Two boys--one 9 years old, the other 8--were arrested Friday on suspicion of starting a big fire at their Boyle Heights school.
Authorities said the boys, who neighbors describe as "troublemakers," had confessed to setting an arson fire early Thursday morning that gutted three classrooms at Malabar Street School and, to the great dismay of their schoolmates, destroyed a set of sparkling, new Cinco de Mayo costumes.
Damage was estimated at $275,000, and the fire forced school officials to cram six classes into the auditorium and other temporary quarters on campus, and to lay plans to transfer students temporarily to other schools.
"It's hard to believe that 40 pounds of muchacho could cause $275,000 of damage, but there it is," said Police Detective Ben Lovato.
The suspects' names were not released because of their age. The pair, arrested on suspicion of arson, were taken late Friday to the Eastlake Juvenile Center. Decisions on how to proceed legally against the youngsters were pending.
Lovato said the boys showed little emotion when questioned Friday by investigators.
"Let me put it this way," Lovato said, "they weren't crying about it."
As they were led away by detectives Friday afternoon from the Hollenbeck Police Station, the boys, dressed in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, looked straight ahead and said nothing when asked by a reporter about the fire. Looking more than a little perplexed, detectives kept a guiding hand on the boys' shoulders as they steered their four-foot-tall captives to a waiting patrol car. The boys were not handcuffed.
Attention focused early on the two youngsters. After the predawn fire was extinguished Thursday morning, the parents of the 9-year-old came to the Hollenbeck station and filed a missing persons report on their son. Lovato, on his way to the arson site, remembered this and returned to the station house to retrieve the report.
The 9-year-old and his companion, it developed, had run away from home Wednesday afternoon and were not in school on Thursday. Malabar administrators told investigators that the parents of one of the boys had been scheduled to come to school the morning of the fire to discuss the youngster's behavioral problems, Lovato said.
"On Thursday (morning)," a neighbor recalled, "the mother was out front watering her lawn and crying that her son had not come home."
On Thursday afternoon, the boys were spotted by police a short distance from the school, playing video games in a neighborhood supermarket. The youngsters scrambled out of the store and were pursued through the neighborhood by at least four patrol cars, assisted by a helicopter. They escaped.
The two returned home Thursday night and the parents called officers, police said. The 9-year-old, a fourth-grader at Malabar, was taken into custody at his home Friday morning.
His alleged accomplice, a third-grader at Malabar, returned to class Friday and was promptly summoned to the principal's office and arrested.
The two boys had attracted police attention before, Lovato said. Two months ago, they ran away from home and were reported to police after spending the night on the roof of a Malabar School building, the detective said.
"They've also been into other trouble--playing with matches, other acts of vandalism," he explained.
Neighborhood youngsters described the boys as "troublemakers" who often would make obscene finger gestures "to the teacher and say bad words."
"They're always in trouble with the teachers," said 12-year-old Alicia Talamontes. Other youngsters said they had seen the boys playing with matches in the past.
"My mother says I shouldn't play with them," one fourth-grader said.
Gang-like graffiti was found in the blackened ruins of the school building Thursday morning, but Lovato said that the duo were not believed to belong to a gang.
"They're 'wannabes,' or whatever, but there's no gang involvement," he said.
The parents of neither boy could be reached for comment Friday.
While fire officials said it is not unusual for children the boys' age to cause fire damage, they could not recall arsonists so young setting such a devastating fire.
Battalion Chief G.R. Bowie, head of the city Fire Department's arson section, said some children play with fire as early as 3 years old, and 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds often are fascinated with it.
"But they're just experimenting," Bowie said. "If you can intervene early on, you can stop the pattern, unless there is an underlying emotional problem."
Bowie said 8- and 9-year-olds are on the "upper edge" of youngsters who can be weaned off tendencies to play with fire. But in the subteen years, he said, "they know what they are doing. It's, 'Let's go light a fire.' "
At the Malabar School on Friday, administrators and pupils tried to carry on despite the extraordinary distractions. Practices for the Cinco de Mayo celebration continued in a playground to the bounce of blaring musica Mexicana . It was the loss of the new costumes for the festival that most students had lamented after the fire, and children gasped when told about the arrests.
School administrators were troubled by the development. "Sometimes, parents need to take more time with their kids," one administrator said. "Mischief could be a child's way to seeking help, of wanting attention."