Investigators have theories, little else

Perpetrator of acid burning likely was a neighborhood youngster, police chief says

April 17, 2007|By Josh Mitchell and Nick Shields | Josh Mitchell and Nick Shields,SUN REPORTERS

The culprit might be, as one criminologist says, a sociopath seeking to inject fear into a setting for lighthearted family fun. Or maybe a sadist who set a trap and lay in wait to watch a victim fall into it.

More likely, Baltimore County's police chief says, the person who doused a playground slide with acid last weekend at a Middle River elementary school was a youngster from the neighborhood.

"For some inexplicable reason, we've got somebody from this neighborhood, I believe no doubt young, who got some sort of emotional high," Chief Terrence B. Sheridan said yesterday. "It's the kind of senseless thing that a few, maybe two, three or more youngsters, would get together and do, something dumb, something destructive, because they're bored."

As the toddler who suffered third-degree burns after going down the slide underwent surgery yesterday, investigators were talking to officials from area schools as they tried to determine who might be responsible for the crime.

Just days after a similar incident in Texas, a cleaner containing sulfuric acid was taken from Victory Villa Elementary School during a burglary and splashed throughout the school playground.

And the young victim's relatives surely were not alone when they asked: Who would do such a thing?

Law enforcement experts who have studied the psychology of criminals said that crimes intended to harm people at random have been committed by people suffering from psychotic episodes and others, angry at society, who want to terrorize a community.

N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, compared the incident to anthrax scares and people spiking food with dangerous substances. The aim is usually not to exact revenge or to make a political statement, but to "whip a community into a frenzy," he said.

"It's not a personal beef, it's not a personal conflict. It's more a person at odds with their community," Berrill said.

"Terror is the end product," he added. The perpetrators "feel for a moment very powerful, very strong when you watch a whole community recoil and respond to being hurt."

He raised the possibility that the Middle River incident is a case of adolescent boys "who can in groups have a sadistic streak, who think it might be funny to burn kids and see the parents freak out."

Arnett Gaston, a clinical psychologist at the University of Maryland, said he could imagine several possibilities. Someone wanted to pull a prank but did not realize the damage that could be caused by the acid. Perhaps someone was having a psychotic episode and did not fully comprehend his actions. Or someone fascinated by pain might have set up the scene and looked on from afar in hopes of seeing someone get hurt.

Crimes targeting children are usually of a sexual nature carried out by pedophiles, Gaston said. "In terms of physical harm, random physical harm like this, in this particular fashion, this is rather unusual," he said. "I'm just hoping it will not become something of a serial nature."

Richard "Bo" Dietl, who earned 80 awards in a 16-year career as a New York City police detective, said he knew of people stuffing over-the-counter pill bottles with cyanide but had never heard of crimes targeting young children at random.

He said he could not imagine such crimes being committed by a sane person.

"Where's the benefit of hurting little children except for your own sickness, to satisfy a sick mind?" he asked.

In the Texas incident, a 2-year-old girl suffered minor burns on her left forearm and buttocks after she got on a playground slide. Authorities in the Austin suburb of Leander said they believed someone sprayed the slide, benches and the grass at the community park with hydrochloric acid stolen from a community pool, according to media reports.

Cpl. Michael Hill, a Baltimore County police spokesman, said there are no apparent links between the crimes. He pointed out that the crimes took place in separate parts of the country and involved different types of acid.

"It would be pure speculation on anybody's part that it could be a copycat incident," Hill said.

Late Saturday morning, Payton Potachney, who turns 3 next month, went with his grandmother to the playground of Victory Villa and slid down the plastic slide. Within minutes he was screaming, and his family took him to the hospital.

The slide had been coated with an industrial-strength drain cleaner containing sulfuric acid, police said. Victory Villa's principal said two bottles of drain cleaner were stolen from a locked storage area in the back of the school.

The boy, who lives less than a quarter-mile from the school, suffered third-degree burns to the back of his thighs, police said.

Richard Potachney, Payton's father, said yesterday that his son's surgery lasted several hours. He was in fair condition yesterday afternoon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, officials said. It was believed that the boy would be hospitalized for up to a month, said John Leschefsky, the boyfriend of Payton's mother.

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