United in Sorrow
But theirs is an extraordinary alliance. Last June, Felix's grandson Tony Hicks, now 16, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for gunning down Khamisa's 20-year-old son, Tariq, a pizza delivery driver. Now, almost two years after the fatal shooting, the two men are working together in an attempt to end youth violence on inner-city streets. Says Khamisa, 47: "We have bonded together out of a sense of mission from this tragedy."
The killing that binds them occurred on the night of Jan. 21, 1995, when Hicks—then a round-faced 14-year-old—and three other members of a street gang ordered pizzas delivered to a fake address on Louisiana Street, in San Diego's working-class North Park neighborhood. When Tariq Khamisa arrived with the pizzas and walked from his car searching for the false address, Hicks—nicknamed T-Bone—pulled out a 9-mm handgun and told him to "give it up." Instead, Tariq, screaming for help, tossed the pizzas in the trunk of his car and tried to drive away. The oldest member of the gang, Antoine Pittman, 18, barked, "Bust 'im, 'Bone." Hicks fired. Tariq died instantly.
The following morning, Azim Khamisa awoke to find a business card from the coroner's office on the front door of his La Jolla, Calif., home, along with a note asking him to call. When he heard the grim news, "it was like a bomb detonating in me," he recalls. "It drained the life right out of me." Khamisa had been seeking a life free of violence when in 1973, alarmed by atrocities in Uganda under Idi Amin, he migrated from neighboring Kenya to Canada, then the U.S., settling first in Seattle with his wife, Almas Hasham, now 49, and Tariq's older sister Tasreen, 24. The couple divorced in 1981, and Khamisa later moved to Southern California. The children stayed with Hasham, but when Tariq came south to study photography at San Diego State University in 1992, the two again grew close. "We played tennis and philosophized together," says Khamisa. "When he died, we were at a good place."
For his part, Ples Felix, 47, who has a master's degree in urban affairs from the New School for Social Research in New York City and is now a San Diego city-redevelopment project manager, was as devastated as Khamisa when police called to tell him his grandson had been charged with murder. His daughter Loeta was 15 when she gave birth to Tony Hicks in Silver Spring, Md. Raised for eight years in South Central Los Angeles, the child "lived in helter-skelter," says Felix, with "an unskilled, uneducated teenage parent." But when Loeta sent Tony to San Diego to live with his grandfather in 1990, he picked up his grades and, it seemed, his life. Then on Halloween 1993 he did what his grandfather had most feared: He joined a gang. Felix never knew that Tony was hanging out on the street after school. "There was never any sign," he says with frustration. On the day of the shooting, Hicks ran away from home—after Felix had grounded him for not doing his homework. The next time Felix saw him, he was in handcuffs.
Hicks was sentenced under a new California law that allows children as young as 14 to be tried as adults. When he heard he would be jailed until he was at least 36, Hicks wept. "I'll be a better person," he promised the judge. "I won't mess up."
Khasima could not bear to attend the court hearing of his son's killer, which brought him no consolation. Dazed in the months after the shooting, he all but abandoned his 100-hour work week and frenetically worked out at a gym. "I often have dinner with Tariq," he says. "I put his photo on the table and we talk." In May 1995, on a trip to the Mammoth Mountain, Calif., ski resort, Khamisa, an Ismaili Muslim, was meditating when he reached a decision: to ensure Tariq had not died in vain. "If I can talk one gangbanger out of murder," he thought. "I will save two lives." On Oct. 23, 1995, he gathered 50 friends and associates at his home to form the Tariq Khamisa Foundation for seeking solutions to youth crime.
Among his second group of recruits was Ples Felix, whom he asked to meet last November. "I felt deep sadness and remorse because I was Tony's caregiver," recalls Felix, but Khamisa soon put him at ease. "I told him," he says, "I saw victims on both sides of the gun." Adds Felix: "Friendship was instantaneous."
Since then the foundation has raised $140,000 and is producing a documentary on Tariq's killing. And Felix and Khamisa are taking their anti-gang message to high schools in San Diego County. Still, the odds they face are daunting: Between 1984 and 1993, the number of juveniles charged with murder and attempted murder in the county jumped from 10 to 85. "We've neglected our responsibility to children," says Khamisa. "I want to help them become heroes rather than gangsters."
MARC BALLON in San Diego