In Washington state, a 10- and 11-year-old were sentenced to years in a detention facility after being caught with weapons and claiming they were going to murder other kids at their school. Where is the line between a childish game and a real threat?
Colville is in Stevens County, far eastern Washington state. A town of 4,600 people, it is a roughly 12-block center where a scattered rural population can come for necessities before returning to farms and homesteads. There is a hospital, a post office, a courthouse, and a border patrol station, as the town is only 50 miles south of Canada. The proximity to the border, and its relative isolation, mean that visitors without clear business are likely to be regarded with some skepticism. Checking into the Selkirk Motel, out-of-town guests are asked their age, town of origin, and purpose of visit with open suspicion, and have their ID checked multiple times. The local drug trade suggests that this is not so extreme a precaution. In residential areas of Colville, the houses are uniformly one level, prefabricated, often in pastel shades of green, blue, and yellow. It is not unusual to see a deer wandering through the streets.
In this far-flung, sparsely populated, wintry town, Fort Colville Elementary is a hub of activity and color. In the entrance hall are bulletin boards with headings such as “Spotlight on Character,” “Principal’s Award,” and “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully.” A poster with a rainbow of columns declares the “Six Pillars of Character” to be trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. The library is decorated with children’s drawings of their favorite books — Holes and A Pizza the Size of the Sun. Giant versions of origami cranes hang from the library ceiling. At reception is a rack of winter clothes under the “Coats for Kids” program, secondhand donations for children from poorer families.
Downstairs, near the fifth-grade classrooms, is the office of the school counselor, Debbie Rogers, and a paraprofessional in charge of discipline, Richard Payette, whom the children call Mr. Richard. (Many students also know him from Sunday school.) The room doubles as an indoor games area for children who might prefer not to be out on the playground, with Lego, Jenga, and board games, or for when it’s too cold to play outside. Rogers describes her role as “one part social worker, one part mom, one part counselor, and one part discipline.”
Guns are a fact of life in Colville. They are used in hunting season for deer, elk, and bears, as well as for fending off coyotes or cougars and protecting livestock. Even more normal for a child than packing a gun is carrying a pocketknife. Rogers says it’s not uncommon for a knife to be brought to school accidentally; they’re often used for farm work. The parents are informed, the weapon confiscated, and one such incidence of forgetfulness is tolerated.
Around 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 7, 2013, Payette went as usual into the lunchroom to supervise, greeted by the din of children eating breakfast and filing in from school buses. A fourth-grader approached him and said a fifth-grade boy, David, had had a knife on the bus, which he’d brought into school.
Payette searched David, his sweatshirt and pants pockets, but found nothing. The boy protested innocence: “Knife? I don’t know anything about a knife. You’re talking about a butter knife?’”
He then led the boy to the hall and opened his backpack, again finding nothing. He went into the classroom, and asked his teacher, Mr. Jones, if he could look through the student’s desk. Mr. Jones replied that David hadn’t been in yet but a boy named Adam — both boys have been given pseudonyms here — had, and the two had been spending a lot of time together lately. Payette took Adam’s backpack off the hook and opened it. Inside he found a knife with a 3-inch blade, a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun, and a magazine containing seven rounds. That day, David was 11 and three months; Adam was 10½.
The police and the boys’ legal guardians were called. Officer Scott Arms of the Colville Police Department interviewed both boys, each in separate rooms, Adam with his father, David with his grandfather. Arms first asked David if he understood why he’d come.
David nodded and replied, “Because I was planning to kill a girl in my class.” He explained that the girl had been picking on him and his friends. The plan was for Adam to be the “shooter” and for David to be the “knifer.” Adam answered similarly, saying the girl had been rude to him and his friends. The officer felt both boys seemed without remorse or emotion. He pressed Adam, making sure he understood the implications of this, and Adam said, “Yes, I just want her dead.” (The boys’ confessions to Scott Arms were later ruled inadmissible at trial, as Arms did not explain to the guardian of either boy that it was they, rather than Adam or David, who were responsible for waiving Miranda rights.)
Adam also spoke with Debbie Rogers about the plot, expanding on the planned scale of the violence. “No, you don’t understand, there’s more to this,” he said. “There’s other kids, we were going to hurt other kids.” He told her some names, and then picked out more from a class list, six in all. Adam’s revelation about the horrific scope of the plan might have been a child’s honesty, but it might also plausibly have been empty, if unsettling, bravado. David chattered freely about his plan, as well as the physical threat he posed, on the day of his arrest (he tapped on the glass of the in-school suspension room to motion a detective closer, before informing him, “I just want to let you know,” as he raised his fists, “that I’m in tae kwon do and can really use my hands, and when you take me out of school you better put the handcuffs behind my back”), yet, unlike Adam, he mentioned only one intended victim in all of his interviews.
The district sent out an auto-call to parents. Teachers’ phones began ringing, emails piling in, parents arriving, some furious, some just wanting to speak to their child before afternoon classes, others to check them out for the day or for good.
When David’s grandparents and guardians Tamera and Gary were called to the school, Tamera presumed David had been injured on the playground, or that his bus had been in an accident. The scene that greeted them when they saw David detained was stark. “There was no chair, no desk, nothing in there,” says Gary. “It was a just a white room, with plastic walls and a door with a window in it. He’s sitting in there all huddled up in the corner.”
Tamera did what she could for David as she waited for her grandson to be taken to processing. “He had said he was hungry,” she recalls, “so I asked them, ‘Can I have his backpack? He has some snack food in his backpack.’ They said, ‘Sure, we checked the backpack, there’s nothing in there.’ I got the food out, gave it to him, gave him the book to read, said, ‘Go ahead and eat your snack, let’s read a book.’” She took the backpack home with her. Adam and David were then driven to juvenile processing and would be charged the next day with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
A few days later, she remembered the backpack, and went to clean it out: “That’s when I found the notes,” she says.
I’ll show you the steps and I ma have changed plans. So Just Read my steps and tell if Im right or rong.
how I got this
Step 1 we ride the bus.
Step 2 stay in class until I say.
Step 3 during frist recess we go to the bathroom and get are masks on.
Step 4 we boit out side and run tord her nad you, me kill her and get are Freedom.
Step 5 we run up to the upper field and run tord my house.
Step 6 if the cops catch us put your hands up and get ready for pan.[pain]
Step 7 Be ready to go to Jail.
Plese write back
P.S. we shoud do it on tomaro.”
When children plan out a murder step by wicked step — when they bring a gun and a knife and an ammunition clip to school and speak openly and plainly about their intentions — their judgment, rather than being an academic, psychological question, must be decided absolutely in a courtroom. Knowing or unknowing, scheming or confused. How do their upbringings, however good or bad, exculpate or implicate them? The state has to determine beyond doubt a 10- or 11-year-old’s capacity to fully understand their actions; an infinitely complex problem becomes a yes or no question. When a guilty sentence is handed down, as it was for both defendants in the Colville case, it is unclear whether it serves to rehabilitate, or merely punish.
Whether — and how — juveniles can be determined to be criminally responsible has a complicated history. One of the first modern lawyers to write about the legal status of children was the English politician and writer William Blackstone. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s, he argued that “the capacity of doing ill, or contracting guilt, is not so much measured by years and days, as by the strength of the delinquent’s understanding and judgment. For one lad of 11 years old may have as much cunning as another of 14; and in these cases our maxim is, that ‘malitia supplet aetatem’ [wickedness determines age].” Criminal court was the only suitable forum for such a child, even for a precocious 9-year-old, and penalties could be applied with the same readiness. Ten is still the age of criminal responsibility in England.
However, the United States’ first juvenile court, in Cook County, Ill., in 1899, was progressive and welfare-focused. The basis for the court was the doctrine of parens patriae, or parent of the country: Something had clearly gone amiss with the raising of a child if they were now on trial, and it was the duty of the court to remedy this with the attention and care of a benevolent guardian. In 1923, the Children’s Bureau published Juvenile Court Standards, expounding on these high-minded principles regarding the legal treatment of children. In each case there should be a “scientific understanding of each child,” that “treatment should be adapted to individual needs,” and “there should be a presumption in favor of keeping the child in his own home and his own community, except when adequate investigation shows this is not in the best interests of the child.” It was republished without alteration each year until 1954. By the 1930s, in most states, children could not be prosecuted in adult court until they turned 18, and in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, and Wyoming, it was 21. Parens patriae had triumphed.
In the 1980s, the national mood began to turn against treating all children as vulnerable, in response to a rapid increase in juvenile arrests and concerns over “superpredators” — hyper-violent children, beyond the reach of rehabilitation. In 1978, New York passed the Juvenile Offender Act, which allowed adolescents from 13 to be prosecuted for murder, and have the same sentence as an adult. The law is now similar for juvenile murder in Oklahoma, Illinois, and Georgia, with a lower limit of 10 in Kansas and Ohio. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court also made changes to ensure a more robust due process for juveniles, but this was still part of the shift toward making the juvenile system more like a criminal court. In nine states during the 1980s and 1990s (Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Rhode Island), legislatures gave juvenile courts a tougher mandate — to punish, to hold accountable, and at a younger age. Even when suspects are still tried as juveniles, the consensus became that it should be to mete out penalties that were proportional to suffering caused, rather than putting child development above all.
Under Washington law, children aged 8 to 12 are presumed to be incapable of committing a crime, and the burden is on the state to prove otherwise. Factors that must be considered in order to prove capacity include the nature of the crime, the child’s age and maturity, whether the child showed a desire for secrecy, whether the child admonished victims not to tell, and acknowledgment by the child that the behavior was wrong.
The Chewelah Casino is a low, hangar-like building in the midst of farmland, decorated with a pattern of glowing suns, and one of the few meeting places off U.S. Route 395 between Colville and Spokane. David’s grandmother and guardian Tamera is intelligent and engaging, but her voice radiates stress.
Gary sits beside her, a solidly built man with a thick gray mustache. He occasionally interjects to back up a point in a gruff, kind voice, less voluble than Tamera but no less shaken by David’s situation. Tamera speaks of David as a boy who doesn’t lie, who had no violent tendencies. He was a dreamer who loved fantasy games and make-believe, who still left baby teeth out for a dollar from the tooth fairy, who pet shelter kittens, who carried moths outside.
Gary and Tamera wryly describe their family setup as The Brady Bunch (Gary adds, “We just didn’t get the housekeeper”). Each had brought three children from their first marriages when they married in 1990. They’d nearly been empty nesters when Tamera’s daughter, who had a shaky grip on sobriety and lived with a meth-smoking partner, had been unable to care for her son. After four months, Tamera claimed custody. Grandparents becoming guardians is not uncommon in Stevens County, as parents in the intervening generation are lost to drugs and attendant problems.
Tamera and Gary had a knack for changing diapers and mixing formula, and a cheerful competence with raising babies, but took a refresher course in parenting trends they might have missed. They and David learned baby sign language, so that he could signal his needs, curtailing tantrums as he became a toddler. A psychiatrist at the trial later spoke of Gary and Tamera as “sensitive and motivated” in their caring for David and how the mix of experience and time had uniquely prepared them for this “re-parenting.”
David started school at Loon Lake Elementary, then moved to Valley School after third grade, for its better academics, and finally moved to Fort Colville Elementary, as Tamera worked at the Colville courthouse. David’s family lived just a few blocks from Colville’s Main Street, on a road lined with cedars. American flags were dotted on front porches and a tire swing hung above the lawn opposite. David began to be bullied, or at least excluded, by other children for the first time at Valley, and Tamera got a call from a parent of a friend of David, who had told her “he was so unhappy, he wished he would die.”
Tamera links some of David’s difficulty with his peers to having been raised “around adults.” “Things that children do — push each other, call each other names — he found that very hurtful,” she says. But at Fort Colville Elementary, he seemed happier, inviting 10 classmates for his birthday party at a bowling alley only three months before Feb. 7.
Adam’s situation was different. His family lived out of town, on an isolated road called Old Dominion. He had been homeschooled from first to third grade, but then entered Colville under difficult circumstances. A grandfather who lived with the family had recently died from kidney failure, and his father was frantically busy caring for a wife with progressive dementia, working as a driller, and keeping track of eight children, of which Adam was the youngest.
All of Adam’s brothers were known to law enforcement. Adam idolized his eldest brother, Eric, who had recently been sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder of a 63-year-old in a botched robbery attempt. The brother closest in age to Adam, Andrew, seemed to regard Adam particularly as something of an apprentice. He would drive Adam around town, teaching him to case houses, look for bicycles to steal, find out if the family owned a guard dog. Earlier that school year, items had begun to go missing from Adam’s classroom. Some were hardly noticed: a library book, a textbook, a composition notebook. Then came iPods, backpacks, a flute, and a $695 clarinet. Debbie Rogers had Adam in her office for bringing a pint bottle of rum, one-third full, to school around the same time. She pressed him on the stealing, and he admitted it, saying the items were hidden under his bed. Andrew was selling them for him on eBay and had told him to take the instruments back to school, because they were too valuable.
Debbie Rogers was extremely concerned by Adam’s desire to emulate his siblings’ path, even before Feb. 7. “Adam kept saying over and over, ‘How do I go to jail, how do I go to jail, what do I have to do to go to jail?’” On July 25, 2012, having turned 10 a few weeks earlier, Adam was found in the parking lot of the Colville Walmart, in the driver’s seat of his family’s pickup truck. He admitted he had taken the car without his parents’ knowledge.
A week after the incident, a packed public forum was held in the Colville High School auditorium. The school board invited parents to share their reaction to the event, as well as suggest changes to school policy. Teachers stood on stage, fielding praise, blame, and general lingering anxiety. Several parents asked if teachers could carry concealed weapons into the classroom. The superintendent, Michael Cashion, replied that he would “entertain it as an option,” but also added that teachers might not be ready to undergo the training required to allow them to “level a weapon at a fifth-grader and shoot them.”
For weeks afterward, students were constantly coming to the counselor’s office, talking about the boys, or, more often, a memory it had prompted of violence at home. One third-grader at recess shortly afterward noticed a car parked near the playground with a few people sitting in it, and became terrified that they were waiting in the parking lot to kill him.
At a Feb. 27 school board meeting, Debbie Rogers, Richard Payette, and Justin Sanders, the fourth-grader who had told Richard Payette about David’s knife, were honored with a Colville School District Commendation Award. The gold-starred certificate praised his “acting quickly” and preventing “tragedy.” He was given a standing ovation and a golden apple.
“I was really proud of myself, and it was also kind of sad,” Justin commented in a bashful monotone as he was filmed by local news, rushing his words together as he repeated his story.
“The whole town is proud of this boy,” Principal Allen said. “Without his first step, we don’t know what would have been next.”
After spending two months in detention in Martin Hall, a facility for juveniles awaiting court appearances 20 miles southwest of Spokane, the boys appeared in court for a capacity hearing. They wore beige prison jumpsuits with handcuffs, a chain around the waist, and leg irons, which jangled as they took their seats. Adam was much taller than David, and very heavy-set, with the frame of an adolescent, but far less confident in conversation than his friend. A mop of lank blond hair fell forward into his eyes. David was brown-haired, skinny, and long-limbed.
The state, led by prosecutors Lech Radzimski and Tim Rasmussen, laid out an aggressive case for the capacity of the two boys at the time of the conspiracy. Their contention was that the “taking of another human being’s life is intuitively wrong” and a boy “of any thinking age” knows its seriousness. (The incriminating statements the boys made to Officer Arms were allowed in at the capacity hearing, potential Miranda violation notwithstanding.) As for secrecy, a third student, Chase Lee (also a pseudonym), had been aware of the boys’ plan, and had been promised $80 not to tell anyone.
Both boys’ family histories and discipline records were pored over in the courthouse — they included missing homework, swearing at recess, lateness to class, pushing two girls into a snowbank, and an incident in October 2012 when Adam, David, and two other boys had put a jump rope round a girl’s waist and pulled her across the playground, “scaring her to the point of tears.”
The idea that David’s discipline records somehow related to her grandson’s ability to stand trial for a murder conspiracy incenses Tamera: “I mean, he had late homework in the fourth grade — most fourth-graders have late homework.”
Two experts who interviewed the boys also testified. Many anticipated their perspectives would exonerate them; this was not the case.
Psychologist Dr. Clark Ashworth stated that both boys were aware of what they had been planning to do, and what its implications were. Adam understood his actions were wrong, Ashworth said as an example, because of his acceptance of the possibility of jail time. He had said: “We’ll probably go to juvy like a year or two or something. I wouldn’t go for a death sentence because nobody got hurt.”
The boys also talked to Ashworth about a sexual component of the plan. He had asked about the seriousness of what landed his brother in prison and Adam responded that murder is “the baddest crime that I know of.” Adam then said that a worse crime would be to “kill a girl and then rape ‘em.” David confirmed this, and when asked to define rape, said, “It’s forced sex. It’s not about sex, it’s about strength … It’s illegal.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Alan Unis, with more qualifiers, broadly agreed with Ashworth’s opinions. He felt that Adam’s abilities, which were average at best, had been impeded by being educated in a home while his mother was neurologically deteriorating. Adam’s writing was particularly telling, he said: “One of the things that helps us think in a sophisticated way, analytically, critically, is when we write things down … This boy’s written language is appalling.”
Unis questioned Adam’s ability to comprehend his own plans or consider their consequences. Adam had also voiced the strongest expression of remorse to be heard from either boy to Unis, saying, “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about what I did, and I play it over and over in my head and I wish I could have the opportunity to tell those people how sorry I am.” Unis granted the possibility that Adam was “prompted” but averred, “It came out very, very spontaneously, and it sounded sincere to me.”
David was hyperactive and verbose in his interviews. He swore, spoke at a rapid clip. His opener to Ashworth was, “Well, I can kick back and laugh. What do you want me to talk about? If you need me to talk about the events that happened a few days ago, I’m all ears and mouth.” When asked if he had told his grandparents about the plan, David said he hadn’t, “‘cause they would tell me not to kill, but I don’t want to listen to all that student speech about killing is wrong, you’ll be arrested. I don’t give a crap.”
Ashworth said he seemed to be manic. When showed police photographs of the school and weapons, David expressed disappointment at there not being a photograph of the knife, as that had been his — blue-black with a spider design on the grip. When Ashworth asked David whether it was a good enough reason to kill the girl because she was annoying, he replied, “Well, the way the other boy and I see it, but you don’t, no.” He said the plan was “actually good to me, and bad, but mostly bad for the real world cause I had a feeling that I’d get arrested.”
Dr. Unis also spoke of David’s mania, saying, “He had a lot of the symptoms we see in kids with bipolar mania … an inappropriately bright, happy mood, incessant motor activity, expansiveness, grandiosity. And then the rapid speech, and of course the problems with sleep.” Unis underlined that one of the factors most in David’s favor was Gary and Tamera’s devotion, but added that in the four months before his grandparents took custody of David, there could have been circumstances beyond their control.
David’s mother is on a battery of prescribed psychiatric drugs, including Abilify, Lexapro, Trazodone, and oxycodone. Tamera recalls there were no such pharmaceutical safeguards in place when her daughter dropped David off with her in 2001: “She was untreated bipolar at the time. She just couldn’t handle raising a baby because babies, they cry and they make noise and they’re messy and they require you to give up sleep and they require you to — you know, at that point in her life, she could not. And she was in a bad relationship, there was some domestic violence. And she called me and said, ‘Can you come get him?’ She had some serious health issues going on. It was a lot of things with her all at once.”
David’s paternal grandmother, Meri, also submitted a letter to the court about her son, Gordon, David’s father, and his extensive mental health history. Gordon had been in and out of psychiatric facilities and threatened suicide even before adolescence; by 28 he was dead of what Dr. Unis euphemistically called “the consequences of untreated bipolar illness.” Unis stressed the increased likelihood of David having a bipolar disorder. He said one parent with the illness increased the chance of a diagnosis for the child tenfold, and two equaled “a grave risk.”
Judge Nielsen summed up the capacity hearing by stressing its uniqueness in Washington state law. Boys this young, with unbroken voices, a crime this serious, with a planning phase for weeks ahead of time, was horribly exceptional. But the evidence was weighted to suggest their understanding of the crime, and of the finality of death. There had been no intimation by either boy that there would have been a last-minute course reversal, and that, if Payette hadn’t found the knife and pistol, the plan would have gone ahead, clumsy, short-lived, but nonetheless lethal. Capacity had been found, and the boys were fit to stand trial.
Adam’s case was settled in just over a week with a guilty plea — his lawyer, Helen Dee Hokom, did not visit Adam in detention prior to making this decision, did not attempt to raise a mental health defense or to suppress any evidence. The sentencing hearing came a month later.
Dr. Kevin Heid, a pediatric psychologist called by the defense, spoke out in favor of leniency. Adam was impressionable, damaged, and desperately sought out a sense of belonging, with a dearth of reliable adult figures in his life. Juvenile detention would introduce him to experienced criminals, antisocial personalities, and generally lost adolescents. “Adam did not have the cognitive ability to problem-solve his way out of the plan. That would be a concern, but that is different, I believe, than a morality issue, or an empathy issue, or an antisocial issue. It is a cognitive issue,” Heid testified. The reality was that the psychiatric hospital setting Heid wished for his patient was simply not a funded option within the Washington system. Treatment would have to be at a juvenile detention facility, not in a clinic or the community.
The prosecution invited Tracie Case, the mother of the intended victim mentioned in the note, to speak. Her husband stood behind her with an arm on her shoulder. She addressed herself to Adam, who was sitting a few feet away with his lawyer, handcuffed.
“She loves horses and the color pink,” Tracie said of her daughter, her hands clasped and her voice tremulous. She maintained steady eye contact with Adam. “She wants to get married and have kids of her own, and to be a famous pastry chef when she grows up. And if you two boys had had your way, she would have never grown up. She would never have had the chance to make her dreams come true.”
“You were willing to take that away from her, take her away from me,” she continued. “Life is all about choices. We make good or bad. There are consequences, and you have to pay those consequences.” She was nearly overwhelmed with tears by the time she folded her statement and stepped down.
The standard range for a conspiracy to murder charge for a juvenile is two years, but prosecutor Rasmussen was pushing for a sentence between five and six years, meaning until Adam is 16. His rationale was that by then there would be no question that Adam could be prosecuted for other crimes as an adult.
“Adam is dangerous because he doesn’t feel toward other people the way most boys do,” he argued. “There is something missing in him.” He spoke of the “evil” in Adam’s heart that day, and commented derisively on the parade of experts the court had seen: “All of these people concentrate on what Adam needs and what can be done for him to help him understand what he did was wrong. He already understands that it’s wrong to kill a person, he was just going to do it anyway.”
Finally it was Adam’s turn to speak for the first time. He was already crying as he stood: “Like my dad said, I’m sorry, and I’m also sorry because I know this is a bad thing that I’ve done,” he sobbed as his voice trailed off. “And, that this…is not a usual thing for a person my age to do…”
The judge, in a quieter voice, thanked Adam, saying he appreciated the difficulty of speaking up. In his sentencing, Nielsen acknowledged the many, many stressors on Adam’s life, and his extreme youth. But whatever the childish, nonsensical, unworkable aspects of the conspiracy, a substantial step had been taken toward the plan when Adam zipped his gun into his backpack, and hid David’s knife alongside. Nielsen issued a ruling of a minimum of 168 weeks, or three years, up to a maximum of 260 weeks, or five years, keeping Adam in detention potentially until the end of his junior year of high school.
Tamera was determined to take David’s case to trial. In the meantime he was held at Martin Hall, where he was placed often in solitary confinement. After four isolated months, Tamera says, “he started showing psychoses, he started seeing things that weren’t there, he would hear voices.” On June 18 she decided to post his $100,000 bail — a figure she found outrageous. “We have an 11-year-old child who has no money, he has no car, he has no bicycle, he has a skateboard, that’s his only method of transportation other than me, and they won’t lower his bail.”
She homeschooled David as they awaited the trial. In September, she and Gary moved to Chewelah, midway between Colville and Spokane. The move was partly so the court might be more likely to allow David to go on trips outside the home.
Throughout our conversations, Tamera has remained tough, but her composure breaks as she talks about David’s bail conditions: “I had asked them if I could take him on. I said, if this is all the time I have with him now, for three or four years, I want to do some things with him. Take him fishing, go to Silverwood, which is an amusement park just over the border in Idaho, and they said no, that he was a flight risk.”
The trial might result in more unpleasant facts on the record but it would also mean a full hearing for David on a mental health and immaturity defense, without being lumped together with Adam. It meant another psychologist would have time to evaluate David, and Tamera bailing him could ensure his care, as well as show the court that David being out of custody for months at a time was no threat.
Both his grandparents and his lawyer wished to show that David was a sensitive boy given to daydreaming and alter egos, detached from reality, not to be held accountable for when games spun beyond his control. This tendency to imagine and invent was only compounded by the bipolar diagnosis that had emerged from his scattered energy, and rapid-fire responses, in the earlier psychiatric interviews.
“He’s not a normal 11-year-old boy,” Tamera says to me, carefully. “He doesn’t live in the real world, he has his own little world that he’s in, and he connects with our world but he’s not in it.”
The prosecution did, of course, present more damning testimony at the trial that October, like from Chase, the boy David and Adam had intended to bribe. Chase shuffled closer to the microphone than other witnesses, speaking softly. He proceeded to tell the court everyday details of fifth-grade friendship (“I never hanged out at their houses”), mixed in with unnerving detail of the plan all narrated in the same wrenchingly matter-of-fact, childish voice. For some weeks Chase had known of the boys’ plan to get revenge: “I’m pretty sure he mentioned handcuffs and raping … He just told me that he was going to use handcuffs the day before. He explained rape was getting somebody naked purposely.”
On the morning of Feb. 7, Chase came in from the bus with David and Adam, who passed a knife back and forth, which Adam then slipped into his sweatshirt pocket. Chase earnestly testified that as he walked to class with Adam and an ebullient David, he had apparently told David to “come clean and stop doing what he was going to be doing.” He claimed David shrugged him off, saying, “No, I want to go through with this.”
Melody Youker, a case manager at Martin Hall, also testified. She spoke with amused affection of David’s hyperactive persona, and said that when he first arrived, he “kind of bounced around, rattling on the doors. Seemed pretty upbeat.” She also revealed that, on the day he spoke to Martin Hall at his intake assessment, David had reeled off, unbidden, incriminating throwaway lines. He asserted that if he found out who “snitched” on him, he would kill them, and that he was having “a day,” because he was here and the girl was still alive. He also boasted that he had been “the brains of the operation.”
However, when cross-examined by Donald Richter, David’s attorney, Youker showed she could be an asset to the argument that David was a dreamer, in the grip of a manic episode, utterly incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality. She described David as having great difficulty focusing, and generally summed him up as an unusually hyperactive, intelligent bookworm. David also liked playing characters, in a way that most children his age had grown out of; particularly he wanted to play any character “with a sword.”
Youker testified that in May, David had told her he had a secret, and that if he told her, she couldn’t tell anybody: “And so he told me that when he goes to sleep at night, he leaves his body and goes into his wolf body. And he was concerned — he wanted help with this, because the wolf body was getting out of control. And he wanted to be able to control this wolf body.” As Melody explained this to the court, David began to drum his fingers on the desk, continuing throughout the rest of her questioning, and stared hard at the witness box. David had also told Youker that when he speaks to someone new, he sees words and numbers hovering around them, telling him what they’re about and how far he can trust them. Youker’s number was high, around 698.
Youker’s testimony also touched on how isolated David had to be kept in Martin Hall, due to his small stature, outsized estimation of his own strength, and how ill-disposed other inmates were to an upstart, precocious kid, lost in his own world.
Jerrie Newport, a juvenile probation counselor for Stevens County, drew up a report that was intended as a balanced look at the perspectives of all adults in the case, and to guide the court in its sentencing. Newport revisited Unis and Ashworth, who reiterated David’s likely bipolar disorder, and the need for lifetime mental health treatment. The most damaging assessment of David in the report came, in fact, from Newport herself, perhaps all the more damning because it was a lay opinion, in persuasive prose, that amounted to a woman who had been thoroughly unsettled by a boy she regarded as dangerous.
Newport had been charged with seeing David once a week while he was on bail, accompanied by his grandmother. Most weeks were uneventful, but on Sept. 19, Newport noted an incident that unsettled listeners. Tamera spoke to Newport about plans they had when David got home, at which point David slammed his palm to his forehead and said loudly, “What the…!”
Tamera calmly asked David what he intended to do, and in a low, warning voice, David replied, “Going back to sleep.” He followed it with, “When I get home I am going to break something.” When Tamera asked what, he replied, “Something I can break. Like a box.” She offered that she had a box he could vent his frustration on if that’s what he wanted. With his head lowered, David looked up at Tamera through his eyebrows and said — in court, as Newport related the story, she adopted a flat, affectless, Village of the Damned tone — “Well, excuse me, but could I borrow a knife?”
Judge Nielsen stated that he accepted David’s bragging assertion at Martin Hall, of being “the brains.” That he was “a leader, charismatic.” He returned to the doctors’ suggestions, that detention, if coupled with treatment, would mean not only community safety and “possibly punishment,” but an improved prognosis, rehabilitation. He spoke warmly of David’s grandparents, singling out Tamera as a “thoughtful person, highly skilled,” but that he feared she could not always be there to curb David’s more worrying instincts. Though he admonished, “I don’t, in saying all this, mean that David is an evil person, I don’t believe that for a minute.” He understood David’s grandparents wanted to continue to raise him, “but I have to weigh things here as a judge in the middle of a community.” Nielsen finally handed down a sentence of three to six years, meaning David would also possibly be held until his junior year.
In February 2014, though, Adam was re-sentenced. The court agreed with an appeal filed that his first lawyer had been incompetent, violating his due process rights, that Adam had not properly understood the consequences of his plea bargain, and that his capacity was far more in question than had been previously argued. The sentencing focused heavily on Adam’s exemplary behavior while at the detention center for convicted juveniles, Echo Glen, and brought out fully what had been expressed to me by everyone I interviewed: that Adam was a follower, that he would never have been inclined to violence on his own. His counselor testified that everyone at Echo Glen loved him there and recognized his smile. Debbie Rogers and Richard Payette spoke in Adam’s favor, as did Superintendent Michael Cashion, who said, “Colville schools are ready to serve Adam, whether it be tomorrow, or a year from now,” the “tomorrow” part of which somewhat surprised the courtroom. Adam’s sentence was altered from a maximum of 260 weeks to 129 weeks with 36 months mandatory probation, meaning he could be released by 2015.
It’s yet to be seen whether Colville, and the boys, will be best served by the earlier release of Adam, and the potential six-year detention of David. Adam appears to be thriving at Echo Glen. As he told the judge, he has moved on to the “seventh- and eighth-grade math books.” When he’s released, he will be returning to a house in which a brother who trained him in thieving still lives, and where for six years he was cared for and then homeschooled by a mentally declining mother. However, Adam’s father, who leaned over the bench at his latest sentencing to say, “It’s up to you now,” loves his son, and wants him home.
There is another unanswered question, which underlies the entire case against Adam. It was never clear why the Stevens County welfare and education system was satisfied keeping Adam off the books and being “taught” at home, why at a time crucial for his development he was out of public school for three years, left with an unwell parent. If an attitude of parens patriae had been adopted far earlier, Adam might have been saved three lost years before Fort Colville.
But is it best, then, for a boy like David, who, the court now seems certain, devised the plan, to spend time in a facility with other, older children with multiple offenses? Should he in fact be kept at home in Chewelah, with Tamera and Gary, who would adhere to suggested therapy, a behavioral or medical regime? But then there would be no proportionate punishment, no consequences. As prosecutor Rasmussen put it, “I don’t have much faith that he will be successfully treated … We will see him again when he gets out.”
Echo Glen is a dot in the eastern Washington wilderness, the nearest landmark a body of water called Icy Creek. It is a one-hour walk to the nearest town, three hours to the highway. Tamera tells me David was supposed to be housed with smaller, younger inmates, but in fact only one dormitory matched this description, and Adam was there, so to keep the boys apart David had to bunk with offenders who were 15, 16, and 17, whom she describes as being “as large as full-grown men.” There had been violent fights in the dorm, though none yet that had targeted David. Tamera’s voice rises in exasperation: “I figure in this country if we’re going to start arresting 10- and 11-year-old babies then we either need to build separate facilities for them, to not put them in with the bigger kids, or we need to not arrest 10- and 11-year-old babies.”
A counseling program that had been promised began five months after David’s arrival, and would last only 10 weeks, due to lack of funding. Tamera and Gary see him every other weekend, for a total of four and a half hours. Recently a staff member, in response to David’s resolute attachment to his fantasy world of wolves, swords, and quests, and his perceived distance from the other inmates, had made the decision to take away his books, Legos, a 500-piece wolf puzzle, and a Star Wars poster. When Tamera asked whether this was a disciplinary move, she was told no, that David simply spent “too much time” in his imagined world, and that he “wouldn’t come out and play with the other boys” — no mention was made of the four- to six-year age gap between him and his roommates, or the willingness of other inmates to engage with David. Tamera says, shakily: “It’s really hard to know someone is mistreating your child, and you are completely powerless to do anything about it.”
While bailed out, Tamera tells me, David played with neighbors’ kids, saw his old baseball coach, and studied. Tamera also saw the whole case against her grandson, the beginning of criminal proceedings in the first place, as deeply flawed, mistaking a child’s hare-brained imaginings for a sinister plot.
“It’s not really a credible threat,” she says. She later adds, “You’ve got two boys going, ‘I’m the tough guy, I’m the boss.’ Of course, they’re 10 and 11 years old — they’re both going to say that. I don’t think either one of them felt they could back down, ‘cause they didn’t want to wuss out in front of the other. So nobody said, ‘This is dumb, we’re really not going to do this, we’re just pretending.’”