Relatives ask who'd put acid on slide

Boy expected to get skin grafts today for third-degree burns

April 16, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Payton Potachney knew exactly where the slides were behind Victory Villa Elementary School.

Late Saturday morning, as he crossed a wooden footbridge onto school grounds, the Middle River boy who turns 3 next month left his grandmother's grasp and raced toward the cupola-covered jungle gym, family members said. Within minutes, the blond-haired toddler was gliding down his beloved slide.

Then he screamed.

The plastic slide had been coated with an industrial-strength drain cleaner containing sulfuric acid so caustic that it quickly burned through his clothes and began to peel away his skin. In that instant, the popular school playground became the most unlikely of crime scenes.

"You think something like this is never going to happen to your family," said his aunt, Nikki Leschefsky, 23. "Why would anyone ever do this?"

Baltimore County police said yesterday that the person or persons who did it could be charged with first-degree assault for injuries sustained by the boy, and with burglary and vandalism for breaking into the school.

According to Payton's family, police recovered fingerprints on one of the bottles of drain cleaner found near the jungle gym. But Payton's stepfather, John Leschefsky, said a detective told him yesterday that police have no solid leads to identify who poured it on much of the playground equipment.

"They told me I'd probably hear something before they did, so I should call them if I hear anything," he said.

Payton was at Johns Hopkins Hospital yesterday, his legs wrapped in white bandages and his pain dulled by medication. He was expected to undergo skin graft surgery today to treat third-degree burns on the back of his thighs.

His family planned to take him a favorite pancake breakfast and a bouquet of Sponge- Bob SquarePants balloons to lift his spirits.

Privately, they worried that the chemical burns that extend from his lower back to his ankles might hinder Payton's ability to walk.

"I'm still at a loss for words," said John Leschefsky, 22, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended Victory Villa.

A `hideous crime'

Victory Villa's principal, Kathleen East, said yesterday that two bottles of drain cleaner were stolen from a storage area at the rear of the school.

"They were secured in a locked area behind a steel door," she said. "Whoever did this hideous crime broke through a steel door. ... It was in a secured area so it wouldn't be accessible to any children.

"Even though we're a victim as part of the vandalism, the child is really the victim here. I hope people put their efforts toward finding the perpetrators."

Saturday's incident came two days after a similar one near Austin, Texas, but authorities said they have no information linking the crimes.

With about 340 students expected to return to Victory Villa today after spring break, Baltimore County school officials promised that the building and grounds would be safe.

"We're going to put down a new layer of wood chips, and the good news about the weather is that all this rain will wash away any trace of the chemical," Kara Calder, a schools spokeswoman, said yesterday.

She said the building was searched by school officials yesterday and that "there is no additional damage inside, so we have no concerns about school opening."

A motive for the crime remained a mystery yesterday, but spray-painted graffiti might offer a clue, police said. On the school's back wall, someone scrawled "45 watch out 4 DA 45."

The principal said a custodian left the building about 3:30 p.m. Thursday and noticed the graffiti when she arrived about 7 a.m. Friday. It was unclear what it meant, authorities said, and whether it was related to the acid incident.

Family members and friends huddled at their two-story home yesterday while Payton's mother, Carol Duschl, remained at Hopkins with her son. The red Radio Flyer wagon that his grandmother, Bonnie Leschefsky, used to rush Payton home on Saturday still lay on the front walk.

`You knew it was bad'

In interviews, relatives recounted the horror of trying to hose off the searing liquid to no avail. Payton's parents realized that he needed to be taken to the hospital after they were unable to ease his pain.

"He wasn't crying or whining," grandfather Frank Burke said yesterday. "He was screaming so hard you knew it was bad."

Payton's parents took him to Franklin Square Hospital's emergency room about 1 p.m. Saturday. He was later transferred to Hopkins' pediatric burn unit, where he was listed in fair to good condition yesterday.

Meanwhile, the boy's shocked family struggled to understand why a neighborhood they had considered safe now seemed so dangerous.

"This used to be a tight-knit community," Burke said. "Now I just don't know."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

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