Thursday, May 31, 2012

GUNS AND CHILDREN: A Deadly Environment

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, March 21, 2000; Page A01

MOUNT MORRIS TOWNSHIP, Mich. –– They say barely anything good comes from around here--nothing pretty, anyway. The flowers that grow here are plastic.

Neighbors watched as the little boy sat on that concrete porch painted blood red. They watched as the boy, 6 years old, sat there while a steady stream of people, "crackheads," walked in and out of that house--leaving the door wide open even in the dead of winter.

The boy never played, one neighbor said. He just sat there with his 8-year-old brother, "like men," while the men of the house drank their 40s, sold drugs, shot guns and cussed at the neighbors across the street.

People shake their heads now and wonder about the little boy--still small for 6. "Looks more like he is 4." What made that little boy go into the second bedroom of the "crack house" he lived in on Juliah Avenue, open the cardboard shoe box on the bed, and grab the loaded .32-caliber semiautomatic that was already set to fire? What made him put it in his pants pocket and walk the five blocks to school that cold Tuesday morning, Feb. 29?

A shadow of a child walking to school, he probably stepped over the empty whiskey bottle in his dirt front yard, walked by the dead mouse next door, passed the vacant lots where houses once stood. There are no sidewalks on this stretch of Juliah Avenue.

The first-grader passed the schoolyard sign warning: "THESE PREMISES ARE UNDER CONSTANT CLOSED CIRCUIT TELEVISION SURVEILLANCE," whose big words he couldn't yet read. He had to walk under the sign that said, "WE {heart} OUR CHILDREN AND WE CARE FOR THEIR SAFETY." He turned right to go to his class, Classroom 6 at Theo J. Buell Elementary School.

No one knows why he waited an hour and 40 minutes after the 8 o'clock opening bell to pull out that tiny gun. Maybe he wasn't planning it at all. No one knows why he waited until 19 of his 23 classmates had left the room to line up in the hallway.

Twenty-four children minus 19 equals five.

No one knows why he swept the room with the semiautomatic, pointed it at Kayla Rolland, then said, "I don't like you!" and shot her.

Five children minus one equals four.

Then he put the gun in his desk and walked to the principal's office.

Four children minus one more.

The debate over a 6-year-old killer rages.

"But for that kid living in a crack house, this would not have happened," the talk show host is booming on the radio. "What jail do you put 6-year-olds in? What place will you put him to make things better for him? He knows for the rest of his life he's a murderer. What teeny-tiny jail cell do you put him in? Call me and tell me what you think."

A man calls. His voice is passionate, but not angry. "This child should be executed."

The host: "You are a kid-killer. This is a baby, man! You are saying this child should go on death row."

The man: "I didn't say death row. I said death. He's a baby who killed a baby!"

A woman calls. She, too, is passionate. "He's a victim! He sees violence every day on television. Now are you going to kill him?"

The man is still on the phone. The man says the kid should not just be locked away but executed.

The host: "How many hours did you spend in a crack house? How can you understand? You never lived in a crack house."

It has come down to this, the "crack house" on Juliah Avenue. The street is called an avenue, but really that is a fancy name for a pocked lane where sagging frame houses sit behind chain-link fences, where rusted cars wait on concrete blocks, where plastic bags pretend to be windows.

Go on down Juliah Avenue. Look to your right. It's the house right there. The one with no screen on the front door. The one where the stained pink mattress lies next to the curb. It's the house where the residue of a "condemned" notice still sticks to the door frame and where a pale yellow note warns of a utility cutoff because a $247 bill is past due.

It's the one where a television reporter in knee-high suede black boots is rehearsing her script, telling the tragic story of the bad little boy who came from this bad house and killed a good little girl.

The boy's mother, recently evicted from her own rented house nearby, had dropped off her two small sons to stay with their uncle and a family friend.

The mother, a store manager at a shopping mall, took her daughter, who is 5, to stay with other relatives. The boys slept on the sofa, while, according to police, crack addicts ran in and out, itching with need, dragging in stuff to swap for crack.

"This ain't no place for little kids," said one neighbor, Jerry Marshall, 45, a heating and cooling repairman. "No toys. All people in and out all day long."

Willard Oscar, 36, who lived next door, watched and heard. He said they were nice kids. "I had to tell them, 'Don't tease the dog. Go play in your own yard.' But the kids were polite, really."

For 10 days, this is where the little boy lived, the boy with braids and a missing front tooth who used to be cute before he betrayed his age and killed somebody. He is the boy who remembered to take a gun to school and forgot to take his daily progress report. He fired one shot. The girl fell, and now people wonder why he did it, and what to do with him.

But before, few wondered why he was living in that house with his uncle and another man, a 19-year-old he called "uncle." One neighbor called child protective services, but by all appearances, no one did anything about it, and two boys were still living in a house with suspected drug traffic and no toys.

Inside, a garbage bag has split open, spilling over its contents in the hallway. Footprints are left of people who walked over it on the way to the kitchen. In the kitchen is a pan of cold, burned chicken, dry from sitting out. Inside the refrigerator are cans of soda and some spoiled milk.

There is nothing more to say about the house, except that this is the place many people in the aftermath of the shooting are pointing at, peeking through its splattered windows, knocking at the door. And planting in the yard the blame of who is responsible for the shooting.

"There was some indication guns were shown around that house. Clearly, the little guy saw guns," says Genesee County Prosecuting Attorney Arthur A. Busch. "He was there often before he went there to sleep on the sofa. And there are indications people actually were shooting there."

Busch is not a cream-puff prosecutor. His record shows he can be as iron-fisted as the best of them. When Busch was told a 6-year-old killer was at the township police station, he had to decide quickly what to do. He knew that Michigan law prevented him from charging a 6-year-old with murder. But some people were urging him to lock up the kid, execute him.

But that is the problem: The kid is a kid.

"He's been exposed to a lot of things, but that doesn't make him an adult," Busch says. "In this little guy's world, the male role model was somebody with a gun.

"The whole assertion this was a planned event is obnoxious. I don't think he understood guns. I don't think he understood the gravity. His level of cognition is that of a small child. He simply did not have any appreciation for what he had done.

"Some adult made the idiotic decision to leave a gun around," Busch says. "But for there was a gun, there wouldn't be an issue here."

Kayla Rolland was sitting at her desk when the bullet entered her body, through her armpit, exploding internal organs as it sped out her back.

The children's teacher, Alicia Judd, called 911 on her cell phone to report that a student had been shot.

The dispatcher received the call at 9:53 a.m.

The teacherJudd: "I have a student at Buell school that [is] dying. I need an ambulance immediately."

911: "Where's the child that has been shot?"

Teacher: "Right here on the floor in my class. Oh, God, please, she's getting white. The little girl is getting white."

911: "Is she breathing?"

Teacher: "No, she's not."

911: "Do you know how to do CPR?"

Teacher: "Yes, but I don't remember."

911: "Where is the child that shot her, ma'am?"

Teacher: "He's in the office."

911: "He's in the office?"

Teacher: "Yes. I can't feel her pulse."

911: "Okay, let me tell you how to do CPR, okay?"

Teacher: "Okay."

911: "Where was she shot?"

Teacher: "I can't tell. I'm scared to turn her body. Oh, God, please Lord, please Lord."

911: "Ma'am, where is the blood coming from?"

Teacher: "I can't tell. She's laying on her stomach."

911: "Has she been shot in the head?"

Teacher: "No, it doesn't look like it. It looks like she's shot from the front."

911: "She's shot from the front?"

Teacher: "I can't feel her pulse, but she's moving."

911: "Okay, but she definitely is a student?"

Teacher: "But she's convulsing, minor convulsions. She's trying to get air."

911: "What room are you in?"

Teacher: "I'm in Room 6, but I can't feel a pulse."

The boy was in the principal's office when police arrived. The police moved to protect the crime scene, Room 6. The school's 458 students were evacuated to the church across the street. Social workers and grief counselors were called. Parents raced to the school, horrified. Calling hospitals to find out if their own children had been hurt.

Police took the 6-year-old into custody. His little desk was carried out as evidence.

At first, the boy lied: "Someone else shot the gun."

When he realized police knew he had shot Kayla, he told them he had had a fight with her. "She slapped his hand," Police Chief Eric King says the boy told him. "It could have happened earlier in the day or the day before.

"When we got past the fact that we knew he did it, he said he was trying to scare people in his class," King says. "He thought this was like television, meaning people don't really die. He was expressing to police he didn't understand it was real."

The boy looked scared as police walked around him, but a juvenile officer comforted him and gave him paper to color on.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1893: "The rule of the common law was that one under the age of seven years could not be guilty of felony, or punished for any capital offence, for within that age, the infant was conclusively presumed to be incapable of committing the crime. . . ." A child must be 7 or older to be in the age of reason.

Now, some people are demanding that the age be lowered.

"My Lord, where does it stop?" wonders King. "At 6-year-old children? Where do we stop? Are we going to change the laws to criminally prosecute babies like this one? Truly, there are two tragic victims here and they are both children."

He wonders where such a tragedy might happen next. Metal detectors are now in middle schools and high schools. Suspicious bulges in teenagers' pockets are checked out. Backpacks are emptied. But a 5 1/2-inch bump in the pocket of a 6-year-old, a bump a little bigger than a set of keys? It could have been a candy bar or a juice box. Who would have thought the bulge was a gun?

"Heaven forbid we have to start patting down babies."

King's forehead has been touched with ashes. He has been praying and observing the start of Lent, a season of sacrifice.

The boy told police it was his "uncle's gun." A police officer gave him a box of 64 crayons. And the boy drew pictures while police and prosecutors considered what to do next.

"Someone has to understand what they are doing," Busch explains. Understand what "allegedly" meant. Understand the right to an attorney. Understand a right to remain silent.

"I explained that I would find some justice," Busch says. And the clearest justice was "getting to the adults who made this gun accessible."

School records did not show the boy lived at that house. So first authorities had to find the house where the boy started that morning, then get a search warrant. Inside, police found a stolen gun and what they believe to be narcotics. And they found two bedrooms: One belonged to the boy's uncle, Sir Marcus Winfrey, 22; the other belonged to Jamelle Andre James, 19.

The boys did not have bedrooms.

The house, law enforcement sources said, had been under federal investigation for drug and gun trafficking before the shooting. Neighbors had complained repeatedly. Police were documenting, making a case. But they had not yet moved on the house.

In the bedroom where James slept, the mattress--the one where the boy said he found the shoe box with the gun--was on the floor.

Both men living there had outstanding warrants. James had a traffic warrant. Winfrey had one for receiving stolen property; he's now in jail on that charge, awaiting trial.

Police looked for justice in that house. Looked for blame. Looked to personify the blame. Ignorance of the law excuses no man. Ignorance of a kid having your loaded gun and taking it to school excuses no man.

The evidence mounted. Three men have since been indicted on federal weapons charges for possessing a stolen gun allegedly used in the school shooting. Robert Lee Morris III, police say, sold a stolen .32-caliber semiautomatic handgun that wound up in the possession of James and Winfrey. James and Winfrey pleaded not guilty yesterday.

But the blame for the actual slaying has fallen on James. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The warrant alleges that James "on or about Feb. 29, 2000, did commit the crime of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of the late Kayla Rolland, a six year old female child, without malice and unintentionally by doing or committing . . . at various times prior there to, then and there did negligently and or recklessly possess a certain Davis semi-automatic pistol, Model 32, serial #182094, and did feloniously and willfully keep the said pistol at the premises located at 1103 West Juliah, Mt. Morris Township, keeping said pistol loaded. And at various times exposing the same to a minor child, by twirling the pistol in front of [the child] and by failing to keep the same safely secure and out of the reach. . . ."

Kayla's mother was at work when she got a call that her baby was hurt. There had been an accident at school. Veronica McQueen, 38, drove quickly from the electronics company to the hospital. McQueen thought it was a scrape, a bump, a broken leg.

Then they told her Kayla had been shot. That another 6-year-old had killed Kayla. And she started screaming. It was inconceivable. Didn't make sense that a boy so young could have a loaded gun, would bring it to school and shoot Kayla.

Terry McQueen, 39, the brother of Kayla's stepfather, said the boy was a bully. "Kayla went to her mother and told her mother there was a confrontation," he says.

Kayla's mother told Kayla to tell her teacher, and if the school didn't do anything, McQueen and her husband would go to the school to talk to the little boy.

But what mother knows when to let children resolve their own problems and when to go to the school and tell the bully to leave her child alone?

Kayla lived in a white house with red shutters on Princeton Avenue. A chain-link fence encloses the front yard. There is an iron trellis, but no flowers. Wind chimes are hanging outside the front door, but they lean against the house and don't blow in the wind. Junk collectors are collecting piles of furniture left on her curb. They leave behind an electric typewriter, four black garbage bags, a rag, a plastic roof to a doghouse, a Doritos bag.

A black boy and a white boy ride a bicycle down the street. The white kid is pedaling; the black kid is standing on the kickstand on the back. A chow chow runs behind them. Kayla's dog, chained in her yard, does not notice the junk collectors, the junk truck or the boys. He just lies there.

Kayla had a dirt yard like the little boy who killed her. The difference is there is a soccer ball in it and a dog.

"She was a good girl. Loving and caring. She loved church. She liked to play with cars. Jump rope. Her smiles got to you. She loved to run," says Tammy Fortin, 33, mother of one of Kayla's half brothers and the ex-girlfriend of Kayla's father.

Fortin says Kayla counted on her older brother, 13-year-old Nicholas, to take up for her. Nicholas and Kayla have the same father, but not the same mother.

Family life can get complicated.

Tammy Fortin is explaining how they are related to Kayla. Kayla's mother, Veronica, and Fortin had babies by the same man, Ricky Rolland. When he broke up with them--one after the other--the two women lived together for a while, raising their children together.

"Veronica and I were very, very close," Fortin said. "When they were living with me, Kayla was a little itty baby. I'd hear her crying. I'd get up and change her pants and feed her. She was a beautiful little baby. It shouldn't have happened.

"She told Nicholas, 'These boys are messing with me.' She would say, 'That's my brother and he will get you if you mess with me.' Family stuck up for family."

They are standing outside McQueen's house, a half-block from where the little boy lived. They never noticed the little boy who lived down the street.

Their lives are connected, were connected long before they knew it: Fortin met Kayla's father when she was 17. And they lived together. They rented the same house where the 6-year-old boy was living before he killed Kayla.

The house that police say became a crack house.

Buell Elementary is squat, an unimpressive blond brick structure. The school flags are flying at half staff.

The school had a reputation in the neighborhood for being a good school. Sixty-one percent of its students are black; 31 percent are white; 8 percent are Hispanic. Classes start at 8 a.m. Breakfast is served. Ninety-three percent of the children who go there qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunches.

This year the school became a pilot for a national program, the Primary Mental Health Project, intended to identify children with aggressive tendencies. The program was reorganized after the shooting at Columbine High School last spring. Buell's was one of the few pilot programs in Michigan that identified students as early as kindergarten.

The 6-year-old boy, who had been taunting other students and poked one with a pencil, had been identified as potentially violent. He was scheduled to see a psychologist. He was not late for his appointment. The appointment was too late for him. It was scheduled for six days after he fatally shot his 6-year-old classmate.

The boy had been identified, but nobody had made home visits where he was staying. In fact, when the shooting occurred, nobody had his new address.

Ira A. Rutherford III, superintendent of Beecher Community Schools, is pained.

"I've been racking my brain. There are socio-economic indications. We look at 6-year-olds as innocent. This shatters the concept of reasoning."

Rutherford is reliving the details in his head, wondering. "One shot was fired. There were three bullets in the gun. The gun was left in a ready-to-shoot position. You put the clip in the bottom . . . it puts the bullet in the chamber.

"As far as we know, the only person who knew he had a gun was his brother."

Under Michigan law, Rutherford says, the boy must be expelled--any child who brings a weapon to school is automatically expelled. If the child is in the sixth grade or above, it's for 180 days. If a child is in the fifth grade or below, it's 90 days.

"You don't have to hold a hearing, but you must give the child an opportunity for a hearing. If the child and parent turn down the opportunity, the board is bound by the law."

Rutherford has drafted a letter to send to the mother. And he will. He will write a letter telling the mother who dropped the child and his brother off at the house that she has a right to a hearing. And he will explain that if the boy is expelled, he has a right to petition for reentry.

"I doubt this would be in the interest of the child to reenter a Beecher school," Rutherford says.

The boy, his brother and sister are living with a maternal aunt in Flint until the court makes a decision on what to do with them.

How does this school system put itself together? After the shooting, schools were closed for a week. The first day back at Buell, 79 percent of the students came back. Attendance for first grade was 83 percent. On Tuesday, 83 percent of the students came back and first-grade attendance was 100 percent.

100 percent minus two. One buried, one lost. What does that equal now?

The boy's father, Dedric Darnell Owens, 28, arrives on time. He is in a forest-green jumpsuit. He is on the third floor of the county jail, under medical watch in his torment.

He hasn't seen his son since January, when he went to jail, and he has not talked to the boy or the boy's mother, Tamarla Trinese Owens, 29, since the shooting. When he sees the boy again, "I'm not going to say anything to him about the incident. I don't think it would be appropriate to talk about him, about the incident.

"To me I think he saw the gun as a toy. He put it in his pocket and took it to school."

Why were those boys there, at that house?

"His mom got evicted. She didn't have nowhere else to take them. . . . I would have took my kids to my mom's or my sisters."

Who's to say that would have been better--his mom and a sister have both faced drug charges.

Last year, Owens's son had told him: "They always messing with me."

In a neighborhood of kids who don't have much, he had a little less. At his school, there are mothers and fathers who walk their kids to school every day, or drive them there in cars. When the bell rings, the parking lot fills with parents and other relatives. Sheila! Jessica! Scott! In those names was wealth.

"I didn't think he meant it, but as a parent you are supposed to look at that situation. I told him it's not right to hate people. I told him to stop all the fighting he was doing. He told me, 'Okay, Daddy.' "

But then Daddy went to jail. Daddy has been in jail most of the six years that the boy has been alive. "I got locked up when he was 2."

Dedric Owens was born in Flint. Tamarla Owens was born in St. Louis and moved to Flint when she was a teenager. They lived next door to each other, and started dating, then married.

Things went sour, and Tamarla filed for divorce last March. Welfare reform laws required her to work; at the time of the shooting, she was working two jobs, away from home 14 hours a day, helping manage a retail store and making desserts at a cafe. She made about $250 or $300 a week. It wasn't enough. She fell behind in the rent and lost her house.

"Her only crime is being poor," says Sam Riddle, a spokesman for her. "When she was evicted, she had nowhere to turn but to her immediate family, her sister and her brother."

The brother did what he could to help his sister, Riddle says. "Tamarla had no idea what was going on in that house. What was going on in the house? Tamarla has been the victim of the greatest media smearing since Richard Jewell. . . . Everyone keeps calling this a crack house, but it was not raided. If everyone knew this, how come no one did anything about it?"

Today, Tamarla and Dedric Owens will appear in court to fight for custody of their children, even though they have been charged with child negligence.

"The mother left this boy in that squalid house with guns and drugs," says Busch, ". . . and obviously we would begin to show what went on in that house to the court and what has been going on in the little boy's life for some time. The kids were left alone and were raising themselves at times even before she dropped them off.

"The mother presently doesn't have a home," Busch said. "The father is in jail."

The kids could become wards of the court, or the case could go to trial.

The boy's father has filed an appeal to get custody of the children. He says he wants to get out and raise his kids, and you wonder, what does hard time do to the families of inmates.

"People are making judgments on their past life," says Dedric Owens's attorney, Terry R. Bankert of It's the Law Legal Services. "They are trying to take their kids. Obviously my client can't take custody. Maybe in six months. Who are they to say this child should end up in foster care?"

Dedric Owens's record is thick: attempted home invasion, cocaine possession, cocaine possession with intent to distribute, fleeing and eluding police. The dates of arrests, court appearances, convictions, sentencings, jail time, drug treatment, boot camp, probation, probation violation are like signposts in the six years his son has been alive. At each court appearance, there were warnings issued from the bench to this man that he had to do better by his children.

Oct. 26, 1995: Owens stood before Genesee County Circuit Judge Geoffrey L. Neithercut for sentencing on his second felony. "I can't avoid noticing that you've been involved in some criminal activity before this case," Neithercut said. "As a matter of fact, my notes were that you had a rather boisterous past. You have fathered a whole bunch of kids, and your care for those children is tenuous. You appear to have been living on the edge of society's limits for quite some time. And those are bad things. . . . Is there anything you'd like to tell me?"

Owens stood before the judge. "Well, you know, the reason I--the reason I find myself in this trouble is because I was on drugs, and now you know that I got myself in this trouble, I've have enough time to sit back and think about it."

He was sentenced to a year in the county jail and four years of probation. He went back to jail after violating probation.

"I blame myself for not being there."

He says "it was bad judgment" for the mother to drop the child off at the house.

The story has tied itself into knot of blame and won't unravel.

The little boy's avenue is three-tenths of a mile north of the Flint city line. But simply because it sits in the shadow of the city doesn't make it suburban. It has 14,000 people and the population is declining.

On this side of Flint, the main street is called Detroit Street. On the other side, the same street is called Martin Luther King Avenue, as if the dream stopped when it got to this side of the road.

Not all hope is dead here. Where there is not a church, there is, as they say here, "a party store," selling beer and wine. Two blocks from the little boy's school is a liquor store. The painted signs say: "We accept WIC coupons." Paper signs taped to the window advertise "We carry produce and meat," too, almost an afterthought.

The woman behind the counter says she knows the 6-year-old. "A little itty-bitty thing. I can't understand how a little thing like that can lift a gun. He come to about here," the woman is saying as she raises her hand about five inches above the counter.

A customer puts a liter of malt liquor on the counter and pays for it with eight dimes and four quarters. The clerk is still talking about the children. Behind her, there are bottles of Hennessy and cognac, Perfectos, Blunts, Zig Zag paper.

A little girl puts a quarter on the counter and asks, "How many pieces of gum can I get?"

"The man took our gum back. It was stale," the clerk says, "but you can buy two candies."

She returns to the description of the little boy.

"He was always nice to me. Always real nice. I never had no problem with them. They came in to buy groceries; food, bread, hot dogs and bologna. I love the kids. I love them all."

Laughter doesn't echo on Juliah Avenue. It looks gray and cold on a sunny day.

A 29-year-old man who used to live across from the house has come to check his mail. He does not want to be identified for fear of retribution. He says he moved because of the little boy's family.

"It was horrible," he says. "It used to be a good neighborhood. The day we got broken into, words were said across the street. The little boy sat in the middle of it. They were saying they were going to come by and they said they were going to shoot my house up."

The man who was threatening this was holding the 6-year-old boy on his lap at the time, he says.

"They were throwing gang signs up at the house. . . . I always seen him over there. He was acting like a little grown-up. Even when they were smoking dope and drinking 40s, he was right there with them. He was dressed like everybody else, baggy pants and jerseys.

"In December, with all the snow, they just left the door open. People come in and out like they had a turnstile. You know the kids didn't get any sleep. We heard gunshots and think nothing about it. You know those kids didn't get any sleep."

The man said his brother called social services a few weeks ago. "I was standing there. He called and said, 'You need to come check this out. It's a drug house and kids are living there.' "

They never called the man back. And they never came.

There is a park in this neighborhood. Or what looks as though it once might have been a park. It doesn't look as though kids play there anymore. The top is sheared off the monkey bars. The seesaw is still. A metal slide sparkles in the sun, propped against the useless monkey bars.

But there are no stairs leading to the top of the slide. And you wonder, if a kid wanted to run through the weeds and try to climb, how would he get on top?