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A deadly clash of emotions

Times Staff Writers

For teens living in a shelter for abused and neglected children, school can provide a daily dose of normalcy, a place to fit in, a chance to be just another kid.

It didn’t turn out that way for Lawrence King.

According to the few students who befriended him, Larry, 15 years old and openly gay, found no refuge from his tormentors at E.O. Green Junior High School.

Not in the classroom, the quad, the cafeteria. Not from the day he enrolled at the Oxnard school until the moment he was shot to death in a computer lab, just after Larry’s usual morning van ride from the shelter a town away.

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The 14-year-old accused of killing him, Brandon McInerney, had his own troubled home life when he was younger, with his parents accusing each other of drug addiction and physical assaults, court records show. The year before Brandon was born, his father allegedly shot the boy’s mother in the arm, shattering her elbow, the records say.

Now, as the Feb. 12 killing continues to draw attention from around the world, students, parents and others wonder if red flags in the boys’ circumstances and backgrounds had been missed and whether more could have been done to avert the tragedy.

“The question needs to be answered,” said Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn, whose district includes E.O. Green. “It really bothers me a lot.”

The anti-gay taunts and slurs that Larry endured from his male peers apparently had been constant, as routine for him as math lessons and recess bells. The stinging words were isolating. As grieving friend Melissa Reza, 15, put it, Larry lived much of his life “toward the side. . . . He was always toward the side.”

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She and others recall that the name-calling began long before he told his small circle of confidants that he was gay, before problems at home made him a ward of the court, and before he summoned the courage to further assert his sexual orientation by wearing makeup and girl’s boots with his school uniform.

His friends say the verbal cruelty persisted for months, and grew worse after the slightly built Larry pushed back by “flirting” with some of his mockers. One of them was Brandon, who seethed over it, the friends say.

Brandon has been charged as an adult with premeditated murder and a hate crime, and he is being held in juvenile hall.

Childhood turmoil

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For about a decade, the household of William and Kendra McInerney, Brandon’s parents, had been in turmoil. The 1993 shooting led to William McInerney’s conviction of discharging a firearm and a 120-day jail sentence, court records state.

Kendra McInerney claimed in divorce documents that a previous husband had used methamphetamine and beaten her. She has two sons from that relationship.

William McInerney was addicted to prescription drugs, Kendra said in a court declaration. She said he repeatedly choked her on one occasion, when Brandon was 6. The father was sentenced, after that incident, to 10 days in jail for battery.

The couple obtained restraining orders against each other after they separated in 2000. William McInerney, then employed as a finance manager for a motorcycle and watercraft store, depicted his wife in court records as a slave to meth, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. He said that she had tried to run her car into his while he was driving with Brandon.

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The mother’s home was the neighborhood “drug house,” with people passed out in the front room, he alleged in a 2001 court declaration. He also said that his wife “backhanded” Brandon and scratched the boy’s chest. In 2003, the year after they divorced, Kendra McInerney pleaded no contest to being under the influence of a narcotic and was ordered into a treatment program.

In court papers, William McInerney contended that he had contacted Child Protective Services at least five times on behalf of Brandon and his two half-brothers between August 2000 and February 2001 but that “no action” was taken. That could not be confirmed, in part because of privacy laws.

After his parents broke up, Brandon bounced between their homes in Oxnard before settling several years ago at his father’s residence near E.O. Green, records indicate. Prosecutors say the handgun allegedly used to kill Larry came from the McInerney house.

William and Kendra McInerney declined to be interviewed. Brandon’s attorney also declined to comment.

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There is no known record that Brandon had been exposed to any trauma at home after 2003. Even if social workers had been alerted to the earlier incidents, it is uncertain that they would have had the legal grounds to remove him from his parents, experts say.

They point out that the goal of the child welfare system is to keep minors with the family.

“If there is not an imminent risk to the safety of the child at that time, we cannot remove the child from the home,” said Pam Grothe, senior manager for Ventura County’s children and family services agency. “It is a very high threshold.”

But Flynn said the agency should disclose whether it investigated the McInerney household and, if so, what action it took. “The kid should have been removed, probably, from the home,” the supervisor said. “This needs to be exposed.”

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Elizabeth Cauffman, a UC Irvine psychology professor who specializes in psychopathy and juvenile justice, said that leaving children with families afflicted by violence can cause damage years down the road.

“It’s called the cycle of violence,” said Cauffman, who was speaking generally, not about the McInerney case. “When you witness violence as a child, you go on to solve your problems with violence.”

Friends and adult acquaintances say they are still struggling to make sense of the crime Brandon is charged with, especially given the cold-blooded nature of the killing: two shots to the head, in an attack carried out at 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, in a room full of youngsters unpacking their books and calculators.

Some students say Brandon, tall and strong for his age, was one of the “cool” kids and could be unfriendly. “If you weren’t part of that group, it was like you didn’t exist,” said Erin Mings, 12. “He was a real jerk.”

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But others say he was mostly even-tempered and devoted to his studies and athletics. He seemed to be on a quest for discipline and role models, spending much of his free time in martial arts training and the Young Marines, an education and service program that stresses character building.

“I’ve seen kids and I’ve thought, ‘God, I hope he doesn’t grow up and mug me someday,’ ” said Brandon’s martial arts instructor, Dana Charvet, who had just finished a class at his storefront studio in Port Hueneme. “Brandon was not one of those kids. With him, it was always, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ ”

But Charvet said Brandon had difficulties at school. The instructor said the boy had asked him months ago how he should deal with “some guys who were messing with him.” Brandon offered no details and never mentioned Larry, Charvet said. “I said, ‘Tell your dad or talk to the principal,’ ” Charvet related.

Earlier this year, some of Brandon’s classmates say, Larry began “hitting” on him and remarking for all to hear that he thought Brandon was “cute.” Other boys then ribbed Brandon by saying he must be gay himself.

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Brandon dismissed Larry with an obscenity, the students say, but it didn’t stop there. They say the kid wearing eye shadow had gotten under the skin of the Young Marine.

Michael Sweeney, an eighth-grader at E.O. Green, picked up on the whispering that followed -- the rumors that were so extreme, so out there, that they had to be bogus.

“Brandon told this one girl that he was going to kill Larry,” Michael said. “She didn’t tell the principal. I didn’t, either, after I heard about it. I thought it was a joke.”

Larry was shot the next day.

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‘Left out’

Lawrence Fobes King was born on Jan. 13, 1993, at Ventura County Medical Center. He was adopted by Gregory and Dawn King and had three brothers and a sister.

His parents declined to speak for this article. The family has established a website in his memory, with a photo gallery that shows a sweet-faced Larry throughout his childhood -- on his first plane ride, getting a haircut, dressed as the Great Pumpkin for Halloween. Hundreds of sympathetic comments have been posted.

There is little of his parents on the website, which says that a memorial fund for Larry has been set up by his younger brother.

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Larry had been removed from his home at some point in the last six months or so, friends and others say. Citing privacy laws, county officials have not disclosed the reasons for his placement at Casa Pacifica in Camarillo.

His friends say he rarely spoke about his family and would appear uncomfortable when others talked about theirs. “Every time somebody would say something about their family, he would get this weird look in his eye, like he was being left out,” said Melissa Reza, who met Larry during the last school year.

She said Larry would not tell her why he was living at Casa Pacifica and would “put his head down and look sad” when she asked. “He said he had fun there, but it never really felt like home,” she added.

Judy Webber, who heads Ventura County’s children and family services agency, said the shelter is typically used as temporary quarters while social workers try to either reunite children with their families, arrange for them to live with other relatives or find them a foster home.

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Webber said social workers and the shelter staff -- Casa Pacifica is a private nonprofit that the county contracts with -- keep an ear tuned for any distress at school, but the system isn’t foolproof. “Sometimes things happen at school that we don’t know about,” she said.

Larry’s friends offer differing accounts of whether he had complained to teachers about the taunting. Some say he had decided not to report it, fearing that he would be branded a “rat” and suffer the consequences.

“They used to bug him a lot, pick on him -- ‘Hey you, gay kid, you want to wear lipstick?’ ” said Vanessa Ramirez, 15, of Larry’s belittlers. “He’d start crying. . . . He didn’t want to tell the teachers because they’d start picking on him more.”

But 13-year-old Mark Reyes said Larry did go to teachers for help. “You’d hear, ‘Faggot! Hey, faggot!’ ” Mark said. “That was happening in every class. A lot of teachers knew stuff was going on. . . . I guess they just didn’t want to be involved.”

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Not so, said Jerry Dannenberg, superintendent of the Hueneme School District. The E.O. Green staff did come to Larry’s aid, including shortly before he was killed, after they had learned of an altercation between him and Brandon.

“They had been doing a lot of counseling and a lot of work with him,” Dannenberg said of Larry. “There have been a number of different people working with the young men, but I can’t go into specifics about what was going on.”

Larry had searched elsewhere for a safe harbor. After he landed at Casa Pacifica, he joined a youth group sponsored by the nonprofit Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, which offers social services to the gay community.

Alliance Executive Director Jay Smith would not reveal what Larry had talked about during the group’s Friday night meetings. But Smith said that no teenager should have to wake up in a shelter knowing the school day ahead would bring a fresh heap of rejection and scorn. “Not having a mom or dad to run to. . . . I can’t imagine what that is like,” he said. “His life was tough.”

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paul.pringle@latimes.com

catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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