JACKI LYDEN, host:
In Los Angeles, a 16-year-old boy is facing murder charges for what started as a simple act of vandalism. He was spray-painting a wall when he was confronted by Ronald Barron. Barron had committed plenty of crimes in his lifetime as a member of a violent gang. Here's Baron in his own words:
Mr. RONALD BARRON: I always thought I was limited, or feeling like the streets was my only solution. It took me seconds to get in trouble - and years to get out.
LYDEN: Barron did get out, and went on to dedicating his life to helping others. But keeping kids out of gangs can sometimes be just as dangerous as being in a gang. From member station KPCC, Alex Cohen has this profile of an ex-gang member who turned his life around - only to become a victim of the violence he was trying to prevent.
ALEX COHEN: In front of the Cottage Bar on West Pico Boulevard, there are blue flowers, a teddy bear and candles in remembrance of Ronnie Barron. Barron was a handsome man with long, braided hair, big eyes and an infectious smile. Tommy Rivers says he first met Ronnie when they were kids.
Mr. TOMMY RIVERS: We grew up playing baseball together, and he and I were on two separate teams. I was on the White Sox, he was on the Cardinals, and we was rivals.
COHEN: That rivalry continued when just a few years later, the two joined two different gangs. Tommy became a Gear Gang Crip and Ronnie, a Mansfield Hustler. Both men wound up behind bars several times. One time, they wound up at the same prison and started talking about old times. Tommy says the two men realized they were ready to get out of gang life.
Mr. RIVERS: Even though in the course of us banging and doing what we were doing, we always had good hearts. As we look back and had time to introspect on our lives, we understood that, you know, we had to make some corrections in our lives.
COHEN: When they got out of prison, they both joined a program, called Amer-I-Can, that works to prevent violence. NFL Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown is the program's founder. He says Ronnie Barron was an incredibly charismatic guy but beneath his smiles, he harbored a lot of pain.
Mr. JIM BROWN (Founder, Amer-I-Can): His brother got killed, and he sort of felt he had gotten his brother into the gang culture. I think he felt a little guilt about that.
COHEN: Through the Amer-I-Can program, Ronnie Barron and Tommie Rivers were able to establish peace between their former rival gangs, and they persuaded many men to give up the gang life. But, says Jim Brown, some of Barron's most important work was done in L.A. schools.
Mr. BROWN: And he loved kids, you know, loved children and they loved him. And that gave him something that would cool that fury that was inside, and sort of make up for a lot of the love that he did not - in my opinion, did not get.
COHEN: Brown says Ronnie Barron thought of his work as a mission, but it was a mission with inherent risk.
Mr. BROWN: In this work, the first thing you know is that you can get killed.
COHEN: It was Super Bowl Sunday, and Ronnie Barron was rooting for the New Orleans Saints. After their victory, he decided to celebrate by stopping at his neighborhood bar with his friend and colleague Tommy Rivers. Rivers says Barron stepped out of the bar and saw a 16-year-old Latino boy spray-painting the sign for a local tagging crew on a wall in a Dumpster. He says Barron tried to get the kid to stop.
Mr. RIVERS: And that was something that we always spoke about, the difference between a so-called ghetto and Beverly Hills is they write on the walls - that we write on the walls and they don't, and that was one of the things that we always prided ourselves. We wanted to make sure that our community was respected.
COHEN: As Rivers looks out at that wall and that Dumpster, he recalls hearing a gunshot.
Mr. RIVERS: And then when I opened the door right here, he was in the street right there, on his face. And he tried to get up, and fell back down. And immediately, I got to him and turned him over. And that's how it happened.
COHEN: Ronald Barron died that night. He was 40 years old.
Detective JAVIER HERNANDEZ (LAPD): Mr. Barron is our first homicide for the year.
COHEN: Homicide Detective Javier Hernandez says Barron's death is no surprise. Graffiti used to be a creative form of expression, he says, but it's become more lethal.
Det. HERNANDEZ: Because a lot of vandalism suspects, tagging crews are a step away from being gang members. And to tag in the streets of Los Angeles, you have to be armed because someone will confront you, whether it's a rival gang or in this case, a citizen.
COHEN: Though tagging has become more of a problem, Hernandez says homicides have waned in recent years. In the West Side District, where Barron was shot, there used to be as many as 28 homicides a year. Last year, there were only six.
Hernandez credits much of that decrease to gang intervention work, like the work Ronald Barron was doing.
Kurt Bonner sees the results of that work on the streets every day. He's one of the guys Ronnie Barron convinced to get out of gang life. Bonner misses his friend, but he's glad he didn't die in vain.
Mr. KURT BONNER: In the early years, we always were in position where we would give our lives for negativity. And for him to have given his life for positivity, I think that was one of his goals.
COHEN: Bonner adds there's been no retaliation against the tagging crew of the kid who shot Ronnie Barron. He says that's a testament to the work his friend did promoting peace.
For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.
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