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Abuse cited in teen's suicide

Prosecutors build a case against a man charged with beating his grandson and others.

January 14, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

For more than a year after a 15-year-old Lake Los Angeles boy shot himself to death, authorities have been building a case against his grandfather for abuse that they say prompted the suicide, including hitting the teen with a baseball bat.

Greg Smith killed himself with a shotgun after grandfather Willie Davis beat him with an aluminum bat for not making his bed neatly enough, according to testimony by Davis' 16-year-old son, who also lived in the house and witnessed the Aug. 29, 2006, attack.

Davis, 57, has pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of child abuse related to Greg and two other children he cared for, as well as charges of torture, mayhem, and possessing and illegally storing an illegal weapon.

His 16-year-old son testified at an October hearing that Greg said after the attack, "I can't take it anymore."

Greg then went to his grandfather's bedroom and retrieved the sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, an illegal weapon kept under his grandfather's bed with ammunition, according to Los Angeles County Assistant Dist. Atty. Kelly Cromer.

Gun in hand, Greg retreated to a bathroom and shot himself in the head, Cromer said. The Los Angeles County coroner's office ruled Greg's death a suicide.

A note recovered from Greg's pocket expressed love for two of his siblings and said he didn't love his grandfather, according to Davis' attorney, Avrum S. Harris, an alternate public defender.

Cromer would not say whether Greg left a suicide note, diary or any other indication of why he killed himself, but said prosecutors believed the pattern of prior abuse led him to take his life.

The incidents of alleged abuse date back to 2003, she said.

Davis had custody of Greg, his 12-year-old sister and several other related children, Cromer said.

Los Angeles County prosecutors in December 2006 charged Davis in the Aug. 29 beating of Greg. The next May, they charged Davis in the abuse of two other children he cared for, Cromer said.

Greg's younger sister testified at a June hearing that their grandfather would punish her and other children who talked back by pinching their lips with pliers until they bled and beating them, Cromer said. After abusing them, the girl testified, her grandfather would instruct the children not to tell anyone and if they were visibly bruised keep them home from school until the injuries healed.

Davis' attorney says his client insists he's innocent. If Davis had perpetrated the kind of child abuse prosecutors allege, keeping his children out of school for long periods of time, he would have come to the attention of school and social services staff, Harris said.

Harris said that although Greg mentioned his grandfather in the note, many other factors could have contributed to the teen's suicide.

Legal experts say that proving abuse would be easier than showing a judge and jurors that abuse contributed to Greg's suicide.

"A suicide note would help: 'I've been abused, so I'm going to kill myself.' But it still would be the sort of creative, pushing-the-envelope argument a judge might not like," said professor Lee Campbell, who teaches evidence and children's rights at USC Law School.

"There are kids that have that much abuse or more and they don't commit suicide. So to argue that that is the cause of the suicide, that strength of connection isn't there as a matter of logic, even if it is as a matter of intuition," Campbell said.

Davis is scheduled to appear for a pretrial hearing Jan. 29 in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Lancaster. He is being held at Pitchess Detention Facility in Castaic in lieu of $290,000 bail.

After Davis' arrest, the children staying with him were sent to stay with relatives, Cromer said.

Davis' arrest and his grandson's suicide have left people in Lake Los Angeles wondering if they missed signs of abuse or there really were problems at the Davis home.

Lake Los Angeles is a growing exurban Antelope Valley town at the northern edge of the county, a somewhat rural area with a population of less than 20,000.

Greg's former English teacher Keary Johns said he knew the teen's grandfather from the local hardware store where he worked and that Davis moonlighted as a real estate agent.

He also knew Davis' wife, who he said became ill after Greg's death and died within a week. The family held a single funeral for the two at a local church, he said.

Neighbors and classmates at Littlerock High School knew Greg as a talkative, good-looking student who played basketball, Johns said. "He was a happy kid in the classroom, laughing, smiling."

The teacher said he never noticed signs that Greg or his 16-year-old uncle, who was in the same English class, had been abused.

He recalled the times he had threatened to call Davis because the boys misbehaved in class or missed assignments. The boys appeared scared and begged him not to call. But, he said, "All kids say don't call their parents." So he called.

Afterward, the boys returned to school as usual, without visible injuries.

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