A story for every victim

In shadow of South L.A. homicides, three friends hoped to live to 21

The young men's friendship withstood the flying bullets for 20 years, but now Isaiah Bell stands alone.

On the day Tyrone Koger was born in 1989, his father's casket was lowered into the ground at the Inglewood Park Cemetery. He had been shot to death in a car in South L.A.

Dominique Austin was born five days after Tyrone. They met at Gardena High School, and they both went on to Crimson Technical College, where they learned to fuel planes. The two were like brothers — they even got fired from a job at the airport together.

Isaiah Bell went to the same church as Dominique when they were kids. They lost touch in high school, but reconnected at a funeral for Dominique's 17-year-old cousin. He had been shot to death outside his girlfriend's apartment.

The Rev. E. Winford Bell, left, with his son Isaiah, 27. Rev. Bell founded an anti-violence organization and is wearing a black and silver lapel ribbon that symbolizes the group's message: "Behind every black cloud of crime, there is a silver lining of hope." (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The three young men from South L.A. were always around each other. Sometimes they'd volunteer for an anti-violence organization that Isaiah's father founded. They'd sit at long tables and piece together black and silver ribbons, a staple of the group's message: "Behind every black cloud of crime, there is a silver lining of hope."

In L.A. County in 2013, only about one person in 17,000 became a victim of homicide. That ratio continues to decline today. But in some communities, homicide feels common.

Isaiah remembers that when he was a teenager, a Sunday school teacher asked the class a question:

Who believes they won't live past 21?

Most of the boys, he says, raised their hands.

The Rev. E. Winford Bell was in the upstairs bedroom of his Inglewood home on a Saturday afternoon five years ago when he heard the crackle of gunfire.

"My God," Bell thought. "Somebody's getting shot."

He walked downstairs and out the front door. As he crossed the threshold, he heard a familiar voice screaming.

It was Isaiah, his son. The 21-year-old was on his way home from Dominique's apartment with a friend, who was about to park the car when another vehicle pulled up. Someone fired shots. The boys ducked.

Tyrone Koger, left, and Dominique Austin were born five days apart and became close friends at Gardena High School. Koger was 21 when he was killed in 2010, and Austin was fatally shot in March at age 25. (Ruth Allen)

As a pastor, Bell had delivered many eulogies for children who died in a father's arms. As he heard Isaiah crying out, he was afraid that day, March 7, 2009, would mark his induction into that world.

"I tasted it," Bell recalls.

He rushed to the car and opened the passenger side door. There was blood — a lot of it — and Bell needed to figure out where it was coming from. He felt Isaiah's head, then his chest, to gauge the severity of the wounds.

Isaiah had been shot in the hand; he was going to survive.

Isaiah doesn't know why he was targeted. He wonders if the shooter thought the car — a yellow Chevy Malibu — was a "gangbanger" vehicle.

Isaiah talks about an unspoken understanding among his peers.

"When I got shot, of course it's going to be a surprise," he says. "But it's not much of a surprise."

In the family home, there's an album with photos of Isaiah. There he is, in a hospital gown at Centinela Hospital. There's his hand, bandaged. There's Dominique and Isaiah making ribbons.

On the front porch, Isaiah thumbs through his cell phone and pulls up pictures of some of his friends in caskets.

"I was really supposed to be the first one to go."

When Tyrone was 14, a cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting. As he edged into adulthood, he lost classmates and friends to gunfire.

The day his daughter, Ianii, was born in 2009, Tyrone cried. His father didn't get the same chance.

When Tyrone turned 21 in February 2010, it was less a rite of passage than an accomplishment. That night, Dominique and Tyrone celebrated at a friend's house. Because their birthdays were so close, "the fact that they made it together was just magic to him," says Korisha Hamblet, Ianii's mother. But the men wondered if they would see 25.

"His fear of death was kind of imminent," Hamblet says.

A few weeks later, Dominique and Tyrone were hanging out when Tyrone got serious.

When it's your time, it's your time, he told Dominique.

Tyrone's daughter was 8 months old. He asked Dominique to take care of her if anything happened.

Relatives and neighbors gather for a prayer vigil for Dominique Austin, seen in the photo at left, who was killed on March 31 in Inglewood. Austin's good friend Tyrone Koger had been killed four years earlier just 3 miles from where Austin was gunned down. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The next morning, about 10:30 a.m., Tyrone was on his way to work at the airport when a car pulled beside him in Inglewood. There was a brief exchange, and Tyrone was shot to death.

It was Feb. 25 — 21 days after his 21st birthday.

Pastor Bell gave a eulogy at his funeral. Isaiah and Dominique were pallbearers.

Three months after the killing, Dominique commented on Tyrone's entry on The Times' Homicide Report. He wrote that he and Tyrone were together every day, and that his friend was someone he could count on when times were bad.

"I miss u like crazy man ..." he wrote.

Dominique kept his promise to Tyrone — he stayed in touch with Tyrone's family and made sure to build a relationship with Ianii.

A recent post on Instagram showed Dominique with a wide smile in a car with Ianii in the back seat, bobbing her head as she giggled to a song. A hashtag read, "RIPtyrone."

Friends say when Dominique's teenage cousin was killed in 2007, he changed. He'd grown up with the cousin, and the shooting hardened him.

"He felt like everyone was out to get him," says Danette Reed, a childhood friend. "Like you can't really trust people."

Dominique began to spend more time with Tyrone, Isaiah and a new friend from Crimson Technical College named Erik Hopkins. The four became close.

Hopkins was shot to death in January 2010 as he left a liquor store in Vermont Vista. A month later, Tyrone was dead too — a single gunshot to the head, the coroner's report said.

On his 25th birthday in February, Dominique posted a photo of himself on Instagram. "I'm just thankful to see another year," he wrote.

Dominique worked as a security guard and limo driver. He liked to stay busy, said his mother, LaMicha Williams. Recently, he got into filming music videos with his brother. He told his family that he wanted to start a Little League football team.

On March 31, Dominique had eaten breakfast at an Inglewood diner and returned home. He was saying goodbye to a friend in her car when another car pulled up. Dominique exchanged words with someone in the other car, then tried to run up the stairs to his apartment. He was shot several times.

Kevin Williams, his mother's boyfriend, was inside the apartment at the time. He heard Dominique cry out, "Kevin! Kevin!"

He ran outside to find Dominique in the dirt. He had fallen down the stairs. His mother arrived minutes later, screaming. Police kept her firmly behind the yellow tape.

"I never dreamed in a million years that I would have to bury my child," she told a crowd days later in the grassy area where Dominique had collapsed — 3 miles from where Tyrone was killed.

Dozens gathered around her while others stood on front porches and sidewalks, listening.

At the funeral, Pastor Bell spoke. Isaiah was an honorary pallbearer.

The killings of Tyrone and Dominique remain unsolved. Tyrone's grandmother went to City Council meetings and spoke at events for Pastor Bell's organization. Dominique's mother is still hoping for answers.

LaMicha Williams is supported by friends during a prayer vigil for her son, Dominique Austin, who was killed on March 31. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Isaiah, now 27, sits on his Inglewood front porch and talks about how he tries to avoid trouble. He doesn't go to many clubs, he's not hanging out on Crenshaw Boulevard. He goes to work and comes home, takes care of his two children.

"Don't stick out," he says. "You can get touched."

He remembers a trip he took with Dominique to visit family in Memphis about three years ago. The two watched Dominique's grandparents having a soft drink and laughing on the porch.

Dominique turned to Isaiah and said: "That's going to be us."

On Thursday, Dominique's girlfriend was in labor with his child, his mother said. The baby's name will be Dominique.

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