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Chapter 17

Seagulls barely moved aside as Kristin and Mary walked along the gentle waves of the shoreline from Sand Key Pass to Mary’s condominium. It was late October and except for a few runners and walkers, the beach was nearly empty. The tight lines of condominiums and lack of public parking left the beach to residents only. Most of those were snowbirds who would return in the winter. Undisturbed by bathers, the gulf waters were blue green, clear and calm.

These late afternoon weekend walks were becoming a ritual. Mary thought that she and Kristin bonded during these walks. The quiet beach afforded them privacy. If someone looked quickly at Kristin in her bikini top and cut off shorts, blond hair getting lighter in the sun, they would take her for a college co-ed rather than a circuit judge. The lines in her face faded when she was relaxed. Mary looked down at her own black one-piece swimsuit. She could use a new bikini.

“What a month!” Mary exclaimed. “With Robby, Mikayla and Jordan, not to mention all of our other cases. The pressure has been tough.”

“It’s been a rapid learning curve.” Kristin laughed.

“Tomorrow I am going to put together a plan for Robby. He’s been in the detention center for over a month now by agreement and its time to press for a treatment plan. So far we’ve kept him out of jail, but its going to be difficult. The State hasn’t backed off charging him as an adult. There’s a group meeting with the State, defense attorney, Department of Juvenile Justice, family and court staff to try to come up with a consensus before court this week. I’m hoping we have a cohesive plan to present.”

“I’m sure you will, Mary. Despite the media pressure, it seems as if everyone is working together. It’s just such a difficult case. Locking up a fourteen-year-old boy with no prior record is tough, but it might be necessary in this case.”

Mary stopped walking. She considered lobbying Kristin with what she knew of Robby’s record, but decided against it. Off the record, ex parte conversations were still unethical, even though their only witnesses today were shore birds. She just hoped that Kristin hadn’t made up her mind. Surely, she saw the complexities of the case.

“Hurry up, Mary,” Kristin turned and waved to her. “Our friends are waiting for us.”

A pod of dolphins swam by just off shore. The dolphins were close enough that the sounds of water coming out of their blow holes could be heard on the beach.

“So beautiful and so free.” Kristin pointed at them as they swam north.

“I was thinking that they were so beautiful,” Mary said, pointing to a small group of people walking past them.

“Who? The girls in the Notre Dame sweatshirts?”

“No, the old couple behind them.”

Kristin glanced at the elderly man and woman, who looked to be in their eighties, holding hands and laughing softly. They looked reasonably fit, but the wrinkles, stomach paunches and sagging muscles were clearly visible. The man stopped, opened a water bottle and gave the woman a sip before taking one himself.

“Let’s see, Mary. Natural wonders surround us. Frolicking dolphins, girls in bikinis, toned young men running on the beach and you comment on the beauty of a couple who could be your grandparents. What do you make of that, doctor?”

Mary laughed, then got serious. “They have what I want. A sense of closeness and intimacy, a life well lived with love, gentleness, and caring. Yesterday was Chris’s birthday. Everyone in my family knew. Mom made me cookies, Dad gave me the ever popular ‘Hang in there, kid,’ but nobody mentioned Chris. Sometimes I wonder if Chris and I could have been that couple in fifty years.”

“Well, you have me today. Maybe we’ll be walking the beach together in fifty years.” Kristin gave Mary a quick elbow nudge. “Meanwhile, you haven’t mentioned the handsome Detective Russo since our ride around a week ago.”

“I care about him. We both know each other’s vulnerabilities, but we are better off as friends. He’s really more your type anyhow, Kristin.”

“Now I get Mary’s leftover lovers. Is that how it’s going to be?”

“Hardly a lover. Just a few kisses and motorcycle rides. I’m happy the relationship did not go further. We feel comfortable with each other but there was not enough romance so there are no broken hearts.”

“Well, now that I know Joseph is back on the market, I have some thinking to do. Remember his offer to take us to the amphitheater when that raucous band, One Direction, comes to town?”

“Yes, I do. Be my guest. He’ll enjoy your company. So, Mary’s leftover lovers aren’t as bad as you thought.”

“You’re right. I’ll call him. Thanks for speaking frankly. I appreciate it.”

“I’ve wondered. How does Anders react to you dating?”

“I’ve never introduced him to any of my dates. No one ever became that important.”

“Maybe you’re the one who is right. Maybe we will be walking the beach together in fifty years. By the way, do you want some left over Momma Visconti lasagna before you head back?”

“I’ll pass tonight. Anders and I are cooking dinner together. He’s in charge of the menu, so we will see. I wouldn’t be surprised if he called your mother for help.”

It was barely dawn the next morning as Mary drove east over the Belleair Causeway toward the courthouse. The sun was peeking over a horizon that was different shades of pink and peach. A peaceful start to a morning Mary knew would shift gears shortly.

She pulled into the parking lot and saw that Joyce and Jill had beaten her to work. How like them, she thought, and how lucky she was to work with them.

Joyce was an outstanding administrative assistant, a red-haired widow in her late forties with no children. She took charge of their schedules in a protective manner. Charts were organized, parents were called, and releases were sent like clockwork. Jill was the adult psychologist for the court. She was tall, confident and outgoing, a former college basketball scholarship student.

Joyce keeps me organized, Mary acknowledged to herself, and Jill listens thoughtfully to my ideas. Cindy and Christine, the two other child psychologists, back me up or offer constructive criticism. What a team we are.

“Good morning.” Joyce welcomed Mary into a waiting room comfortably equipped with puzzles, a TV and a DVD player with a choice of movies. A large poster showed the effects of trauma on developing brains, a not so subtle warning to the parents who brought their children in to be evaluated.

“Good morning. I’m locking myself in my office today to finish the report on Robby.”

“How about ‘How was your weekend Joyce?’ Or, ‘Nice to see you Jill, cute blouse.’

So like Jill. She was warm, friendly, funny and could discuss sports with the best of them. She was Mary’s best source for courthouse news.

“Sorry, guys. I’m obviously caving under the pressure. I’ve been told to expect media trucks parked outside and reporters wanting an interview. I’m hoping my shoes match and there are not too many wrinkles in my clothes.”

“We’ve got your back. They’ll have to get past Joyce and me first.”

“And I organized all of the collateral information on your desk. Most of it came in over the weekend.” Joyce handed her the school notes.

Mary’s tea grew cold as she spent the morning reading child protective investigations, school grades and reports and parent contacts.

Mary called Robby’s math teacher. Robby had chosen her as the teacher who knew him best. His choice was surprising. It was by far his worst class academically. He had struggled with math since mid-elementary school.

The teacher was subdued and serious. “We are all in shock about what happened, not only Robby’s actions, but also the harm to our school officer. The grief counseling team packed up last week. I’m just starting to feel like our school routine is getting back to normal.”

“I can only imagine. It’s a tough way to start the school year, for all involved. How would you gauge everyone’s thoughts about Robby?”

“We are having a hard time reconciling his behavior with his actions. He wasn’t a trouble maker or someone who isolated in a corner. Maybe he wasn’t the most popular kid at school, but he had some friends. Robby was a kind young man. He was always volunteering to carry workbooks or wash blackboards. I’m not the only one who feels this way. All of his teachers feel the same. We haven’t talked about much else since the incident. I guess the biggest question is ‘why’?”

“That’s the million-dollar question. I can tell you that Robby is being closely evaluated and we are interviewing and reviewing records. It always makes everyone feel better if there is a clear cause and effect. Even if we don’t condone the actions, at least we can try to understand what’s under the tip of the iceberg. But, I’m not sure we are going to have that type of clarity in this case.” Mary took a breath and let her statement sink in.

“What about behaviors that he wasn’t formally disciplined for, but were of concern?” Mary knew that there were missing pieces to this story. If only she could mine the nuggets.

“As you know, he struggled in math,” the teacher said. “Maybe what you don’t know is that unlike other kids who are getting poor grades, he wasn’t disrespectful or sullen. His grandmother was constantly calling me about tutoring or checking on his homework. He really wanted to please her. I promised his grandmother I would review his planner at least once a week. A couple of days before he was arrested, I saw that his last test grade and assignments for the week were erased. Robby was embarrassed by his grades. The assignments were too difficult. He couldn’t understand the work, so he just erased them so his grandmother thought he had no homework.”

A few different thoughts entered Mary’s head. First, Robby was really afraid of his grandmother’s displeasure. She wasn’t physically abusive. It was hard to even imagine her mentally abusive. She was so strongly in his corner. Maybe it was the abandonment. Maybe he was afraid that if he didn’t achieve her dreams for him she would leave him too, like his mother and his father did.

Second, she was struck by the concrete thinking. Equating the erasing of the grades and assignments with those items not existing. Even the thoughts of his grandmother abandoning him for bad grades fell along the same concrete thinking spectrum. Mary had been puzzled by his plan with the Molotov cocktails. There was no way he could have set them off during the school day. This concrete thinking was probably a big piece of the mystery of his behavior. Research clearly shows that trauma affects the brain’s ability to put on the brakes. Not a particularly sexy or attention grabbing defense, but realistic.

“I hope that my conversation with him and his grandmother about the planner isn’t what set this situation into motion,” the teacher said, clearly worried. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Lots of kids hide poor grades from their families.”

“No, no, don’t think that,” Mary said. “Robby’s history and many, many factors are probably what resulted in his behavior. Tell me more about how he interacted with the other kids.”

“Like I said before,” the teacher continued, “he had a few friends. There weren’t really any problems in my classroom with kids teasing him. A couple of kids called him names during lunch once. Another time kids were making fun of his Boy Scout uniform. That was about it. What will happen to him now? I don’t think he can come back to school.”

“I’m not sure,” Mary answered. “It’s a question of balance, community safety, accountability and Robby getting the help he needs. We’ll just have to see how the information pans out.”

Clearly, Mary thought, this was not a simple bullying case.

The scout master was next. He was almost like a surrogate father to Robby, inviting him to spend weekends at his house with his own boys.

“Robby was a leader in Scouts. He was on track to be an Eagle Scout. My wife and I are racking our brains trying to figure out what happened.”

“I know you were an important part of his life. Scouts was a cornerstone for him. His happiest memories came from being with the boys,” Mary encouraged him.

He sounded as if he was trying to hold back the tears. “I love that boy. He was over here for sleepovers as often as I could make them happen. Never had a lick of trouble. In fact, my wife said she wished our boys listened to her the way Robby did.”

“Were you worried about the situation at home? Is that why you tried to have him stay over?”

He hesitated. “No, that’s not it exactly. His grandmother was older and in poor health. I think I just felt sorry for him. He had a lot of responsibilities at home. He mowed the lawns at the trailer parks and handed over all the money to his grandmother. He had to walk the dogs. That was partly why it was so hard to arrange the sleepovers because he had to get home early to walk the dogs.”

“Sounds like he was pretty busy at home,” Mary said. Maybe some of the home rules were unfair. “I am struck by how much his grandmother loves him,” she continued.

“You’re right. She loves him like crazy. In fact, that’s why he was so close to getting his Eagle Scout badge. She was constantly pushing him to the next level. She wanted him to graduate high school and enter a military academy.”

“Okay, thanks for your help. Are you going to be able to visit Robby at the detention center? The probation intake officer will probably give you permission. I think he would benefit from your support.”

“Let me know and I’ll be there,” he promised.

Some of the puzzle pieces began to fit together. Immature, concrete thinking, pressure at home, feelings of abandonment. She needed to review the history to see if her hypothesis had support.

The abuse reports were traumatic to read, let alone live through. Robby’s mother, Stella, left him with a man he thought was his father when he was three years old. She ran off with another boyfriend. The” father” was a heavy drinker and drug user who couldn’t hold a job. The apartment was filthy with often only beer in the refrigerator. There was a note from an investigator describing how Robby was found curled up in a kitchen cabinet when she came to ask about the bruises on his legs. Despite the evidence, he was there for three years and might still be there if the man hadn’t overdosed and died.

Protective services located Stella who was still using drugs and could not find stable housing. Regardless, she took Robby and moved back to Florida. Robby’s grandmother would not let her move in but she was willing to take Robby. Stella didn’t agree, so she and Robby bounced from house to house, staying with old friends as well as new ones she met at local bars. Her newest boyfriend had her wait in his car while he went to drop off a package with a friend. She heard shots and her boyfriend ran to the car, throwing a gun down a sewer. She dropped Robby off with her mother the next day and left the state, wanted on a felony warrant.

Mary frowned as she reviewed her notes. It would have been easier to tell a compelling story of a nice kid who was bullied to the breaking point or someone who was so traumatized by the past that he perceived threats everywhere. Robby’s story was not so black and white. He was a sensitive kid, an average student struggling in math. He had an abusive past with abandonment issues and a home with his grandmother who had unrealistic expectations.

The police interviewed the kids at school about a boy spilling his milk container down the back of Robby’s Scout uniform the day before he constructed the bomb. It smelled as the day went on. People shied away from him and some made teasing remarks. The milk incident was the last straw. His teacher was going to call Grandma, his grades were not good. It might be enough for Grandma to send him away. He did not want to think about that. He made the bombs from directions on a military website. A combination of events led a normally internalizing youth to externalize his fear and his rage, Mary concluded.

Mary sat back in her chair. It was not going to be easy to explain the intricacies of Robby’s case. She stood up and walked into the office area. Maybe a leftover brownie in the refrigerator would give her a boost.

As she was savoring the first bite, Sam Bernstein, the high-profile lawyer defending Robby, walked into the office. He spied Mary by the refrigerator and startled her with his loud, booming voice.

“I’m here to check on the status of Robby’s behavioral evaluation. Not that I want to disturb Dr. Visconti lounging around the office, but Judge Dahlen will want the information this week. The State Attorney is not going to budge until they know the background.”

“Mr. Bernstein, please come in. I just finished compiling the information. Just before I finished that brownie, of course.” She wiped the brownie crumbs away.

Sam gave a nod of appreciation. It might have been her timely answer, or it might have been her soft purple wrap dress and the pearls around her neck. From what she had seen of him, he valued elegant clothes as well as a professional attitude.

“We need to make the State Attorney understand how the bullying pushed Robby to the violence. He could not take it anymore and broke. There is precedent all over the country for kids falling apart after bullying.” Sam looked at Mary sternly.

She smiled and took a few deep breaths. He was over six feet tall, built like a linebacker. Maybe she should bring in Jill to talk about sports. She looked at his expensive suit, monogrammed cuffs and gold Rolex watch. He was used to being the bull in the china shop, mowing down whatever was in his way. She could tell he was trying to intimidate her into seeing the situation from his perspective.

“Do you have time to sit down for a minute, Sam? We can go over the case notes. There might be a brownie left if you’re hungry.”

Sam took a seat as Mary tried to wrestle control of the conversation.

“I’m sure there’s not much to review, other than the bullying incidents,” he began.

“Sam, the documents don’t support your bullying defense. There simply isn’t much bullying in this case. I think if you review Robby’s background, you’ll see that any amount of bullying was just the straw that broke Robby’s emotional back.”

Sam was quiet for a moment. Then he frowned. “You might be right, Mary, but it’s not going to be easy to make everyone understand that hypothesis. You’re supporting the story with facts, but it’s not the quick and easy defense I was hoping to hear.

“I guess you’re not my hired gun despite popular belief,” Sam continued. “I just hope that flies with the state in the meeting tomorrow. Your report can affect the way this boy’s life goes. Are you that confident?”

“See you tomorrow, Sam. Thanks for stopping by.”

Mary showed him out and took a deep breath, her back against the door.

“Definitely not my hired gun,” she heard him murmur as he walked away.

Joyce popped into Mary’s office. “I was listening for screaming or torture.”

“Nothing that dramatic, although Jill probably could have handled him better.”

The chime to the office rang. Joyce quickly went to the office window and then buzzed Mary’s telephone line.

“Round two. Raphael Gonzalez from the State to see you about Robby’s case.”

Mary sighed, smoothed her dress and swiped a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. Talk about being in the shooting gallery. “Send him in, Joyce. Thank you.”

Raphael looked nothing like Sam but he was powerful in his own way, like a sleek jaguar. Muscular but graceful. Waiting, watching and then pouncing on his prey. Good looking, with wide chocolate-brown eyes framed by slick black hair. He could be tough and professional with her or warm and charming. Perhaps he couldn’t decide if they were adversaries or friends.

“Hi Raphael, come on in. It’s good to see you.”

As he looked at her, she noticed him taking in her soft curves and thick, curly hair. Maybe he needs to stop getting assigned to my cases. He distracted her. But they both did their jobs well. And, if nothing else, they respected each other.

“I saw Sam Bernstein leaving. He didn’t look particularly happy. Anything you want to share?” he asked without taking his eyes off of her.

“The report will be ready for court, Raphael. It’s not a simple case with black and white triggers or solutions. I know it’s difficult to work through the shades of grey, but that’s where we are with this one. Sam wasn’t any happier with that than I suspect you will be.”

Raphael took three steps forward and brushed a brownie crumb away from the corner of her mouth. Mary jumped at the touch.

“I couldn’t resist. Just give me the bare details. We can work it out tomorrow in the group meeting.”

Raphael left a half hour later. Mary closed the door behind him. He was a mystery. Acting like a tough prosecutor, then gently touching her face. He kept her off balance. Raphael was smart, very smart. Mary knew that he could be a formidable adversary. When he leaned in so closely to her, she felt the professional lines blur. I’m going to have to stay on my toes. That idea made her smile.

Mary’s daydream was interrupted by a knock on the door. Jill peeked in. “I saw Mr. Dreamboat State Attorney step out.”

“He was just checking in on the Robby case.” Mary kept a poker face.

“The bailiff in courtroom fourteen said something about you always sweet talking him to see things your way, “Jill said.

“Bailiffs gossip more than a bunch of old ladies. Oh, don’t get into trouble at the jail.”

“Same to you, kiddo. See you tomorrow.”

Mary packed up her desk to leave. This wasn’t the time for a fit of nerves. Rather, she needed a good run on the beach.

Tomorrow, she thought. Was she about to be sacrificed for the good of the group, like in the Hunger Games? Would her hypothesis prevail? Could she really advocate for Robby in a room filled with lawyers?

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