Signs We Ignored Before Killings


October 18, 1992|By ELISE ARMACOST

Whenever someone dies the way Chuckle Cross did, our immediate and inevitable reaction is, "Oh, how senseless!"

It's an expression of disbelief. One 16-year-old stabs another over a bicycle, and the tragedy seems so sudden, random and unforeseen. What we really are doing is shaking our heads, telling ourselves the whole thing was unavoidable; there was nothing we could do.

Is this really true?

In this case, as in so many others, the signs of impending trouble were there, if only we'd seen them.

Chuckle Cross died in front of a friend's house in Elvaton after an argument over who had let the air out of his bicycle tires. What began as a fistfight ended when a knife sunk into his chest. Police have arrested and charged Steven C. Barrett with first-degree murder.

At his bail hearing, his mother pleaded for him. "He's not a bad boy," she said. Perhaps not. But the signs pointed to the fact that Stevie Barrett was, at the very least, a troubled young man.

A ninth grade dropout, he spent several years at a special education school for problem students; he quit there, too. He had family difficulties, and some people in the Millersvllle neighborhood knew him as a troublemaker. And yet, it seems that no one admitted the depth and direction of his problems.

The Cross case reminded me of another teen-age tragedy in Harford County almost five years ago. On Jan. 17, 1988, a 15-year-old named Kimyon Antonio Marshall stabbed a 17-year-old track and basketball star through the heart after an argument over a tennis shoe. It was a particularly cold, deliberate murder. The two had quarreled briefly in a bowling alley after Kimyon hid the victim's tennis shoe. That should have been the end of it. Instead. Kimyon went to a friend's house for a butcher knife, walked back to the bowling alley parking lot, stabbed the other boy, turned around and walked home.

Everyone agreed: It was a senseless crime. And yet, what happened made sense.

The signs were all there that Kimyon Marshall was a troubled, violent youth. At 14, he'd tried to commit suicide. And his record included a litany of juvenile offenses, including two assaults with a knife and other attacks with a baseball bat and a throwing dart.

Someone - relatives, schools, the juvenile agencies that had dealt with him - should have seen a tragedy coming. More than merely noticing. they should have admitted this boy was potentially dangerous. Yet the letters his relatives wrote to the Judge, pleading for leniency on the grounds that he was frightened and acted in self-defense, showed no real understanding of the person he had become.

Here in Anne Arundel, the vicious killing of Jerry Haines last winter is a clear example of a senseless death preceded by ample warnings.

Police say it was common knowledge that 16-year-old Brian Tate, now awaiting trial for murder, had threatened Mr. Halnes and screamed obscenities at him days before the killing. The police record also shows Tate apparently had a penchant for jealous rages; he is charged with trying to kill another rival suitor last November by setting his house on fire.

After the Haines killing, some who knew the suspect wished they had known about the alleged threats; they looked back, wondering what they could have done.

It's pointless and, perhaps, a little cruel to heap blame on the people closest to these teen-agers after the damage is done. They have enough suffering to bear. But for the sake of avoiding future tragedies, we must realize that it's simply not enough to love our children; we have to know them, too. Perhaps affection always breeds denial. Perhaps the rapid-fire pace of life in the late 20th century that makes us too busy to truly pay attention. But is that really an excuse?

I asked someone at the Juvenile Services Agency to help me understand why some children kill over a girlfriend, a bicycle or a shoe. This was the answer I received: Why does anyone do anything?"

In other words, there's no point in trying to figure them out, and it's beyond our ability to stop them.

Sometimes that is true. But I wonder if we accept that too easily. The crimes of youth almost always are accompanied by warnings, and no one ever pays attention. If anything makes them senseless, It is that.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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