Photo: Khristina Henry

Khristina Henry holds a photo of her mother, Pamela Lark. Lark adamantly wanted her daughter to testify in the robbery trial of a former high school football star accused of robbing Henry and a friend at gunpoint. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

First of two parts

After midnight on a cool September morning three years ago, Khristina Henry and her boyfriend stepped out of the El Dorado Bowling Alley near LAX. Nearby, a group of about 20 young men stared hard as the pair of 17-year-olds walked to their car.

Two men peeled off from the group and approached. "What you got? What you got?" one of them demanded, as he pulled a stainless steel handgun from his pocket and cocked it in the boy's face. "I will kill you right now," the gunman threatened. The men made off with Khristina's cellphone and her boyfriend's wallet, phone and gold chain.

From that chance encounter in a dimly lighted parking lot, a series of events would ripple outward, altering the lives of several other people forever.

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After being robbed, Khristina returned to the Mid-City apartment she shared with her mother, Pamela Lark, and went to bed. When she awoke, the two discussed what to do. Khristina was terrified of what it might mean to get involved in a case like this. She tried to play it nonchalant, telling her mother that she just wanted to forget it had ever happened. "People get robbed all the time," she said.

Lark, however, was adamant that Khristina report the robbery to police. With her boyfriend returning to college, the girl relented and went with her mother to the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division station. When police pressed her for information, Khristina told them a girl who witnessed the stick-up had recognized the gunman. She knew him by his first name, Tyquan, and thought he was, or had been, a student at Crenshaw High School.

A few days later, detectives took Khristina and the other witness into the station. Separately, the two were shown an array of mug shots and told the gunman might be among them. Each quickly pointed to the fifth photo in the bunch.

"That's him," Khristina said with certainty.

Tyquan Knox.

She felt herself starting down a road she didn't want to be on. In his notes on the case, LAPD Det. Thomas Vettraino wrote that Khristina was "extremely fearful of retaliation."

In the powerhouse football program at Crenshaw High School, Tyquan Knox had been a star. Entering his senior year in the fall of 2005, the 5-foot, 11-inch, 180-pound wide receiver and defensive back was ranked as one of the city's top players. His talents attracted recruiters from the University of Arizona, Fresno State and several other large college programs. He dreamed of making it to the NFL. Knox had the word "God's" tattooed on one forearm and "Gift" on the other.

Off the field he was known for troubling behavior. Former and current school officials at Crenshaw, who requested that their names not be used out of concern for their safety, described Knox as an aggressive student who clashed frequently with classmates and faculty.

At Crenshaw's homecoming celebration in late October 2005, he got into a spat outside the gymnasium with a girl he had once dated. According to witness accounts collected by faculty as part of the school's investigation, the girl gave chase when Knox tried to walk away. Knox allegedly swung around and punched her in the face.

Knox's attorney denies that Knox struck the girl. Regardless, the incident had serious consequences. Knox was kicked off the football team. Interest from college recruiters vanished as they got wind of the "off-field incident" alluded to in the sports pages of local newspapers. Knox fumed and looked to place blame elsewhere.

"I kind of feel like I'm getting screwed," he said in an interview with a college football fan website.

"People haven't seen the last of me," Knox said. "I've got a chip on my shoulder now. . . . I'll make the schools who passed up on me realize what they miss[ed]."

That spring Knox graduated from Crenshaw. Instead of heading off to a leafy college campus to play football on Saturdays before a stadium full of screaming fans, he enrolled in East Los Angeles Community College and joined its football team.

Afew weeks after the robbery, Khristina's cellphone rang. It was Knox's mother, a woman Khristina had never met. She told Khristina cryptically that she'd heard about the incident and insisted that her son was not involved. Nonetheless, she offered to pay for the stolen items "to make things go away," Khristina recalled.