willed."
There are other omissions in Monster. Here, for example, is the description of Kody's last arrest in its entirety:
In January of 1991 1 was captured by the L.A.P.D. for assault and grand theft auto. These charges stemmed from a healthy beating I had given a stubborn crack dealer who had refused to stop selling his product on my corner. His van was confiscated because of his stubborn insistence, which led to the GTA charge. I make no excuses for this, and I have no regrets. When the police and other government agencies don't seem to care about what is going on in our communities, then those of us who live in them must take responsibility for their protection and maintenance. As it turned out, this specific dealer was also a paid police informant.
Kody had been paroled from state prison in 1988 after serving almost five years of a seven-year sentence for assault with a firearm. He had converted to Islam, changed his name to Sanyika Shakur, joined a black-separatist movement called the New Afrikan Independence Movement, and renounced gang membership for revolution. After his release from prison he was arrested twice on weapons charges and did some prison time for possession of an AK-47, a parole violation. He married his longtime girlfriend in 1990 and afterward divided his time between Los Angeles, where his parole officer was, and suburban Moreno Valley, where his wife and children lived.
During the late 1980s Moreno Valley was one of the fastest-growing communities in southern California. A decade ago this hot and arid way station, seventy miles east of Los Angeles, more than halfway from Hollywood to Palm Springs, didn't exist. Today it is a city of 135,000. For years it was a magnet for refugees from Los Angeles. You could get almost twice the home for the same price, and thousands of families made the move, including residents of South Central, who hoped to get their children out of the reach of gangs. But the plan often backfired, because the kids brought the gangs with them. Recently there was a gang-related shooting at a local high school, grim proof that gangs may start in depressed environments, but they can spread through the culture, metastasizing in the unlikeliest directions.
Kody's wife, Tamu, had moved away from South Central and was renting near the oldest part of Moreno Valley, the Edgemont district, a hodgepodge of older housing and cramped apartment complexes. Edgemont was rife with gangs and drugs, and that's where Monster Kody beat up Roderick Saunders on the night of January 27, 1991.
The attack took place behind some apartments on a service road known to local police as Crack Alley. It is an open drug market even during daylight hours. If Kody was worried about drug dealers, there were plenty to choose from. Why he waylaid Saunders (who was not known by the police to be a drug dealer), beat him severely, took his wallet, and stole the blue Dodge Caravan that belonged to Saunders's mother is still not clear. One witness says that Saunders insulted the Eight-Tray Cups.
Several hours later the van was spotted in Los Angeles County, and after a chase through residential streets Kody was arrested. Kody told the police his name was Kevin Canada, the name of his law-abiding older brother. He gave his occupation alternately as "journalist" and "rapper."
Kody was charged with assault, robbery, and grand theft auto. Because of his prior record he faced a sentence of up to seventeen years if found guilty, but when he was offered a five-year plea bargain, he turned it down. He probably assumed that Saunders would not testify.
The trial date arrived, and a jury was selected. To everyone's surprise—even the prosecutor' s—Roderick Saunders did show up at the county courthouse in downtown Riverside. Minutes later Kody agreed to plead guilty to the robbery charge in exchange for a seven-year sentence. There would be no trial. The prosecutor, Bambi Moyer, could recall few cases in which she had offered a defendant a five-year term and then had him come back and agree to seven, but Saunders's appearance undoubtedly had altered the defense strategy. There is no evidence that Saunders was a paid police informant.
As to Kody's ability to stay out of prison after he is released, his family is guardedly optimistic, but whatever the future holds, they will stand by him. Others are so heavily invested in Monster's redemption that they are less well prepared for disappointment.
"I would like to think that the act of writing the book itself is in some way an act of redemption," Morgan Entrekin says. "I've seen him change in the process of doing it. I've asked him, 'What did you think about this? Do you have regrets?' He's really been thoughtful about it and faced it in some of the book."
Back in 1989 Léon Bing introduced Thomas Wright, a Harvard-educated Hollywood screenwriter with a special interest in the black underworld (he co-wrote New Jack City) to Kody's brother Kershaun, a.k.a. Li'l Monster. Wright recently completed a documentary film about Kershaun Scott. Wright is convinced that the newly politicized Scott brothers will become important community leaders. "Everybody whose lives they touched seems to have been elevated by them," Wright says without the slightest hint of irony. "I never could have directed a film before I met 'Shaun. . . . That's what these guys do. They inspire you to become better than what you are."
"I think Sanyika's book does leave gangsterism behind in a literary way." William Broyles says. "Now, whether he has in fact done that in his real life, I think, is going to be the struggle of his life."
In August, Buzz printed Sanyika Shakur's response to Leonce Gaiter's critical opinion piece. "In the nineties, unlike the sixties, we are rolling on the Uncle Toms first," Shakur wrote from prison. "So Uncle Gaiter should pack his shoe-shine rag, 'cause no Tom will escape the wrath of the New Afrikan independence movement!" After reading this, Gaiter observed that Kody has merely traded acts of violence for the language of violence. "And not only that," he added. "The destruction of black people still seems to be an obsession with this man."
There was something else that Monster Kody left out of his autobiography concerning his last arrest. When assaulting Roderick Saunders and stealing his money and his mother's van, Monster had an accomplice with him, an eighteen-year-old kid named Delbert Jackson, who helped him beat, kick, and choke Saunders and then rode along in the stolen van to Los Angeles, where he, too, was arrested.
Delbert was born in Long Beach and lived in Moreno Valley. He told the police he worked as a cook at McDonald's. He was an odd companion for Kody to take along when Kody decided to rid his neighborhood of crack dealers, because Delbert himself had recently been arrested for selling crack cocaine.
Kody was almost ten years older than Delbert—ten years being a lifetime on the streets. Delbert had gotten into trouble in the past, but he was still young and the police did not consider him a hardcore gang member. He lived with his mother in Moreno Valley and was probably there for the same reason many other kids were—because their families wanted to get them out of harm's way. Monster Kody was supposed to be Sanyika Shakur now, a reformed man who had left gangsterism behind and was going to be a role model for a younger generation of kids in his community. But that night, when eighteen-year-old Delbert Jackson could have used a role model, he didn't find Sanyika Shakur—he found Monster Kody, and he followed Monster Kody to jail.
At the end of June, 1991, in the Riverside County Courthouse, Judge Edward Webster sentenced Kody Scott to seven years in prison—as agreed in the plea bargain. Six days later Kody's teenage companion, Delbert Jackson, stood alone before the same judge, who gave the usual speech, the kind that has been given thousands of times in hundreds of courts, and is in most instances forgotten immediately afterward.
"You are a young man, Mr. Jackson, and I believe it's going to be difficult to disassociate yourself from people like Kody Scott and others that you probably grew up with. . . . It has got to be a decision you make for yourself. . . . I just want to wish you good luck."
Delbert Jackson was charged as an adult, and was sentenced to two years in state prison. Jackson should be out by now.
Sanyika Shakur, a.k.a. Monster, should be free in September of 1995.