By the time they reached Deerfield Beach Middle School, four of the five young teenagers accused of setting a classmate on fire had already grown up in a fractured world where crime or violence was a fact of life.
Most were raised in families in which one or both parents have numerous criminal arrests and a history of domestic abuse. In several cases, court records show the parents have drug or alcohol problems. And investigators say all five boys, ages 13 to 16 -- have had brushes with the law.
But the group of seventh-graders now face charges for a crime far worse than the criminal mischief of their past. The boys -- acting together -- ganged up on 15-year-old Michael Brewer outside a Deerfield Beach apartment complex on Oct. 12. Acting on the orders of one boy, they doused him with rubbing alcohol and set him ablaze. As Brewer screamed in terror, they all ran, authorities say.
At least three of them laughed about it after they were arrested, according to Sgt. Steve Feeley of the Broward Sheriff's Office. Their motive, Feeley said, was retaliation against the victim for snitching over a feud involving a $40 video game and a bicycle.
A Miami Herald review of court and police reports, along with interviews of law enforcement authorities and others, reveals a troubling portrait of the five suspects' family lives.
Records in Palm Beach and Broward counties show that the parents of four of the boys have convictions for a litany of crimes, including child neglect, drunken driving, assault and battery, burglary, fleeing police, drug possession, and drug dealing.
Among other things, one suspect's father was accused of stabbing a man who owed him money. Two other teen suspects -- brothers -- were once removed from their home by state child welfare authorities because of child abuse. A fourth suspect's father had been arrested a dozen times -- the boy's mother had been arrested nine times.
Their parents' arrests often resulted in guilty pleas and no-contest convictions on lesser charges, according to court records the newspaper was able to obtain. But not all of their arrest records detail what, if any, jail time was served.
In the aftermath of the attack against Brewer, who suffered burns over 65 percent of his body and will remain hospitalized for months, the callousness of the crime, the childish dispute that led to it and the young ages of the suspects have astonished even the most hardened investigators.
What might have triggered something so evil is something the parents, lawyers, police and psychologists will likely argue endlessly in the months and years to come.
Yet assistant Broward state attorney Maria Schneider, the prosecutor in the case, believes the boys' history of family strife offers at least one explanation.
``Having parents engaged in the criminal justice system, parents who aren't engaged in their schools and their activities, and the kids' exposure to domestic violence almost always is an indicator of future trouble . . . it doesn't excuse it, but it explains it,'' she said.
For now, the teens remain in Broward's juvenile detention center, awaiting hearings. Michael Bent, 15; Steven Shelton, 15; Denver Colorado Jarvis, 15; and his brother, Jeremy Jarvis, 13, all face charges of aggravated battery. Jesus Mendez, who turned 16 on Friday, is charged with attempted second-degree murder.
The year was 1993. And Dennis Bent was angry that another man owed him and some buddies money.
According to Boca Raton police, Bent and his two friends broke into Andrew McLeary's home, pilfered jewelry and other possessions, then threatened to kill him. Bent thrust a kitchen knife at McLeary so hard that it broke, the report said. He then grabbed a pair of scissors and began stabbing McLeary as two other men, Kent Samuels and Gershon St. Fleur, held him down.
``I'm going to kill him,'' Bent growled as he slashed McLeary in his face, stomach and right thigh, the police report said.
According to police, Bent, along with the other two, confessed. They all were charged with attempted murder, home invasion, armed robbery, armed burglary and use of a weapon. In Bent's case, the most serious offenses were dropped, but he pleaded guilty to burglary and battery charges. He was placed on probation for two years.
Bent's son, Matthew, wasn't yet born when this crime happened, but over the years his father's arrest record of felonies grew -- everything from drug possession to aggravated battery. Bent, 43, declined to comment for this story. But he said that he and his wife, Cheri, have been married for 26 years and have seven children, including Matthew.
Matthew Bent is accused of orchestrating the attack on Brewer.
A TROUBLED FAMILY
Denver Colorado Jarvis Jr. was driving his Dodge Ram on NE 49th Street in Pompano Beach in June 2005. According to the BSO report, Jarvis crashed into two parked cars and, when sheriffs arrived, the elder Jarvis had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and could barely stand on his feet. In the truck at the time: his 10-year-old son, Denver Colorado III. The boy's father was arrested for drunken driving, child abuse and driving too fast for conditions.
In August 2005, he pleaded no contest to drunken driving with property damage. The other charges were dropped. He was sentenced to six months' probation but was rearrested three months later and his probation extended after his urine analysis tested positive for drugs.
At that time, the Jarvis children had already been subjected to years of abuse, according to court records and sources close to the case. They had been removed from the house by child welfare authorities, declared dependents of the state and ordered to live with a relative.
A source with knowledge of the case said their father, 45, has been plagued by alcohol abuse and had relapsed several times. Their mother, Sherry Jarvis, 38, had mental health concerns, and last year was sentenced to six months' probation for drunken driving.
Still, the records reveal that the couple kept trying to keep their family -- which also includes two daughters -- together, the source said. By 2006, they fulfilled all their child welfare obligations and completed counseling and parenting classes.
But since that time, BSO has responded to more than 20 incidents at the Jarvis' Pompano Beach home, mostly for domestic disturbances, according to BSO records.
On one of the calls, in July 2008, Sherry Jarvis told investigators her husband jumped on top of her, grabbed her by the throat with both hands and nearly choked her. He was charged with battery, but the charge was later dropped. One month later, the couple was charged with violating school attendance laws because their sons were skipping school. They were ordered to undergo parenting classes.
The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching the couple for comment.
Jeremy's lawyer, Steven Melnick, said Jeremy's home life has no bearing on the tragedy.
``I don't think that's relevant for Jeremy what the sins of the father may have been,'' Melnick said.
In the Oct. 12 attack, Denver Colorado III doused the victim with rubbing alcohol, while the boy's younger brother did nothing, according to police.
In January 2008, with police lights in her rearview mirror, Patricia Hollis raced her car across a parking lot, barreled through busy intersections, ran red lights, blew stop signs and sped down one-way roads the wrong way. All the while, reaching speeds of up to 100 mph.
When she was finally stopped, Lake Worth police found that her 10-year-old son was a passenger in the car. She was arrested and taken to jail, and the police notified state welfare authorities about her son.
She was ordered to do 50 hours of community service and to undergo random drug-testing.
It was not Hollis' first run-in with the law.
Hollis, 41, has been arrested nine times; his father, Steven Shelton, 40, 12 times.
Between 1999 and 2008, Hollis, in fact, pleaded guilty to resisting arrest,child abuse, fleeing and eluding, and was arrested for shoplifting, fraud, impersonation and child cruelty.
In one incident, a Palm Beach County sheriff pulled Hollis over and found she was fighting with Shelton. Shelton, who used the alias Michael Right, told the sheriff that Hollis had a box cutter and threatened to cut him, saying that she told him she would ``f---'' him up with it, the report said.
She was arrested for aggravated assault, but a month later the charge was dropped because authorities felt they could not prove their case based solely on their conversations with Shelton.
Shelton's records show he has pleaded guilty to intent to do violence, distributing marijuana, felony resisting arrest and battery. He was sentenced to two years in jail and five years' probation in connection with the offenses.
As a couple, Hollis and Shelton's father have fought for five years over whether he is the legal father of her son, Steven Shelton. He was eventually ordered to pay $63 a week in child support. In 2005, he was held in contempt for failing to pay.
Hollis declined to comment for this story, and The Miami Herald was unable to reach Steven Shelton.
Like Jeremy Jarvis, authorities contend that Steven Shelton did not try to stop the other boys from carrying out the attack on Brewer.
Jesus Mendez had been deeply unhappy in recent months as his parents underwent a bitter, angry split, according to a source close to the family.
As the parents separated, and the family fell apart, Mendez felt that his father was no longer a part of his life.
Following the separation, Mendez's mom moved from Wellington to Broward, partly to insulate the boy from a bad crowd.
His parents, Jesus Mendez Sr., and Yolanda Mendez, appear to have no criminal records. The Miami Herald was unable to reach either parent.
Little else is known about the younger Mendez, except that he was arrested for first-degree misdemeanor battery in 2007. Because it's a juvenile record, the disposition of the case is sealed.
Mendez, who is charged with attempted second-degree murder, confessed to police that he put a lighter to Brewer after Denver Jarvis doused the boy with the alcohol.
Schneider has yet to decide what charges will be prosecuted against the suspects, though she told the Sun Sentinel on Friday that 13-year-old Jeremy Jarvis is too young to be prosecuted as an adult under Florida law. The fate of the others rests with the juvenile court system or the adult criminal system, which could deal them harsher punishment.
All five boys will be eligible for release from juvenile detention on Nov. 3. No trial date has been set.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times