Boy shot while playing is in critical condition

Howard 13-year-old was at friend's house

April 21, 2000|By Liz Atwood and Jamie Hopkins | Liz Atwood and Jamie Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Yesterday should have been perfect. The weather was beautiful, and school was out for spring break.

But the teen-agers who gathered at the Fairways subdivision in Ellicott City weren't celebrating. In a stillness broken only by the sound of faraway lawn mowers, the teen-agers stood vigil in front of the rows of neat colonial homes, awaiting word on a gregarious 13-year-old boy.

Tanun Wichainarapong, a sixth-grader who goes by the name "Byrd," was in critical condition yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital with a gunshot wound to the head after a shooting Wednesday at a friend's home where he had been playing video games.

County police think the shooting was an accident. They are investigating and have filed no charges.

"He is such a sweet kid," said Terry Beckmann, a past president of the PTA at Manor Woods Elementary, which Byrd attended. "I think it's very important to remember that. I don't want people to just brush this off. It can happen to any of our kids."

Byrd and two other friends were visiting the home of a 15-year-old boy in the Orchard Park Apartments when the shooting occurred about 3 p.m. Wednesday. Police said the friends had been there for several hours playing video games when one of the boys brought out a .22-caliber rifle and fired it.

No adult was home at the time and one of the boys called police, said police spokeswoman Lisa Myers. "He was just playing video games and something terrible happened," said his cousin, Mati Varavut, 17.

Varavut said he learned of the shooting from family members as he was returning home from a visit to the University of North Carolina. "I wish I had taken him to UNC with me," he said.

Byrd's parents speak little English and declined to comment yesterday.

They were with relatives who also live in the Fairways and were preparing to return to the hospital.

Teachers and friends described Byrd as cheerful and eager with many friends. He enjoys playing basketball and video games, and riding his white bicycle around the neighborhood, they said.

Two younger brothers

The eldest of three boys, he came to the United States with his family about three years ago from Thailand and attends Burleigh Manor Middle School.

"He's a cool kid to hang out with," said Erin McPhail, a neighbor on Globe Drive and a seventh-grader at Byrd's school.

"When I think of Byrd, I think of a burst of sunshine," said Emily Ecker, who teaches English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) at Manor Woods and worked with Byrd while he was a pupil there.

Byrd knew little English when he came to the United States but learned quickly, she said.

"Within a year-and-a-half, he was almost fluent. He's a good student, A's and B's," Ecker said.

Byrd's two younger brothers attend Manor Woods, and he watched out for them while he was there, she said.

"He's the kind of kid, if you meet him, you don't forget him," Ecker said. "There's not a bad bone in him. Byrd isn't the kind of kid who would hang out in a dangerous situation."

"It's a terrible thing -- terrible, terrible," she said.

Beckmann, whose son is also in the sixth grade, said Byrd often played basketball outside her house with other neighborhood youths. His manners were impeccable, she said.

On a school trip in October that she helped chaperon, he insisted that adults be served lunch first.

Helen Mercer, the guidance counselor at Manor Woods Elementary, calls him "Mr. Sunshine."

"He was a very animated guy and very well-liked by his peers," she said. "A little bit of a joker and very pleasant. He just radiated smiles."

Mercer said the Manor Woods staff will be prepared to help pupils deal with the shooting when they return to class next week.

"I'm sure everyone's going to need to process these issues," Mercer said.

"The issue is guns. Guns just don't belong in the hands of kids. The truth is, this could have been anybody's kid."

Police declined to comment on whether charges will be filed against the juvenile who fired the gun or against his parents.

It is illegal for a child under age 16 to discharge a firearm in Howard County except while hunting and under the supervision of an adult.

State law requires adults to keep firearms locked safely out of children's reach.

The General Assembly recently passed the Responsible Gun Safety Act of 2000, which requires that handguns sold in the state be equipped with built-in trigger locks. The law does not apply to rifles such as the one used in this shooting.

There have been several incidents of children shooting children with unattended guns in recent years.

Last year, a 13-year-old Havre de Grace boy was shot by his 14-year-old brother as they played with one of their father's guns while their parents were out. In 1998, a 13-year-old boy was killed in a White Marsh townhouse by a younger playmate who found the gun in the home. No charges were filed in those incidents.

In a 1997 Harford County case, authorities charged a 13-year-old Edgewood boy with second-degree murder in the shooting of his 11-year-old friend.

Teen-agers surprised

Teen-agers on Globe Drive said they were surprised to learn that one of Byrd's friends had a gun. "I don't know anybody that has a gun," said Chad Jensen, 12, a friend of Byrd's.

Geoff Niedhardt, 13, who lives two floors below where the shooting occurred, was not home at the time but said he is a good friend of the boys involved.

He said the 15-year-old who lives in the apartment had shown him a rifle, which he said had belonged to his grandfather. "But he said he didn't have any bullets," Geoff said.

Geoff described his friend as "a nice kid" and said he did not wave the gun or point it at him. At the time he showed him the gun, Geoff said, he wasn't afraid. But after the shooting, he said, he feels lucky. "It could have been me," he said.

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