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Sandy Banks

When Parents' Love Can't Save Kids

January 20, 2002|Sandy Banks

The first time Sossi Demirdjian sat with her son in court, the infant Michael was in her arms and she was beaming as a judge pronounced her and husband, Gary, the legal parents of their adopted child.

Sixteen years later, they were back in court with Michael last week. But this time, he was seated next to his lawyer, wearing a red jumpsuit from county jail. And his mother was sobbing into a napkin, as her only child was declared "vicious and evil," a murderer sentenced to life in prison for beating to death two of his friends.

How, I wondered, do you get from there to here? What happens in the lives of suburban kids of privilege to lead to such heartbreaking ends?

The answers, it seems, are as complicated as the messy, confusing world that we are raising our children in.

It is the kind of story--full of violence and grief and pain--that makes parents shudder as they watch their own teenagers treading the stormy waters of adolescence today. Two La Crescenta boys--Chris McCulloch, 13, and Blaine Talmo Jr., 14--out of school for the summer and running the streets. Skateboarding, crashing at the homes of friends, shooting hoops ... "good kids," their friends called them, having a good time, albeit with a tad too much freedom and too little sense of their own vulnerability.

Their bodies were discovered one weekend in July 2000 on a school playground in their neighborhood. They had been beaten to death with a rock and a concrete bench, in what police would later call a dispute over a marijuana deal gone bad. Police arrested their former schoolmate, Michael Demirdjian, then just 15 years old. After two trials--the first produced a hung jury--he was convicted of both murders last fall and sentenced to two life terms, without chance of parole.

The saga was troubling on several fronts. How could the dead boys, just out of middle school, have had so little supervision that they could be away from home for days without their parents' knowing where they were? How could a shy, quiet kid with devoted parents commit such a brutal crime? How could a peaceful, upscale suburb, known for the quality of its schools and its close-knit neighborhoods, be the setting for such violence?

It is simple to blame drugs; marijuana is indeed often the tie that binds kids to tragedy. It is tempting to blame naive or neglectful parents, who leave kids to fend for themselves too much. And it is easy to see that a toxic culture--one that glamorizes drugs, violence and thuggery--is helping to shape our children's perceptions and their fate.

Maybe we should also blame our illusions ... the notion that we know our kids, that we really understand their issues. The fantasy that they are coming up in a world as predictable as the one that we recall, and that we can set its boundaries with the right combination of freedom and control.

But little about child-rearing is ever as clear as we would like it to be. Everyone knows of kids who, despite caring families, inexplicably veered off track; and of children who grew up in dysfunctional homes and still managed to find success. Even "good" kids can do stupid, terrible things, wind up behind bars or dead, leave their parents wondering, did I do too much or not enough?

"I used to stand outside his room," Sossi Demirdjian told me after the sentencing, "and listen through his bedroom door" when her son Michael got late-night phone calls. She made sure he was in his room at night, but found out later, after his arrest, that he sometimes sneaked out through his window.

"My son, he made some mistakes," she said. "But he was a good kid. And I make mistakes too."

The families of the dead boys must have questions that will go eternally unanswered as well. At the funeral of her son, Chris, Aileen Bristow told of her frustration trying to corral her wayward child. "It was like he was in a hurry," she said. He'd be gone with his friends for days, coming home only long enough to get a few hours' sleep and change his clothes.

"Some of you are probably asking 'Why didn't you stop him?' God knows I tried."

If there's a formula for raising good kids, Sossi Demirdjian thought she was following it. There was "Mommy and Me" when Mike was a baby. Private school until junior high. Soccer and hockey and basketball, with his parents there to watch him play. Help with homework, family vacations, visits to Disneyland with friends.

"Always, we were with him," she says. "Maybe we didn't always understand, but we always gave him love."

Now her son--who, even as a teenager, was too shy to sleep at the home of a friend--will spend every night for the rest of his life locked away in a prison cell. And Michael's mother and father--who have never gotten so much as a traffic ticket--will be forever known as the parents of a murderer and never see their son again outside of a prison visiting room.

But they are better off than the parents of Chris and Blaine, who tried just as hard--and failed just as painfully--to usher their sons safely through adolescence. They can only visit their children's graves.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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