When Teens Kill: A Parent’s Pain
December 29, 2011
By Maggie Mulvihill and Sarah Favot
New England Center for Investigative Reporting
For the parents of murder victims, there is no comfort.
Olivia Singletary had to move out of Brookline after her adopted son, Perry Hughes, 19, was fatally shot there by a teenage murderer during a drug dispute. Singletary had lost another son to a car accident two years earlier.
Witnesses to Hughes’ death told Singletary her son was trying to shield others from Antonio Fernandez, 16, and his friends, who had gotten into an argument over marijuana at a 2002 graduation party in a Brookline housing project.
“Perry was the one who stepped up to protect the crowd,” said a tearful Singletary, who couldn’t bear to be in the courtroom when evidence like her son’s bloody clothes was presented to the jury.
“The loss of a child, you never get over that,” said former Attorney General Tom Reilly, who pushed for tougher sentencing laws for juvenile murderers in the 1990’s.
For parents of killers, especially teenage killers serving life with no chance for parole, there is wrenching anguish over whether they failed their child as he or she veered towards murder and the permanent loss of their freedom.
“I feel guilty. I could have helped him more,” said an emotional Vong Oung, 46, discussing his son Kevin Keo, who was convicted of first-degree murder for a 2007 gang-related slaying in Lynn.
Keo is one of seven Massachusetts teens featured in an investigation published this week by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting which highlights profound inequities in the sentences handed down to Bay State teens charged with murder. The investigation reveals that a 1996 law aimed at punishing so-called teenage “super-predators” has been applied inconsistently over the past 15 years, sentencing some teens to life without parole who had no criminal backgrounds and who acted spontaneously. Meanwhile, other teen killers with serious criminal histories or who showed extreme cruelty to their victims were convicted of lesser degrees of murder and allowed to apply for parole.
Parents of some teens, like Oung, are racked with guilt over what they could have done differently to save their child.
Oung, a Cambodian refugee raised in Maine by an adoptive mother, said he erred by moving his family to Lynn, known for Asian gang problems, when Keo was a toddler.
“It’s not like the place I grew up. I should not have brought him to live over here,” Oung, a public school teacher, said.
Oung alternated between expressing guilt over being too tough on his son growing up to his failure to see signs of Keo’s gang activity as he entered his teens. When Lynn police came to Uong’s home following Christian Vargas-Martinez’s murder, he let them in.
“I didn’t think my kid had anything to hide. This boy was a smart boy. He could have gone to an Ivy League college,” he said. During the search they found a gun hidden in Kevin’s room.
“They say my son in a gang. I didn’t see it,” Oung said.
Visits to state prison are especially difficult. Keo, a skinny 20-year-old, told his father he has been beaten up by older prisoners. Oung brings along Keo’s six and nine-year-old sisters for company.
“It’s easier for me that way,” Oung said. “He doesn’t say much. Sometimes he just wants a hug. Then he’s quiet.”
Vargas-Martinez’s family could not be reached for comment. The Essex County District Attorney declined a request for comment on Keo’s case, which is on appeal.
For the parents of John Odgren, who is serving life without parole for the unprovoked 2007 slaying of a schoolmate, there is deep sorrow about not knowing about Odgren’s deepening psychological problems.
His father, Paul Odgren, said he and his wife Dot were not told by school officials Odgren had brought a pocket knife or a toy gun to school before James Alenson’s fatal stabbing.
“Those are danger signs. We would have pulled him out of there,” Odgren said. Obviously there was more going on psychologically that we knew or he could express or control.”
Messages left at the Alenson’s home and on a listed mobile phone for Alenson’s father, were not returned.
Odgren, now 21, began exhibiting signs of a troubled mental state when he was a toddler, becoming inconsolable if his mother didn’t pick him up and hold him. He was diagnosed with depression at age eight and also has Asberger’s syndrome.
John Odgren attended a number of different schools as his parents tried to help him develop academically, but was mercilessly bullied, they said.
His parents’ contact with him now is largely limited to visits to Bridgewater State Hospital, where he was placed following his conviction last year.
“It’s impossible for someone who hasn’t had this happen to them to have more than a dim idea of what it is like,” said his father, Paul Odgren. “We’re tormented by loss.”
“Sometimes I see a note that he wrote about getting ready for school and it brings me to tears,” Paul Odgren said. “I miss him terribly.”
Photo of Kevin Keo’s father Vong Oung – Jim Davis (Boston Globe Staff)
Photo of Dot and Paul Odgren together – Christine Peterson for the Boston Globe