LOS ANGELES -- Entering middle age, Chico Brown lives in the world of children at school. He greets them there, settles their fights, listens to their problems, watches them finish their homework, coaches their basketball teams, offers them rides home, and reads their letters.
He has four children too, most of them nearly grown. But ''they didn't know me," he says. For most of their lives, he was in prison.
Now a gang-intervention specialist, dedicated to keeping children from following his path, Brown was once a notorious drug dealer, an integral part of an operation that supplied much of Los Angeles with crack. He was a member of the Crips, the band of neighborhood toughs cofounded by Stanley ''Tookie" Williams that became a national phenomenon.
Williams is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 13; only clemency from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or a stay of execution from the courts will save his life.
Williams's supporters say he has reformed in the 25 years since he was sentenced to death for the murders of four people -- writing children's books, renouncing his gang ties, preaching an end to violence and gangs. To kill him, his supporters say, is a crime; he is capable of great things.
Lost in the extremes of Williams's story are the stories of other men who grew up in the same place, in the same times, with many of the same deficits and opportunities. Original gangsters like Williams are difficult to find. If they survived, they disappeared into the woodwork of unremarkable lives.
Former Crips who survived, like Chico Brown, often look back at what they did in those days with chagrin and great regret.
''I never saw families torn apart, parents hooked on crack, crack babies in intensive care, kids growing up without their parents," said Brown, 40.
The old Crips see gangs that have grown more menacing since their days, as rap music has glorified the culture around them.
In Los Angeles, there were about 750 gang-related murders last year. This would amount to almost twice the number of those facing trial for the period when Williams was arrested.
The Crips began in the early 1970s as a loose association of boys from Compton, neighborhood toughs with a reputation for being good with their hands.
The fighting, the posing, the insults, the illegal activity: All of it seemed like good, clean fun.
About 30 years ago, Zane Smith joined a group of boys that became the Crips, and learned how to concoct and sell a drug called angel dust. It was around then, he said, that he helped recruit Tookie into the group.
Smith was imbued with a sense of racial injustice. He had a lot of anger, above-average athletic skills, a high tolerance for pain, a misguided sense of righteousness, and a fascination with gangsters old and new. He would not say what kinds of crimes he committed, only that he ''was doing big stuff."
His mother died in 1992, an event that he said moved him to try a more honest way. He tried producing records, running a trucking business.
Now 51, he and his old high school friend and fellow Crip Walter Wheeler offer to speak with and counsel youth. They call their effort ''Children With Wings."
''We're trying to redeem ourselves," Smith said of the effort.