By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Red was the only color that seventeen-year-old Contrell Townsend couldn't wear.
Contrell's parents had pulled him out of Montbello High School in the fall of 2003 because he was rolling with a crew of known gang members, full-fledged Bloods. Against their better instincts, they allowed Contrell to return to Montbello a year later -- but they kept a close eye on both his behavior and his attire.
The first day of school after Christmas break was January 4, 2005. The snow was deep outside, and Reverend Calvin Hall ordered his stepson to lift up his hooded sweatshirt so he could make sure Contrell wasn't wearing Blood red underneath. But then Hall had second thoughts about the reddish hoodie.
"It's maroon," Contrell said.
"It's burgundy," said Contrell's mother, Linda Hall.
Contrell shot his folks a smile and left for school, the sweatshirt still on.
In the halls that morning, Contrell collided with a sixteen-year-old junior, Marcus Richardson. Marcus was wearing a blue shirt, blue coat, blue shoes -- Crip colors. Hidden under his blue Dickies was a steak knife.
Marcus had been carrying the knife to school for nine months, he later told police. He'd stolen it from his mother's kitchen so he could scare people and avoid catching a beatdown like the one that had left a friend unconscious at Montbello the year before. To keep from cutting himself, Marcus had sheathed the blade in a sleeve made from printer paper and tape.
At lunch, the two boys locked eyes again. They stared each other down, called each other out, and tried to take it outside. But they had to turn around because Montbello's principal was standing there, watching for trouble.
Back in the cafeteria, words and fists flew. At six feet, Marcus was a few inches taller than the 160-pound Contrell but about thirty pounds lighter. Contrell pinned him on a lunch table and started landing punches as a crew of Bloods spat gangspeak in the background. "Out of the corner of my eye I could see his friends and stuff getting wild and everything," Marcus told police, "so I remembered I had a knife with me, so, so, I stabbed him."
And then Marcus stabbed him again.
Contrell got off of Marcus, put a hand over his wounds and stumbled off as he called Marcus a "bitch." Then he fell to the ground, where a pool of blood soon surrounded him.
Marcus's friends told him that he should split, so he hustled out of there and over to a nearby grocery store, where he phoned his father. His father rushed to the store, paged his son over the intercom and then called the police. Officers picked up Marcus at the store; his father handed over the bloodied blade.
Contrell was coughing up blood while his friends stood over him. One held the boy's hand, praying that his life be spared. When paramedics arrived, Contrell's eyes had already rolled back in his head.
By the time Contrell's mother got to the hospital, her youngest son was dead.
Long before Linda Hall lost her boy to a stabbing, she lost her father the same way.
As the police chief in Greenville, Mississippi, Perry Dyer was dedicated to fighting crime. But he couldn't keep violence out of his own home. In 1981, he was stabbed to death with a butcher knife by Linda's stepmother.
Six years later, Linda gave birth to her third and final son, Contrell Townsend. She was living in Chicago at the time; Contrell's father lived in Alabama. He didn't play much of a role in raising his son other than passing on his last name.
Linda was afraid of losing her sons to the streets of Chicago. Early on, her son Jamie started rolling with a crew of friends who were having run-ins with the police. One time when the cops stopped Jamie, he was carrying a toy gun. They told Linda that it looked real, and that if they'd seen the gun before they'd searched her boy, they'd have shot first and asked questions later.
A friend who lived in Denver told Linda that this city would be a good, safe place to raise her boys. The family moved here in 1993, when Contrell was five. About five years later, Linda divorced Contrell's first stepfather.
The following year, Linda met Calvin Hall.
A mutual friend wasn't all that Linda and Calvin had in common.
Calvin's father, Calvin Hall Sr., had been stabbed to death on the southwest side of Chicago in 1960, right in front of his then-nine-year-old son.
"Divine irony is the only thing that comes to my spirit," Hall says of the family's blood-spattered history. "There's no other way to approach that. Considering all of the variables, we literally end up with divine irony."
After the death of his father -- an alcoholic and a womanizer, Hall says -- he spent most of his childhood in rural Louisiana. But city ways intruded there, too. Although he describes himself as an egghead of a kid who sought refuge in books, he still has a spider tattooed on his right hand and his first name with a cross tattooed on his left, permanent designs he affixed to his skin with india ink and a sewing needle when he was about thirteen.