Va. murder suspect had been allowed to leave juvenile jail to go to dentist

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

A Fairfax County teenager who was locked up on malicious wounding charges and had previous gun and gang convictions was allowed to leave jail with his mother for a dentist's appointment last fall with the approval of a Fairfax probation officer.

The 16-year-old did not return. Four months later, police allege that he took a baseball bat and fatally smashed open the head of a rival gang member in a Fairfax park and then fled to New York, where he was arrested last month. He has been charged with first-degree murder.

Three teenagers have been charged in the killing of Christian Perez, 16, of Lorton, who was found dead in Woodlawn Park on March 19. A Fairfax probation officer described the homicide in court Wednesday as a full-blown gang attack launched by members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, in which two attackers were shouting "Mara Salvatrucha!" as they repeatedly thumped Perez in the head and body with an aluminum bat.

Perez's family declined to comment Thursday.

Fairfax prosecutors said they weren't consulted before the 16-year-old's probation officer allowed him to leave the juvenile detention center with his mother. "I was astonished to hear this occurred," Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said. "To me, when you have violent juvenile offenders, you've got to treat them differently than shoplifters or the kids who steal dad's car. There's no substitute for common sense in the criminal justice system. And that's what was missing here."

Robert A. Bermingham, director of court services for the Fairfax juvenile court, said that the release of the 16-year-old was allowed under the probation department's previous policy but that the policy has been changed.

"It was an error," Bermingham said. "Our worker functioned within the policy, which had been in place for 20 years, and we had no significant problems before. We immediately took another look at that and have put more safeguards in place." Now, Bermingham or James McCarron, director of probation services, must review requests for medical treatment outside of jail, and the juvenile's record must be considered.

Previously, only an immediate supervisor needed to approve outside treatment, and the juvenile's record wasn't necessarily a factor. "In hindsight, the policy was bad," Bermingham said.

The 16-year-old was convicted in juvenile court in 2008 of malicious wounding, brandishing a firearm and gang participation, Fairfax Juvenile Detention Center Director George R. Corbin said at Wednesday's hearing. He was being held last fall on another charge of malicious wounding.

On Nov. 11, the 16-year-old needed dental work, according to Fairfax probation officer Keith Gropposo, who testified at the hearing. The teen's mother signed him out of the juvenile jail at 8 a.m. with a requirement to return by noon, Gropposo said. The 16-year-old and his mother did not return to the jail, and they did not return phone calls, said Gropposo, who was not the probation officer involved in the case.

Police said the 16-year-old surfaced last month in Woodlawn Park with a 15-year-old who also was an MS-13 member -- with both teens wearing gang colors and flashing gang signs, Gropposo told Chief Fairfax Juvenile Court Judge Kimberly J. Daniel.

The two MS-13 members spotted Perez, who Gropposo said was a member of Surenos, another California-based street gang, and two friends who were members of another gang called Brown Pride. After the two groups of teens exchanged words, the 16-year-old "sucker punches Perez," Gropposo said, and then the 15-year-old began hitting Perez in the ribs with the bat.

"Both are yelling 'Mara Salvatrucha!' " Gropposo said, and the 16-year-old took the bat and started striking Perez in the head. With Perez on the ground, the 16-year-old "pounds Perez several more times in the head," Gropposo told the judge.

Perez's friends were able to identify the assailants, Gropposo said. A third person, Jorge Albarenga, 19, was charged with malicious wounding in the attack, but his role was not made clear at the hearing.

Chief Deputy Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Ian M. Rodway said the 16-year-old initially fled to Oxon Hill and then headed to Queens, where he fled the U.S. Marshal's Service in one apartment before being arrested elsewhere. He was carrying a false identification card when he was picked up, Rodway said.

Juveniles charged with murder who are 14 or older must be prosecuted as adults in Virginia. Their names are not public record until they are certified to Circuit Court after a preliminary hearing in juvenile court. That hearing is scheduled for May 6. The Washington Post typically does not identify juveniles until their cases reach Circuit Court.

Daniel ordered the 16-year-old held without bond in the Fairfax Adult Detention Center. Corbin, the head of the juvenile jail, said the 16-year-old had been involved in gang intimidation and other problems during his previous stays there.

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