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2 Killers of Boy From Group Home Get 16 Years

Crime: Pair had lived with youth in Calabasas facility for juvenile delinquents. His body had been tossed in a convenience store dumpster.

February 11, 1999|EVELYN LARRUBIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — It was the one way Diedra Lampley could think of to ensure that bureaucrats in the criminal justice system would never forget her foster son was loved.

At Wednesday's sentencing of his killers, she asked that a photograph be included in the court files. The snapshot was not the smiling Little League mug of Rodney Haynes she wears on a button on her lapel; it is a photo of his gravestone.

"I wanted them to know that somebody had feelings for Rodney," Lampley said after the brief hearing.

Judge Steven Suzukawa sentenced Brandon Sewell and Gregory Smith, 17 and 19, to 16 years to life in prison, the sentence agreed upon in a plea bargain to second-degree murder charges reached last month.

The pair killed Rodney 18 months ago outside a convenience store near the Calabasas group home for juvenile delinquents where all three had been placed by the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Sewell and Smith told authorities they punched and kicked Rodney and beat him with a rock and a stick because he was "mouthing off" as they worked out plans to steal beer from the market on Las Virgenes Canyon Road. Then they tossed his bloody, broken body in a dumpster behind the store.

At Wednesday's hearing, Lampley read a letter addressed to the defendants she had written the night before. She said their actions sickened her and she found their sentence unfair.

"I hope the next 16 years in prison will at least teach you that you can't kill for any reason," she said. "Nine days from today, Rodney would have celebrated his 14th birthday. We're making the adjustment but we still miss him."

After Rodney's death, the county Probation Department was widely criticized for having housed him with older, more serious offenders and at a group home that did not have permanent nighttime supervision.

Rodney had been at Passageways group home for six days when he was killed. He was sent there after authorities said he robbed a video store.

Both Sewell and Smith were not only older but also significantly larger than Rodney, who weighed only about 85 pounds. Smith weighed more than 200 and both he and Sewell towered over their victim.

They also had much longer criminal records.

Smith was made a ward of the Juvenile Court at 13, after sexually assaulting a 2-year-old neighbor. He was tossed out of nine group homes in three years for stealing, fighting or running away, before he was sent to a camp program. After completing that program, he was sent to Passageways, which specialized in helping teens get jobs and learn everyday life skills.

Sewell--who records show began his criminal career when he was 10 by breaking into neighbors' homes--had also escaped from or been thrown out of a number of group homes before he was put in Passageways.

The pair returned to the home after the killing and initially denied any involvement, but eventually confessed.

Two months after Rodney's death, Probation Director Walter J. Kelly acknowledged his department's failure and announced a series of reforms that included the creation of a system to investigate the backgrounds of youths already in a home before placing others there and segregating delinquents of different ages and criminal backgrounds.

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