Boy's death grieves N.Y. town arrest is even more shocking Teen's confession stuns neighbors

August 23, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

SAVONA, N.Y. -- The street is lined with maple trees and 15 homes. There is a town hall near one corner, a church on the other, and at the dead end, an elementary school to the left and a recreation park to the right.

It's safe here, isn't it? Safe enough for a mother to send her child off alone on McCoy Street for a morning of organized play?

But on Aug. 2, Derrick Robie, a blond-haired, blue-eyed 4-year-old, picked up his brown-bag lunch, hugged and kissed his mother, Doreen, goodbye, walked out the door and never came back.

He was found a half-block from his home, under a clump of bushes and trees, at the back end of a vacant lot no larger than half a football field.

He was beaten with a blunt object and choked.

For a week, the 940 residents of this rural community, tucked into the lush, undulating hills of New York's southern tier, lived in fear as state troopers zealously pursued the case.

They wanted the killer bad. Real bad.

But what they discovered shook them all.

The person who confessed to the killing was neither a parolee nor a pedophile nor an outsider.

He was one of their own, a red-haired, freckle-faced 13-year-old boy named Eric Smith.

"You had so much hatred for this person for a week, and then you find out that it's a 13-year-old boy, who lived three houses down from you," said Michael Sweet, the town's part-time mayor. "What can you say? What could drive someone to do that? But you keep in the back of your mind that even a boy is responsible."

The villagers are still attempting to come to terms with a killing that remains, to most, incomprehensible.

How could one boy kill another in broad daylight, so close to a school, a park, a town hall and homes?

"It was a totally random event," said Lt. Mark Fischer, a criminal investigator for the New York State Police. "It could have been any child. You can't help but think what that poor little guy was thinking of during his last few moments on Earth."

And the motive was apparently as senseless as the crime itself.

Before being charged with second-degree murder, Eric was asked by investigators how he felt when he left his home the morning of the killing.

In a matter-of-fact tone, he answered, "I wanted to hurt somebody."

And, by his own account, he did.

One beloved, one isolated

They lived on opposite ends of town. Their families belonged to the same church. They played in the same recreation program. They knew one another, but were not friends.

Derrick was beloved.

Eric was a loner.

Derrick enjoyed playing T-ball and kickball. When his dad, Dale, was outside their stone home attached to the Church of the Good Shepherd, Derrick was usually nearby, handing him tools or pushing his toy lawn mower.

He was fearless. Two months short of 5, he was already swimming alone at a nearby lake and riding a bicycle without training wheels.

"Derrick was a feisty, friendly little boy," said the Rev. Neil Strong of Savona Federated Church. "He'd wave hello to everyone. He would go nonstop through a day. He was all boy."

Eric was an enigma, held back in fourth grade, described as either cocky or shy, a bully or a sweetheart. He read Stephen King novels, listened to Garth Brooks tapes, played with G.I. Joe dolls and was a drummer in a school band.

He lived in a gray house, an old washing machine on its new front porch, with his stepfather, Ted, mother, Tammy, and two sisters.

He was often seen riding around town on his BMX bicycle. Usually, he was alone. There was one other thing everyone remembered about Eric: his glasses. They were wire-rim aviators held together by a clump of tape at the bridge.

"He is a very polite kid," said Laurie Elliott, who owns the Savona Diner with her husband, Roy. "He'd always smile. Once, he cleaned my house after I gave him some ice cream. There was no toughness about him."

The Elliotts took their 10-year-old son Bradley and Eric on a Memorial Day vacation to Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa. The kids played together. Rode the rides together. And when the Elliotts bought Eric a Harley Davidson T-shirt, he wore it for a week straight.

"Eric is a nice kid," Bradley said. "I don't like it if people look at him like he's a bad kid."

But Bradley's parents remain mystified, yet angered, by the news of the last few days.

"I feel sorry for Eric, in a way," Mrs. Elliott said. "He needs help."

"The further you get from the murder, the more lenient you feel about it," Mr. Elliott said. "There are still some unanswered things."

"But the brutality, . . . " Mrs. Elliott said. "Eric was the least likely suspect."

Death in six minutes

MA Aug. 2 broke gray and threatening in Savona. There was a good

chance of rain, which would have forced town officials to cancel the daily recreation program that drew nearly 100 children.

But the rain held up.

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