By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
LaTonya knew. But all she cared about right then was that she hadn't made it to the party. While Lizzie went upstairs, LaTonya sulked and sat on the steps. She's resigned to her decision today. "When you wheeling and dealing and living wrong, shit happens," she says. "You can't really blame nobody. Because I knew better. I knew it was a dope house. I knew I should have got my ass up and left."
By midnight, LaTonya had been coaxed upstairs and was sitting on a ratty sofa with Lizzie and "Red" Mahan when the posse of gunmen burst inside.
She describes them in contemptuous terms today. There was Trouble in a black ninja suit--Randy Shawn Brown, with his disfigured face. "This lil' ugly thing there," she says, pointing to his jail mug shot. And she remembers Larmond, who she believed was Babyface. (For the story of the real Babyface, see the sidebar "Four Kings.") "I can't forget that little bitty head," she says. Christopher Barronette was also there, she says, kicking over furniture and looking for the drugs. "I never forget a face," she says. And Money Mike, and a dude with a towel over his face that she didn't recognize. They all got the brunt of her anger. "I'm so hard-headed. I think that's probably why them people did me like that. Because I'm not gon' lie. I was lettin' they ass have it."
After getting herded into the tub with Lizzie and the boys, she had enough street sense to know where all this was headed. She thought about jumping out the window, but she didn't want to leave her cousin behind. LaTonya brushes back a tear. "I have flashbacks of when I was in that bathtub," she says. "And I trips out. It just trips me out. I finds myself waking out of my sleep crying, because that's not something you can forget about. It's not."
I ask how she went from scared girl, ducking the police through Larmond's and Edwards' prosecutions, hiding out at friends' houses, to fearless witness. The metamorphosis was actually sudden, to hear her tell it, brought on by a stunning coincidence after she'd been jailed for contempt of court. One morning, she was ushered into the front of a van to go to the courthouse for Randy Brown's trial. Her mouth just about dropped open, she says, when she saw her fellow passengers: Randy Brown and Money Mike Edwards.
The guys flirted with her, even asked for her phone number.
"They had me in the front of the van, and they had them in the back," LaTonya says, voice rising. "And them peoples did not know me. I was just looking at them like, 'I can't believe this bullshit.' I didn't say I'm going to testify against y'all black ass. I wanted to go off on them, because they was talking about how they did people. They was talking about how they did us--saying how they smoked some kids.
"I was saying to myself, you stupid bitch. How could y'all just say that and smile about it?"
In the space of that short ride from the jail to the Frank Crowley Courts Building, LaTonya was transformed.
"I wasn't just gonna be all hard," she says. "But they made me mad. Y'all is bragging about how nobody wouldn't come and testify. They was for shorenobody was gonna come and testify. Y'all motherfuckers is bad with them guns, but if y'all catch them one by one they ain't shit. And I knows this."
LaTonya got payback the only way she could: by telling the truth. Brown ended up with many years of hard time. But after the trial, LaTonya's life stayed stuck in thug mode. Up until that point, she'd only tried crack once, courtesy of Lizzie's sister, who died recently, and hated it. "I thought I was going to die," she says. Fear and desperation drove her back when life after Cleveland Street proved to be one disappointment after another. LaTonya was 18, a high-school dropout, disabled, at one time forced to wear a colostomy bag because of her gunshot wounds and stuck in South Dallas, knowing that some of the gunmen were still out there, never brought to justice.
"I used to stay paranoid a lot," she says. "I used to stay drunk all the time, to the point where it wouldn't be on my mind so heavy." Drug use turned to drug dealing, to feed her habit. "I knew it wasn't right, but I liked the money."
Today, she says, the fear is gone. "People ask me, when I get home, am I going to be nervous? In reality, no. Whatever happens is gonna happen regardless. It don't really make no sense running. What are you gonna run for? Can't too much more happen to me than done already happen to me in my life."
Sometimes she thinks about her cousin Lizzie, and she gets angry, because Lizzie had a fighting chance. LaTonya hasn't seen Lizzie in years, and she draws her own conclusions from the letters she occasionally receives from Lizzie's mom. The blanks tell the story, she says. There's never any mention of LaTonya's mom. Or Lizzie, for that matter.