The charges against a 9-year-old Arizona boy in a double homicide that shocked the United States have been resolved with a guilty plea to a single count of negligent homicide, but the mystery surrounding the case remains.
No one inside or outside of the Apache County courthouse on Thursday ever addressed what led to the Nov. 5 shootings of the boy's father and the father's roommate at their home in this rural community of about 4,000.
The boy acknowledged he did something risky and dangerous that ended the life of the roommate, 39-year-old Timothy Romans, but he was not asked to explain any motive for the killing, nor have police discussed one. During the hearing where the boy entered the plea, little was said regarding the death of the boy's father, 29-year-old Vincent Romero.
The boy was 8 when he was accused in the double homicide. Police in St. Johns found Romero and Romans shot to death after the boy ran to a neighbor's house. Authorities didn't initially consider him a suspect, but he was questioned again after Romans' wife raised suspicions about him. In a police interview released by prosecutors, the boy admitted pulling the trigger.
Police reports say the boy told a state Child Protective Services worker that his 1,000th spanking would be his last.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys struggled with what to do with a child who was charged with murder while he was so young. No child 8 years old or younger committed homicide in the United States during 2005-2007, according to FBI statistics.
Details in the case were sparse from the beginning as a result of a gag order. Defense attorney Benjamin Brewer said that although the public has a strong appetite for details, it's unlikely that will be satisfied.
"That information is probably never going to come out," he said.
Police said the boy, who was charged with two counts of premeditated murder, used a .22-caliber rifle to shoot the men as they returned home from work. Under the plea agreement, the boy pleaded to a reduced charge in Romans' death, and the charge stemming from his father's death was dropped.
The boy's plea spares the community from what would have been an emotional trial and prevents the boy from serving time in the state juvenile corrections system or being tried as an adult.
Defense attorney Ron Wood said the deal wasn't expected to please everyone.
"I don't know it was the best thing. That remains to be seen," he said. "This resolution of the case causes more potential for working out in (the boy's) favor."
The boy hasn't been sentenced, but Wood said he would fight to keep the boy out of a county juvenile detention facility, although that is an option under the plea deal.
Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting wants the boy to undergo extensive mental evaluations and treatment.
The boy's mother cried throughout Thursday's hearing, and through her lawyer, objected to the plea deal. But Superior Court Judge Michael Roca accepted it.
Whiting said he spoke with the Romero family before giving final approval to the plea deal, and they agreed it was in the child's best interest for him not to be forced to admit to killing his father.
"If the kid is ever going to have a chance at a normal life, how is he going to deal with `I pleaded guilty to killing my dad,'" Whiting said.
A spokesman for the Romans family, John Andreas, said Romans' wife and two daughters were disappointed with the plea deal and that the case appeared to focus more on the boy than the victims.
"Tim is still dead. The boy took away something that is not replaceable," Andreas said. "There is no satisfaction."
Friends in the close-knit community said Romero, who had full custody of his son, was a caring father who seemed to be doing all he could to raise a polite and respectful boy.
Authorities said they had no record of any complaints filed about the boy with Arizona Child Protective Services and that the third-grader had no disciplinary record in school in St. Johns.
Talk of a plea deal emerged less than a month after the shootings. Brewer said at the time that he was unsure of his client's ability to understand the proceedings.
Threat to others?
In court Thursday, the boy was more talkative and relaxed than in previous hearings, laughing and chatting with his lawyer and mother.
But his demeanor became more serious as the hearing got under way. The judge questioned him for nearly half an hour, about whether he understood his rights, the terms of the plea agreement and the consequences.
The boy answered respectfully and politely, using "yes, sir" or "no, sir" in most cases.
Roca drew laughter from the boy when he told him that once he turns 18, "you don't have to worry about me anymore, and that's a good thing."
As the judge wrapped up the questioning, he asked the boy if "this is what you want to do?" The boy responded "yes, sir."
Under the agreement, the judge will decide later whether the boy will be institutionalized or live with relatives. He will receive diagnostic evaluations and mental health examinations when he's 12, 15 and 17. The reviews are intended partly to determine whether the boy will pose any danger in the future.
The boy also won't be allowed to enroll in any public or private school unless evaluations determine that he doesn't pose a threat to himself or anyone else.