County wants teen arsonist certified as adult

FORT WORTH -- The teenager was about 10 when he started setting fires, which escalated from vegetation to outdoor structures to houses, according to juvenile-court testimony Thursday.

No one has been injured. But Tarrant County prosecutor Riley Shaw contended that it is only a matter of time until someone is hurt.

Shaw is asking state District Judge Jean Boyd to certify the boy, now 16, as an adult for trial in two arson cases. The community must be protected, Shaw said.

The teenager "ages out of our system on his 18th birthday, about 20 months from now, which may not be enough time to complete a program," Shaw said.

"Everyone who meets [the teen] likes him and thinks he has a problem that he needs help with, and which is getting worse. But community requires a criminal case."

The teen has been detained in Tarrant County's juvenile facility for two months.

His parents and attorney oppose certification as an adult, saying he will never survive in adult prison. They are pleading with the court to allow him to remain in the juvenile system.

"When he was in the juvenile system in Virginia and the kids there picked on him, he didn't fight back," his mother testified. "If he goes into an adult program, he'll be a fresh piece of meat. You might as well put a gun to his head."

If Boyd agrees, he can be transferred to an intensive, year-long program for fire-setters in Pennsylvania, his parents say.

A juvenile official testified that two different psychologists have diagnosed the teen as a pyromaniac.

At the hearing Thursday, Boyd said she would study the issue before rendering a decision.

Arson history

The problem started when the parents' marriage started to deteriorate, the mother said. The couple's long breakup was punctuated by fires that the boy admitted starting in Oklahoma, Maryland, Virginia and Grapevine, witnesses told the court.

A Grapevine fire, on Nov. 16 to a house on Hunters Ridge Drive, did more than $120,000 in damage. The teen "admitted to going inside the residence and starting a fire inside a garage," Craig Reed, Grapevine fire marshal, testified. "He said that he walked into the garage, poured gasoline on the floor and lit a match."

With another boy acting as lookout, Reed said, the teen ransacked the vacant house room-by-room, looking for money, Reed said. It was the second of two fires the youth is suspected of causing in Grapevine, Reed said.

The teen's father said his son's probation was transferred from Virginia to Texas on the belief that there were programs here that could help him overcome his impulse to start fires. But once they moved to Grapevine, the parents said, they found those programs were either inadequate or that program managers were unwilling to take on a case that was so involved.

'Poorly understood'

The teen's lawyer, Thomas McKenzie, said there are no facilities in the state, through either the Texas Youth Commission or the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, that are willing or equipped to treat the pyromania that his client exhibits.

"Sadly, fire-setting is poorly understood," said Alan Feldberg, a psychologist with the Abraxas Youth Center in Pennsylvania. Feldberg testified by telephone Thursday. "It's not something that's taught in our graduate courses. Even in an intensive adult setting, I doubt whether his problem would be attended to.

"I think it's a gloomy proposition for someone who needs quite a bit of help."

The average length of stay in the Abraxas fire-starter program is about 15 months and would cost more than $120,000 a year, according to testimony. The teen's parents said it would cost much more to lock their son up in a prison for a multiyear sentence.

But the cost is not their real worry. His parents and his lawyer said they doubt the teen would live long enough in an adult situation to complete an impulse control and anti-pyromania program, if one were available.

"He's a gentle kid," the mother said. "He's never been in a fight in his life. No matter what happens here, I will love my son -- if I have a son left to love."

MITCH MITCHELL, 817-390-7752