Parents Recount Efforts to Guide Boy Now Held in Bike Shop Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frances and Cleveland Charles keep their 12-year-old son's report card on the mantel in their living room.

It's not a sterling report card, mainly filled with Cs and Ds; the couple planted it in plain view to remind the boy to improve his grades. Both parents have spent hours with the sixth-grader, checking his homework, making sure he was in by dark and examining the contents of the fancy new backpack they bought for him to make sure there were textbooks inside.

Most mornings, Frances Charles drove her son the 10 blocks to Santa Fe Middle School in Monrovia and left her job as a hairdresser to pick him up in the afternoon, even if it meant waiting in her car until the boy got out of occasional detentions at 3:15 p.m., because she wanted to make sure he stayed out of trouble.

But something went terribly wrong last Thursday after Frances Charles dropped her son off at school.

According to police, the boy--whose name is being withheld because of his age--took a gun from home, walked into a popular Monrovia bike shop called Bicycle Sam's intending to rob it and shot owner Jung (Sam) Woo in the back of the head. Woo, a 49-year-old Diamond Bar resident, died the next morning.

Police said the gun used in the crime belongs to the boy's parents, and investigators are still looking into how the boy got it. State law makes it a felony for gun owners to keep loaded weapons where children can get at them easily.

On the advice of their attorney, the Charles family on Tuesday declined to answer questions about what happened on the night of the murder and whether they had a gun in the house.

But before their son's arraignment in Pasadena Juvenile Court, the parents agreed to talk publicly about the case, voicing sorrow at the murder of Woo, a popular Monrovia merchant who had worked in the community for 14 years and was known for doing free repairs for youngsters and giving them credit and discounts on bicycle parts.

"I feel bad about the family. They have our sympathy," Frances Charles said. "We got together on Thursday night and prayed for Mr. Woo."

Both parents shook their heads in amazement at the situation they find their family in: their slender, 75-pound son with large eyes and the piping voice of childhood charged with murder and attempted robbery. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Early reports that the boy was after a bicycle in the shop could not be true, the parents said. He already has four or five bikes at home. He was not a child in want, they said. They had recently bought him a Nintendo set.

"When they told us, we couldn't believe the things they were saying. It was like another person," said Cleveland Charles, whose soft southern accent reveals his Louisiana roots.

"He was never in any trouble before, and he always checked in and out with us," added Frances Charles. "I was right on him all the time; I'd spank him when he got out of line."

Cleveland Charles works in construction; Frances is a cosmetologist. The couple, both 46, have lived in Monrovia since 1970 and are in the process of purchasing the home where they have lived for nine years.

Both parents exert pressure on their children to behave and do well. Frances Charles said that after her son once brought home a failing grade in reading in grammar school, she tutored him for one hour each night until he caught up and went on to win a reading trophy. Their only other child, a 16-year-old daughter, earns A's in high school, Frances Charles said.

The boy's grandmother often takes the two children to church on Sunday. The family, while struggling, gives presents to their children, from the Nintendo games to the baggy hip-hop clothes spawned by rap fashion and popular among youths.

The boy attended weekly karate classes, where Frances Charles said he learned how to defend himself and avoid violence. Both parents admitted that the boy got into fights at school, but they said it was just children's scuffles and denied allegations by classmates that their son was a bully who would threaten other children and extort money from them.

They also rebutted a classmate's claim that the boy had brought a gun to school three weeks ago and displayed it during physical education class. Cleveland Charles said his son never handled a gun before and does not know how to use one.

On Tuesday, as the boy, dressed in a baggy orange prison suit, sat with his head lowered, stealing occasional glances at the judge, his parents sat close together, his mother wiping away tears. Juvenile Court Judge Sherrill D. Luke ordered the boy to remain in custody in Juvenile Hall. A pretrial conference is scheduled for April 7.

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