SAN DIEGO — One man is a businessman of Indian descent, whose son, an aspiring photographer, was murdered in a botched robbery as he delivered pizzas. The other man, an African American, is a Vietnam vet and former community organizer. It was his baby-faced grandson who pulled the trigger.
For nearly a quarter century, Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix have stood before school and community assemblies and talked about the tragedy that brought them together. They alternately challenge and implore their young audiences — to stay away from street gangs, to stay alive.
“We’re here for you because every one of you is a very important person,’’ Khamisa tells them in a gentle voice. He likes to quote Gandhi.
Felix frequently takes a louder, more insistent tone. “Anybody who gives you drugs and alcohol doesn’t respect you,” he says.
The pair’s goal is simple: to eradicate the kind of violence that shattered their own families so long ago.
On that January night in 1995, a single gunshot left 20-year-old Tariq Khamisa dead and 14-year-old Tony Hicks facing potential life in prison thanks to a state law that had just lowered the age for prosecuting juveniles as adults.
Out of their anguish, Tariq’s father and Tony’s grandfather forged an enduring partnership. The organization that resulted, dedicated to “stopping kids from killing kids,” has won widespread recognition and these days is on the verge of expanding nationally.
And even as the Tariq Khamisa Foundation moves forward, the two men are working on a new, separate challenge: persuading the California parole board that Hicks, now 38, has paid his dues and should be released.
“There were victims at both ends of that gun,” Azim Khamisa has always believed.
He and Felix first met in the San Diego office of Hicks’s defense attorney. It was only several months after the shooting. Felix, beset by shame and guilt, came to apologize for his grandson. Khamisa, though grieving, came to offer forgiveness.
“They were two different men on opposite sides of the same tragedy,” said attorney Henry Coker, “and yet they were able to look beyond their individual situation and realize something needed to be done about the scourge of violence. We were all almost in tears.”
From that meeting came their remarkable friendship and alliance. The latter has brought both a passel of local and national awards, including an invitation to the White House when Bill Clinton was president. In 2017, Felix and Khamisa presented at a TED Talk “great ideas” gathering.
The foundation has grown in size and reach along the way. It has become more adept at fundraising and broadened its mission to include helping to create safer schools and communities through “compassion, forgiveness and peacemaking.”
What has not changed, however, is the relationship between two dissimilar men. Each calls the other his brother. Each says the tragedy gave him an unexpected life mission.
Felix vows to continue speaking out about violence “as long as I have breath.” For Khamisa, the work helps him escape feeling forever like a victim.
They “are the most inspiring people I have met in my entire 28-year judicial career,” Superior Court Judge Joan Weber, who sent Hicks to prison, wrote recently in support of his parole.
At the time of the killing, Felix was a city employee living in a blue-collar neighborhood of San Diego. He had brought his grandson from Los Angeles five years earlier to escape a chaotic home life and the pervasive violence that had already killed the boy’s cousin.
Felix, a devout Baptist, tried to provide structure. He warned about false friends and guns. Tony remained angry and confused.
“He was just so mad,” his grandfather recounted recently, “that he was not thinking about his future.”
Khamisa, a Muslim, is an immigrant from Kenya who was educated in England. An international business entrepreneur who lived in San Diego’s upscale La Jolla neighborhood, his interests back then were far-ranging — a car dealership in his birth country, a candy factory in Seattle and various land-development deals across the United States.
His only son was working part-time at a local pizzeria while attending San Diego State University. Tariq studied Gandhi and Confucius and dreamed of one day being on assignment for National Geographic. He and his girlfriend were talking marriage.
“Death claimed Tariq before he had a chance to make his mark on life,” Khamisa said. “I think he would have done marvelous things.”
A slapdash plot ended his life. Tony had bolted his grandfather’s home that day, hoping to join a local gang called the Black Mob. “Dear Daddy,” his note read. “I love you. But I’ve run away. Tony.”
The teen spent the evening drinking and smoking pot with several gang members and wannabes. When they got hungry, they decided to call in a pizza order to a phony address and then rob the delivery person.
But Tariq arrived and refused to give up the pizza. As he started to drive away, the group’s 18-year-old leader thrust a stolen handgun at Tony. “Bust him, Bones, bust him,” he ordered, using the gang’s nickname for Tony.
Tony fired one shot. The bullet smashed the car window, hit Tariq in the back and split into two parts, severing his aorta. He died almost immediately, slumped in the front seat of his white Volkswagen.
Only three weeks earlier, a new California law had lowered from 16 to 14 the age at which teens could be tried as adults. Tony became the youngest person charged under the law. He pleaded guilty the following year and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
He wept in court and admitted that he could not explain why he had shot Tariq. His victim’s father told the judge he hoped Tony would someday emerge from prison “a changed man.”
A parole hearing set for Wednesday at the state prison at San Luis Obispo is now everyone’s prime focus. It will be the first time inmate #K09979 appears before the board. Felix will be there. So will Khamisa and his daughter.
Tasreen Khamisa admits she was slower than her father to forgive. She adored her younger brother, “a wise soul in a young body.” But with forgiveness came what she calls her “purpose and meaning in life.” She now serves as executive director of the foundation, and she and Hicks talk by phone every Sunday.
The foundation website features questions from students to Hicks and his answers: Are you okay? “I still struggle with what I’ve done to hurt the Khamisa family …” What would you say to Tariq? “I could have prevented this senseless tragedy.” What did you feel after killing Tariq? “I felt numb immediately after taking his life …”
In an interview from prison, Hicks said he plans to take full responsibility for the murder and problems during his early years behind bars, including a guard’s stabbing. He hopes to attend college or learn a trade such as plumbing, as well as work with the foundation to carry its message of nonviolence to schools, juvenile halls and elsewhere. Weber, the judge who sentenced him, wrote to the parole board that she would join him in making presentations.
“I am not the 14-year-old kid who killed Tariq,” Hicks said. “I’m now a responsible individual.”
His grandfather and Tariq’s father are not the same people either. Felix, 70, is retired. Khamisa, 69, has largely put aside his business career and written three books, starting with “From Murder to Forgiveness: A Father’s Journey.”
Neither draws a salary from the foundation, despite the work they continue doing for it. At this point, after hundreds of school appearances, their presentations are seamless. Felix defers to Khamisa and sits beside him as he speaks. Khamisa then introduces Felix, and they embrace. Khamisa mentions their different faiths. A timekeeper helps them keep pace.
They always begin with a 10-minute video that includes news clips of the murder scene and of a young Tony crying in court. Once that ends, Khamisa asks students how many have had a family member or other loved one killed by violence. Earlier this month, at a San Diego middle school near the Mexico border, nearly half of the seventh- and eighth-graders raise their hands.
“When a human being is murdered,” Felix tells them, “a thousand souls scream out.”
The two men’s approaches may differ at times, but both stress the same theme: that violence causes never-ending pain. During that recent presentation, just before everyone filed out of the auditorium, Khamisa mentioned the upcoming parole hearing.
He had a simple request of the students: “Please say a prayer for Tony.”