A horrifying attack on a teenager with disabilities is a reminder that family members, friends and guardians must make extra efforts to keep young people safe.
Charges were filed last month in Ramsey County District Court against three adults and two teenagers who took part in an attack on the 16-year-old young man. Charges include felony kidnapping and first-degree aggravated robbery. The victim of the attack, who is autistic, was beaten, robbed and shot twice in the face with a BB gun.
Columbia Heights residents Tiffany Ann Clock, 21, and Anthony Martin Ramos, 24, and Trenton Eugene Johnson, 22, of St. Paul, were jailed for the crime. They and the two juveniles had court appearances in January and early February. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is seeking felony robbery and felony aggravated kidnapping charges in connection with the assault. If convicted, the adults could face up to 20 years in prison.
The incident occurred December 23 in St. Paul’s East Side, in the Conway neighborhood. The victim was walking to Cub Foods at Sun Ray Center in the area when one of the five suspects asked if he wanted to hang out with them. Then the five took the teen to an isolated site behind the Sun Ray Branch of St. Paul Public Library, which is north of the shopping center. They then robbed him of a CD player, camera, cell phone and money, and even stole his bottle of ginger ale. The charges indicate that Ramos threatened the teen with the BB gun. Until he was hit with the BB, the victim thought he was being threatened with a real gun and that he would be killed.
Family members of the victim identified one of the suspects. The group was arrested in mid-January.
The youth isn’t identified in court documents and his family has not spoke out about the incidents. But Choi and advocates say the case illustrates the challenge of keeping vulnerable young people safe. The written charges didn’t indicate if the assailants knew the victim was autistic or if that was why he was targeted.
“This is rather difficult,” said Sherrie Kenny, executive director and CEO of the Autism Society of Minnesota. “What 16-year-old doesn’t want to have friends?” Kenny and others familiar with the case said it’s likely that the young man was in an area he has felt safe in before.
Choi calls the crime “terrible.” “We are going to make sure that there are adequate consequences for these (five) people,” he said. “It was just an outrageous attack, considering the vulnerability of the victim.” Ramsey County can seek enhanced penalties due to the vulnerability of the victim.
The written charges indicate that all five suspects admit some involvement in the crime.
Much attention in recent years has been focused on the bullying of children and youth people with disabilities. While advocates agree that the St. Paul case goes far beyond bullying, families face challenges when keeping their children with disabilities safe.
The Autism Society, Pacer Center and a number of organizations provide families with information on bullying and personal safety. One difficulty for many families is finding a balance. Young people especially want to be able to go out and do things their peers do, yet they may not recognize a threatening situation. Another difficulty is that this kind of incident can significantly set back a youngster’s progress.
“This young man obviously had some level of independence,” Kenny said. Children and youth with autistic are typically taught how to respond to bullying and threats but in this case the victim was befriended. That made the situation less clear.
Julie Hertzog, who oversees the teen anti-bullying program at Pacer Center, said more resources are being engaged to combat the problem of bullying against children and young people with disabilities. She said a key part of bullying prevention is to inform kids about why bullying is wrong and stop tell them how to respond when they and others are being bullied. At her teenage son’s middle school, there has been success with a peer advocacy program.
“You not only want to protect kids with disability but you want to change the behavior and culture around them,” she said.
The St. Paul case is strikingly similar to one in Dakota County in fall 2008, when 27-year-old was kidnapped on two nights by a group of five people, one of whom had pretended to befriend him. The victim, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, was kicked, beaten and burns. All five people involved were sentenced to prison, the longest sentence being 10 years.