Telling your story through the life of one person

Stephanie Chavez scores one big goal and one big assist

I’d like to praise a colleague of mine, Stephanie Chavez, for one cool story and one cool idea that led to another story, both in the past two weeks. Both stories allow us to examine one of the most obvious but delicious techniques in journalism: Tell your news-feature story through the life of one person.

Telling your story through the life of one person

Telling your story through the life of one person

It sounds deceptively easy because what people forget to remember is: It only works if you find the right person.

The first example was published this week. I was trying to coordinate a series of stories about the 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots (April 29), which broke out after a largely white jury acquitted four white cops of beating black motorist Rodney King. I put out a group message in January to a number of reporters who’d been around for the event. Stephanie volunteered to re-examine the rescue of a white trucker named Reginald Denny, who was nearly killed in the opening hours of the riot by a mob. Four strangers intervened and drove Denny to safety in his battered truck. Stephanie and another staffer, Laurie Becklund, had written the story of that rescue for the May 1, 1992, edition that won our paper the Pulitzer for spot-news coverage.

Problem was, as the weeks went on, nobody wanted to talk. They desired “closure.” Stephanie finally convinced one of the rescuers, Bobby Green, to open up–only because he remembered her from the riot. As much as I would have loved to read a story that chronicled the last 10 years of Green’s and Denny’s lives, the resulting story afforded the reader a deeper look at one character than we would have enjoyed had we surveyed the emotions of several people.

See what you think:

A RESCUER’S TALE: FIGHT, THEN FLIGHT
By Stephanie Chavez
April 22, 2002

Bobby Green is sitting on his couch in suburban Rialto, talking about the night 10 years ago that he saved a man’s life, a moment that made him a hero to most and a traitor to others.

Back then, in the first hours of the Los Angeles riots, Green was sitting on another couch, this one in South-Central Los Angeles. He was watching a black man on live TV smash a brick, then another brick, into the head of a white truck driver, who lay writhing on the pavement. It was happening about half a mile away.

The second brick did it.

“That is e-nough,” Green decided. He jumped off the couch and rushed out the door. It didn’t matter that he was black, or that he, like virtually everyone else in the neighborhood, was mad as hell after that day’s not-guilty verdicts for LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating trial. He raced to the scene and helped rescue Reginald O. Denny from a mob of rioters.

That decision still defines Bobby Green. It gives him a credo, crystallizes what he teaches his children about right and wrong. It’s what he, his wife and his family are most proud of, decorating their living room with seven of his 14 plaques and commendations. It’s the one thing he thinks about every day he starts work.

And ultimately, that choice was the main reason the man who became a symbol of post-riot redemption gave up on Los Angeles and moved away.

Denny has done the same thing, settling in Lake Havasu, Ariz., where he can indulge his love of boating. He declined to be interviewed about April 29, 1992. Long ago, he’d remarked it was “pretty weird” the way America heaped celebrity on a truck driver for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“He doesn’t want to look back,” said Shelley Montez, his former wife and mother of his daughter, Ashley, now in high school.

At the time of the riots, Bobby Green was a trucker himself, 29, scraping out a living working part-time. Now he’s the father of five, a man of commanding stature, muscular arms and few words–a man who says he must remember, must embrace those three hours in his past. They mean so much to his future.

“I can tell my kids that color is on the outside, not the inside,” he says. “To me, I turned justice around and showed them that all black people ain’t the same as you think.

“I know I am different from the rest of the people” who rioted. “I saved another man’s life because to me, he was another human being who needed my help.”

Why prove it by pushing your way into the fury of Florence and Normandie?

Green leans back in his comfortable, forest-green leather couch, takes a deep breath, shakes his head. Like Denny, he has a daughter named Ashley. She’s 10, and she has propped herself on the edge of the couch to eavesdrop. Green’s 17-year-old son, Eric, old enough to remember the commotion at home that night, leans against the wall.

The old names begin to flow. Most of Los Angeles today would need a glossary to know their importance, but many people still remember the names as if it were yesterday.

“You know,” Green says, “It started with Latasha, and then the King beating, and then the verdicts. . . .” Anger seeps into his deep voice. “I don’t understand why she got off. Why did Latasha get shot in the back for stealing orange juice?”

“She” is Soon Ja Du. “Latasha” was Latasha Harlins. Du, a Korean-born grocer, fatally shot 15-year-old Harlins in the back of the head after a physical altercation. The fight was prompted by Du’s belief the girl was stealing a bottle of orange juice. A security camera videotaped the scene and was played during Du’s trial. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. But Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin, reasoning that Du was acting out of fear from earlier robberies, sentenced her in November 1991 to five years’ probation.

The case exacerbated long-standing tensions between Korean shopkeepers and their black customers in economically depressed South-Central neighborhoods, and set the stage for something even worse.

“If she had been a black person,” Green said of Du, “she would have been in jail for murder. That’s the kind of justice that’s not right. . . . After Latasha, people started to go crazy. They thought black people didn’t have no justice.”

On March 3, 1991, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and three other white LAPD officers beat black motorist Rodney G. King as an amateur photographer captured the repeated baton blows on video.

By the time the officers’ trial ended, Bobby and his wife-to-be, Vera, were sharing a tiny apartment not far from the house where he grew up on East 62nd Street. “V,” as Bobby calls her, had given birth to Ashley a few months earlier and was working as an office manager on the Westside. Bobby drove a cement truck for $13 an hour–seasonal work, no benefits.

He had just finished a haul that afternoon when he found his older brothers transfixed by the TV at their mother’s house, the family headquarters. He sat down on the couch and watched as verdicts acquitting all four officers of using excessive force were read in a Simi Valley courtroom.

“I was pissed off just like everyone else was pissed off. I was sitting there, me, my brothers and my son, and I couldn’t believe it,” Green said. “It seemed like there was no justice.”

Television soon turned to the street: dusk at the intersection of Florence and Normandie.

A young black man “had the brick in his hand and hit Reggie. Then he hit him with the brick again,” Green said, becoming indignant. “The man is already down and I’m thinking, ‘Why are you going after him with another brick and kicking him?’ ”

Then, Green said, “Something told me to get up.” He told Eric he would be right back. It took him about five minutes to drive to the intersection, where he ran up to Denny’s truck and helped another rescuer, a woman named Lei Yuille, who was struggling to push Denny into the cab of his truck.

“I just pushed him over and started driving,” Green said. No one in the crowd stopped the rescue. “They musta thought I was one of the bad guys too, taking the truck for a joy ride.” Even Yuille had that suspicion.

During the 10-minute drive to the hospital, Yuille cradled Denny’s battered head, telling him, “You’re going to make it.” Two other strangers who had come to the rescue, Titus Murphy and Terri Barnett, turned their Honda’s hazard lights on and shouted steering instructions to Green, who was unable to see clearly through the shattered windshield.

The makeshift entourage dropped Denny off at the emergency room at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital. Green, who knew the area’s trucking yards, drove Denny’s rig back to its Florence and Manchester home base. The three other rescuers never even got Green’s name, describing him later as the “young man dressed in black.”

The intersection scene, captured in graphic detail by a TV news helicopter, had been aired on live TV and radio. Vera was driving home from work “when I hear on the radio that the guy who beat Reginald Denny was driving away in his truck.”

When she got home, Bobby was not there. Eric told her where he had gone.

“I can’t tell you what I said,” Vera jokes now, “but it went something like: ‘What the hell does he think he’s doing?’ ”

By the time Bobby came back, there was no use in arguing. They settled on the couch and watched the riots on TV.

It stunned them when Bobby and the three other rescuers became overnight heroes, their story rising to modern-day parable told by TV host Phil Donahue, countless other media outlets and the reality show “How’d They Do That?” A movie producer paid them a few hundred dollars each for the rights to their story.

At first Bobby wanted to protect his privacy, fearful of too much hostility in the neighborhood, Vera said.

He insisted TV interviewers use only his silhouette. He had more to fear when four suspects in the Denny beating were arrested. The young man he’d seen hitting Denny with the brick, Damian Monroe Williams, faced 17 felony counts carrying possible life sentences.

The Denny case moved through the courts in 1992 and 1993, as tension clenched an exhausted, riot-raw city. Like the Soon Ja Du and Rodney King cases, this trial carried heavy symbolism. Some viewed it as the reverse-race twin of the King beating trial, an example of how the system treats blacks with excessive criminal charges and unreasonable bail.

A tight-knit protest group dubbed “Free the LA 4+”, a reference to the defendants, jammed the court hearings, distributed buttons and T-shirts and held rallies, one of which turned violent.

All the while Bobby had been out collecting awards and accolades: “For his integrity and bravery,” said the California Legislature. “For humanitarianism,” read the gold plate from the Los Angeles Urban League. For heroism, for providing hope in despair, for unselfishness, said Hollywood, a slew of city councils, a bank, and labor unions. The city of Opa Locka, Fla., even flew him and Vera out for a parade. Bobby shook hands with the mayor, who presented him with the key to the city.

Then, as the trial approached, the FBI asked Green if he wanted protection or another place to live. Vera grew fearful. Bobby had already heard the rumbling.

“I had threats, word of mouth; it would get to me from the streets,” he said. “Like, ‘Why did I save another person like that and disgrace our people? Why was I going to court to testify against my people?’ ”

Police escorted him to the courthouse to testify in August 1993, about what he saw and why he helped Denny.

Green told the jury that as a fellow trucker, he felt as though he was being beaten as he watched the attack on Denny.

“I felt like I was getting hurt,” he testified. “I thought he might die. I went to help.”

Green found that the landscape of burned and looted buildings and the anxiety of the trial had soured him on Los Angeles.

“There was nothing left. I wanted better for my family,” he said. For months he and Vera struggled.

“Should I stay? Should I move? Should I give L.A. another chance, to heal up or something?”

They found their answer in the acquittals and scaled-down convictions of the two main defendants who had beaten Denny, Williams and Henry Keith Watson.

The justice that Green had on his mind when he ran out his front door seemed nowhere in sight.

“To me, what [Williams] did was wrong. Just as what is right is right, what is wrong is wrong.”

Green and Vera headed east on the San Bernardino Freeway, vowing to drive as long as it took to find a suburb with monthly mortgages not that much higher than the $500 rent they were paying in South-Central. They were joining the tens of thousands of blacks who left places like L.A. and Compton during the ’90s for the Inland Empire and the northern suburbs of Palmdale and Lancaster.

He knew he doing the right thing, but one thought nagged at him.

“It seemed like I was running.”

From?

“My people.”

He felt he had no choice. “I wanted to give my family a better life. What happened at Florence and Normandie, those feelings weren’t going to change soon. I didn’t feel it was safe for my kids.”

They sought the same thing the other rescuers and Denny sought–anonymity. They were successful. Soon after the trial, the rescuers lost contact with each other. They haven’t talked in close to eight years.

“We never became buddies or anything like that,” said Lei Yuille, who still works in the Los Angeles area as a registered dietitian. “We were four strangers, brought together once. . . . I have really tried not to relive it.”

The rights to the movie that was never made expired. “It would have been too violent,” Yuille thinks.

Bobby and Vera last saw Denny at a picnic the summer after the riots, thrown by Denny’s old employer, Transit Mixed. A few weeks ago Vera shuffled through some drawers to show off a photo of her and Reggie. He’s holding a check for $100,000 in donations that had flowed into a company fund for his recovery.

The Greens’ Rialto neighborhood is a cluster of neat suburban tract homes in the racially mixed flatlands of the Inland Empire: cul-de-sacs, midsized trees, lots of chain restaurants and big-box stores. The schools are better and teachers take more time with the Greens’ kids, who every so often take one of their dad’s trophies to show off during a class history lesson.

It’s secure, it’s safe, said Vera, walking out with Bobby to their backyard, plush with a newly laid carpet of sod. He still comments on how odd it is to hear chirping birds.

“It’s nice, peaceful, quiet–ain’t no color lines out here,” he says. He mentions that a police officer who lives on the street is especially friendly.

The reason Bobby Green thinks about the past every day he goes to work lies in the company he works for. It’s called Cemex Co. It used to be known as Transit Mixed, the company that employed Denny.

Every time Green pulls his rig into the firm’s Los Angeles yard he finds a sense of closure in completing the route Reggie never got to finish.

“I think about the bond every day,” he says. “I want to keep our names alive. . . . It’s nice to work for the same company of the man I saved.”

Okay, that’s half of why Stephanie Chavez is my hero of the week. The other half is for the suggestion she gave me on the other running story that is making my life more complex than I wish, the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal.

A couple weeks ago, as we were discussing her Bobby Green story, Stephanie offered some advice. Roughly quoted, she said:

“You know, I’m a faithful Catholic, and what I’m reading about these priests is not going to weaken my attachment to my church. What draws me to my church is the community of people I worship and socialize with.”

I did not have to be extremely smart to recognize that was an angle we had not explored in our effort to track the movements of errant priests and the decisions their superiors made.

Now came the hard part, the execution. I asked religion writer Teresa Watanabe to undertake Stephanie’s idea, and fortunately (but not surprisingly) Teresa nailed it. She not only found a devout Catholic whose faith illustrated Stephanie’s concept, she happened to find one whose priest was currently under investigation for sexual abuse. (Honest, I never would have asked for that. It’s too much to expect. I’d ask you for your lucky roulette numbers before I’d ask for that.) More important, the woman Teresa found had joined a prayer group formed to pray for the priest, and was also participating in weekend rallies in support of the Catholic church. Teresa spent Saturday and Sunday watching those activities. The subject’s life and views presented another side of the running story.

Like Stephanie’s story, Teresa drew wisdom from small details. It takes guts to say that one person is the story. It forces you to collect your thoughts and your facts. But when it works, it’s powerful, insightful stuff.

A BELIEF SO DEEP, PRIEST SCANDALS CAN’T SHAKE IT
By Teresa Watanabe
April 17, 2002

Even after the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy sex scandal hit home, even when her own parish priest was accused of molestation last month, Maria Lopez never doubted her faith.

How could she? Her entire life, she says, has been one long answered prayer.

Lopez, a 35-year-old electronics company supervisor in Azusa, says God has calmed her troubled marriage, miraculously provided every time her cash ran short, even sent an angel disguised as a woman to talk her out of suicide.

Her church friends, as dear to her as her own mother, have prayed with her through her illnesses, fed her family and cared for her children. On Saturday, she marched with them and 3,000 others through downtown Los Angeles in support of their faith. After Mass on Sunday, she gathered with a dozen others, clasping hands and offering fervent prayers for her church, the priests and all abuse victims.

The priests in her life have baptized her four children, blessed her home and counseled her through depression. Her own pastor, Father David Granadino of St. Frances of Rome in Azusa, is under investigation on allegations that he molested boys, but Lopez and her children say they know only his goodness.

Lopez’s life offers a glimpse into why the Catholic Church’s spiraling crisis is not likely to drive many devout Catholics away from their spiritual touchstone. Her faith, she says, is not rooted in a hierarchy of men, but in the redeeming and nourishing power of Jesus’ love. In the rhythms of weekly Mass, in the deep friendships forged, her faith is her life and her church is her family.

“Our faith is based on God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ and not on a priest,” Lopez says. “Everybody is human; everybody falls at one time or another. As Christians, we should forgive. I am not someone to judge others.”

Lopez, a Mexico native, shares her testimony with an effervescent smile and a rapid, passionate stream of words. In hours of conversation about her faith, she never once mentioned Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Pope John Paul II or issues of dogma until asked about them.

Women’s ordination? Married priests?

“I never think about those things, to be honest,” Lopez says.

What informs her faith is apparent the minute you approach her four-bedroom, blue stucco home near the end of an Azusa cul-de-sac. Her front door is flanked by a prominent statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Inside her immaculately kept home, every room resembles a shrine, with statues of angels and doves, religious art and prayers mounted over doorways.

Lopez’s husband, Jorge, usually attends Mass on Friday mornings because his job as chef at a Glendale country club keeps him busy the rest of the week. Two of their children attend St. Frances school. Three of them won “altar servers of the year” last year and have honorary plaques and pictures of a church-sponsored Disneyland trip to show for it.

All of the children have faith testimonies too, though these must be prodded out of them by their beaming mother.

Jorge, 14, shyly noted that God had helped him boost his grades enough this year to finally realize his dream of playing on the school and city baseball teams. Anabely, 12, remembers the time she prayed the rosary and subsequently aced an exam. Fernando, 11, says God helped heal his grandfather, mother and cousins during times of illness.

Christian, 8, has no particular testimony, but volunteers that he was sad because he couldn’t make his first confession in March with Granadino, who has been removed from duty by the Los Angeles archdiocese pending results of the investigation. Church officials say the priest has “forcefully” denied the allegations.

“He’s the best priest, because he has the same [flattop] hair as mine,” Christian says.

The three oldest children, along with their parents, were interviewed by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy during Holy Week, says Lopez. They say the deputy asked the children how they liked being altar servers, whether they had ever heard of any problems involving Granadino or other priests.

Anabely says she reported two problems–one priest, not Granadino, once yelled at an altar server for failing to set up the chalice properly; another church official once kept a server after Mass until she learned to correct the mistake she had made during service.

But the Lopez family says that Father David, as they call him, had never hurt them, had always made them happy with jokes, compliments and a perennial smile. He asked about their classes, brought in pizza for the altar server meetings and arranged the Disneyland trips. Last June, he came by to bless the new family pool–another gift from God, Lopez says, made possible by a home refinance that dropped their monthly mortgage payments by $400.

Anabely says Father David always gave homilies that even children could understand. She remembers the time he talked about how his tough Air Force experiences had taught him not to complain and to be grateful for what he had.

“In a way, I don’t believe [the charges] because he’s so nice,” says Anabely, an honor roll student with brown hair and braces who, like her mother, wears a cross around her neck. “But anyway, I’m serving God. Father David is one priest; there are many others.”

For Lopez, the bonds of faith were not always so strong. She says her mother died when she was 5, and her father immigrated to California ahead of her and 12 siblings to work. Until she joined him in 1976 at the age of 9, she was raised by an older sister in Mexico who could not afford to send her to school and did not always bring her to Mass.

It was after she came to Pasadena and joined St. Andrew’s Church that she began to learn about her faith, she says. A church woman took her under her wing, taught her to pray and helped prepare her for first Holy Communion. A St. Andrew’s priest protected her from a local bully, telling her: “No one will ever touch you again. Do not be scared.”

After she and her husband married and bought their Azusa home 11 years ago, she had to take a full-time job. The dual burdens of work and family brought new strains. Lopez says she started drinking and partying. She started arguing with her husband, who felt she was neglecting the family.

Then, one day four years ago, things began to change. She says she decided to drive to the mountains and kill herself, but needed gas. While she was refueling, she says, an elderly woman came up to her, a total stranger. Lopez says the woman told her: Peace be with you. You have children who love you. Why are you thinking of killing yourself?

Lopez was shocked. “I believe she was an angel,” she says. “No one ever touched my heart like that.”

She says the brief encounter opened her for the first time to confronting the mistakes she had made in her life. Then she fell into clinical depression, began popping more than a dozen prescribed pills a day and finally went on disability leave. That’s when her church community rallied around her, sending groups to her home to pray and others to feed and watch her children.

One of them was Lupita Diaz, a woman who Lopez says has become the mother she barely had. Diaz marched with Lopez and her children in the rally Saturday, carrying signs–“Sigue a Cristo,” or Follow Christ–and singing exuberant hymns.

Diaz also threw a surprise birthday brunch for her in February, complete with her three favorite cakes (coconut, chocolate mousse and chocolate pineapple), and leaves messages on her voicemail: “Are you OK? I just want you to know I love you and Jesus loves you.”

Such friendships led Lopez to join the church prayer group; her aith has become a central part of her life ever since.

Every time she climbs into her Dodge van, she makes the sign of the cross for safety. Every Friday, she prays the rosary and fasts for half the day. She attends “healing Masses” for others, and carries religious books with her constantly–titles like “Persevere Through God’s Love.” She reads them during her children’s baseball practice and other moments of down time.

And Lopez returns the charity she has received. She doesn’t always have much to spare; her own family has no savings and struggles to make ends meet each week on a $4,000 monthly income.

But what she has, she shares: sandwiches for the two hungry men who knocked on her door one day asking for help; a bag of food for the 15-year-old who just lost his father; a dollar last Sunday to the new family from Mexico who came to church hungry and homeless.

Her biggest personal project each year is a food and toy drive for an orphanage in Tijuana. Throughout the year, she buys toiletries and small gifts, asks family and friends to donate what they can. Last year, she was running short when her husband volunteered $200 of his year-end bonus to help out. The family travels to the orphanage every Christmas season to cook for the children, play with them and bring them presents.

Such acts embody the Lopez family’s life of faith: “to love God and love others,” she says.

“Whatever happens, I am proud of my religion,” Lopez says. “I follow my God and I follow Jesus. This will not change just because of what’s going on.”