Look Out Below!

Bringing a paring knife to school accidentally. Giving an elementary-school classmate a vitamin C tablet. Signing a yearbook "Have a kick-ass summer." Distributing an "unknown substance"--organic lemon drops.

From Longmont to Colorado Springs, schools, neighborhoods, police and prosecutors are cracking down on juvenile crime. And as the dragnet is cast, parents worry that some small fry are being hauled in with the sharks.

A fistfight has become a third-degree assault. Breaking a window has become criminal mischief. And now, in Englewood, a charred evergreen tree has become fourth-degree arson.

On February 23, fourteen-year-old Curtis Caulfield and a thirteen-year-old friend stood in a neighborhood park, lighting a pack of rocket cartridges from Hobby Lobby. The boys had just learned to make model rockets in shop class and were fascinated by the process. They had also heard, from other schoolkids, that rocket cartridges--also called "engines"--make pretty good projectiles on their own, blasting high and straight without fussing with fins, parachutes or cones.

The cartridges are cardboard cylinders about the size of a man's thumb and contain enough gunpowder to launch a model rocket as high as a hundred feet. Kids buy them over the counter for about three bucks a three-pack.

That afternoon, the boys launched about ten cartridges (they left their rockets at school), watching them rise, watching them fall, doing it over again. Most went straight up and came straight down, Curtis says. There might have been a slight breeze, but it was a nice day.

One of the boys (Curtis isn't sure which one) set one particular cylinder in the grass, flicked the battery-powered ignition switch and prepared for blastoff. The cartridge shot upward, then arced toward a house on the northwest edge of the park, where it landed in a front-yard pine tree. From where they sat, the boys thought it had hit the street, so they continued playing.

A few minutes later the other boy glanced over his shoulder.
"The tree's on fire!"
Curtis jumped up, sprinted toward his house about a hundred yards away, snatched a fire extinguisher from the kitchen and ran back to the park.

"Call 911! Call 911!"
He darted up a hill toward the tree, but he was too late. The pine was engulfed in flames.

"Call 911!"
At the same time, a passing jogger retrieved a neighbor's garden hose and doused the tree before fire spread to other bushes or the home, which stood about thirty feet away.

The fire department arrived about fifteen minutes later. Sheriff's deputies pulled to the curb. The boys told their story.

Curtis's father, Joe Caulfield, arrived home at dusk. A deputy showed up at his door moments later. The deputy asked Curtis to tell the story again. Afterward, she turned to Joe.

"It looks like criminal intent," she said. "There will have to be a full investigation."

Criminal intent?
Joe asked if she had seen a similar case that would lead her to that conclusion.

Yes, she said. A few weeks earlier at Cherry Creek High School, students had made a pipe bomb.

But this wasn't Cherry Creek High School, Joe said. The wind could have knocked the cartridge off course. The device could have malfunctioned. A thousand things could have gone wrong.

"They were in the middle of a park," he said. "It wasn't like they expected it to happen. They were standing in a place most people would have deemed safe."

"Well," the deputy said, "we'll see. We'll conduct a full investigation."
A full investigation?
As a taxpayer, Joe wondered if a dead tree was worth the expense. Just in case, he conducted an investigation of his own. Using his best Marine voice (he served in Vietnam), he grilled his son.

"I need to know the absolute truth," he said. "Drop all the caca. Tell me exactly what happened."

"It was an accident," Curtis said. "An accident."
His son isn't exactly an angel, but he knows better than to lie about something serious. Later, Joe grilled the other boy, who told the same basic story. To Joe, it sounded like an accident.

Over the next two months, Joe and his wife kept driving past the home of Doug and Noanie Geistert, where the burned tree was, but they never saw anyone around. Joe says he assumed the Geisterts were gone for the winter. So finally, on May 9, he delivered a letter offering to pay the costs of replacing the dead pine and a scorched wooden fence. The letter included an apology from Curtis: "Please forgive the inconvenience that was caused by the rocket going out of control. I'm sorry it happened."

A week or so later, the Geisterts submitted a bill, and Joe cut a check for $1,489. The other boy's family agreed to split the cost. Curtis was to work off his share by trimming bushes, cleaning the car and raking the yard.

"He realizes he's responsible for what happened," Joe says. "Accident or not, he knows that. From my viewpoint, he's taken responsibility, and his parents have, too. Part of being responsible is making amends. And that's what's happening."

But that's not all that's happening. In early May, the Caulfields received their own letter: a notice from the Arapahoe County District Court dated April 30. Prosecutors had reviewed the case and decided to prosecute. Curtis and the other boy had been charged with fourth-degree arson, a misdemeanor.

Prosecute?
Joe was stunned. Curtis is the youngest in a family of four boys and one girl. He's basically a good kid, his parents say. Chubby cheeks, freckled nose, A-minus average, collector of baseball cards, rider of dirt bikes. He's never been in trouble with the police other than being ticketed for driving a moped without a license. "All of a sudden," his father says, "Curtis is facing a record and several years of probation."

Now, Joe is from Kansas City, Missouri. And when a fourteen-year-old boy accidentally burns a tree in Kansas City, Missouri, he apologizes, pays damages and promises not to do it again. Case closed. Why was Curtis headed to court?

The Geisterts called the district attorney's office and told prosecutors Joe had paid for damages. The case moved forward anyway.

"All I know is, a rocket want off and destroyed our property and could have destroyed our home," Noanie Geistert says. "It was a dry winter. It's lucky it hit the tree. People need to realize this could have been devastating. No one came to apologize. No one spoke to us. We didn't hear from anyone for months. We only heard from them when this went to court. We didn't pursue this; the DA did. It's out of our hands."

Joe called an attorney. He called several attorneys. He didn't get it. "It seems there are lighter ways of handling these issues," he says. "They seem to be going overboard and trying to make a crime out of something that wasn't.

"I'm an ex-Marine," he continues. "Something we learned doing our police duties was that you had to follow the intent of the law, not the letter of the law. Somehow we've lost that. Kiddos are rambunctious. They shoot off rockets. They ride bikes on the wrong side of the road. I realize there are problems with juvenile crime, but they're attacking everything with zero tolerance. It's a mistake to say anything equals anything. The kid who shoots someone is not the same as the kid who shoots off rockets. We have to judge these on a case-by-case basis."

Pam Gorden, the county's juvenile division chief, says that's exactly what's being done. Before an incident involving a juvenile enters the system, a number of factors are considered, such as prior record, victim rights and community safety. If the Caulfield case is moving ahead, there must be a reason.

"The slant of the case is in the eye of the beholder," she says. "Parents often have a completely different take than law enforcement, the victim or the DA's office. Just because the parents say it's a big nothing doesn't mean that's the situation."

The district attorney's office doesn't have a zero-tolerance policy, Gorden says; that's why there are juvenile diversion programs allowing first offenders to make amends through community service and counseling, among other things, in exchange for having charges dropped. As for cases of boys-will-be-boys mischief, police and prosecutors weed them out every day. Instead of worrying about what's wrong with the system, Gorden adds, perhaps parents should worry about "why their kid got involved in the system in the first place."

Curtis has a hearing scheduled for June 18.
"I've been advised the best thing to do is to plead guilty," Joe says. "But my son says he's innocent. If you're innocent, you have to plead innocent. We're trying to teach kids respect for the law and the courts, but that's hard to do when they're being unjustly dealt with. If you make someone feel like a criminal, will they act like one? I wonder about that. You have to some integrity over these issues. You have to make a stand.

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