By Lori Aratani and Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 27, 2006
One is a high school football star, already courted by 20 colleges. Two others are talented athletes in their own right. Few in the community believe that the students -- now dubbed "the Whitman Five" by their classmates after being charged in connection with an armed robbery -- would have done it for the money. So the question remains: Why?
Pat Lazear, the football star, and wrestlers Justin Schweiger, Tommy Ashley and Alex Krouskas, all 17-year-old juniors, were arrested at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda on May 19. Robert Warren, also 17 and a junior, was arrested April 27. In March, police say, the teenagers allegedly hatched a plan to rob the Smoothie King in downtown Bethesda at gunpoint. After committing the robbery, they drove down the street, divvied up the money and treated themselves to pizza, police say.
Two of the five teenagers -- Lazear and Ashley -- appeared in court yesterday, although neither spoke. During the preliminary hearing, Montgomery County District Court Judge Mary Beth McCormick agreed to delay the cases against Ashley, Lazear, Krouskas and Schweiger until June 16. Warren's case had previously been set for that date. The state might move to indict the defendants before the court date, assistant state's attorney Thomas DeGonia said.
Lazear, dressed in a blazer, sat with his father, an assistant football coach at Whitman, in the rear of the courtroom and left as soon as his attorney arranged for the case to be continued. Ashley, dressed in a coat and tie, appeared with his parents and left without comment.
Ashley's attorney, Barry H. Helfand, said after the hearing that his client is innocent and challenged the account of the crime given by the girlfriend of one of the defendants. He said he will seek to have the case heard in juvenile court and will ask for a trial on the charges.
Warren's attorney, David Driscoll, said in an interview yesterday that "details will emerge that will shed a different light on this. There's more to it than meets the eye."
The incident is fueling much gossip and speculation on the 1,800-student campus, where Lazear is already a heavily recruited college football prospect, and two of the other students, Schweiger and Ashley, are considered gifted athletes. On Wednesday, Principal Alan Goodwin posted a message on the school's electronic discussion forum cautioning people not to get "involved in speculation" and to "allow the judicial process to run its course."
Still, the question of what might have motivated the teenagers -- students at one of the county's most highly regarded campuses -- to do such a thing seemed to be on everyone's mind.
"I think it's insanely stupid,'' said Alex Dembski, 18, a Whitman senior, "just a bad decision all around."
"I think it will hurt Whitman,'' added Alexander Borman, also a senior. "Whitman is a very good school, and people are very disappointed about this. Pat is extremely well known."
But some in the community suggested the incident was being blown out of proportion.
"I think children are often guilty of youthful indiscretions, and they make mistakes,'' said Pat Elder, the parent of a freshman at the school. "Whitman has a stellar reputation as a stellar academic institution. You have five boys who did something stupid, and the school will play its role in helping them recover and move forward.''
Whitman football coach Eric Wallich added, "All these kids are pretty good kids. Allegedly, they made a bad decision. Even though they are charged with pretty serious crimes, I don't know if the media is portraying everything accurately."
According to the charging documents, the five allegedly discussed robbing the shop during their tech-ed classes March 30 and later that day met at Warren's house, where he prepared a bag to carry robbery gear -- mask, goggles and hooded sweat shirt. Lazear drove Warren's vehicle and dropped him off by the Smoothie King, the documents say. Two employees were working, one of whom was Krouskas, when Warren allegedly entered the shop carrying a gun. He allegedly showed the gun and left with $463.
The documents then state that Warren met up with the others, who were waiting in the car at nearby Bethesda Elementary school. The group then drove to Uno's Pizzeria, where they were joined by Krouskas and Warren's girlfriend and ate dinner. Warren is said to have divided up the money, giving his girlfriend $5, Schweiger and Ashley each $10. Krouskas allegedly received $40. It was not clear how much money Warren or Lazear might have received.
Driscoll, Warren's attorney, said the weapon allegedly used was "inoperable. . . . It was a gun that was not capable of firing a round."
Police and prosecutors do not dispute the claim, but they say it's irrelevant.
"Fake gun, real gun, it's still armed robbery," said Cpl. Sonia Pruitt, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman.
In yesterday's edition of the high school's newspaper, Warren said he had no intention of committing a felony or harming the employees. "It's not what it seems. It was just a dumb prank that went wrong. I'm not saying it wasn't serious, but it was just something really stupid. It [the gun] was fake. It was just a toy gun."
Although school officials say the students were never involved in trouble at school, at least three have police records.
According to court papers, Warren "was recently charged as an adult with possession of a firearm by a minor, discharge of a firearm in an urban area, and reckless endangerment." The case was sent to juvenile court. Warren also has a juvenile record that includes theft and burglary, according to the documents.
Police reports also noted that Schweiger and Lazear have juvenile arrest records that include theft under $500, credit card misuse and conspiracy.
Wallich, the football coach, said Lazear "is definitely a leader in the school, just on sheer athletic ability." Schweiger and Ashley also are talented athletes. This season, Schweiger started at wide receiver and linebacker; Ashley started at offensive guard. Warren, who transferred to Whitman from John F. Kennedy High last summer, was a reserve running back and linebacker and did not play much, Wallich said.
"It's tough answering all the questions, feeling like everyone is coming down on our program, when it's a good program," Wallich said. "We run a clean program, and we try to do a good job with kids. And we do for the most part. It's been difficult."
Staff writer Steve Vogel contributed to this story.