WHEN CHILDREN KILL
Pima County youths charged in slayings face hard times getting straight
L. Anne Newell
Arizona Daily Star
They were accused of brutal crimes at tender ages, killing and robbing before turning 15.
Now, Pima County’s youngest killers are growing up. But few of the 14 children charged in someone’s killing in Pima County in the past decade have successfully reformed.
Cheryl Karp, a local psychologist with a forensic emphasis who’s evaluated many criminals, said about 90 percent of juvenile criminals can be rehabilitated, provided the justice system focuses on the children first — and their crimes second.
“They can turn it around,”Karp said. “There are ways kids can come through it.”
But it isn’t easy, she said, and records show it. Of the 14, only three have stayed out of trouble after their first run-ins with the law. One lives in Albuquerque with his mother, one moved to Dallas with her family after being acquitted and one stayed in Tucson and works for a Fortune 500 company.
Four of the 14 were treated as adults and received long prison terms. Each of them has had discipline problems, with one violating prison policies 25 times this year.
Ten went through the juvenile justice system. Of those:
Three were sentenced immediately to the Department of Juvenile Corrections and two got into trouble again.
Six received probation. Four of those committed more crimes, for which two went to Juvenile Corrections. One is serving a six-month prison sentence. Two ran away and couldn’t be found. One was shot to death in a fight with a neighbor.
Veronica Torres was 14 when she shot a handgun five times into a car, fatally striking 18-year-old Monica Renee Perez. Torres, a promising middle school student before she started hanging out with a tough crowd, was sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.
Torres, now 21, earned a GEDat the state prison in Goodyear and took computer programming and college classes. She has talked to new inmates about how incarceration will affect their lives.
Because she has had 26 disciplinary violations in five years, she is still a high-risk inmate, Warden Bill Gaspar said, which means officials classify her as a danger to others.
“No one told me about the pain I was going to feel and that’s what I want to tell kids,” she said. “No one tells you no one’s going to be there for you after everything you do on the streets.”
The number of killings committed by juveniles has fallen nationally since peaking in 1993 at nearly 16 percent, or 4,330 of 27,636 murders. Juveniles committed about 10 percent of homicides, or 1,763 of 17,387, nationally in 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice reported. About 0.5 percent of those were committed by kids younger than 14.
Pima County Juvenile Court Center spokeswoman Gabriela Rico said homicides account for only a small portion of her agency’s referrals. In the past decade, 86,500 children 17 or younger were referred to her agency. The 14 equate to 0.2 percent of referrals.
Despite those small numbers, juvenile killers are a major focus of the justice system. Pima County juvenile court sentencing procedures changed two years ago to ensure children get help to avoid repeat offenses, Rico said.
“In the old days, the more trouble you got into, the more consequences and supervision you got,” Rico said. “Now, first- and second-time offenders are seeing very intense supervision and more consequences.”
Before the change in ideology, “at-risk” children had a 37 percent recidivism rate, Rico said. It’s about 10 percent now.
Also, she said, judges now have more control in sentencing. Children sentenced to Juvenile Corrections before 1998 would stay there until the department decided they should leave. Now, Rico said, a judge decides.
Still, many children can’t escape the dysfunctional families and other at-risk environments that await them once released.
Most of the local juvenile killers came from dysfunctional homes and many of their parents were incarcerated. Without the right help, they will continue to fail, Karp said.
Gina Celaya turned 14 three days before killing Trinidad Lopez, 50. She told authorities Lopez picked her up and drove her to the desert, where she said he tried to assault her. She shot him once and stole $19 and his truck. She was sentenced to at least 30 years.
Celaya, now 22, said one of her goals is to convince people that lengthy prison terms aren’t helpful for children such as her, whose childhoods were full of drugs and anger.
“This ain’t no kind of life,” she said from the state prison in Goodyear. “You’re 14 years old, you have no guidance, no one really to comfort you. Those are kids who still need their mothers, their fathers, their family. And you’re taking a child away from that rather than helping them. All they’re doing is throwing them away.”
Celaya earned her GED and took college classes behind bars. Her at-risk classification is as low as possible, Gaspar said, and she works just outside the prison as a groundskeeper.
Research shows youths are at their peak potential for committing violent acts while in their late teens, Karp said. That can mean some teens in the juvenile court system leave state control when they need help the most, she said.
She supports the changes made in Arizona in recent years, but said they could go farther.
Some state court systems treat child offenders as juveniles, but retain control until the young offenders are in their early 20s, she said. That ensures they get the help they need without being exposed to adult prison.
Corey Viramontes beat and stabbed a man to death when he was 14, becoming the youngest of four brothers convicted of murder. Now he dreams about a job and family.
“I wish Iwould have done it different,” he said, now 16, from the Florence prison. “I wish I wouldn’t have done it at all.”
He is taking special education classes to get a GED but has many disciplinary problems, including 17 violations and eight more pending charges for which he was transferred from Tucson to a special unit in Florence, complex warden Jeffrey Hood said.
“I’m still a kid and stuff, you know what I’m saying?” Viramontes said. “I do little-kid stuff and get in trouble. But if I was on the outside, I’d be getting in more trouble.”
Not all the children have failed at reform. The former guardian of Alex Peña, who was arrested for murder, said the boy is succeeding in work and school and helping care for his mother, who tried to kill herself six months ago in Albuquerque. And the grandmother of Deseri Muñoz, who was riding in the car with Torres and received probation, said the girl has a good job, is expecting a child and plans to marry soon.
The “adopted” family of the latest child to kill in Pima County, a 14-year-old boy the Arizona Daily Star is not identifying because the shooting was accidental, hopes he will be a success story also.
The boy shot his 12-year-old best friend, Albert “AJ” Lopez Jr., in the chest in early June. Eleanor Lopez, AJ’s grandmother, hopes the teen, whom she calls a grandson, will return to a normal life.
“I know it will be hard because that was his friend. But maybe that’s more of a punishment for him because he’s going to think of that everyday,” she said.