Stupid (Young) White Men

It's not so hard to understand reprehensible teen behavior when you've been there yourself

In my Plantation neighborhood, the kids all seemed to have met Tom Daugherty, one of the boys accused of beating a homeless man to death in Fort Lauderdale.

"He was on pills," said one.

"Zany bars," said another.

It's one of those things that everybody knows but nobody knows — the 17-year-old Daugherty and his buddy Brian Hooks were zonked on Xanax, a powerful anti-depressant, during the sickening spree that left 45-year-old Norris Gaynor dead and two other homeless men with lacerations and broken bones. The Xanax connection is spelled out on southfloridaracing.com, the website where friends of the suspects named the pair prior to their arrests.

The drug is one of the most popular pharmaceuticals on the street. On January 12, six students were taken to the hospital after they took some of the pills at Rockway Middle School in Miami. And remember when Gov. Jeb Bush's daughter was hit with narcotics charges? Well, Noelle Bush was buying Xanax, which comes in the form of long rectangular pills (hence "bars"). Hear about former Major League Baseball pitcher Jeff Reardon's son dying of an overdose? One of the drugs found in his system was Xanax. And that's just the famous cases. A study on Broward County OxyContin deaths in 2001 found that 62 percent of those deaths also involved Xanax.

It's prescribed for millions of people who suffer from anxiety and nervous tension. But most of the illicit users aren't going for relaxation. The worst of the lot are aiming for an extreme high and have taken to crushing the pills, snorting them, and mixing them with alcohol to get wrecked to the point of blackout.

I tracked down a friend of the teens, Q, who talked to me on condition I not use his or her name. Q knew Hooks well and was told that Daugherty and Hooks were on bars the night of the beating. And it's the only way Q can make sense of the beatings.

"A lot of people are doing [Xanax]," Q says. "A police officer told me that it was the new Quaaludes. You have to understand, Brian wasn't like that. He didn't even like to fight. He had to be on something that night."

The words jarred my memory. I thought of another teen, high on hard drugs, committing crimes on a one-night spree from hell. I've never told anyone about that night, not even my wife or closest friends. Maybe that's why my heart is racing as I type this. I've always wanted to blot it from my memory like it never happened. But it did.

It was 20 years ago outside Louisville, in small-town Kentucky. I was about 16 years old and spending a Friday night at my buddy Lee's mother's apartment, where we all gathered because we always had the place to ourselves. We'd drink beer, smoke weed, and party there all the time. What can I say? It was what I wanted to do.

If I was a troublemaker, I was a relatively harmless one. I did just as little in school as I could to keep a B average and knew I was headed to college. I didn't like violence outside of football and horseplay and spent a lot of time writing and talking about things I didn't really know much about. Haven't changed much in that respect, come to think of it.

On that night, a stranger from Frankfort, the state capital, was at the apartment. I can't remember his name or even his connection to any of us. I just remember that he was tall, had dark hair and wide, flashing eyes, and was a certifiable sociopath.

I didn't know that last part then. I just knew that he brought blotter acid. LSD. I think it was the second time I'd ever taken it. I was no Timothy Leary. I tripped on — er, I mean, "experimented with" — acid maybe a dozen times in my life. When we started feeling the effects, the stranger said we ought to go out and knock over some cows. Seriously.

I had never cow-tipped, but I remember having a hell of a good time running around in a field that night trying. It didn't work, by the way; they were wide awake, and the damned things can run and move like Earl Campbell when they're ready for you.

Then the stranger and I got in his car. It was well after midnight, and I was wired as hell. He was driving and started talking about breaking into cars. I thought he was kidding.

He wasn't. I watched as he opened a car in some neighborhood, rifled around inside the car for a while, and came back with tapes, credit cards, and other stuff.

"See, man, it's easy," he said (or something to that effect). "We don't even have to break into the cars. We just hit the ones that are unlocked."

Somehow it seemed like the thing to do. The acid was cut with a lot of speed. Or something. It was like being tied to a high-voltage battery. This had the feel of a mission. The stranger was leading the safari, and I was riding along for the thrill.

He talked me into hitting one myself. In my crazed state, it was fun.

Then we hit one car after another, opening unlocked doors and taking what was inside, reveling in the booty, which we piled in his back seat. We hit one neighborhood after another, and then headed toward my subdivision, Long Run Woods. At that point, the world was ours. It all built up, the drugs, the violation of society, the take, the perversity and the power, until I felt like some kind of mad king.

At the height of it, the stranger said we should break into a house. He knew where there was an old couple with a lot of money. It would be no problem.

In my frenzied state, it seemed like the thing to do, kick up the thrill a notch. But the evil of it dawned on me — and the chance that it could escalate into a far worse crime. I imagined the screams, and it scared me just enough.

Just enough to say no, we can't do that, man, no way.

We kept hitting cars, though. And here's where my gut still bleeds with shame: We ripped off cars in my own neighborhood. My own neighbors. And I didn't want to stop.

Then the sun began to seep in and our dominion over the world faded along with the darkness. We made our way back to Lee's apartment, hashing out who would get what. Mostly it was music. I think we got maybe eight bucks cash and a bunch of credit cards. He probably used them later.

Lee woke up, wondering where we'd been. We dumped our haul in the middle of the floor.

And it was right then that I started coming down. As the drugs receded, my conscience filled the void. Soon it was as big as two football fields, hovering over me, eating me alive. The light, the change of setting, seeing Lee's sleepy eyes, it jolted me to reality. What had I done? I became silent.

The stranger wasn't similarly affected. He was giddily divvying up the stuff. I told them I didn't want any of it. Keep it for yourselves. I want to forget this ever happened. We swore each other to secrecy, and I never saw the stranger again. I hate to think what kinds of crimes he's committed since.

Back in my neighborhood that morning, I felt lower than a rock's shadow and wished I was lower. I remember seeing Mr. White, my neighbor across the street, walking around in his yard. And me sitting there in a shadow by the window, knowing that he was probably wondering what kind of craven animal would rob people's cars in the middle of the night. And knowing that the animal was sitting right there, looking at him from across the street.

Friends called me and asked if I had heard about the car robberies or if my family's cars had been hit. I said no to both questions. The neighborhood had a meeting about it, and police came. Nobody ever suspected me. Everybody thought it was a troubled neighborhood kid named Steven. He screamed at people on the school bus, "I didn't do it! They robbed my cars too!"

I backed him up to help make sure nothing happened to him, good and upstanding guy that I was.

Nobody ever found out it was me, and I never told a soul about it. Never wanted to. Not until last month, when a few idiot teenagers born after it happened went on a spree that makes one of the greatest shames in my life seem like a kid's game.

I'm still not sure why I'm telling it now. I suppose it's because the experience gives me a tiny sliver of empathy for Hooks and Daugherty, who police say had no prior criminal records. All accounts seem to indicate they were a couple of do-nothing, bored suburban kids with no direction in life. And I know firsthand that a combination of drugs and wicked circumstances can cause a kid like that to do things he'd never do otherwise.

I don't know much about the third suspect, 18-year-old William Ammons. Because Ammons had a juvenile arrest for armed robbery, a very serious charge, it makes me wonder if Ammons wasn't the group's version of the stranger. Q thinks so, but it's all conjecture. And it's not Ammons doing the beating on the videotape. It's almost all Daugherty.

Sources close to the investigation have told me that police are investigating the Xanax angle but haven't substantiated it. Maybe the three of them were sober as snakes. Maybe they'd planned it for some time. Maybe they're simply evil to the core.

I'm not arguing that if they were drugged-up, it's any excuse. I refused to break into that house. For whatever reason, Daugherty and Hooks didn't have any brakes at all. They were lacking something deep down that should have stopped them from committing one of the most disgusting crimes this place has ever seen.

And for that they should go to prison for the rest of their lives, even if it was something they normally wouldn't do in a million years.

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