The boy, 13, liked to tag along with his father, family friends say. They were pals whose companionship did not diminish when the parents recently separated and the father moved elsewhere.
Together, they went to car races and to visit the father's friends. Early Thursday morning, they were in the parking lot of a Landover tavern, where the father became involved in a fight and a man was killed.
Witnesses told police that as the father lay on the ground a youth took a gun from the man's waistband and shot and killed a 19-year-old Landover man.
The 13-year-old, who lives with his mother and two younger brothers in Suitland, was charged with second-degree murder Thursday night.
"He's not a hip kid," said James Nickelsporn, a public defender representing the youth. "He's a little boy who's small for his age, very close to his daddy and sort of immature. He was very afraid. He panicked."
Witnesses told Prince George's County police that the shooting occurred after the victim, William Robert Hankerson, 19, of Landover, had struck and knocked down another man, identified as the boy's father, Joseph Francis West, 46, of 3421 Dodge Park Rd., Landover. Police allege that the youth snatched a small handgun from his father's waistband and shot Hankerson, who was not armed, in the back.
Nickelsporn said West regained consciousness and realized what had happened. They then left the scene, but were arrested by police late Thursday.
"The kid sees his father lying on the ground, knocked out cold," Nickelsporn said yesterday. "He thinks either his father is dead or that the man is going to lunge toward him next. He does what he thinks he should do."
County police spokesman Bruce Gentile, comenting on the fact that Hankerson was shot in the back, said, "The fact that the victim tried to run away blows one's defense theory, I would think."
But Linda Johnson, 23, of Suitland, a friend and neighbor of the West family, said yesterday that she has long marveled at the closeness between father and son.
"I would see West come pick up the boy in his truck all the time," Johnson said yesterday. "They were awfully close. That boy looked up to his daddy."
The youth, who would be an eighth grader next fall, was moved yesterday to a shelter facility to await a July 11 hearing. West, charged with carrying a deadly weapon, was released yesterday afternoon on $5,000 bond.
The incident, Nickelsporn said, has devastated the family.
"The kid has cried a lot," he said. "He's still dazed. I don't think he realizes what occurred. This youngster's never been in any kind of trouble, nor has his father."
"I think what had kept him out of trouble before was this close relationship with his father," he said. "Anything he was doing was because he loved his daddy."