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Posted by on December 17, 2004 at 00:48:48:

Scarred by an Attack on Sharks

Three boys, all 13, are accused of killing animals at the Long Beach aquarium last month. Incident prompts emotional outpouring.
December 17, 2004

Crouched behind the Long Beach aquarium, a foghorn moaning off the coast, the three Franklin Middle School boys waited.

The Aquarium of the Pacific now deserted, the 13-year-olds climbed the wall and began dragging docile sea life from darkened pools, prosecutors allege.

They stabbed three sharks and a ray with pipes and left all but one to suffocate out of water. They lobbed small sharks into tanks of bigger predators. They slashed a shark's translucent egg sac and severed the embryos. Then, they slid back over the fence.

So, authorities claim, went last month's bewildering attack on harmless creatures that has shocked Long Beach and places far beyond.

More than 1,000 people, some from as far away as Hong Kong and Nova Scotia, have contacted the aquarium, which was visited last year by 200,000 children on field trips. Some have attributed the attacks to youthful foolishness and felt sorry for the young suspects, but others have demanded harsh punishment: life in prison, or even that they "be cut up and fed to the sharks."

More than 1,300 students wrote essays to express grief or outrage or to speculate on what had caused peers to commit such violence. Other Long Beach students held bake sales to raise money for new sharks.

Yet the question the schoolchildren ask, that everyone asks, goes unanswered.

Why?

"It is the answer the aquarium wants, it is the answer the schoolchildren want, it is an answer that I want," said deputy district attorney Sheila Callaghan, who is prosecuting the case. "But I'm not sure the boys can articulate why…. I'm not sure we'll ever know."

Four boys were charged — three who broke in the first night, and a 14-year-old who joined them the following night when they tried to reenter the shark lagoon area and were arrested.

Two of the four have offered emotional apologies. One has pleaded guilty, and the other three will have a hearing in juvenile court next month.

"How do we save these kids?" aquarium President and Chief Executive Officer Jerry Schubel said. "If we come out of this and these kids are sociopaths cruel to animals, we have as a society failed."

As juveniles, the boys have not been identified. Their court proceedings are closed to the public, so only the briefest of detail has been revealed. All four attended the same school in a working-class residential neighborhood at the eastern edge of downtown Long Beach.

They were friends. One lived with an adult sister; some of their parents needed court proceedings translated; at least one has had fights and other problems at school.

Two of them have apologized in writing. One of them was the 14-year-old, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit animal cruelty and was sentenced last week to three months in a juvenile camp. In court that day, he pulled a note out of a sock and read to the court a half-page apology full of misspellings.

His mother and relatives crying softly behind him, he clutched the note with shackled hands and began, "Dear people" and concluded by stressing that he had not actually hurt any animals.

"I'm human," he wrote, "and humans make mistakes."

The second boy wrote directly to the aquarium chief, who paraphrased most of what he took to be a genuinely remorseful appeal. One line in particular resonated.

"He said, 'I lost my dignity that night,' " Schubel recalled.

"That got to me," he said. "That was moving to me. It gave me some hope he's not lost."

A third boy is represented by attorney John Schmocker.

"He's a normal boy. This is not a monster or a disturbed child," he said. "I'm more disturbed by people's greater concern for fish than for people being killed."

Schmocker said he hoped the public would understand that although the boys may have done something wrong, they were not hard-core criminals.

"You know what strikes me is, they're only 13. They're immature, and they're really facing adult consequences," he said. "It was juvenile mischief rather than anything darker."

But why the boys were out so late on a school night — their whereabouts apparently unknown to parents and guardians — and what they did before arriving at the aquarium are questions to which the prosecutor doesn't have answers. She said, for some reason, juvenile authorities did not ask the boys about such details, possibly considering them moot after police said they had confessed.

Two of the four boys' families who were reached by a reporter declined to be interviewed.

The judge's comments before sentencing one youth hinted at what he called "instability" in the boy's home life, the boy's lawyer said.

The youth was living with an adult sister at the time of the attacks, a result of friction with one or more siblings, the attorney said. And a stepfather who had not been living in the home moved back in before sentencing.

"The judge observed that [the boy] had been very well the past month in a structured setting," prosecutor Callaghan said, referring to a county juvenile camp. "And he ordered psychological counseling for the whole family."

The boy's mother declined to be interviewed outside court, in part because she speaks almost no English.

But in the courtroom after the judge's verdict, she offered a teary-eyed apology to the aquarium president who attended the proceedings.

"I'm sorry," she whispered to Schubel.

Gallagher said the maximum sentence the 13-year-olds could face if convicted of all charges would be about nine years in the California Youth Authority. They also could be sentenced to varying terms in a lock-down juvenile camp operated by the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Lose the children or save the children — that is how the dialogue locally has been framed as to how to learn from what happened, said Schubel.

Before news broke about the Nov. 7 attack, Schubel already had considered how the facility could team with other institutions to find some teachable moments in the case. He quickly thought of another Long Beach leader, Chris Steinhauser.

Schubel and Steinhauser, superintendent of the 95,000-student Long Beach Unified School District, separately had ruminated over the question. In a matter of hours that Monday after the attacks, they had teamed up.

"We may never know what triggered these young people to do what they did, but there's usually some underlying things going on that we can try and address," Steinhauser said.

So, the district and the aquarium sponsored an essay contest. The idea was to give students a chance to talk about the violence, to start a dialogue.

They were overwhelmed by the response: 1,300 essays.

Samantha Hing, 12, is one of 10 winners in the essay contest.

"She was very affected after reading the story of the attacks in the newspaper. She loves animals of every kind." said her mother, Sylvia Sar.

Though Samantha urged civic leaders to send aquarium staff members to schools to educate children more about sea life and stated "that animals are alive like people," the tone of other essays and correspondence was of a wider range.

"Some of the essays," Steinhauser said with a whistle, "Phew! I mean, two wrongs don't make a right. But you could see that the kids' anger and their hurt was coming out."

Included in the 14-year-old's sentence was a requirement of 150 hours of community service that the aquarium has asked to be in on.

"What I really want is for these kids to finish whatever consequence they need to pay for this — and there should be consequences — and sit across the table from our aquarium staff and look them in the eye to say, 'I'm sorry.' And then we'd like them to maybe help at the aquarium and learn firsthand about the animals."



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