Sunday, June 8, 2003

Beyond bicycle theft

Bullies look out: You can be bullied, too

This column is about a bicycle theft.

But since five teenagers could be incarcerated up to eight years each for the crime, this story goes beyond stolen bikes.

It's a cautionary tale about how neighborhood bullies may find themselves bullied by the justice system.

Here's what happened, pieced together from interviews with parents of some of the boys involved and from police reports:

On May 13, two boys, ages 12 and 11, were riding bikes in Ryan's Park in Westwood.

About six to eight older boys approached them. Some of the teens had pulled up their shirts to cover their faces.

One I'll call "D," because he's a juvenile, put his hand under his T-shirt, implied he had a gun and demanded the bikes.

The younger boys didn't budge, so the older boys pushed them. One of the robbers rode a bike away.

A robber's remorse

Another of the older kids, I'll call him "J," reconsidered and got off the other stolen bike, leaving it there. He later told his mother that he'd felt sorry for the two youngsters and wondered if they'd be able to easily replace their bikes.

It didn't matter, because "D" snatched the second bike and rode away with it.

A few days later, one of the robbers was recognized at a fair. Police soon rounded up and charged five suspects, including "D" and "J."

The five gave taped confessions. They had no prior police records.

A couple of weeks later, Westwood Concerned, a community group, held a public meeting about crime. Top officials from police and the prosecutor's office attended.

The crowd of about 100 was assured that the robbers in the park "were in the system" and wouldn't be on the streets for a long time.

They'd been charged with a greater crime than petty theft; they each face felony aggravated robbery charges, punishable by two to eight years.

The crowd cheered.

The mother of "J" and another suspect cringed.

"Our boys are being used as examples," she said later. "They're not criminals. They know what they did was wrong."

She erected two signs on her lawn that read, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" and "Our children are not disposable."

She says her family can't afford a lawyer. All five teens, who are to be prosecuted together, share one public defender.

A crime's punishment

Prosecutors first tried to get the teens transferred to adult court, but that didn't happen. A juvenile court hearing is set for Monday.

The teens are charged as if they were armed robbers because one of them used the threat of a gun.

No one saw a gun. Several of the teens claim that "D" actually showed the victims he didn't have a gun, that what was under his shirt was his hand.

One of the two younger boys says that didn't happen. His mother says the older boys deserve serious punishment, but she's not sure they all deserve the same punishment.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen explained last week that the laws against aggravated robbery "by threat or force of threat" don't differentiate between the existence of a gun or the mere threat of one.

That's why bank robbers who pass notes claiming to have guns are charged as if they had them. The fear generated from the threat is the same, Allen says.

Meanwhile, the young victims try not to show their fears. The mother of one says since the robbery, her son comes straight home from school and doesn't hang out with friends.

He doesn't go to the park any more.

E-mail or phone 768-8395

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