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Arizona boy, 9, pleads guilty in shooting

The boy was accused of killing his father and another man. In his plea deal, the charge involving his father is dropped. The boy's sentence will depend on mental health evaluations.

February 20, 2009|Ashley Powers

LAS VEGAS — A 9-year-old Arizona boy accused of shooting his father and another man to death at their rural home pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of negligent homicide, a development that will spare the beleaguered town of St. Johns a highly publicized trial.

The November slayings drew international attention to the town of 4,000 after a police video was released in which the boy, clad in pajama pants, appeared to confess to shooting his father, Vincent Romero, and family friend Timothy Romans with a .22-caliber rifle.

With the boy's guilty plea Thursday in connection with Romans' death, prosecutors dropped the charge related to his father. The child's sentence -- including whether he remains in his mother's care or enters the Apache County juvenile justice system -- will depend on upcoming mental health evaluations, a defense attorney said.

"Part of the problem is I don't think any of us know what his problems are, if any, and how to solve them," Ron Wood said.

The boy's mother was unhappy with the plea agreement, Wood said, and sobbed through Thursday's hearing. But the boy wanted to end court proceedings as soon as possible, and signed the three-page agreement in shaky, oversized cursive.

"This is a resolution that, in my view, makes my client happy and includes the structure . . . that gives him the best shot at going back to being a little boy," Wood said.

Prosecutors intend to ask Judge Michael Roca that the third-grader remain in the county's juvenile system and undergo "extensive" mental health evaluations and treatment, Apache County Atty. Michael B. Whiting said in a statement. A pre-sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 5.

Whiting said that if the boy had been declared incompetent to stand trial in the course of further prosecution, he could have been released, and officials could not have tracked where he lived and whether he was getting help.

A spokesman for the Romans family told the Associated Press that the victim's wife and two daughters were disappointed with the plea agreement.

"The boy took away something that is not replaceable," John Andreas said. "There is no satisfaction."

A motive in the shootings is unclear. Many residents of the community said Romero and his new bride, Tiffany, were good caregivers.

The boy suggested he was tired of being spanked when he got into trouble, police reports said.

The boy, 8 at the time of the shootings, was initially considered a witness. He had a neighbor call authorities, and he said he saw a white vehicle with rimless back tires speeding away.

But Romans' wife was on the phone with her husband shortly before he died, and she told authorities that she heard the child calling for him. That contradicted what the boy initially told police: that he had discovered his father, 29, and Romans, 39, after the men were shot.

When police re-interviewed the boy, he appeared to confess to the slayings. No attorney or guardian was present, which shocked juvenile-justice advocates. That fact might have kept the interview from being admitted as evidence.

After the boy was charged, the police video was publicly released, and the no-stoplight town was overrun by TV news trucks.

On the tape, the boy says, "I think, um, I think I shot my dad because he was suffering, I think," and buries his face in his shirt.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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