What's it like to end up in prison as a teen-ager? Edwin Debrow Jr., Bill Everett and Brittany Pollard all committed violent crimes that found them on the wrong side of Texas' get-tough juvenile justice laws. They tell their stories here for the first time--how they got in trouble, how they've survived, what their futures hold--as the Dallas Observer
concludes its series on juvenile justice in Texas
. In the 1990s, when Texas experienced an unprecedented wave of violent crime, Governor George W. Bush and Texas legislators responded by overhauling the state's juvenile justice system. They prescribed much longer sentences for violent offenders, expanded the range of crimes that could land a youth in adult prison and worked hard to eliminate the perception that young thugs would be pampered in state schools and juvenile detention centers instead of doing hard time for hard crime. Debrow's 1991 crime got a lot of press; President George H. Bush singled out the 12-year-old convicted killer in a speech, calling his case "truly horrifying." The San Antonio native remains one of the youngest Texans ever convicted of murder. Everett, a methamphetamine addict living in rural Palo Pinto County, participated in a comically bungled bank robbery attempt when he was 17. His crime was obscure, but he's gone from deeply troubled kid to model inmate under the tutelage of a caring mentor in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Youthful Offender Program in Brazoria. Brittany Pollard's story, which will be told in next week's paper, is one of the strangest cases in the annals of Dallas County's juvenile courts. The three have two things in common: tough sentences that landed them in adult prison while they were still in their teens and grotesquely dysfunctional families. Through their own words and experiences, the youths provide an intimate perspective on what it's like to be a kid in the big house.
I knew I was headed in the wrong direction. I began to see early warning signs, as I was growing up. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas in one of San Antonio's poorest neighborhoods which was the Northeast Side. The environment that I was surrounded by seemed too dangerous and I began to get involved into that lifestyle. Back then I could never see my life the way it is now. I could never believe that I would end up in prison. My life took a dramatic turn on September 21, 1991 when I took the life of a cab driver by the name of Curtis Edwards, when I was a 12-year-old kid. I can't seem to understand why I became so violent. I knew one thing for sure, and that was that I had to accept reality as it was. I had just took the life of another man and I couldn't believe the things that were hidden and waiting ahead of me...
Set aside for a moment that, by the age of 12, Edwin Carl Debrow Jr. had witnessed two murders, carried handguns for so long that "the idea of it was very routine" and stayed in a succession of shabby homes where life included having the door busted down by cops as his big brother gulped down $200 worth of crack cocaine in the bathroom.
Forget that prison psychiatrists and social workers have affixed to him their profession's clumsy labels--anti-social personality disorder, bipolar disorder, impulse control disorder--and have dosed him with an array of mind-rearranging drugs, anything to strangle the "hate built up inside" him.
This isn't really about nature vs. nurture, the mesmerizing allure of the gangsta life or fuzzy sentimentalities about the loss of innocence.
Edwin Carl Debrow Jr. isn't having any of it. You toss him a lifeline, a likely excuse, a plausible way to shift some blame, and he throws it right back. "I knew right and wrong," he says, repeating the statement several times in an interview and in his own hand-scrawled words, which he has recorded on wrinkled theme paper in a 190-page manuscript. Even the title slaps down any urge to sympathize: At first, he called his story "Lost Boy." Now he has scratched out the words in black pen and written "12-year-old Killer" instead.
While a wind whips the Texas flag outside, Debrow is hunched in a plastic chair in an airless, yellow-lit prison office, hands shackled behind his back, a guard at each side. As an "administrative segregation" prisoner at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Clements Unit in Amarillo, Debrow experiences life outside his cell only one hour a day, and his meals are shoved at him through a slot in the door. Now 22 and 10 years into a 27-year sentence for murder, he has learned to hold his emotions tightly. He speaks in flat, staccato words, and the only thing that gives away any affect is a constantly jiggling left knee.
He has never told his story before, he says, but now is the time. He clears up a few things right up front: He doesn't blame his mama, even though two of her three sons are convicted murderers and all are in prison; he doesn't blame his daddy. He understands the bit about taking responsibility for his crime. He believes his sentence is fair.
He will say matter-of-factly that every adult in the outside world has let him down, and in many ways he is right. He ends his manuscript with a retort to them, the "fakers and shakers" of the world.
But he draws no moral from his tale. Edwin Debrow Jr. knew right and wrong, and he chose one and not the other.
His story is no less tragic because of it.
I attended Dorie Miller Elementary in the 4th and 5th grades. My grades in school were good but my behavior always seemed to be the problem. I realized that I was aggressive at a very young age. I couldn't understand why I was so rebellious and why I defied authority. I was put into a Special Ed. Class because I was labeled emotionally disturbed. I totally disagreed with that label but as I got older I knew something was terribly wrong. My classroom was located in a small portable building outside. I was put into a desk like a little booth which I didn't like at all. I felt like I was being treated like an outkast or something so I started to rebell. I began to be assaultive and I was suspended from school on several occasions. I kept up my assaultive behavior and was finally kicked out of the San Antonio Independent School District and was told that I would have to attend an Achievement Center. I hated this school because a yellow bus had to pick me up and drop me back off at home. I thought the yellow bus was for retarded people and I didn't want to be a part of it.
Nothing is there. Edwin Debrow steers his brain toward childhood, straining for memories--the image of a new toy, the feel of a grandmother's thick hand. Nothing. "I do not see anything but blurred visions," he wrote in a letter earlier this month. "Most of the time it's just blank."
His first solid memories are of age 10, and it takes his cousin and childhood running buddy Morris Dwayne Debrow to locate the tracks of that earlier, forgotten life. Dwayne, as he's called, remembers a "hard life, a real hard life." He sees a one-room house on San Antonio's East Side, home of Seletha Ann Chase Debrow. Her husband, Edwin Debrow Sr., is gone; the tiny house is swarming with children, including young Edwin, whom everyone called Li'l Boo. Seletha Debrow would eventually rear seven children, mostly on her own. "There wasn't nobody there for 'em," Dwayne says. "Everybody in the family turned 'em down."
And not without reason. Edwin Debrow Sr. says he left his wife when he found out she was "an intravenous drug user," and, he says, she eventually would surround herself with drunks, druggies and "criminals." In the best of times, Dwayne says, Seletha barely held the edges of her life together. When she was on drugs, the edges would bust apart. Sometimes she was there for her children; sometimes she wasn't. Sometimes she worked; sometimes the children went hungry. When there was food, it was poor-folks' fare: cornbread, beans, lots and lots of beans. Every time Li'l Boo came over to Dwayne's house, he was hungry. Hungry. Dwayne's parents gave him good food and small glimpses of a stable home.
Seletha's environment was nothing like that. Though Seletha Debrow didn't show up for an interview she scheduled with the Dallas Observer, court records and the recollections of other family members fill in the picture. At times, she and the children lived in shelters, and Li'l Boo would tear around in the cheap white tennies the shelter kids wore. Dwayne didn't care that his cousin was dirt-poor, even lived at times in a house without water; he shared all his toys, and they roamed the streets of the East Side together, trolling for excitement. Sometimes it was wholesome stuff: Dwayne played along when Edwin climbed into dumpsters and excavated aluminum cans, which he'd sell. Dwayne didn't need the money, but for Edwin "that was something for the house--bread, meat." He'd also buy snacks for his brothers and sisters, and candy. Edwin loved candy.
At some point, Edwin moved to the East Terrace housing project. There were some good things about the projects. Every Sunday morning, the little kids herded onto what they called the "Joy Joy" bus and bounced along to church, where they were met with a hearty breakfast of biscuits and sausage. That down-home church had a simple take on keeping the kids out of trouble: lock them in at 10 a.m. and let them out after the sun goes down.
Outside, temptation was all around him, in the form of a gang that ruled East Terrace called the Altadena Block Crips.
When Dwayne was 10 and Edwin was about 9, their lives took separate turns. One day Dwayne heard fussing and fighting outside his apartment, and he stepped out to look for his sister. He glanced around and heard gunshots--"I heard boom! boom! I stumbled back and I looked down, and blood was coming everywhere." He didn't realize right away that he'd been shot in the head, caught in the crossfire of a domestic fight. Dwayne spent several weeks in the hospital, and it "slowed me down a lot," pulled him off the streets. To this day, the bullet is still lodged behind his optic nerve, wrapped within muscle "like a fist." This was the heyday of crack cocaine--the crack apocalypse--'91, '92, '93, when cities such as Dallas and San Antonio recorded their most murders ever, many of them drug- and gang-related, and violent crime was at an all-time high. Dwayne's mother kept her son away from it. Her stern voice still rings in his ears, yanking him away from mayhem.
Edwin didn't hear that voice. At least not in any consistent way; his mother whupped his tail from time to time, he says, taught him to respect his elders, but with a household of eight to look after and problems of her own, including drug charges, the supervision was spread pretty thin.
Edwin would spend a few months with his father here and there, and his schoolteachers noticed cleaner clothes, a better attitude. Edwin's father says he's strict, and he made sure his kids followed the rules. "I work hard, I take care of my children," Debrow said angrily when told that some family members questioned his commitment to his oldest son. Early on, Edwin and his siblings also lived for a time with their grandmother Erma Debrow, while Seletha, she says, "was kind of running the streets." She remembers that time with regret, because she already sensed that the children's futures were dim.
Her intimations would turn out to be true. All of Seletha's boys are locked up in state or federal prison today. Erma Debrow doesn't consider that a coincidence. "Hello," she says. "Hello."
Her grandson Dwayne, though, points the finger at both parents. "No food. No house. In the rain," he says, summing up Edwin's childhood. "Always listening to his mama argue, knowing she's on drugs, and the dad is not there." Edwin's father is Dwayne's uncle, and he apologizes for the harsh words. "If anything, people kind of blamed the mother. But I always thought, well, where was his father? It's easy for him to say he works and leads a more regular life, but where was he? He was never there."
That left Edwin free, as he puts it, to "rip and run."
And here the memories start to grow thick.
I hung out on the streets of San Antonio day and night. I observed how crack cocaine was sold. I started slanging dope which I considered living life in the fast lane and making a fast and easy living. I didn't sell drugs that much and I was just a small time dealer trying to get some quick money. I knew it was wrong but as long as it brought money to my pocket I didn't care. I sold drugs to everybody and anybody who wanted them. I was new to the dope game and I learned that you could get cheated if you didn't watch what you were doing. I found that out real quick.
One day I was at Jolly Time selling dope and this black lady told me that she wanted to buy some. So I said all right but she wanted me to walk around the corner with her to her house. I was standing on her porch and she told me that she wanted to buy a $20 rock. I gave her a 20 and she told me that she would have to go get the money out of her house. I was waiting on the porch when I heard the fence rattling in the back yard. So I ran around the back just in time to see that dope fiend jumping the fence. At the time I had a chrome 32 with a pearl handle. The dope fiend was running fast so I pulled out my gun and shot one time at her back. The last thing I seen was her hit the fence and then I took off running. I learned from then on to never trust anybody. I was about 11 years old when this was going on.
Gang activity was real popular in San Antonio especially on the eastside. Some of them fools I had known all my life and then they ended up dead behind some [gang] color shit. My oldest brother Dinky was in California for a while. When he got back he had a surprise for me. He was now a gang member of the Altadena Block Crips. He began to bang to the fullest and I admired my brother. He was my true role model. I wanted to be like him so bad I joined the same gang. I was all about representing and at the age of 10 I didn't know better. I started wearing blue bandanas and in a matter of time I knew how to chunk gang signs real good. I would hit 'em up all the time just to practice. To make sure that I would never forget what I was taught.
The eastside always stayed cronk. Robberies after robberies and killings after killings. My homies had no pity and they didn't value life either. We all had a mutual understanding. I wonder now if that was something that I wanted to be a part of. To kill another black man behind a color. That was sure genocide.
Society couldn't and wouldn't accept gang violence. They were cracking down on gang members but we still didn't care. In the back of our minds we were doing the right thing. It was justified by any means necessary. When I got older I tried to explain it to adults who didn't understand. To strongly believe in something had to be based on faith. Just like Muslims who believe in Prophet Muhammad, and Christians who believe in Jesus Christ. Just like all religions. What they believed was based entirely on faith. So why couldn't I believe in something. A man would die behind his beliefs and you could definitely put me into that category. I was dedicated to serve my hood to the utmost and with loyalty.
Gangs taught you different things. To be in a gang was like to put all other things aside and focus on your gang life. Gangs was like your second family and you were taught to put your hood first. Your set was to be out first before your own family. I learned that rule real quick. I loved my set to the fullest and I learned to set all other things to the side. That seemed cruel and disrespectful to my family. But to believe in something required your full undivided attention. It took time to understand the gang life. I didn't agree with everything but I was positive that it was something I wanted to do.
After a while my set got real big. ABC was the biggest Crip set in San Antonio. Now it was time to go to war. We often got into it with the Blood Stone Villains. It was either Do or Die and I was gonna represent to the fullest. It was all about putting in work and doing good deeds.
I recall one sunny afternoon when I was hanging on the cut at Jolly Time. All of a sudden I see this white van coming from across the street. At the time I didn't think nothing of it. The next thing I knew I seen the back doors come open and two Bloods jumped out with guns shooting. I ran for cover and laid in the grass. Two of my homies got shot in the back of the arm. Nobody was hurt seriously but their dues were due. It was time to get revenge and make them pay. I was a little kid but I did a grown mans job. I know now that I was playing with death. It didn't yet register in my mind that I could soon be dead. In fact I didn't even give a damn about life itself. To me it was all or nothing.
I rented this dope fiend's car for a $20 rock. Little did he know, I had no intentions of returning it. In fact I was gonna use it to commit a crime. I knew them slobs who shot my homeboys and I knew where they lived. Everybody knew that slob nigga name Li'l Joker. He would have to pay for his actions and if not him, then his family.
Late one night about 11 p.m. or so we drove to Polaris Street. Things were kind of quiet around this time. His house still had a few lights on in it. I had a Tec 22 and a 38 special handgun. My other homie had a Tec 9mm. We turned off the lights and started driving up the street. As we got in front of the white house I stopped the car and opened fire. Me and my homie lit they shit up. After that we drove off real fast and went to the East Terrace where we usually kicked it at.
I never heard if anybody got shot and I truly didn't care. It was like I had no conscience. I didn't value the human life. At the time I thought it was best for some people to be dead.
I never thought about the consequences of my actions. I knew that one day I would pay for my sinful ways. I just wanted to enjoy life while I had the chance. I was once told by another man "don't pity the fool." I couldn't understand what he was trying to say and I didn't care to ask. A man who wanted to seek knowledge might have questioned that. I wasn't trying to learn nothing. I really thought it was better for that old coon to stay in his league and let the minors handle their own business.
Dwayne Debrow steers his car toward the place they call Jolly Time. Really, it's nothing more than a ghetto street corner, with a gas station on one side and a skanky club on the other and winos and a few wizened crackheads shifting places around a dumpster. Jolly Time, Debrow explains, got its name because it's where you go to get happy. To buy drugs.
He points to a patch of gravel beneath a street sign tagged in black with "ETG"--East Terrace Gangstas--the spot where a scrawny, 4-foot-8 kid named Edwin Carl Debrow Jr. sold crack.
Jolly Time is in the heart of the East Side, a collection of decaying streets and small frame homes with roofs, walls and porches so warped and leaning that they look as though they're shuddering in a hurricane wind. Here and there, mostly on the grounds of old brick schools and public buildings, a grandiose palm tree rises from a patch of desiccated turf.
Dwayne insists he didn't know Edwin sold dope, at least not at the time. By then, their paths had diverged; Dwayne went to school while Edwin ran the streets. One trail led to high school, then college, where, against the doctor's orders, Dwayne played football. Today, the 22-year-old plays semi-pro ball and runs a recording studio. Edwin had no target, no goals, just the here and now. And by the sixth grade, the here and now no longer included school.
Around the time Dwayne found himself aimed at the future, his contacts with his candy-loving, dope-dealing cousin grew scarcer. The last time he saw Edwin, he'd come over to Dwayne's house to stash some Twix bars in the freezer. He'd just jumped a fence and stolen them from the back of a grocery store. "I put it in my freezer, he walked off, and that's the last time I seen him."
Edwin knows exactly what he was up to in those days. He was looking up to his big brother Herion Chase--known as Dinky, which he wasn't, in stature or boldness. Dinky, in fact, was brazen enough to run dope right from his mother's house. Edwin Debrow Sr. says Dinky showed his brother "a little gold and guns," and the boy liked what he saw. "Dinky was my role model," Edwin Debrow wrote in a letter. "I mean anytime you have brothers, you bond closely sometimes. And that's how it was with my brother and I. I just love my brother, and at that time I liked his lifestyle." More than once, the cops busted down the front door and ransacked the house. Life went on. "They tear it up, you fix it back up," Edwin recalls.
His mother couldn't seem to get her arms around the chaos. She'd lay a belt on Edwin, "but it didn't have no effect," he says. The older kids came and went as they pleased, flouting San Antonio's youth curfew, and at times Seletha ran drugs herself, Edwin admits today. "My mom got seven kids. My father wasn't there to help all the time, so she just couldn't keep a tight leash on it. Those were trying times."
He started carrying a gun at 8 or 9, started "Crippin'" like his brother soon afterward. By the time he was 12, he'd seen two murders close up. One time, a friend of his shot another man in the face. Edwin and his homies casually walked away. "I didn't run," he says. "We all left and went to Jack in the Box." Another time, he saw a man get killed in the parking lot of an East Side housing project. "I can honestly say, as far as the value of life, it was something that I didn't value," he says. The murders brought no reflection, no sorrow, no bad dreams. "It had no profound effect on me. Even though I knew it was wrong, I lived by the rules of the street."
All of his friends, he says, were older boys or young men--including a good-for-nothing ex-con named Floyd Hardeman, a sometime friend and distant relative of Edwin's mother who'd recently been paroled after serving time on a murder conviction. Hardeman spent his days and nights getting high and scrounging dope money, and he evidently saw an easy mark in the tiny neighborhood tough. "When I was 12," Edwin says, "my life had no purpose. I had no direction. I couldn't say then where I wanted to go or what I was trying to achieve. I was just out there for that time, that instant. You know, where the goodies are."
Edwin knew he was seeing and experiencing more than a boy ever should, but nothing made him want to stop. The nerve endings were dying.
I got involved with guns and having a gun in my possession made me feel powerful. The feeling of power excited me and I wanted very much to be in control of all situations.
I began to jack people for their money and one time I had to shoot a man because he refused to give me his money. I knew that if a person refused to give up the money then I would have to do what was necessary to get it even if it resulted in me taking another human beings life.
I remember one night me and my homeboys were riding around just looking for someone to jack and we seen this white man. He had just bought some dope and he had a lot of money. I told my two homies that I was gonna jack him. We got out of the car that we were riding in and approached him. My homie said that he was gonna do it so I gave him the gun which was a Tec 22. The man reached in the back of his truck and picked up a crow bar. My homie began backing up. I got mad and grabbed the gun. The man started to walk up these steps that led to this house. I told him not to move anymore and if he did I was gonna shoot him. He took one more step so I shot him in the back and he fell and crawled into the house so I ran in there after him to finish him off because he had seen my face. When I got inside the doorway to the house I seen around 8 to 10 little black kids so I immediately took off running. I didn't know if he died or not. I never heard anything about that.
I was now leading a dangerous life and my life took an unexpected turn.
On the night of September 21, 1991 on the eastside of San Antonio I killed a cabdriver by the name of Curtis Edwards. I shot him in the back of the head with a 38 caliber handgun at close range.
On this particular night I had been drinking Thunderbird with grape cool-aid and also drinking night train and Mad Dog 20/20. I also smoked a few joints and I was feeling pretty good. I went to this man's house who was suppose to be my uncle. His name was Floyd. At the time I was carrying a 38 caliber handgun. While I was at his house he asked me did I want to rob a cab driver and I said yeah. He told this other man to go call the cab so he did. At first the cab didn't come so the man went to go call again. This time the cab came and me and my uncle got in. He got in the front passenger seat and I got directly in the back seat behind him (cab driver). My uncle told the cab driver to take us to Burleson Street. I had the gun in my pocket with my shirt untucked. As the cab driver started driving I pulled out the gun and demanded that he give me the money. He refused and instead started driving fast. I shot him in the back of the head while he was driving and the car wrecked into a house. My head was fractured. I ran from Burleson Street all the way to East Commerce and passed out under the train tracks. Just so happen at this time my homeboy's father was coming back from work and he seen me and took me to my mothers house. From there I went to the hospital.
The day I was released from the hospital two police detectives told me that they wanted me for questioning. My stepfather asked them why and they said that I was wanted for questioning about a murder. They asked me questions and I told them that I didn't know what they were talking about.
From his front porch, Raymond Arevalos saw the figure of a child climb out of a wrecked taxicab. The child took a few steps, then "started to wobble."
"Oh my gosh, that person is hurt bad," Arevalos thought.
Just moments earlier, he'd heard a crash. It was around midnight, and Arevalos, a retired postal worker, was in his bedroom watching television with his wife. At first, he didn't think much of it. Noise was a part of life on the East Side: gunshots, smashing bottles, drunks and dope fiends wandering the street cussing at themselves. Only when a car horn got stuck did Arevalos bother to look outside.
The child took some more wobbly steps, then got down on his knee and said, "Please help me; help me, please."
By the time he moved to help the child, the boy rose and started walking down the street. Arevalos never spoke to him. While his wife called an ambulance, Arevalos and a neighbor looked inside the cab.
He remembers seeing a man "laying flat on his back, just like spread eagle," with blood all over him. Arevalos' wife soon joined them, and she climbed into the cab and checked his pulse. He was dead.
Within a few minutes, the police arrived. As they went about their work, Arthur and Jessie Mae Edwards drove. In the early-morning hours they had received a call from the cops; their son Curtis, a grade-school football coach, father of one and sometime cab driver, was involved in a car accident. They jumped out of bed and raced to the other end of the East Side.
Arthur Edwards arrived in time to identify the body of his son. Curtis Edwards was dead at 33 of a gunshot wound to the back of the head. When the car hit the house, he smashed into the windshield and ended up sprawled on his back.
In the coming days, Curtis Ray Edwards' many friends and relatives would remember him as a man who loved kids. Later, the chief prosecutor at Edwin Debrow Jr.'s trial would tell the San Antonio Express-News that if Edwards' killer "had gotten into his cab and said, 'Look, I need all your money,' Curtis would have given it to him and driven him somewhere."
But little about the slaying makes any sense, and while Edwards' parents were mourning their son--a classmate of Edwin's father--Edwin Debrow Jr. stayed close to his mother's side, even going to work with her during her night shift at the county hospital. She knew he was in trouble, and she was scared. While she worked her shift, Edwin rambled through the hospital corridors. Even at the age of 12 and in the deepest trouble he'd ever been in, Edwin's written recollections speak of bravado. He figured the cops would never get him, because they had no evidence.
He'd apparently forgotten that he left a few things behind that night: a steel six-shooter and a single black tennis shoe, wedged between the backseat and the car door.
Knowing that I would be soon tried for this crime had me kind of nervous. I didn't know what to think. I knew one thing for sure and that was that a jury of 12 people would determine my fate. I refused to let the Judge who presided over the 73rd District Court determine my fate. He was known for having no pity...
This is a time that I will never forget. This was a moment in my life that would tell if I could ever be a productive citizen in society.
The prosecutor tried very hard to prove their case. I learned that they didn't have no pity for a criminal and they truly believed that if you was in the courtroom that you was automatically guilty. They called me all kinds of names and I disagreed with that. I should of just jumped up and said I'm guilty because I knew that I would be found guilty. They made me look like a 12 year old monster or something. I couldn't understand how the government would allow 12 citizens of the United States to determine my fate. They would decide the outcome of my life and I didn't like the sound of that.
My mother was seated right across from me and after they said I was sentenced to 27 years my mother broke down uncontrollably. She began to cry and the sight of that saddened me deeply. I never wanted to see my mother go through so much pain.
I wasn't scared to go to jail. I knew that I could stay down and that I could handle my own if it came down to it. What bothered me was that I would miss my family and my friends. The feeling of that was painful and inconvenient. Another thought troubled me also. Knowing that I would never get a chance to spend one day of my teenage life in the free world. That was the saddest part of it all.
Every night of the trial, Sandra Castro-Guerra came home sick. Her fellow jury members found out she was a registered nurse--a poised, educated woman of 34--and decided she was the perfect candidate for jury foreman. No one else wanted the job, not this time.
What caused the bouts of retching was the sight of that "tiny, tiny" boy in the courtroom, betraying not a trace of emotion. "Why is he not acting like a 12-year-old boy?" Castro-Guerra would ask herself. "He didn't show anything--just a blank stare. Like show me a sign of something; show me you're sorry."
Another image is fixed in the mind of the assistant prosecutor 10 years after the trial. Leticia Cortez, who'd just come off maternity leave, remembers Edwin Debrow Jr. casually swinging his legs as he sat at a table in the courtroom, flanked by his defense attorney and his mother. The jury would be looking at horrific autopsy photos, hearing the testimony of Curtis Edwards' father as he went to identify his son in the bloody taxi, and still, those skinny legs would swing, swing, swing.
Castro-Guerra would look in the young defendant's eyes, and she'd see the face of a 12-year-old boy. In her mind, there was a terrible disconnect. How could a little boy have done this? she thought. What kind of home did he come from? "He was such a child, such a baby in my eyes," Castro-Guerra remembers. "Can someone please help us have an understanding of how this happened--how such a young person can get caught in this situation?"
The nurse found it maddening that none of those questions was answered in the guilt or innocence phase of the trial, but during sentencing, after the damage had already been done. The thought of sending a child to prison for years weighed so heavily on her and the other jurors, she says, that their deliberations were marked by many tears.
The trial testimony itself, spanning four days in February 1992, showed how unlikely it is that Debrow would have been caught at all had he not bragged about committing some sort of crime to employees at the hospital where he was treated after sustaining serious head injuries in the wreck of Edwards' taxi. Debrow's boasting apparently led someone to tip off San Antonio police, who made the connection with Edwards' murder. Police searched Debrow's house and seized evidence: a dirty sweatshirt--later found to be stained with Edwards' blood--and a single Troop Club sneaker, size 8 1/2, the precise match of the one found in the back of the wrecked taxicab. Police arrested Debrow at his home a day after he got out of the hospital; his mother and grandmother became hysterical, Debrow wrote, as he was handcuffed and hauled away. When he stepped out of the squad car at the police station, he found himself surrounded by cameramen and reporters. Like a child, he hid his face.
Debrow says today that he never said any of those things in the hospital, that people are lying, but witness after witness stepped forth with similar recollections. One was Robert Duncan, a security officer at Southeast Baptist Hospital. He'd been called up one night to corral a kid who was running wild up and down the hospital corridors. When he got there, Debrow, who by then was sitting quietly in his room, told the officer he was bored. Duncan told him to get some rest.
The boy had a cocky reply, Duncan testified. "He said that he had already killed one person...and that he wasn't scared of me because I had a gun."
Other hospital workers told how Debrow played a bizarre game with them, trying to get them to talk about a recent murder. Linda Garcia, a nursing supervisor, testified that Debrow smiled the entire time as they chatted: "Tell me, tell me, tell me about the murder this weekend," he begged.
The most damning testimony, however, came from a hospital chaplain named Charles Pollard who'd gone up to minister to what he thought to be a "very distraught patient." Pollard found the boy to be receptive and courteous. He talked about his dream of being a football player, how tough he was on the field. Pollard, who was near retirement, quietly listened. But the conversation took an ominous turn when Debrow suddenly announced that he would have to go to jail.
"Why?" Pollard asked. "He said, 'Well...I killed a man.' And he said, 'When you killed a man, you have to go to jail.'" Debrow asked Pollard if he'd been watching the news, if he'd heard about the taxi driver who got killed. "And he said, well, he was the one that shot the man. Then he told me several different stories about how it happened, but continued to come back to the fact that he pulled the trigger."
Those stories gave different versions of a certain "uncle"'s involvement in the crime, Pollard testified. Once, Debrow said his uncle--actually, distant relative and ex-con Floyd Hardeman--ordered him to shoot the man. Another time, the uncle told him to aim the gun at the cab driver's head and it simply went off.
(Today, Debrow says that he doesn't remember specific details about the crime, including who pulled the trigger, because of memory loss from his head injuries.)
Whatever the case, Pollard knew he had a lost and desperate child on his hands. "At first, he dealt with it from the platform of 'I'm tough,'" Pollard said in court. "And the only time that he...really showed any somberness...was when we got to talking about spiritual things. And he said, 'The only thing I'm afraid of in life is God. And I'm afraid of God. Because no one else can do anything to me, but God can.'"
Where others saw only callousness, Pollard saw "some tenderness, and some openness, and some sorrow."
The greater part of Pollard's testimony, however, was heard outside the presence of the jury as state District Judge Andy Mireles considered whether Debrow's words were spoken to a clergyman with the expectation of confidentiality. He decided that most of it should remain secret.
But the testimony about Debrow's supposed boasting didn't make much of an impression on Castro-Guerra anyway. The shoe--that was the clincher for her. "I don't think there was even any doubt that he was there" at the scene of the crime, she says. Debrow's court-appointed lawyer, Andy Logan, tried to shift some of the focus to the boy's much older accomplice--convicted murderer Hardeman. "We don't know what happened in that cab," he said in his closing statement, "but we know Floyd Hardeman." Holding to her understanding of the charge Judge Mireles had given her, however, which instructed the jury to find Debrow culpable if he promoted, assisted or encouraged the crime, Castro-Guerra and her fellow jurors deliberated only 75 minutes before answering "true" to the question of murder.
Throughout the trial, Judge Mireles' courtroom was packed with reporters and family members. And still, Edwin sat impassively beside his mother, even while lead prosecutor Gammon Guinn hammered away at him. "At 12 years old, he is cold," Guinn concluded. "...Maybe he had a problem. But should we cut off society's nose to spite our face and send him back out there? ...Do we let him do it again?"
Castro-Guerra had a hard time relating to this unnaturally cool child. "I expected this little boy to be crying and his mother to be consoling him," he says. "But there was no emotion."
What was left inside Debrow would only come out later, the boy would write, when he went back to his cell and cried and cried. Would open tears have made a difference? Should they? What's certain, Judge Mireles recalls, is that the jury took the greatest care in reaching its decision about the boy's future.
In the sentencing phase they finally heard scraps of information that helped them make some sense out of a monstrous act: Debrow's messy family life, his scant schooling, the utter lack of effective adult supervision. That testimony was balanced with that of teachers from the "achievement center" where he once attended school, who spoke fondly of a bright boy, a teacher's pet who responded well to structure and educational challenges and was quick to help the other kids and "make them feel good about themselves."
It was just a flash in four days of grueling testimony from more than 20 witnesses, a tiny moment when a boy's potential stood weakly against his overwhelming past.
The jury sentenced Debrow to 27 years.
Castro-Guerra admits now that jury members didn't understand the full import of a relatively new law that allowed for "determinate" sentences of up to 40 years for juveniles convicted of murder. That meant that a boy such as Debrow could be sent to the Texas Youth Commission until he was 18, and, after a court hearing to assess his progress in rehabilitation, he could either be released on parole, retained at TYC till he was 21 or sent up to continue his sentence in adult prison. At the time, Debrow was the youngest person ever to be charged with murder in Bexar County.
Clinging to their own gentler notions of childhood, some of the jurors, such as 24-year-old Scott Moore, a grocery clerk, assumed Debrow didn't know right from wrong and simply needed a little enlightenment. Moore couldn't muster any "empathy for how he committed the crime like he did, cold-blooded." But he hoped Debrow would spend some time in TYC and learn his lesson.
Castro-Guerra had the same illusions. She didn't think for a minute that Debrow committed the crime by himself; jurors knew some facts about the role of Hardeman, who was later convicted of aggravated robbery in connection with Edwards' death and received a 30-year sentence. But she rationalized that Debrow would turn himself around in the youth commission's state schools and go home to a better life at 18.
Andy Logan knew there was fat chance of that. "My experience with TYC is that there would be no effort to rehabilitate him," he says today. "He desperately needed a hands-on, structured environment where there was some nurturing going on and some training."
Debrow's father puts it more bluntly: "How can you take a 12-year-old and throw him in with a pack of wolves and expect him to come out a sheep five years down the line?"
Without a doubt, somewhere inside Edwin Debrow Jr. was a boy who wanted to please, who responded to discipline and kindness. In TYC, he tells a story about a middle-aged teacher with whom he fell in love. Whenever the woman feels down, Debrow writes tenderly of rubbing her shoulders, consoling her, carrying out small favors in her classroom with exacting care. Sure enough, he had other motives, too, in a place where he says staff and inmates were constantly "getting they freak on" and young men behaved as though they were mainlining testosterone.
One could never say Edwin hadn't known love. A woman, in fact, was the center of his existence. "My mother is my life, she is my world, and my pride and my joy," Debrow recently wrote in a letter. "I really love her and I will never accept her departure from this world." They are moving words, attached to a woman so much maligned, so heavily burdened.
It was Seletha Debrow who recently urged a San Antonio legislator to transfer her son to somewhere within the same hemisphere, and Edwin was moved from a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison in Amarillo to Beeville, south of his hometown, just a few weeks ago.
Debrow's love for his mother makes it impossible to write him off as an unfeeling "madman," a term he applies to himself at one point in his manuscript.
She writes him, occasionally sends money; whatever her role in his delinquency, he clearly values her affection over his father's firm discipline. "My mother was my caregiver," he writes. "The truth is that I have never really been able to understand my father."
Rejected by the world, Edwin and Seletha cling to each other.
It was the only noble thing Debrow knew most of the time he was in TYC, and later in prison.
He went to TYC's West Texas State School in March 1992 with an attitude. At 4-foot-8, 79 pounds, he had no other choice. "I sure in the hell had my mind made up about one thing," he wrote, "and that was that I was gonna stay down for mine and don't let nobody punk me."
I began having problems and was sent to lock-up about 9 times. I was 12 years old and was told that I was aggressive.
We attended group everyday except for on the weekends. Everybody had to go around and say this little speech that had to be memorized. I memorized it real quick and then I began to say it. We had to say as follows: My name is Edwin Debrow and I had a good day today, used my skills for the last 24 hours, group, any problems? If somebody had a problem with you they would speak up if not then the group would all say no at the same time.
In state school it was like a day care center. If you did something wrong then another inmate could call your group and tell on you. The staff called it being responsible but I called it snitching. They viewed it one way and I perceived it another.
I started having fights and assaulting staff. I even started tearing up state property and breaking windows with rocks. I was 12 years old and was as mean as hell. Everybody called me Lil Boo. The name that I was given during my childhood.
During this time I met another inmate whose name was Carvae. He went by the nickname G-Vae. He was from Dallas and had a 30 year sentence for murder. He was also 12 years old. Me and Carvae hung around each other every day and he was my true homie. He was also a member of the Crips. He was down with the 357 Grave Yard Gangsta Crips. So we got along just fine. He was down with me and I was down with him. We were down with each other like 4 flat tires.
Me and Carvae became like celebrity type inmates. Everybody at West Texas knew us. We were known for fighting and assaulting staff and we gained our respect. Nobody wanted to fuck with us. Even though we were twelve years old we fought some of the oldest inmates there. We barred none and faded all. We was most known for our rebellious behavior. If we felt like we were being mistreated then we took actions into our own hands. I knew Carvae was a true homie.
I liked West Texas State School. It was jumping off every day of the week. We had riots after riots and when it did go down it lasted a long time. I was well respected and I knew everything that was gonna go down. When I first got there the Bloods were deep. They outnumbered us Crips. When I knew that I started to put it down. I made it known to everybody that I was representing Altadena Block Crips and it was fuck all bloods on my end.
TYC was good. We could have big radios which we called boom boxes. We could also listen to tapes that had cursing and gang related contents. I guess the 1st Amendment meant something.
Everyday after school me and Carvae would go up front to the dayroom and watch TV. We would talk about the free world. He told me about his crime and I told him about mine. We knew that we would be in TYC until our 18th birthday. We both knew that we could make it so we didn't give a damn. We figured that we could act a damn fool and still get a good recommendation from TYC. In my mind I didn't give a damn about going to prison. I truly didn't care. I knew that I wasn't gonna break under pressure so I wasn't worried.
On dorm 7 it was a lot of bloods. Three of them had some muscle on them and they lifted weights. Their size didn't mean shit to me because I wasn't gonna accept any ass whuppings. I was taught to fight until I won.
I worried about Carvae because he was young like me and because he was my loc. I never thought something would happen to him until one day it did. It shocked me and I was mad. I just couldn't believe what they said happened.
I was the first to find out. Our staff name Mr. Gross knew that me and Carvae were close so he called me in the office and told me. He said listen Edwin and try not to get too mad. I know you and Carvae are close so I'm telling you what happened first. He told me that Carvae had got assaulted last night. He said that Carvae went to the bath room and while he was in the stall them 3 Bloods ran in there and beat him. I didn't know what to think. The first thought that came to my mind was to kill them mutha-fuckers. I wanted revenge because of what they did to my homie and I sure in the hell was gonna get it any way possible...I decided to get 4 big Duracell batteries and put them in a sock. When the opportunity presented itself I would retaliate by getting me an innocent bystander who was a blood member.
One Friday night I was in the dayroom and this blood fool was up there too. I knew then and there that he was gonna be my next victim. He could pay for what his homies did. I went to the bathroom and got the sock with the 4 duracell batteries ready. I put it in my robe and started to walk up the hallway. As I did that, the blood fool was coming down the hall. I had my hand in my robe and I asked that blood fool why his homies did that shit to my loc. And he said I don't know. Then I said you show right cuz. I pulled out that sock and batteries and went upside his damn head. He was trying to run but I grabbed him by his robe and kept hitting him. He fell on the floor and balled up. I continued to hit him until I seen blood. By this time the staff tackled me. He held me on the ground for about 2 minutes. He knew why I did it. He said "you did that because of what happened to Carvae" and I said yeah. Tears started coming down my face.
Debrow's journal of TYC days is a numbing litany of gang fights, attacks on staff, riots, busted windows and escape attempts as he is shifted around from school to school. But for each piss ball--wads of urine-soaked toilet paper--lobbed at a TYC staffer, someone was keeping count.
When Debrow was 17 1/2, he would be called to account for how he spent his TYC days. At that time, he would be interviewed by TYC's Special Services Committee, which was charged with examining his records, conducting a psychological evaluation, interviewing staff and forwarding a recommendation about Debrow's future to a Bexar County judge. If Debrow was a screw-up, he could expect the worst possible outcome: a recommendation that he be sent to adult prison to continue his sentence.
The decision was ultimately up to the judge, but TYC would send its representative to the court hearing to make a case. It was Debrow's job to explain himself, and there would be much to explain.
At TYC, all the kids attend school, participate in group and, as needed, take part in special programs such as "intensive resocialization." Teachers, shrinks and staffers are on hand to provide one-on-one care. "We've got to treat them," explains TYC court liaison Leonard Cucolo, who would testify at Debrow's court hearing. Cucolo wouldn't comment specifically on Debrow's case, but he explained the system's obligation to treat every kid, whether he's a sheep or a psychopath. "We're responsible for them until they're 17 1/2 under the old law. If a youth comes in at 12 and is a behavior problem, we can't go back to the court until that time."
Debrow, however, had a problem that the vast majority of his fellow charges didn't share--a determinate sentence that could extend into middle age if need be. He was surrounded by kids with sentences of just a few months, kids who could see a way out. He saw none. As his friend Carvae, who also had a determinate sentence, wrote in a letter, "At 12 years old, we were nothing but babies trying to be somebody. We've never had a car, house, wife, kids, nothing in our name but a murder case. To this day we deal with the fact that if we was to die in here we lived no life."
That feeling of hopelessness about the future, Debrow says, would eventually snuff out any impulse to work toward a positive change. At times, he would pick up jobs in TYC, work diligently for a few months, try to "get back on track and do something for myself," then things would go "downhill." It didn't help that he was in a succession of schools--West Texas, Brownwood State School and Giddings State School, where some of the hardest cases go--that were swimming with Crips and Bloods, a phenomenon of the times. "Back then, we had a lot of gang members come into TYC," Cucolo explains. "We don't select who comes in, so they're bringing in their problems."
The hopeful moments were so scarce, Debrow recalls them with touching exactitude. One of the highlights of his stay in Brownwood was a 1994 trip outside the compound to McDonald's, accompanied by a kindly administrator. He remembers precisely what he ate: two hamburgers, a large order of fries and a Coke.
Debrow summed up his attitude while recalling a failed escape from Brownwood. He had a lot of time to think while he spent the entire night hogtied in his room. "I had 27 years and I didn't give a damn," he writes. "I had nothing to lose."
I learned one thing about TYC and that was that they were a firm believer in rehabilitation. They strongly believed that they could change the meanest inmates. They taught you politeness skills and things like that. They wanted you to have remorse for your crime. My caseworker Mr. Hill once asked me did I have remorse for what I did. I explained to him, how could I have remorse for something I planned. Even though I was 12 years old I knew right from wrong. So how could I possibly say I had remorse. My caseworker didn't agree with the way I viewed it. He had a different philosophy. He believed that every inmate could change and have remorse. I agreed with that also. I believed anybody could change and have remorse also. I just didn't understand how someone could have remorse for something they intentionally done. If you didn't have remorse you could best believe that TYC was gonna recommend you be transferred to prison.
I was always in trouble. TYC staff labeled me as incorrigible. All the groups that I went to. All the skills that I was taught. None of that would help me. I could change if I wanted to but I wasn't ready to change. I wanted to enjoy my life the way I wanted to. And acting a damn fool was a part of it.
For some odd reason I thought I was losing my mind. I continued to misbehave and I was always thinking about violence. I constantly had negative things on my mind. I wanted to stay in trouble. Being in trouble helped me pass my time.
Days seemed to be going by real slow. When you know you're leaving time seems to slow down for some reason. I tried to get myself under control because I knew it was coming. It was time to go to court in San Antonio, Texas. Something I longed for to come. I longed to go back to Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center to reunite with old friends. I was damn near 100 percent sure that I was going to be sent to prison no matter what. There was no hope for me at all. My records were bad and most of all I had been a murderer since the age of 12 years old. Society was tired of juvenile crime and the laws got real tough during my incarceration. Youngsters were committing crimes at a very young age and society didn't want to tolerate it so they were locking them up and basically throwing away the key for a while.
January 15th  had finally arrived. I went to see the exit committee. It was a committee made up of about 12 TYC staff. They would ask you questions and you had to answer them honestly. After that they would decide what recommendation you would get. They would either vote for you to be transferred to the Texas Department of Corrections or to be recommitted back to the Texas Youth Commission. I knew I had a vote of 12-0 all in favor of my transfer to the Texas Department of Corrections. The thought of going to prison didn't bother me at all. I knew that wherever I went I would be the same Edwin Debrow Jr. I wouldn't change my ways for no one and I sure the hell was gonna stay down for mine. I would go into prison a man and come out man.
The husky young man with the broad shoulders and dimpled face keeps talking, while the guards shift uncomfortably beside him. By now, his knee is bouncing rapidly.
The drugs help a little, he says, but only so much. He's on trazodone, an anti-depressant sometimes used to curb aggressiveness, one of "numerous" psychiatric medications he's been prescribed over the years.
Debrow knows he is mentally ill. "I realized long ago that something was terribly wrong with my behavior," he wrote in a letter. "It has to do with the mood swings. A big part of the responsibility lies with me. I've been learning to control and channel my anger."
He's in a high-security prison unit today because he fashioned a shank from a piece of chain-link fence, hid it in his pants, then used it to stab a rival gang member some years ago. Debrow says the other guy tried to stab him first, that he did it in self-defense. Truth is, Debrow wrote in his manuscript, "I had so much hate built up inside me that I could take it out on the world."
At 17 1/2, when Debrow journeyed to San Antonio for his day of reckoning with the Texas Youth Commission, the judge heard all about the hate. Leonard Cucolo, the TYC court liaison, testified that Debrow had been dispatched to lock-up 178 times, including a time when he threw a glass flower vase in the face of a teacher, fracturing her cheek and knocking her to the floor. He and his friend Carvae claim the teacher habitually made racial comments. "I had a few problems that I still couldn't get over," Debrow would write. "I constantly felt like fighting. I don't know why but it was that feeling I had."
There were zillions of other transgressions. Debrow became a serial destroyer of state property. When he "felt like being destructive," he'd kick his steel toilet until the screws loosened. Then he clobbered it till it became disconnected from the wall. When the staff moved him to another room, he did the same thing.
In a rare note of humor, Debrow writes that Cucolo "went on and on trying his best to make me look like a menace to society. He did a good job but I think I did even better when it was my turn..."
Debrow talked about how he was constantly mistreated by TYC staff, how a 12-year-old quickly learned to do whatever was necessary to survive. Debrow's father came to the hearing, pleading with the court to release his son into his custody. "No one wanted to hear it," his father says. Edwin Debrow Sr. still sounds angry. He finally realizes he is shouting into his cell phone. "My son was a victim, too," he says. "My son's heart was not that calculating, like he was pumping cold water instead of blood."
Even today, with his son's baggage of emotional disorders, the elder Debrow says he'd take him back "in a heartbeat."
He didn't get his chance at the January 1997 hearing. At TYC's recommendation, Debrow Jr. was punted to adult prison to continue his sentence. Andy Logan, who represented him at the hearing, wasn't shocked by the decision. Much more jarring, he said, was the boy's metamorphosis since he'd last seen him. "When he went in, he was a kid--a kid with problems who needed help. When I saw him at 18, he was transformed. He was so hardened it was unbelievable."
Are you surprised? Debrow's dark eyes seem to ask. His best buddy got assaulted. Another pal, a TYC kid known as Scrub, hanged himself in his room; he hadn't received a single visitor in the four years he was at Giddings State School. Debrow himself hasn't seen his mother, or any other relative, since 1996; Amarillo was just too far away. He sums up his prospects in one of his chapter titles: "Damn Fool."
Has he changed? Ain't no rehabilitation in prison, he says. Whatever you do you do on your own, and Debrow has applied himself diligently since his TYC days: reading; writing his life story, a project he started in 1998; writing letters to his little brother Thomas Debrow, urging him to forsake gang-banging; exhorting his cousin Dwayne to treat his girl right.
He has learned to value life, he says; he adds, almost plaintively, that he has decided to tell his story because he wants to make a difference in someone's life. He hopes to publish his manuscript, and, rather improbably, he wishes to be known someday as something besides "a 12-year-old killer." It isn't clear what's brought about the change. Time has gone on, Debrow has gained some years and distanced himself from gang activity, and there may be another reason, too. He recently discovered that his appeal of the murder conviction wasn't filed properly in 1992 and was dismissed for "want of jurisdiction." A small cause for hope.
It's a dim one, though, because even his defense lawyer admits the state's case against him was strong. He'll certainly spend some more years in this hellhole first. Then, somewhere in middle age, he will pocket his $50 endowment from the state of Texas, pull on a set of cheap civilian clothes and venture back into the world he hasn't seen since he was 12.
His mother will be waiting.
Dallas Observer editorial assistant Michelle Martinez contributed to this story.