PEORIA, Ill. -- I am on one end of the telephone line, she is on the other. I am not sure I understand what she's saying or what she wants. She is the mother of the 14-year-old known by terms once reserved for terror suspects or incidents involving anthrax-laced letters: a person of interest.
I am on one end of the telephone line, she is on the other. I am not sure I understand what she's saying or what she wants. She is the mother of the 14-year-old known by terms once reserved for terror suspects or incidents involving anthrax-laced letters: a person of interest.
Now that a 15-year-old boy has been arrested for throwing the brick over the overpass that landed on the car carrying Katrina Kelley, her son is not as interesting. At least not in a way that calls for murder charges.
She is talking about how long police questioned her son, how police refused to believe her when she told them her son did not throw that particular brick that night. It seemed to her police were trying to railroad her son for Kelley's death.
I ask how her boy ended up in so much trouble.
He was on probation for a burglary charge. He violated probation when he was suspended from school in late May. (School attendance was a condition of his probation.) Earlier in May, he violated probation again, throwing rocks over the overpass, shattering the windshield of a truck headed up the North University Street ramp off Interstate 74. A 4-year-old girl riding in the truck could have been seriously injured.
He was not arrested and charged with vehicular endangerment until July, until after Katrina Kelley's life ended.
What I want to know about her son and Rakiem Campbell, the 15-year-old set to be tried as an adult in Kelley's death, is this: Do they get it?
They -- and every other kid tempted to throw rocks at cars, smash rural mailboxes with baseball bats, drag race on dirt roads, and engage in various, hare-brained, adolescent thrills - learned early that if they touch a hot plate, they'd burn themselves. But when and how do they grasp that if they throw a hot plate, they're liable to hurt others and themselves? And the hurt is not likely to be momentary. It expands and spreads, leaving consequences in its wake, possibly for decades.
Count the owner of the house where the brick was supposed to be used for landscaping, the driver of the car in which Kelley was riding, her co-workers, friends, family and especially her children among the victims. Count the two boys' mothers. Count the boys themselves among those whose lives were unalterably changed in a split second.
In a television interview, Campbell's tearful mother suggested he has not fully comprehended the impact of a brick.
"I just want to go home," she said he told her from the juvenile detention center.
Meanwhile, the 14-year-old's alleged rock-throwing did not just leave a 4-year-old and her mother with emotional scars. Campbell's alleged brick-throwing did not just result in the death of a mother of two. A rock and a brick, thrown from an overpass, literally frightened an entire community. The randomness of the acts tapped into a sense of vulnerability reminiscent of the 9-11 attacks.
Judging from comments written on this newspaper's Web site, many wanted the boys treated, at least metaphorically, like the late Gen. Wayne Downing would have treated terrorists. The commenters would have the boys' parents punished harshly, too.
They wanted to know, "What kind of parents allow children to roam around at midnight?" Just Tuesday night, the mayor resurrected the idea of a parental responsibility ordinance.
These boys and their parents are not the enemy, though some would treat them as such.
The 14-year-old's mother mentions that she sent him to live with his grandmother in Peoria for a while. She was working up to 80 hours a week at the time as a nurse's aid, she says, and she didn't want him home alone. In other words, she had to split the difference between competing responsibilities -- pay the bills or stay home.
Gen. Downing, the highly-decorated native Peorian who died last week, was a hero and a legend among the elite special operations troops who exploit the vulnerabilities of the nation's enemies. He realized that his troops must get inside the head of far-off terrorists to defeat them on their turf. Is it so difficult to use the same concept, understanding the lives of troubled children and their families, to save us from them?
To save them from themselves?
Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star
Pam Adams is a columnist with the Journal Star. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.