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SAD END TO A SHORT LIFE MOTHER COULDN'T GET GANG MEMBER TO QUIT.

Byline: Bhavna Mistry Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA - Faced with a learning disability, 19-year-old Byron Benito read at a second-grade level and wrote as a first-grader.

The Canyon Country youth was enrolled in special education programs and felt like a nobody. His probation officer had him enrolled in literacy programs. Kids at school called him a low-life.

But in his gang, Benito got an opportunity to rule - to be the big man.

His skill was in his fighting. He was known to take on several guys at once. Then in mid-January he lost his last fight to a gang of rival gangsters armed with knives and seeking blood after one of their own was shot to death days earlier, sheriff's homicide investigators said.

``I tried everything I could,'' said B.J. Barnes, a special education teacher at Canyon High School. ``His parents tried everything they could. His mother often begged him not to go out. She knew that one day he wasn't going to come back home.''

Fifteen young men - two just 14 and one of them Benito's own brother - stand accused in his death, the bloodiest gang battle Santa Clarita has ever seen. Benito's case is textbook. He grew up in a home abandoned by his father, he never graduated high school, he secretly worked at night to help his family between prison stints for assaults and vandalism.

He lived for his gang friends, and he died for them.

``Byron wasn't afraid to die,'' said Benito's best friend, who asked not to be named. ``He would be the first person to go defend his name.''

But even amid his troubles, Benito had a caring soul.

``Byron had a big heart,'' his friend said. ``When it came down to stuff, Byron would have given you the shirt off his back.''

With no sister of his own, Byron ``adopted'' a disabled classmate. He made sure that the girl was safe and protected her from cruel jokes.

His friends described him as soft-spoken, always there for his friends and family and proud of his gang.

``Byron was one of my good friends,'' his friend said. ``He was going to be the godfather for my daughter.''

He died two days before the child's first birthday.

It was with his gang he felt at home. Benito thrived in his gang family. He was a key player, a leader and had great self-esteem among his gang peers.

``Life in gangs was much more rewarding for Benito,'' Barnes said.

On the streets, he had a reputation as a tough guy, his friends and Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said. He was known as a skilled fighter, never backed down and wasn't afraid to take on several people by himself.

Barnes' efforts to help him couldn't compete with that.

Barnes worked hard with Benito, hoping he could refocus his talents for good. Deep down was the heart of a very sensitive kid, she said.

Barnes was crushed when she learned he had died.

Personally attached to Benito and many of those arrested in his death, Barnes said that she often tried to give the youths opportunities to change, but her efforts were in vain.

``As an educator I feel very helpless,'' Barnes said. ``I'm not going to another funeral.''

Life was always rocky for the teen, the oldest of three brothers, who moved to the U.S. with their mother from Guatemala.

Benito's mother had asked him not to wear his baggy clothing. She moved him from Newhall to Canyon Country in an effort to get him away from his gang environment and she often begged him not to go out because one day he wouldn't come home.

``He loved being in a gang but he knew that it broke his mother's heart,'' Barnes said of Benito after reading excerpts from an autobiographical sketch Byron had dictated. ``He was caught between hurting his mother and hurting his friends.''

``He got more personal satisfaction from them,'' Barnes added. ``I can't make him feel that internally as the gangs did.''

The death of her oldest son has been hard on the Canyon Country mother but it's been harder knowing that a person he called a friend is believed to have lured him to his killers.

``She took his death really hard,'' said Benito's friend. ``And to know it was Sammy, that's what hurts the most.''

Prosecutors said it was Samuel Herr, a friend, who acted as middleman and brought Benito to a vacant parking lot where at least 18 others beat and stabbed him to death.

Herr, the first arrested in the case, was an acquaintance of Benito, and someone who wouldn't have aroused suspicion on a night that followed the slaying of a rival gang member in Canyon Country, investigators said. Herr's attorney said his client is innocent.

``They grew up together,'' Benito's friend said. ``They went to school together.''

Herr had eaten dinner and spent the night in the Benitos' five-bedroom home. He even attended a family wedding.

Karen Nelson, a longtime member of the Santa Clarita Valley Anti-gang Taskforce, said that Benito was a likable kid and constantly offered help through community programs.

``Everyone tried to help him,'' she said. ``But Byron chose the life he did.''

During a recent meeting recapping the gang murders in the valley, she recalled how he often said, ``I won't leave the gang.''

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Photo:

Fifteen young men stand accused in the death of local resident Byron Benito, shown here in a photo displayed at his funeral.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 10, 2002
Words:918
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