FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – It's a crime that police officers in a small eastern Arizona community can hardly fathom yet have to deal with: an 8-year-old charged in the fatal shootings of his father and another man.
"Who would think an 8-year-old kid could kill two adults?" St. Johns Police Chief Roy Melnick said Friday.
The killings on Wednesday sent shock waves through St. Johns, a community of about 4,000 people. The boy had no disciplinary record at school, and there was no indication he had any problems at home, prosecutors said.
"It was such a tragedy," said the boy's defense attorney, Benjamin Brewer. "You have two people dead; you have an 8-year-old in jail. It tugs at the heart strings. It's a shocker, no doubt about it."
On Friday, a judge determined there was probable cause to show that the boy fatally shot his father, Vincent Romero, 29, and Timothy Romans, 39, of San Carlos, with a .22-caliber rifle. The boy faces two counts of premeditated murder. Under Arizona law, charges can be filed against anyone 8 or older.
Melnick said the boy didn't act on the "spur of the moment," though he didn't elaborate on what the motive might have been.
Melnick said officers arrived at Romero's home within minutes of the shooting Wednesday. They found one victim just outside the front door and the other dead in an upstairs room.
Romans had been renting a room at the Romero house, prosecutors said. Both men were employees of a construction company working at a Salt River Project power plant near St. Johns, which is about 170 miles northeast of Phoenix.
The boy went to a neighbor's house and said he "believed that his father was dead," said Apache County attorney Brad Carlyon.
Melnick said police obtained a confession from the boy, but Brewer said police overreached in questioning the boy without representation from a parent or attorney and did not advise him of his rights.
"They became very accusing early on in the interview," Brewer said. "Two officers with guns at their side, it's very scary for anybody, for sure an 8-year-old kid."
A judge ordered a psychological evaluation of the boy, who was being held at the Apache County juvenile detention center.
Prosecutors aren't sure where the case is headed, Carlyon said.
"There's a ton of factors to be considered and weighed, including the juvenile's age," he said. "The counter balance against that, the acts that he apparently committed."
Carlyon said the boy had no record of complaints with Arizona Child Protective Services.
"He had no record of any kind, not even a disciplinary record at school," he said. "He has never been in trouble before."
City Manager Greg Martin said the community was "saddened" and "shocked."
"Not something that happens very often and hopefully never happens again," he said. "It's been on their minds every since it happened."
FBI statistics show instances of children younger than 11 committing homicides are very rare. According to recent FBI supplementary homicide reports, there were at least three such cases each year in 2003, 2004 and 2005; there were at least 15 in 2002. More recent statistics weren't available, nor were details of the cases.
Earlier this year in Arizona, prosecutors in Cochise County filed first-degree murder charges against a 12-year-old boy accused of killing his mother.
Defense attorney Mike Piccarreta, who is not involved in the latest case, said each case has to be considered on its own merits, but it would be hard for him to comprehend that an 8-year-old has the mental capacity to understand the act of murder and its implications.
"If they actually prosecute the guy, it's a legal minefield," he said. "And, two, society has to make a decision as to whether they want to start using the criminal justice system to deal with 8-year-olds. That doesn't mean you don't have a troubled kid."
Wednesday's homicides were the first in at least four years in the community, where most people know one another, Melnick said. No one else had been killed there since 20 years ago, he said.
Romero had full custody of the child. The boy's biological mother visited St. Johns during the weekend from Mississippi, and returned to Arizona after the shootings, Carlyon said.
Brewer said the boy "seems to be in good spirits.
"He's scared," he said. "He's trying to be tough, but he's scared."