COLUMN ONE

Pizza Thief’ Walks the Line

Jerry Dewayne Williams quietly got another chance after the three-strikes law sent him to prison for 25 years to life. Now, any mistake could send him back.

By Jack Leonard

February 10, 2010

f he ever returns to prison, Jerry Dewayne Williams knows he’ll probably never get out.

To stay clear of trouble, he has left behind the Compton neighborhood where police knew him and cut ties with friends from wilder days. Once a hard partyer, the 43-year-old says he prefers the company of a mystery novel or a “Law and Order” episode on television.

Williams is one of more than 14,000 felons who, under California’s three-strikes law, face a possible life sentence if they commit another felony. But few, if any, grasp the reality of that threat better than Williams.

Fifteen years ago, the gangly laborer made worldwide headlines when he was convicted of snatching a slice of pizza from a group of children near the Redondo Beach Pier. A judge, citing California’s newly adopted three-strikes law, sentenced him to 25 years to life.

Williams — dubbed the “pizza thief” — became an iconic symbol in the political and ideological battle over California’s push to get tough on crime. But as the public furor over his case subsided, Williams persuaded a judge to reduce his prison term, and he was quietly released after a little more than five years behind bars.

A decade later, Williams finds himself serving a different kind of life sentence.

“I walk on eggshells,” he said. “Any little thing that I do, I could be back for the rest of my life.”

Controversial life sentences under the three-strikes law are hardly novel. Those sentenced under the law include a thief caught shoplifting a bottle of vitamins and a drug addict who swiped nine videotapes to sell for heroin.

But few cases have polarized opinion as much as Williams’ theft of an extra-large slice of pepperoni pizza. The case continues to divide today, resurfacing whenever opponents of the law launch another reform attempt.

Williams’ story since his release offers fuel to both backers and opponents of three strikes.

For opponents, Williams’ success in staying out of prison repudiates one of the central ideas behind the law: That three-strikes offenders are beyond redemption and should be locked up for life.

For supporters of the law, Williams’ efforts to avoid trouble illustrate how three strikes is working as a powerful deterrent.

Now living in Moreno Valley, Williams remains bitter about the case that brought him notoriety. But he acknowledges his role in the ongoing debate over the sentencing law.

“If I go back to jail, it proves three strikes is right — that this is where I belong,” Williams said. “So I have to stay out.”

Staying out hasn’t always been simple.

Growing up, Williams recalls that his mother and stepfather were loving but strict. But by 18, he was already familiar to police.

In 1985, he was arrested twice on suspicion of car theft and was convicted of receiving stolen property. Over the next several years, Williams racked up convictions for drug possession, vehicle theft and robbery, serving time in jail and on probation. He was eventually sentenced to two years in prison for attempted robbery and for violating probation.

After his release in April 1993, Williams appeared to turn his life around. He passed his drug tests and found work through a temporary employment agency. Impressed, a parole officer ended Williams’ parole early in May 1994.

Two months later, on July 30, Williams headed to a bar near the Redondo Beach Pier with a group of friends.Nearby, Mary Larson was looking for a place to eat for her sisters and her children. The adults wanted to eat at one of the fish restaurants near the pier. The four children — ages 7 to 15 — wanted pizza.

Nearby, Mary Larson was looking for a place to eat for her sisters and her children. The adults wanted to eat at one of the fish restaurants near the pier. The four children — ages 7 to 15 — wanted pizza.

The parents found a pizza stand and ordered, leaving the children at an outdoor table with the eldest in charge. When the adults found a fish restaurant, Larson’s husband, Keith, went to check on the children. He returned with all four.

“Some guys stole our pizza,” the Larsons’ 15-year-old son blurted out.

Williams was arrested at a nearby arcade.

The 27-year-old Williams had stumbled into a political storm raging over how to deal with recidivists.

Public anxiety over crime had reached new heights with the 1993 killing of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old taken at knifepoint from the bedroom of her Petaluma, Calif., home by a twice-convicted kidnapper.

In the wake of Klaas’ murder, a statewide campaign was mounted to adopt a “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. The proposal, which went on to win overwhelming voter approval, targeted offenders with at least two serious or violent previous crimes, such as rape or robbery. Any new felony conviction triggered a prison sentence of at least 25 years to life.

As the campaign gathered momentum, the state Legislature passed a nearly identical measure in March 1994, four months before Williams’ arrest.

Opponents of the law cited Williams’ case as evidence that three strikes could produce punishments grotesquely out of proportion with the crime. Supporters of three strikes, however, denounced Williams as a poster child for the new law, pointing to his long criminal history as evidence that he had not reformed. Gov. Pete Wilson called Williams’ action “a strong-arm robbery.”

When Williams stepped into a Torrance courtroom in August 1994, he was met by television cameras and protesters. “It was crazy,” he recalled. “I was treated like I just shot the president.”

“It was crazy,” he recalled. “I was treated like I just shot the president.”

At their home in El Segundo, the Larsons were also stunned by the reaction. The family rebuffed reporters’ offers to talk publicly about the case.

Some of their friends expressed disbelief at the prosecution until they learned who the victims were. To the Larsons, a life sentence seemed like a lot, but they also wanted the person who robbed their children to face consequences.

“I really did feel like the kids were victimized. They were terrorized there for a few minutes,” recalled Keith Larson, a former police officer and military prosecutor.

A victims’ rights groups offered to help them tell their story. But the couple just wanted the court to do its job.

At his trial, Williams disputed the children’s account, insisting that they told him he could have the pizza slice. Jurors deadlocked on robbery charges but convicted Williams of felony petty theft, enough to trigger a three-strikes sentence.

Williams’ defense attorney pleaded for leniency, calling life in prison “shockingly excessive.” The prosecutor disagreed.

“He’s had his share of second chances,” Deputy L.A. County Dist. Atty. Bill Gravlin said.

In prison, Williams said he shared a cell with a murderer who was serving a shorter sentence than his. He became known inside as the “pizza man.”

“Everybody thought that I had shot a pizza delivery man,” he recalled.

Williams had begun to accept that he would never get out when the California Supreme Court offered hope. The court ruled that judges could spare a third-striker a life sentence by overlooking previous convictions.

Scribbling on yellow legal paper, Williams wrote a letter to the judge who had sentenced him, begging him to reconsider.

I “can understand the people’s point about repeat felons,” he wrote, “but I can say that my crime life is really past history.”

On Jan. 28, 1997, Williams returned to the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Donald F. Pitts. Also returning was Gravlin, the veteran prosecutor, who objected to changing the sentence.

Standing before the judge, Gravlin unfurled a computer printout of Williams’ criminal history that extended from his outstretched arm to the floor.

“He has not learned,” Gravlin told the court. “He has not repented.”

But the judge ruled that reducing the punishment was in the interest of justice. Williams would be out in less than three more years.

In October 1999, Williams walked out of a state prison in Soledad. He moved in with a sister in Lynwood, but his prospects looked bleak. He could not find work. Some of his neighbors were selling drugs.

Fearful of returning to prison, he moved to Corcoran, Calif., to live with his mother.

“He didn’t come back to me the same,” Humphrey said. “Some parts of him were still left in jail.”

In Corcoran, Williams helped his mother manage apartments. He drove a forklift at an onion plant. He pollinated fields using bees. He operated a machine at a cardboard box factory.

He began dating a local woman and moved in with her. Once again, it appeared as though Williams had turned his life around.

But in September 2003, his girlfriend called 911 and reported that Williams was verbally abusing her. A police officer arrived to find Williams moving out after a fight and demanding $150 he had paid toward the bills.

As the officer looked on, Williams told his girlfriend: “I’m going to put a bullet in your ass if I don’t get my money.”

Williams, who was unarmed, was arrested and charged with making a criminal threat, a felony that could have landed him back in prison for life. But Kings County prosecutors did not treat the crime as a third strike. Williams pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was released from jail after 17 days.

As part of his sentence, he was barred from leaving Kings County without permission. Nevertheless, Williams moved to Moreno Valley to live with another sister. An arrest warrant was issued and remains active.

Williams says he is different from the young man who built a lengthy criminal resume in his teens and 20s. Using long sleeves he hides old gang tattoos, including “crip or cry, high til I die” on his left arm. Since landing in Moreno Valley, he has been arrested once — for being drunk in public — but was released without charges being filed.

Williams says he was wrong to have approached the children on the boardwalk but still insists they let him have the pizza. He laughs at how friends tease him about his notoriety when they go out for pizza.

“I make sure people are around when I ask for it,” he said.

Williams has struggled to find steady work. No one, he says, wants to hire a felon.

“I paid my debt to society. . . . How long do I have to be punished for?” he asked. “I feel like they want to see me back in jail.”

Williams says the three-strikes law was never meant for someone like him, despite his record, and that he would be determined to stay straight even without the threat of a life sentence. But without a job, he fears he might one day slip up.

“By the grace of God, I was given a second opportunity,” he said. “But every day that goes by becomes harder.”

Gravlin, the prosecutor, retired in 2003. He recalled feeling conflicted when Williams asked to have his sentence reduced. Gravlin said he felt obliged to argue against it so the judge could consider both sides. But he also felt that Williams should serve less time.

“In hindsight . . . justice was done,” Gravlin said.

Mary and Keith Larson said they trusted in the courts to do the right thing. They harbored no hard feelings toward Williams, they said, but hope he keeps out of trouble.

“If he’s walking on eggshells or thinking, ‘I need to behave myself,’ that’s good,” Mary Larson said. “We want people behaving themselves.”

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times