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Case leaves lasting impact on youth justice

As police and prosecutors celebrated the capture of Rhode Island's most notorious serial killer, a 15-year-old boy, they were reminded of a grim reality. In five years he would be free to kill again. Officials then raced against time to keep the teen behind bars for much longer.
Craig Price admitted killing four people when he was just shy of his 16th birthday. His current scheduled release date is December 2020. He will be 46. Andrew Dickerman / Pool via AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Craig Price was a brawny teenage football player with a baby face and winsome smile, who lived with his parents in a small ranch house in the Buttonwoods section of town.

One summer night in 1987, he crept across his neighbor's yard, broke into a little brown house and stabbed Rebecca Spencer 58 times. She was a 27-year-old mother of two.

He was 13.

Two years passed before Price struck again.

Joan Heaton, 39, was butchered with the kitchen knives she had bought earlier that day. The bodies of her daughters, Jennifer 10, and Melissa 8, were found in pools of blood, pieces of knives broken off in their bones; Jennifer had been stabbed 62 times.

Buttonwoods was paralyzed. Police combed the streets. Neighbors padlocked their doors. The Heaton house was just a few hundred yards from the Spencer home and the question hung thick over the tidy, working-class neighborhood: What kind of monster was living in their midst?

The answer came two weeks later.

Price was a wisecracking kid who had been in minor trouble for petty burglaries — "thieving" he called it — but who seemed friendly to neighbors and was always surrounded by friends.

Police had become suspicious after he lied about a deep gash on his finger. They knew from the crime scene that the killer had cut himself. A bloody sock-print matched Price's size-13 feet. They found the knives in his backyard shed.

At the police station, his mother sobbing softly beside him, Price calmly confessed to the four murders.

Yet even as police and prosecutors celebrated the capture of Rhode Island's most notorious serial killer, they were reminded of a grim reality.

In five years, Price would be free to kill again.

Law on Price's side
Price was a month shy of his 16th birthday. As a juvenile, he would be released from the youth correctional center when he turned 21 — the maximum penalty under Rhode Island law at the time. His records would be sealed. The 5-foot-10 inch, 240-pound killer would be free to resume his life as if the murders had never occurred.

The law was on his side and Price knew it.

"When I get out I'm going to smoke a bomber," Price yelled as he was led, handcuffed, from the courthouse.

Jeffrey Pine, then assistant attorney general, said he had never felt such frustration. "There was something fundamentally wrong with a system that allowed someone who killed four people to simply go free at 21," Pine said.

And so Pine and others embarked on a remarkable mission. They would change the system so that future young murderers could be locked up for life. At the same time they would do their best to ensure that Price himself would stay behind bars long past his 21st birthday.

It was an extraordinary response to an extraordinary case and it involved every level of government, from the governor's and attorney general's offices to the state legislature, the police and the courts.

In effect, the legal system would bend the laws it was sworn to uphold because, despite misgivings by some, many believed that keeping Price behind bars was simply the right thing to do.

Racing against time
Price's taped confession is chilling. In a nonchalant, matter-of-fact drawl he describes the night of terror in the Heaton home. He mimics the last sounds of the dying girls. He whines about cutting his hand.

Detective Tim Colgan, who took Price's confession, went home that night and cried. Colgan had been first on the scene. Never had he witnessed such savagery. Nor such lack of remorse.

Detective Kevin Collins, who assisted with the confession, had never felt such rage. He vowed to do everything in his power to prevent Price from ever walking free.

For years, that is what he did.

With members of the victims' families, he formed Citizens Opposed to the Release of Craig Price, or CORP. He organized rallies, launched fundraisers, appeared on national news shows. CORP hired planes to fly banners in major cities around the country declaring "Killer Craig Price. Moving to your city? Beware."

"Craig Price is a serial killer stopped temporarily at four killings," Collins said. "He should be locked up for life."

Many in the state agreed. Within a month of Price's arrest, the state legislature passed a law allowing juveniles to be tried in adult court for serious crimes. The same law had failed on two previous occasions.

But the law couldn't be applied retroactively to Price. Collins and Pine knew they needed to do more.

No way to treat frenzied killers
Pine's chance came when he was elected attorney general in 1992.

He pushed for legislation to allow judges to consider criminal records in deciding whether someone should be committed to a psychiatric hospital. Known as the Craig Price Bill, it passed in 1994.

He flew to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., to seek the advice of Greg McCrary, a national expert on serial killers. Less than 1 percent of killers are as frenzied as Price, McCrary said. And, so far, society has found no way to treat them.

In a detailed report, McCrary described Price as a human predator who showed no empathy or remorse and was highly likely to kill again. State psychologists were reporting the same thing.

The reports were more tools for the state, Pine said. "We were looking at everything."

Price aided prosecution
In many ways, the best tool turned out to be Price himself.

On the advice of his court-appointed lawyer, he refused a court order to undergo further psychological testing, fearing the results would be used to commit him for life. His refusals allowed Pine's office to file contempt-of-court charges in 1994. When Price flew into a rage and threatened to "snuff out" a corrections officer, Pine seized the opportunity to file extortion charges.

It was an extraordinary indictment for what many considered routine language in the youth prison. But there was a growing public demand for action, fueled by fear of Price's imminent release.

Media reports describing Price's life behind bars stoked the fear. There were stories about how Price had beefed up to 300 pounds by lifting weights, how he boasted freely about "making history" when he was released.

"Everyone in state government wants to blow out the candle on Craig Price and keep him behind bars," Gov. Bruce Sundlun told the crowd at a candlelit vigil outside Warwick City Hall in June 1994.

But the state still had to figure out ways to do so. The real test was the extortion trial.

Whole state watching case
It was October 1994, days before Price's 21st birthday. The whole state was watching. Television stations were cutting into soap operas to report the outcome.

By now Price had a new lawyer, respected civil rights advocate Robert Mann. In court, Mann accused the attorney general's office of twisting the laws to selectively prosecute his client.

But Price sealed his own fate. Found guilty by a jury, he delivered a belligerent, rambling diatribe about how he was being persecuted because of his race.

"The judge got a glimpse," prosecutor Patrick Youngs said. "And that was all he needed."

Price was sentenced to 15 years, seven to serve and eight suspended. He spent his 21st birthday in the Adult Correctional Institution.

Citizens Opposed to the Release of Craig Price spent it at a candlelit vigil at the state house.

"The test of the system is not whether some middle-class white kid caught with an ounce of marijuana gets a fair shake," Mann says. "The test is whether someone portrayed as larger than life evil gets a fair shake."

Testing the legal limits
There was no doubt that Price tested the system to breaking point.

For more than a decade, the state continued to find creative ways way to charge and convict Price. Criminal contempt charges stemming from Price's earlier refusals to submit to psychiatric testing went forward — and brought a one-year sentence — even though, on the advice of Mann, Price had since agreed to the tests. Fights in prison led to assault charges. The state even took the unusual step of charging Price with violation of probation while he was in prison.

Every conviction added more time. Several appeals went to the state Supreme Court. Always, Price lost.

Mann wasn't the only one who questioned the lengths to which the state went. Mental health advocates had bitterly opposed the law allowing courts to consider criminal records in commitment proceedings. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the state's tactics.

Yet lawmakers, prosecutors and judges were faced with an agonizing dilemma: What should society do with a psychopathic killer it cannot legally lock up for life?

In May 1997 Price appeared before Chief District Court Judge Albert DeRobbio after a jury convicted him of criminal contempt. Three years earlier DeRobbio had sentenced Price to one year for the same charge, believing it was the maximum he could impose. Subsequently the Supreme Court ruled that judges had unlimited sentencing power in such cases.

Contempt charges usually result in a fine, not jail time. Yet the state was begging DeRobbio to put Price away for life.

"I did not feel that I could, in conscience, sentence him to life on a contempt charge," DeRobbio said.

And so he gave 25 years, 10 to serve and the remaining 15 years if Price got into trouble or refused treatment.

"I felt that to put him on hold for 25 years would be to put a hold on many, many things," DeRobbio said. "And maybe, in that time, some form of treatment could be found."

Price speaks out
"The state was effectively organized not to rehabilitate me, but to incarcerate me," Price complained in court in 2004.

Many felt that was true, but that the state had no other choice.

There is no doubt that Price left a lasting legacy on the juvenile justice system in Rhode Island. Today, a 15-year-old serial killer would immediately be referred to adult court, and likely sentenced to life without parole.

Price himself ended up in court many more times — for assault, violation of probation, and various appeals. In 2004, he was transferred to the Florida Department of Corrections as part of a routine interstate transfer. Florida prison officials refused to allow him to be interviewed, citing "security reasons."

Price's current scheduled release date is December 2020. He will be 46.