SANTA ANA — Three Tustin teen-agers are being held in Orange County Juvenile Hall on suspicion of murdering 14-year-old Carl Dan Claes over a $2,500 "disc jockey console" his grandfather recently bought him.
"This is not a case of gang violence or narcotics dealings gone wrong. This is a case of children killing other children for no other reason than stereo equipment," Sheriff's Lt. Dan Martini said at news conference Tuesday.
The case of teen-on-teen violence--which led to the arrests of suspects ages 15 to 17, two of them brothers--has shaken investigators and residents of the affluent Lemon Heights community where it occurred.
The boy's body was found May 17 in a ditch about three miles from his house in Tustin. He had been shot in the head at close range after leaving the home where he and his grandfather lived together.
Sheriff's deputies said they served a search warrant at a Tustin home Monday night and confiscated a .22-caliber handgun believed to be the murder weapon. While they were there, they arrested a 17-year-old suspect who lives elsewhere in Tustin, Martini said.
Two younger boys, ages 15 and 16, turned themselves in early Tuesday morning, Martini said. All three have been booked into Orange County Juvenile Hall and are expected to be arraigned today on murder charges, he said. The Sheriff's Department will encourage the district attorney's office to try them as adults, he said.
Investigators also said they confiscated the $2,500 piece of stereo equipment Thursday at a location they declined to reveal. Carl Claes had loaned the 6-foot-long mobile sound system--used at dance parties to play and record music--to the three suspects about a week before he was killed, authorities said.
The boy's mother, Danella George, said she and Carl had danced to music from the sound system--accompanied by flashing lights--the last time they were together, on May 2. Danella George, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, lives in the Northern California town of Sonora and had been planning to move her son there at the end of the school year.
But Danella George said she was unaware that her son loaned out the equipment or whether he was involved in a dispute.
"I know he talked about rough kids in the community," she said. "There were fears he expressed to me, and he was glad to be getting out of Tustin. . . . He felt that there were people doing wrong things."
Dan George, 73, the boy's grandfather and legal guardian, said he was satisfied that sheriff's investigators made arrests in the slaying, but was troubled by the suspects' ages.
"Yes, it's good news to hear that someone has been arrested," George said, "but they're juveniles. What's going on out there?"
Investigators said Carl's age has made the investigation particularly trying emotionally. "All of us have children, and it does impact us," said sheriff's homicide investigator Leo Vandor.
The ages of the suspects and victim were a chilling reminder of the brutal 1992 New Year's Eve killing of 17-year-old honor student Stuart A. Tay. In that case, five teens were involved in bludgeoning and suffocating Tay, and burying him in a shallow grave in Buena Park.
In both cases, Martini said, "you don't have gangs, you don't have drugs--nothing that lends itself to this kind of activity."
Authorities refused to identify the three suspects or say which one may have pulled the trigger. Tustin Unified School Board Member Gail Michelsen said the three had long histories of disciplinary problems while in the district and each had been expelled over the past 12 to 18 months.
Tustin Unified School District Supt. Dave Andrews said all three were enrolled at the Horizon Education Center, a county educational program.
Elaine Goodman, a teacher at the Tustin branch of Horizon Education Center, said she was familiar with two of the boys and was shocked to learn they were involved in the shooting.
"It makes me feel very sad to think our students are involved in something like this," she said. "But unfortunately, this is a reflection of what's going on in our society."
Goodman said neither boy was regarded as a troublemaker or a discipline problem.
"Both brothers came to school and turned in their work," she said. "I don't know of any fights or confrontations they had at this school."
Goodman said the boys also were polite to teachers at the school and did not wear gang attire. "I would not have picked these two boys to be involved in something like this," she said.
The Tustin branch of the Horizon program has about 140 junior high school and high school students, officials said. Although some students there have been expelled from other campuses, the center also includes teen-age mothers, students who have been released from juvenile facilities and others who choose independent study over regular school programs.
"This is very shocking because we have so many success stories at this school," said Dale Nichols, principal of the school. "It's just devastating to think life has such little value."