The first of two South River High School seniors accused of beating a younger student into unconsciousness in a hallway acknowledged his role Monday and was sent home to await placement in a juvenile facility.
Vernon Johnson, who was a football player, made the equivalent of a guilty plea to first-degree assault of Jacob Peters before Anne Arundel County Juvenile Court Master John F. Gunning. He and Jacob Dick agreed last month to admit punching the 15-year-old sophomore, in exchange for having their cases shifted to juvenile court, where they would not have adult criminal records. Juvenile authorities had recommended against trying the 17-year-olds as adults.
The attack on Peters has become well-known throughout the region.
"Not only his family, but the entire community is outraged that such a brazen and unprovoked attack would occur in a public place in our community," the victim's mother, Eliza Peters, told the court master.
She described a nightmarish change in her son, from a straight-A student-athlete to a child who suffers from the effects of brain trauma from the Oct. 6 attack. She said that after receiving an emergency call from the school, she arrived there to see her son "unconscious, totally unresponsive" with a closed-head injury and partial blindness that led to him being flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
"He continues to suffer from the brain injury," she said, running through a list of effects, from vision problems and agitation to difficulties concentrating and managing complicated tasks. Peters returned to school full time a few weeks ago; doctors won't know the lasting effects until at least another year of therapy, she said.
Johnson, whose family left him in the Cheltenham youth facility for 10 days to learn the consequences of his actions after he was offered pretrial release, apologized during the proceedings. When his mother, Ingrid Colbert, directed her courtroom remarks to Eliza Peters, both mothers wept. "I called to the hospital because I knew as a mother how you felt," Colbert said.
Police suspect the attack had roots in an Oct. 4 theft of Peters' iPod on a school bus. The younger student said Jacob Dick refused to return it, according to court documents that also indicated the victim and his parents went to the Dick home, where Dick chased the younger teen to fight him.
Assistant State's Attorney Brian Marsh said that two days later, Dick knocked Peters to the floor of a school hallway during a change in classes and was pulled off him by other students. As the others tried to help the younger student, a water bottle struck Johnson, who turned and hit Peters, according to Marsh.
Defense lawyer David Putzi depicted Johnson as a well-intentioned youth from a good home who was "not the bully" in the incident. He said Johnson tried to intervene in the initial attack on Peters, but thought the sophomore threw the bottle at him and instinctively punched him. Another student had thrown it.
Johnson has been in counseling and his parents gave prosecutors a $630 check to pay medical bills of a female student who was injured while trying to help Peters after the first blow.
Dick is scheduled to appear in juvenile court March 3. Neither of the seniors has been allowed back in the school.