Three teenage burglary suspects from the Washington area will be charged as adults with first-degree murder in the deaths of two people in a head-on collision that occurred Wednesday as the youths were fleeing police, authorities said.
Tavon Spencer, 16, and his brother, Ray Kenneth Spencer, 14, both of Northeast Washington, and Alton Lee Peele-Howard, 16, of Suitland, will be charged with burglary and motor vehicle theft as well, Charles County authorities said. The crash killed a 50-year-old schoolteacher and another teenage burglary suspect, authorities said.
The Charles sheriff's office said yesterday that it has warrants on the charges. The office provided its most complete account yet of the events leading up to the deaths near La Plata, saying the suspects were part of a group of six youths fleeing the scene of a burglary in Pomfret on Wednesday morning.
The Spencer brothers and two other youths fled in a stolen blue van, authorities said. Peele-Howard drove off in a stolen white van along with 15-year-old Anthony Wade of Southeast Washington, they said.
A state trooper spotted the white van and followed it on Hawthorne Road, authorities said. While driving on that road, Peele-Howard swerved and crashed head-on into a Mercury Mountaineer driven by Cynthia L. Chester.
Chester, who lived at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head, died on the way to the hospital, authorities said. Wade was pronounced dead at the scene.
Peele-Howard was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center, where he was in stable condition yesterday, authorities said.
The other four suspects crashed the blue van into an embankment not far from the site of the burglary, authorities said. The teenagers then ran through a wooded area and eventually attempted to get away in a stolen Toyota. That car crashed, too, at Naylor Road near Suitland Parkway in Southeast Washington, authorities said.
The Spencers were arrested, but the other two occupants escaped.
Charles officials said the murder charges were filed because the deaths occurred while the teenagers were in the process of committing a felony burglary. They said the Spencers were culpable even though they were not in the van that struck Chester.
"They were all involved in it, and if it results in someone's death, they're allowed to be charged with felony murder," said Capt. Joseph C. Montminy of the sheriff's office.
D.C. authorities charged Ray and Tavon Spencer as juveniles with unlawful use of a vehicle and receiving stolen property, and the youths pleaded not guilty yesterday in D.C. Superior Court. A judge ordered them held at Oak Hill, the city's juvenile detention facility.
Proceedings involving juveniles are generally not open to the public, and The Washington Post was permitted to observe yesterday's hearing on the condition that the youths not be identified. However, the names of the youths became public when Charles authorities announced the warrants charging them as adults.
The murder charges potentially carry life prison terms. The youngest age at which juveniles can be tried as adults in Maryland is 14. That age is 15 in the District.
Authorities said the youths were attempting to steal an all-terrain vehicle and a motorcycle from a residence in Pomfret.
The homeowner, Jeff Coombs,42, said the youths first tried to take the vehicles Tuesday night. When he arrived home that evening, Coombs said, he found the motorcycle and four-wheeler stashed in woods next to his garage. Coombs, who works at Andrews Air Force Base with the D.C. Air National Guard and lives with his wife and two teenage sons, put the vehicles back in the garage and nailed the door shut.
The suspects returned about midnight, driving through the subdivision in two vehicles with the headlights off. Coombs said he followed them and reported the license plate numbers to police.
Then about 9 a.m. Wednesday, the suspects returned again, Coombs said. One of his sons was home sleeping at the time. They rang the doorbell, then broke the glass on the side garage door to get at the vehicles, he said. A neighbor interrupted the youths, and they fled in the vans.
"When they showed up in the middle of the day to finish the job, that was unsettling," Coombs said. "They were being a little bold."
It was the third time in recent weeks that area teenagers driving stolen cars have caused fatal accidents, authorities said. Two people were killed in recent crashes in the District.
Chester worked until recently as a third-grade teacher at Potomac Heights Christian Academy in Indian Head, said Missy Goff, an acquaintance. Goff said Chester and her husband, who have one grown child, were planning to move to California soon. "She was a very kind person," Goff said.
Carolyn Wade, whose son died in the crash, said she had been struggling for the past five or six years to find help for Anthony's emotional problems.
"My son had a lot of issues going on," said Wade, 36, who recently worked as a youth counselor for the District.
Wade said she recently moved to help her son avoid trouble. He was to enter 10th grade at Margaret Murray Washington Career High School. He dreamed of being a professional football player or a boxer, relatives said, adding that in the last few weeks, he seemed to be turning his life around. "He told me he was going to do good," his mother said.
But family members said he was spending time with Peele-Howard and some others in their old neighborhood. They said he must have been forced to join the burglary team.
"He was basically a good kid," Wade said.
Lawann Spencer, the aunt of Tavon and Ray, said she did not understand why the youths were charged with murder if they were in the other van. She said that Ray had been arrested at least twice for stealing cars and that relatives were trying to change his behavior.
"You can't have your eyes on your child 24/7," she said. "He's a teenager; you just can't do it."
Staff writers Nicole Fuller and Jessica Valdez and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.