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Only three months ago, national experts were pointing to North Carolina as a state that had done better than many across the country with programs designed to curb violent crime among teens under 16.
Since 2002, the number of teens under 16 charged with violent crimes has dropped nearly 37 percent, and the number of arrests related to property crimes is down about 40 percent.
Though some may be ready to celebrate such statistics as evidence that Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention programs work, three homicides in the Raleigh-Durham area in the past six months seem to suggest a different scenario.
Im just heartsick, said Ellie Kinnaird, a state senator from Orange County who has worked on juvenile justice issues in the legislature. Theres so much we dont know about how to reach children.
Because the accused in many of the cases have started out in juvenile courts, there are few public records that offer a detailed portrait of their lives.
Their parents names, their schools and other aspects of their lives are often shielded, unless their cases end up in the adult court system, which gives little leniency to their youth.
On Friday, a 12-year-old Raleigh girl was detained after a carjacking and shooting in Durham left 35-year-old Johnny Danilo Villatoro dead and sent the child to the hospital with self-inflicted gunshot wounds to her abdomen and leg.
Three youths have been charged with murder: the 12-year-old, whose name was not released because of her age; a 14-year-old girl from Raleigh, whose name also was withheld; and Justino Navarette Maya, 16, of 311 S. LaSalle St., Durham.
The boy was being held in the Durham County jail without bond. The 14-year-old girl was in a Wake County juvenile facility. The 12-year-old, who unintentionally shot herself, was to be detained at a juvenile center after being treated for wounds that did not appear to be life-threatening, police said. Investigators have not said who fired the shots that ended Villatoros life.
The homicide occurred Friday night on Firth Street, but investigators say the teens first encountered Villatoro shortly after 7 p.m. on Avondale Drive, where they asked him for a ride.
Once Villatoro had driven the teens to Firth Street, investigators say they carjacked his sport utility vehicle and shot him, police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said.
Police found Villatoros stolen SUV abandoned behind an apartment building on Channing Court. The 12-year-old girl was nearby.
Minors in earlier killings
The incident comes several weeks after Raleigh police charged four teens younger than 15 with killing a homeless man in South Raleigh. Law enforcement officers detained a 13-year-old and three 15-year-olds, but the youngest boy has been released.
Wake County prosecutors announced their intentions earlier this month to try the 15-year-old boys in adult court on first-degree murder charges. A judge must first consider whether there is enough evidence to find probable cause to try the boys on first-degree murder.
A hearing is set for Feb. 27 in Wake County.
At a hearing earlier this month, prosecutors contended the older boys might have engaged in gang initiation rituals.
Several of the teens were familiar to court officials in the juvenile system. They had been previously accused of stealing from a homeless man in southeast Raleigh and stealing a bicycle from a 10-year-old boy, then burning property.
The first week of December, a Wake County judge found that prosecutors had enough evidence to try two teenage brothers on first-degree murder charges in the August shooting death of a 16-year-old in North Raleigh.
A Wake County grand jury issued indictments on Dec. 10 in that case, in which a 13-year-old is accused of being the shooter.
Brayan Hernandez-Sierra, 13, and his brother, Ceferino Hernandez-Sierra, 15, are accused of killing Fernando Garibay-Benitez on Aug. 15 near the Lexington on the Green apartments on Rolling Green Court in North Raleigh.
Kinnaird, among a group of legislators pushing to raise the age at which North Carolina teens can be tried in adult court, cautioned against using the three cases as examples of failed juvenile justice and delinquency programs.
Multi-pronged community-based approaches are needed to deal with at-risk children, Kinnaird said, and the teens accused in the three homicides in Wake and Durham counties since August were not getting the attention they needed.
I think these cases show we have serious problems, Kinnaird said. The more we supervise kids, in whatever setting, the more we can avoid incidents like these.
Teens, as many in the juvenile justice system point out, do not have fully developed brains, causing some to be at risk for a lack of impulse control.
They often are running in packs at that age and cannot avoid peer pressure, Kinnaird said.