Descent from victim to suspect

Terrence Tolbert, 20, who lost an arm at age 8, faces charges in killing

Arrests started as a teen

February 02, 2003|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

He was the little boy in everyone's prayers, the 8-year-old who lost his right arm to a 13,000-volt shock in his Annapolis neighborhood.

Terrence Tolbert endured weeks of hospitalization and a painful recovery from injuries he suffered after crawling into an electrical transformer likely pried open by drug dealers hiding their stash. He had to learn again to dress himself and tie his shoes, to ride his bicycle and write.

His struggle after the accident in 1991 inspired Annapolis residents, who raised money for medical bills and brought gifts. Thousands more in Baltimore and Washington learned the story of his traumatic accident from news reports.

But last week, Tolbert spent his 20th birthday in jail - accused in the killing of businessman Straughan Lee Griffin a block and a half from the State House.

Dressed in prison blues at an Anne Arundel County jail, Tolbert speaks quietly of the accident and later years, when his troubles continued. He had hoped to move out of the Robinwood public housing development - where he was injured as a child and began racking up a criminal record as a teen-ager - "to get a new life and get rid of my old one."

But now, he and a 17-year-old neighbor await trial for last fall's killing, a crime that shook Annapolis and saddened those who remembered Tolbert as a little boy. His arrest marked the end of the descent from courageous child to troubled teen-ager with a record of car theft, drugs and violence.

Shock, severe burns

Behind a cluster of Robinwood townhouses, the large green metal box sat ominously at the edge of a yard that spring evening, its doors swinging open.

About dinnertime on April 23, 1991, Tolbert recalls, he was tossing a small foam football with friends when it bounced into the box - an electrical transformer supplying power to the 149 townhouses on Annapolis' southwestern edge.

Tolbert crawled in after the ball. His arm brushed the wires, and electricity surged through his tiny body, pulling him deeper into the electrical cage, trapping him and threatening to shock anyone who helped him.

Soon, nearly 200 people had gathered around the frightened boy. Children cried as their parents screamed for help.

When Annapolis Police Officer Peter Medley arrived, he couldn't tell what was happening until he saw two small feet sticking out of the box.

"There's a boy in there!" people shouted at him, Medley recalls. "Help him! Help him!"

At first, Medley thought the boy was dead. Then Tolbert started moaning and stirring in his smoldering jacket. Using a wooden rake handle, a neighbor pushed aside the wires as Medley pulled the boy out.

Paramedics began treating Tolbert as a rescue helicopter landed in the field of nearby Annapolis Middle School. He regained consciousness once in the helicopter headed to Children's Hospital in Washington, and then passed out again.

He was severely burned over much of his body - especially his right arm - and spent six weeks in the hospital. His arm and part of his right foot were amputated, and he endured a grueling regimen of skin grafts over both legs and his foot.

He spent another two weeks in physical therapy at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia, being fitted for a prosthesis, regaining his balance and relearning daily activities, such as tying his shoes and dressing himself.

Then, he returned to Robinwood.

Unwanted attention

Little Terry Tolbert did not like the attention that came next: the looks, the questions.

"When I came home, I didn't go outside the whole summer - I didn't come out until school started," he recalls. He was "nervous ... about how people would look at me."

But when he returned to his townhouse at 1386 Tyler Ave., he was the center of attention. Area residents, led by the county's Black Political Forum, raised about $1,500 toward his medical bills, which court records show totaled more than $150,000. Invoking his name, they fought for safety precautions to help keep electrical transformers throughout the city locked.

A steady stream of visitors filed into his house with gifts and good wishes. Friends came to play Nintendo - one of his favorite activities.

When he started third grade at Annapolis Elementary a few months later, Tolbert shied away from any special attention, recalls his teacher, Lita Brown.

"He didn't want your sympathy," Brown says of the bright student who was especially good in math. "He made quite an impression on me with his independence."

Tolbert adapted quickly to his handicap. Originally right-handed, he soon learned to write with his left hand. He continued to take physical education class, dribbling a basketball and playing kickball on the playground. He learned to ride his bicycle again.

"This child, he did wonders," says Brown, 53. "Whatever I did or whatever I taught, he picked up very quickly."

But he also suffered the torment of older kids, who, he says, made jokes about the way he looked and called him names.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.