Nannette DeLeon desperately showed her wayward son newspaper stories about disastrous fates overtaking teen-agers who danced on the dangerous fringes of the law. "God, Mom, you think I'm gonna get killed?" Donald Kenneth Savaria would mutter as he headed for the streets.
Donald's question was answered Wednesday when he was killed nine days short of his 14th birthday while trying to steal a television set, Los Angeles police said.
The falling glass from an appliance store window sliced open an artery in the Reseda youth's neck, setting off an investigation into whether a 23-year-old Reseda man recruited Donald and other youths to steal for him in a ring reminiscent of that run by the Fagin character in Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist."
Donald, an eighth-grader at Portola Junior High School in Tarzana, died shortly after jagged glass rained on him as he tried to pull a television through the front window of Tip Top TV & Appliances in Reseda about 1 a.m., said Police Lt. George Rock. The glass severed one of the boy's carotid arteries, which carry blood from the heart to the head.
Investigators suspect the boy was working for Julio Grassano, 23, a drug addict with a criminal record that began when he was a juvenile, Rock said. Grassano was in a car parked a short distance from the store and dropped off the dying boy at Northridge Hospital Medical Center before driving off, Rock said.
Police traced Grassano using a license plate number given by a hospital guard and arrested him.
Grassano allegedly directed Donald and several friends to steal for him, knowing that punishment for juvenile offenders often is substantially less severe than for adults, Rock said. It is difficult to prosecute burglary and theft cases against suspects not directly involved in the execution of the crime.
"It appears Grassano was more the director of activity," Rock said.
Detectives Wednesday were questioning at least three other youths suspected of working for Grassano. Rock said the interviews were expected to continue today before the case is presented to the district attorney Friday.
Grassano was jailed on charges of burglary and felony child endangerment, but Rock said prosecutors were considering adding a manslaughter charge. Under California law, charges can be filed for deaths resulting from the commission of a crime. Grassano was being held in lieu of $55,000 bail.
Donald's mother said Wednesday that she warned Grassano last week to stay away from her son. She said she did not like the fact that he was so much older than Donald and suspected he was leading him astray.
DeLeon said her son would have been easy to dupe. He was in a special education program at school and was dyslexic, hyperactive and had a short attention span. She said Donald could not remember his home phone number or address and believed himself to be mentally retarded.
It was unclear how Donald and Grassano met, but Rock said both regularly used drugs and apparently stole to support their habits. DeLeon said she never noticed her son under the influence of drugs. She said she never met Grassano in person but that, whenever he called, her son would leave immediately.
DeLeon said she told police about other youths who know Grassano in order to save them from a fate similar to that of her son, whom she called Kenny. "He's just a kid, you know?" DeLeon said, her voice faltering. "There are so many kids like Kenny out there.
"He was only 13. He never had a chance to fall in love."
According to police, Donald and Grassano went to the used electronics and appliance store shortly after 1 a.m. Grassano parked a short distance away, and Donald walked to the shop and smashed the front window.
A passing motorist, Omar Haddad, told investigators he saw the boy on the sidewalk outside the store reaching through the broken window to yank out a television, police said. As the boy tried to pull the television through the hole in the glass, a jagged section came loose and hit him on the neck and back, Haddad said.
Rock said the glass severed one of the boy's carotid arteries, which together transport about 20% of the heart's output, or about two pints of blood, every minute. Bleeding heavily, the boy stumbled to Grassano's car, which was parked a short distance away, Haddad told police.
DeLeon said Grassano called her Wednesday morning. Grassano told her that Donald jumped out of the car and tried to break into the shop to steal a videocassette recorder to replace one he had taken from his older brother a few days earlier, DeLeon said.
When the owner of Tip Top TV arrived about 2:30 a.m., summoned by police, the front display case was shattered, the sidewalk was covered with blood, and the television Donald was trying to steal was perched halfway through the window.
The owner, who asked that his name not be used, said the used RCA color set was worth about $100. "You die for a country, you die to save somebody, but not for a junk television," he said. "Can you believe somebody would kill himself for such junk?"