Trail of Trouble

The teenager accused of setting Jason on fire has a long history of criminal trouble.
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Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates

Indianapolis - Despite the secrecy of juvenile records, 13 Investigates uncovers a trail of trouble at the hands of a 14-year-old boy who is inflicting terror on a local neighborhood.

He's one of hundreds of juveniles in and out of detention. In fact, more than 35 percent of juvenile offenders return to the system within three years, most charged with new crimes.

Now those living in fear want action before it's too late.

Over the past year, there was an angry outburst between mothers outside Marion County Juvenile court over what to do with a boy known to trouble. Eyewitness News caught the bitter banter back and forth.

"He's going to prison," yelled Kimberly Strunk.

"No, he isn't," shouted back the grandmother of the 14-year-old boy sparking the heated words.

Second felony charge

Already, nearly half of his young life has been spent in and out of detention. Last year he grabbed headlines for a near deadly act.

He was playing in a fire pit and kicked a burning, gasoline drenched can onto Kimberly Strunk's seven-year-old boy, Jason.

"I seen something flying through the sky on fire," Strunk told 13 Investigates as she relived the helplessness she felt during that moment. "Right as I was reaching for Jason, it had already hit him in the chest and he just automatically went whoosh, and his whole body lit up," she said through tears.

That's when young Anthony Hubbard jumped the fence, rolled Jason and smothered the flames. The teen suspect ran but was arrested when we returned to the scene.

"He was just going to let him burn," said Strunk in disbelief. "That's what hurts the most," she said.

Jason suffered burns to his face, arms, fingers and chest.

A juvenile court found the teen delinquent of felony criminal recklessness. No one could prove he intentionally set Jason on fire. The court ruled he was no danger, despite a run-in with Jason's mother a day earlier on Jason's birthday.

"We had had a party and denied him coming to it," explained Strunk.

She thought the teen was too old, and heard about his trail of trouble - one 13 Investigates pieced together through police and the few juvenile records that are public.

History of trouble

A repeat runaway since the age of 10, he is accused of assaulting his own grandparents and was convicted of felony burglary at 12. He was arrested for resisting law enforcement by the time he was 13.

His own mother told police he was "extremely violent."

Still, the juvenile court recommended the "least restrictive alternative," a treatment center. His mother and grandmother declined comment.

Chief Juvenile Prosecutor, Peter Haughan, can't talk about the case, but explains the approach to juvenile cases.

"You look at what sort of services can be provided and yet at the same time balancing how much of a risk is that child to the public safety," Haughan told 13 Investigates.

The boy was ordered to write a letter of apology and successfully complete anger management. The same orders for his burglary case. Strunk couldn't believe that was it.

"I thought he would go to jail. I mean to me it's absolutely crazy that you can set a human being on fire and not see the inside of a jail cell. And I don't care how old you are," she said.

"First of all I think you have to mindful that they're kids," said Haughan. "You hit a point where you have a child that continues to act out and continuing what would be criminal-like behavior. There does come a point as a prosecutor we might request that they be waived to adult court," he said. (See the number of Indiana teens committed to the Department of Correction.)

But that usually only happens after all treatment avenues are exhausted, or the offender is charged for a heinous act.

Strunk said she warned the court this would not be the end of the problems.

"I said you're going to let this boy out and he's going to hurt some other kid," she told 13 Investigates.

Time proved her right.

New charges

Within a week of his release, after five months in treatment, the same teen was again back in handcuffs. This time he was arrested for battery.

"I'm just glad he didn't kill me," said the 13-year-old boy who was attacked. He can't remember how many times the teen suspect kicked him in the head or stomped on his arm. A passing motorist witnessed the beating and called police. Their mothers clashed.

"Her first words were, 'Please don't prosecute my son because I don't want to lose him.' I'm like, 'Well, my son could be dying,'" recalled the victim's mother.

Emergency room records show the 14-year-old victim suffered a concussion. He regained consciousness as he was loaded into the ambulance.

13 Investigates asked him what his thoughts were at the time.

"I don't know what happened," said the boy, who remembered being confused about the situation. "Why am I covered in blood?" he remembers thinking to himself.

The two boys had just met that week and became fast friends. But something changed when the suspect learned this boy was also pals with Anthony Hubbard, the honored fire hero who saved Jason from more serious burns.

"He said he's going to get Anthony some day. And then after he got me he said, 'Tell Anthony I'm going to get him next,'" the beating victim told 13 Investigates.

Back at the Juvenile Center, the accused teen got the least possible charge, an A misdemeanor.
Kimberly Strunk says the system is failing a neighborhood living in terror.

"Are you all living scared of a 14-year-old boy?," 13 Investigates asked Strunk.

"I'm scared that some body's child is going to be dead before they understand how serious it is," Strunk said, breaking down.

The teen initially denied the beating, but later admitted to the violent attack.

"He apologized to me. He said he was sorry for what he did," the beating victim said after leaving court. "He just has anger problems and just blacked out. He said he wanted the judge's help to help him learn what's right," he added.

For the splintered families, the ordeal is not over. Anger spills on both sides outside of the court with counter allegations of harassment, and intimidation by the families.

"When we're not bugging you, you're bugging us," yelled the teen suspect's grandmother before her daughter pulled her away.

"She said if I come into court today that me and my kids are dead. And when I came out she said I got your number," the victim's mother told court deputies responding to the verbal altercation between the two sides.

Police now on standby, hope time and distance from Juvenile Court will calm emotions.

But the big question remains. Will the teen at the center of it all get what he needs to come back home to walk a path away from trouble.

The Chief Juvenile Prosecutor warned, "Many times there is no happy ending."

Jason is now eight years old and is preparing for surgery in January. His physical scars have healed but therapist say he is still suffering emotionally.

The teen in question will learn his future status in an upcoming closed hearing.  He is one of more than 4,000 kids found delinquent last year in Marion County. The Indiana Youth Institute says of that number 146 serious offenders, some of them repeats were committed to the Indiana Department of Correction.

Related links:

Statewide juvenile delinquency statistics

Number of Juveniles Committed to the Department of Correction - Indiana - KIDS COUNT Data Center

2008 juvenile recidivism rate for Indiana

Indiana fact card on juveniles in the DOC