After 24 years on death row, Crips co-founder claims redemption
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
SAN QUENTIN Calif. -- Reminders of his upcoming execution are everywhere but Stanley Tookie Williams doesn’t like to talk about it.
Supporters rally outside the prison to spare his life. Critics dismissing his claims of reforming lobby the governor to put him to death. Visitors line up to speak with a man lauded for efforts to quell violence and lambasted for founding one of the nation’s most notorious street gangs.
Williams passes the defunct gas chamber on his way to greet politicians celebrities and journalists clamoring to meet with him during extended visiting hours since his death warrant was signed.
Now 51 he’s unlikely to see 52 with execution by lethal injection scheduled Dec. 13.
“Of course I want to live” he says when pressed overcoming his reluctance to talk about his scheduled death as he makes a last-ditch effort to save his own life by telling his story to strangers.
Poised and tranquil Williams says he’s not the same person who arrived at death row 24 years ago hellbent on stirring trouble behind bars. He’s not the same man who co-founded the Crips and not the man convicted of blowing four people away with a shotgun in 1979 during robberies that netted nothing more than gas money.
“There is no part of me that existed then that exists now” says Williams who with his trim gray beard and rimless glasses looks far less menacing than the musclebound defendant bursting out of his suit during trial.
He claims he has redeemed himself through a dozen years of good deeds writing books encouraging kids to stay out of gangs; making speeches by phone to church school and community groups about avoiding pitfalls that lead to gangster life; creating a “peace protocol” that brought a truce between rival gangs in New Jersey.
While he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has become a beacon of hope to troubled youths who see gangs and crime as their only way to counteract racism and escape poverty plenty of others remain skeptical.
Crime victims and prison officials say he’s a self-serving charlatan who refuses to take responsibility for his crimes rejects the opportunity to help authorities put away other gang members and benefits from a well-meaning but misguided campaign to clean up his image.
As the state’s highest-profile execution in a quarter century draws near both sides are vying to win over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who has scheduled a private clemency hearing in his office Dec. 8.
At the heart of the debate is whether Williams really has changed from the thug who once fed a growing drug problem with PCP-soaked cigarettes toted a 12-gauge shotgun and lifted weights to build enormous biceps.
Williams arrived at San Quentin’s death row on April 20 1981. He continued his trouble-making ways during his early days in prison. “I gave this place hell” he says.
As he began to educate himself and reflect on his life he grew determined to change.
First and most importantly he says he developed a conscience. He read everything he could get his hands on -- the Bible the dictionary a thesaurus. He studied languages theology philosophy. He struggled to understand his past.
Remarkably he says he taught himself to feel -- compassion empathy. He says he watched news reports about drive-by shootings and suddenly mourned for the victims. He heard stories about children starving in Africa and sadness took away his own appetite. He said he was consumed with pain and guilt “for the lives of all the Crips who had died for the innocent black lives hurt in the crossfire for the decades of young lives ruined for a causeless cause.”
1992 he was a changed man he says. His courage once based on violence and indifference now was based on faith and redemption he says.
“The majority of the detractors and naysayers ... it’s difficult for them to recognize the redemption” he says. “They’ve been unable to stop smoking or drinking or lose weight and they’re looking at me being in San Quentin and they say ‘This man is on death row convicted of killing four people how can he be redeemed?’ They can’t believe that. They don’t want to believe that. They would feel lesser about themselves.”
But to family members of one of his victims the campaign to save Williams distracts from the cold-blooded crimes he was convicted of while terrorizing Los Angeles.
On Feb. 28 1979 about 4 a.m. Williams and three friends got high on their psychedelic smokes took two cars a 12-gauge shotgun and a .22-caliber handgun to Pomona in search of a place to rob according to court documents. They ended up at a 7-Eleven where Albert Owens 26 was working the overnight shift sweeping the parking lot.
The military veteran a “redheaded freckle-faced kid who had the biggest smile you wanted to see” according to his older brother Wayne had recently returned to California after a messy divorce to try to regain custody of his two daughters.
“He really was absolutely turning his life around” Wayne Owens 55 said recently from his home in Olathe Kan.
Albert Owens said “Take everything you want” says the now-retired prosecutor Robert Martin who remembers the case in detail.
Williams ordered Owens into a back room at gunpoint shot out a security monitor then ordered “Get down on your knees (expletive)” and shot him twice in the back according to testimony. Williams “later laughed about it as he was eating his hamburger” Martin says.
There were no witnesses other than accomplices.
Less than two weeks later on March 11 Williams used his brawn to break down the door at the Brookhaven Motel ripping through four locks and shattering the molding according to a prosecutor.
Killed were Yen-I Yang 76; his wife Tsai-Shai Yang 63 and their visiting daughter Yee-Chen Lin 43. The Taiwanese immigrants were about to sell the business because the neighborhood had become too rough, Martin said.
Again there were no surviving witnesses. Three of Williams’ friends -- all with criminal histories and motivation to lie Williams says -- testified that he confessed to them. A ballistics expert linked a shotgun shell at the motel to Williams’ gun.
Williams maintains he’s innocent despite several unsuccessful appeals.
Redeemed from a life of crime?
From behind bars he watched as the neighborhood gang he helped form grew into a nationwide drug-dealing criminal organization responsible for thousands of deaths. One of his two sons Stanley Williams Jr. joined the gang and is now serving time for second-degree murder.
Prison officials said recently that they believe the elder Williams is still involved in the gang calling shots from the prison though they acknowledged they don’t have hard evidence.
“A con always will say one thing to you while the whole time he has another agenda” prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon said. “I’m concerned that possibly this marketing that’s going on ... leads the public to hear the words but not to see that sleight of hand.”
The effort to save Williams is headed by Barbara Becnel a former journalist who helped him write a series of eight books called “Tookie Speaks Out” that are targeted to children in kindergarten through fourth grade about the dangers of gangs. Williams wrote a few pages at a time then dictated them during 15-minute phone calls to Becnel.
They also collaborated on “Life in Prison” for older children. Proceeds go to nonprofit agencies committed to helping troubled youth. He regularly hears from children teachers and parents who applaud his efforts.
He’s also received broad backing in his quest for clemency. Supporters include Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu actor Jamie Foxx who played Williams in “Redemption” a 2004 movie about the inmate’s life rapper Snoop Dogg and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Williams’ petition begs Schwarzenegger to see him as he is now not as he was in 1979.
For a man facing impending death Williams seems remarkably calm. He says he’s never been quick to display emotion; spending more than half his life behind bars may have sharpened his ability to hide his feelings.
He hardly resembles early photographs where he’s posing flaunting his muscles -- cocksure angry. He’s still bulky but trim. He’s polite straightforward and speaks with a broad vocabulary. He wears his blue prison-issued denim shirt neatly tucked in buttoned all the way to his neck. He hasn’t altered his daily routine since his death warrant was signed awakening early to pray and exercise then spending most of his day working on a collection of essays and a book about girl gangs.
Relying on a network of people who have seen the good in his life Williams said his life is now in others’ hands and he will accept whatever fate comes his way.
“I haven’t had a lot of joy in my life. But in here” he says pointing to his heart “I’m happy. I am peaceful in here. I am joyful in here.”
He bids farewell to a visitor before sticking his hands through a slot so guards can handcuff him for the walk back to his cell -- a walk that leads him past the old death chamber.
By KIM CURTIS, Associated Press Writer
Posted Dec 4, 2005 at 12:01 AM
Updated Jan 14, 2011 at 4:06 AM
This story appeared on Page B4 of The Standard-Times on December 4, 2005.