Lela Jones said her son Devron could invite friends over while she was gone, as long as he followed one rule: No hanging outside. Her Visitacion Valley block was a hot spot for guys hustling drugs and oftentimes using, and she didn't want her sons associated with any of it. And Devron, the most social and mischievous of her three boys, was the one who she knew needed reminding on that Labor Day weekend in 2005.
Lela delivered the ultimatum with the same authority that banned explicit rap until age 16, that refused to buy gold teeth grills from Mr. Bling Bling she considered "ignorant," that grounded Devron his entire junior year when it came out he was failing every class at Galileo High. Guns, gangs, and hard drugs? In Lela's house, you didn't even go there.
But as soon as Lela reluctantly took off to celebrate the birthday of a friend's father in Reno, her rules slipped from Devron's priorities. As Saturday night swung into Sunday morning, Devron had been hanging out front off and on for hours.
Drugs aside, Lela's house sat in an especially bad zone for teenagers to gather. Her unit fronted Sunnydale Avenue, the main drag running from her home in Heritage Homes (which replaced the infamous Geneva Towers) to the equally notorious Sunnydale housing projects two blocks away. Toughs from the two turfs had been beefing on and off for years, and the language of disputes was often a bullet.
Although Devron had invited only his closest posse to spend the night, the group swelled to around a dozen, puffing on blunts and cigars. Devron remembered his mom's mandate about being outside, but he didn't invite the whole group inside because he didn't want to have to get ugly if one of his Playstation II games or Lela's collector Barbie dolls went missing.
A guy backed up his Toyota Supra to the garage — another Lela "no." Though she liked the guy, management was cracking down on tenants who allowed undesirables to hang in front of their units, and this kid's family was wrapped up in (as she puts it) "drama."
But why should Devron worry about violence anyway? He'd always stayed out of that gang stuff, so he figured he wouldn't be a target. Plus, Devron was feeling too good to be his mom's enforcer that night, and it wasn't just the high. He was planning to try out for the City College football team, the first step in a career he dreamed would end in the pros. As at home as he was on his block, Devron knew he didn't want to stay. Standing 6 feet, two inches tall and weighing 185 pounds — and growing — he had some size. And as captain of the Galileo squad and an All-City center, Devron thought football presented the most likely ticket out. That night it all seemed possible, and Devron shrugged off any possible danger.
The car's owner took off in another car to buy more cigars at the 7-Eleven, and Devron walked a friend to his place across the street so he could grab some stuff for the night. Both boys promised the friend's mother they'd go straight in the house. Instead, Devron popped back into the parked car's driver seat.
Across from him sat Dante Sagote, a 280-pound tank of a friend Lela affectionately called "Fat Boy," part of Devron's tightest posse, which called itself the Young and On the Block Mafia. The Maf wasn't any gang — most guys name their friend groups on Devron's block, and Lela approved of all the kids in Devron's circle. The Maf mostly smoked cigars and weed, recorded rap demos, ran to the corner store for Little Debbies and 99-cent Arizona drinks, and kept an ongoing tally of who had nabbed the most girls. When Devron received his diploma the previous spring, he set a new rule: All Maf members must finish high school.
Tomone Cross, Devron's 13-year-old brother, told the pair to come in, so Devron shook Dante, who was dozing off on his high. Dante opened his eyes to see a black guy standing across the street dressed in a dark hoodie and stocking cap. Then, he heard the gunfire.
Two boys, two split-second reactions, two fates: Dante lunged onto the floor behind the dashboard, waiting out the automatic gunfire with his knees to his chin. Devron whipped his head side to side: Who's shooting? Before he found out, the world froze in a single frame. Then, it went black.
At 12:35 a.m., the 911 dispatcher typed information from the first call: "poss 187." Possible homicide. Despite Lela's tenacity in keeping her sons in line and out of Vis Valley's snares, the 'hood finally caught up. And Devron was only the first one in the family to fall victim.
Lela was in her Reno hotel room when she got the news from Tomone. She dialed her friend who had persuaded her to go that weekend: "Devron's been shot in the head. We've got to go."
Back in Vis Valley, neighbors started trickling to the scene. First out was a guy in his mid-20s named Brandon Perkins, whom everyone called B-Low. With the teens stunned and crying, B-Low took control. Devron's head was hunched to the side, blood streaming out of a bullet hole above his right temple. B-Low raised the seat so Devron was sitting upright, and lifted his neck: "Stay with me, bro," B-Low repeated in an even voice, as tears trickled down his own face. "Breathe."
A swarm of cops descended on the block, herding back onlookers, taping off the scene, and picking up .762-caliber casings across the street — 17 in all. The bullets sprayed the car and pierced the front of Lela's house, the shooter having hit dangerously close to Tomone and a friend as they sprinted up the stairs to the unit's door.
Police radioed in at 12:46. There's a pulse. Breathing. Within minutes, medics loaded Devron into an ambulance to speed the well-worn route to San Francisco General Hospital.