Ventura County prosecutors charged a 14-year-old boy with the shooting death of a classmate Thursday and said the killing in an Oxnard classroom was a premeditated hate crime.
Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox declined to discuss a motive in the shooting or why prosecutors added the special allegation of a hate crime against Brandon McInerney, who was charged as an adult.
But classmates of the slain boy, Lawrence King, said he recently had started to wear makeup and jewelry and had proclaimed himself gay. Several students said King and a group of boys, including the defendant, had a verbal confrontation concerning King’s sexual orientation a day before the killing.
King, 15, was declared brain-dead and was expected to be taken off a ventilator late Thursday so organs could be removed for donation, said Craig Stevens, senior county deputy medical examiner.
King was shot in the head early Tuesday in a classroom full of students at E.O. Green Junior High School. Police said the suspect fled and was apprehended a few blocks away.
McInerney’s family was in a Ventura courtroom Thursday as the adolescent was brought into a holding chamber to face charges.
His arraignment was delayed to give his attorney time to review the police investigation before entering a plea.
McInerney was charged with premeditated murder with enhancements of use of a firearm and a hate crime.
Because he is a minor, McInerney will remain in Juvenile Hall and be taken to the Ventura courtroom for court appearances, Fox said. He is being held in lieu of $770,000 bail.
If convicted, McInerney could face 50 years to life. The hate crime enhancement would add another one to three years to his sentence.
“In Ventura County, we’ve never had a violent shooting like this,” Fox said. “It’s very tragic.”
The defendant’s family declined to talk to reporters, rushing out of the courthouse after a short hearing. But his attorney, Brian Vogel, said McInerney and the boy’s family also were hurting.
“Both Brandon and the family are terribly sad to learn [King] is brain-dead,” he said.
Vogel declined to discuss the case but said he would ask the court to move it back into the juvenile system. McInerney had no criminal history and was generally a good student at E.O. Green, where he was an eighth-grader.
Vogel said the boy turned 14, the legal cutoff for charging an adolescent as an adult, on Jan. 24. Voters gave prosecutors the option of charging teenage suspects as adults under 2002’s Proposition 21.
Details on the backgrounds of both boys began to emerge Thursday. King was a foster child living at Casa Pacifica, a shelter for abused and troubled children in Camarillo.
Steven Elson, executive director at Casa Pacifica, said he could not discuss how long King had lived there or the circumstances involving his removal from his family.
But Elson said King had made many friends on the sprawling residential campus and that many of the children were grieving his loss.
“It’s been a sad couple of days here,” Elson said.
King’s father, who lives in Oxnard, declined to comment.
Student Averi Laskey, 13, said she had known King since grammar school and liked him. She said that only in the last two weeks had he begun dressing in a feminine manner.
“Even if he was different, he didn’t deserve it,” she said.
Laskey said King was happy at Casa Pacifica, although he had to take a long bus ride to and from school every day. He said he grew up in a troubled home, she said.
“He never felt like he had a family, but he told me when he got to Casa Pacifica that he had one there,” Laskey said.
Laskey said she also knew McInerney and had shared an English honors class with him.
“Everyone knows this was wrong,” she said of the shooting. “You don’t think of your friend as being a killer. You don’t think of your friend as a hater. That’s what’s weird about this. . . . I don’t think he quite knew what he was doing.”
Authorities said McInerney sneaked a handgun into school on the day of the shooting, but they have not disclosed how he got the firearm.
McInerney’s family lives in the south Oxnard neighborhood near E.O. Green school. Court records show that his father, Bill McInerney, has had brushes with the law in recent years.
In 2000, he pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace in July, and a few months later to a single count of domestic abuse. McInerney was given 10 days in jail and 36 months’ probation for the abuse conviction, records show.
In 2002, he pleaded guilty to drunk driving and being an unlicensed driver. He served five days in jail and was fined.
The case is drawing attention from a growing number of gay rights groups, which said they would be watching developments closely.
“In the 15-year history of this organization, this is the first time we’ve seen the district attorney act this swiftly and clearly to say ‘This will not be tolerated,’ ” said Jay Smith, executive director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
“We’re assuming that the hate crime component has to do with [King’s] sexuality,” Smith said. “Because of that, we are very eager to see the district attorney follow through.”
Smith said King had participated in Friday night rap sessions at the alliance’s offices in Ventura. The sessions are for youths ages 13 to 23 regardless of their sexual orientation, Smith said.
Smith said the middle school and the district must go beyond providing general and vague lessons on diversity. “It’s more than just education; it’s about acceptance, not just tolerance,” he said.
“The big question I have is: Was the school equipped to have a student like Larry in attendance?” Smith said.
Hueneme School District officials said they were aware of friction between the two boys and had offered counseling to both.
Times staff writers Paul Pringle and Gregory W. Griggs contributed to this report.