Incident at Centennial Park


Last week, a rather ugly chapter in my life closed when a 16-year-old boy, wearing a gray hooded sweat-shirt and jeans, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for rape.

My involvement in the case was as a prospective witness, having come upon the gruesome scene in a nearby park in April last year. My neighbor and I, both pushing babies in strollers, did what we could to help -- first shouting at the attacker to scare him off, then helping the victim to safety, where police were called.

After more than a year and numerous trial postponements, the youth -- Antonio Lee Perry of Capital Heights -- pleaded guilty May 13 to second degree rape, making a trial unnecessary.

At the sentencing, I spoke to the 27-year-old victim, who I had not seen since the rape. The crime had shattered her life, she said, making her feel like a "prisoner" afraid to leave her home. Most upsetting in the weeks following the rape, she added, was learning more about the rapist and how he came to be on that jogging path in Howard County's Centennial Park.

The rapist, it turned out, was a violent offender already in the custody of the state's Department of Juvenile Services for prior sex offenses. Perry and 18 others had been bussed to the park on a recreational field trip. But when two youths strayed from the group, a third juvenile was sent to find them -- Antonio Lee Perry, a convicted rapist.

Park patrons interviewed by police that day said they had seen a youth, matching Perry's description, wandering around the park by himself for more than an hour before the attack. Witnesses also said they later saw a youth matching his description chasing down a van as it was leaving the park. From what police were able to piece together, it appeared the group would have left Perry behind if the rape had not been interrupted when it was.

Staff members for the Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center in Marriottsville, where Perry was being treated for sexual disorders following a rape conviction, had failed to do a simple head count before preparing to leave.

Their apparent disregard for public safety is alarming, to say the least. At Perry's sentencing, Circuit Court Judge James B. Dudley blasted the Department of Juvenile Services and its programs for their negligence and for so miserably failing to protect the public.

"The state's pathetic system has failed to respond even 1 percent to a crying social need," said the judge. "The government has to protect its law-abiding citizens. Here is a dangerous, pathetic juvenile in its custody, and while in custody, he commits a heinous crime."

Early on, DJS officials focused on "damage control," trying to shift focus away from the rape by talking about the need to rehabilitate juvenile offenders and facilitate their transition into the community. They promised to investigate the "Incident at Centennial Park," as it is dubbed in internal documents, and recommend changes to guard against future incidents.

That investigation, completed last spring, resulted in a number of changes. But on examination, the changes seem inconsequential. They do not go nearly far enough to ensure public safety in the future. Further, the Centennial Park rape leaves many unanswered questions that the Department of Juvenile Services refuses to address.

Consider the following:

* The Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center is an unsecured facility. DJS says it has a detailed screening process to ensure the appropriate placement of all juveniles. But DJS's policy states that juveniles must be placed in the "least restrictive facility consistent with public safety." One has to question whether sending violent criminals, juvenile or not, to unsecured facilities can ever be consistent with public safety.

At the time of the rape, DJS documents show seven sex offenders were placed at O'Farrell out of a population of 36, roughly 20 percent. And this number doesn't even include juveniles with other types of violent offenses.

As a result of the rape, Nancy S. Grasmick, then Secretary of Juvenile Services, announced that no more sex offenders would be sent to the O'Farrell center, at least for the immediate future. But what about the other unsecured and minimum-security juvenile facilities in the state? Of the 13 state-owned facilities for juveniles in Maryland, the majority are minimally secured.

Newspapers carry frequent reports of dangerous juveniles walking away from juvenile facilities, such as Cedar Knoll, a minimum-security detention center run by the District of Columbia near Laurel. Cedar Knoll was supposed to close in December, 1987 under court order because of this and other problems, but that deadline has been extended numerous times. The time has come to change policy to place juveniles in a setting consistent with public safety -- period. The emphasis on finding the least restrictive environment should be eliminated.

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