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4 Teens in Philadelphia Charged in Taped Assault on a College Student

In a distressing act of juvenile violence, police say, the boys filmed how they targeted a stranger, beat him and pushed him into traffic.

January 25, 2006|Ellen Barry and David Zucchino | Times Staff Writers

PHILADELPHIA — Police here have charged four teenage boys with attempted murder in a videotaped random beating that one official said should be a wake-up call to the "group mentality" that is feeding juvenile crime in Philadelphia.

The videotape starts off casually enough, with three teenagers walking down a street and rapping in front of the camera, documentary-style.

Police say the videotape then captures the high school students beating a stranger -- a 30-year-old Haitian man studying engineering at Drexel University -- until his jaw was dislocated. Then they thrust him toward oncoming traffic.

Police Lt. John Walker on Tuesday said the beating -- and the joking comments that led up to it -- should wake parents up to the forces feeding juvenile violence in Philadelphia.

"To raise a kid today is a difficult task," he said. "They don't appear to me to be bad kids. They're in a group, and the group mentality comes into play."

After declining sharply from its peak in the early 1990s, crime last year crept up again in West Philadelphia, where poor residents share the streets with students and professors from Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania.

The University of Pennsylvania on Monday pledged $5 million to add more campus police officers, security cameras and lighting on campus.

Crime rates at the university fell by 49% between 1996 and 2004, said Maureen Rush, the university's vice president for public safety. The trend was reversed in 2005, when robberies on the campus increased by 30% and overall crime rose by 16% compared with 2004.

A student was injured by a stray bullet last week when she walked near a carjacking. Last month, a local man was shot and killed at the Philly Diner, a favorite with students.

Among the year's crimes, several stood out because of the ages of the suspects: Three 13-year-old girls, two carrying BB guns, were arrested on suspicion of assault in November after allegedly throwing an object at a female medical student; a 12-year-old in November used a BB gun to steal a car from a student at Haverford College, the Philadelphia Daily News reported.

"You have very young people who haven't developed their understanding of what happens when you commit a crime," Rush said. "These are very young kids tinkering with things that are going to change their lives."

Bernard Gollotti, senior associate vice president of public safety at Drexel, said crimes by groups of high-school-age students are up throughout the neighborhood.

"We're scratching our heads and asking the question, 'What's happening?' " he said.

The videotaped beating took place a few blocks from University City High School, a bunker-like building whose narrow windows are covered by heavy metal screening. To the east is the small campus of Drexel University.

The high school students arrested -- among them a varsity basketball player -- were dismissed early Friday afternoon, when the school closed for a teacher development program, said a district spokesman.

The teens made their way past blocks of row houses and a cheese-steak and hoagie shop, rapping while a friend filmed them, Walker said. The topic turned to violence and talk of a previous assault.

"All the kids are talking, laughing about how bad they are, how tough they are, and one says to another, 'Just pick somebody out ... pick someone out and I'll do it,' " Walker said. "They're talking about 'catching a body,' knocking somebody out."

The tape then reportedly shows one youth passing to the right of the victim, striking him hard on the face and pushing him against a wall. After continuing to punch him, they pushed the man into the street toward an oncoming car.

Police have not released the tape; therefore descriptions of its contents come from them.

The victim, who has refused to give his name because he fears retribution, suffered a dislocated jaw. Walker said the man was "petrified" but had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Drexel released a statement Tuesday saying the man had been offered campus housing and counseling.

In an interview with a local CBS affiliate, the victim said: "It was very sad to see.... When the people beat me up, they was having fun doing it."

Walker said it was the first time local police had encountered assailants who had videotaped their crime. When police showed parts of the tape to the suspects' parents, he said, "the look on their face was amazement, seeing another side of their kids they had no idea [existed]. The parents were like, 'That's not my kid; that's not my son.' "

All four have been charged with attempted murder. One of the students, an 18-year-old, has been identified as Tyrez Osborne of West Philadelphia.

Julia Hall, coordinator of Drexel's criminal justice program, said friction was built into West Philadelphia. Young people raised in the area "don't really have much of a stake in society. They don't see much of a future," she said.

Campuses, to them, seem like islands of affluence, Hall said: "It can be an uneasy kind of existence sometimes."

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