Lock, Stock, and 48 Smoking Barrels

It's sweltering inside the rundown trailer home in Davie. The electricity and air conditioning are down, and Roxann Dagenais is stuck with a half-cooked stew in her frying pan, the onions pungent in the stagnant air. Danny and Michael, two of her teenage sons, lounge on a nearby bed, waiting for the TV to go back on. The phone rings. Her husband, Ken, exhausted from a 12-hour workday, hobbles over to answer it. "It's Wayne," he says, his face lighting up when he hears his oldest son's voice. "Get on quick. He's only got ten minutes to talk."

Wayne is calling long distance from the Hillsborough Correctional Institution near Tampa, where he just started serving four years for burglarizing a warehouse and taking 48 guns. The prison houses 334 boys, ages 14 to 19, almost all of whom have committed violent or repeated crimes. Unlike them, Wayne had never been charged with a crime before. "I guess I'm doing all right," the 17-year-old tells his parents, sounding dejected. "It was hectic last week. There was a riot."

He describes how another inmate whacked him from behind with a lock stuffed into a sock, while his friend got hit in the head with a rake and had to be airlifted to a hospital. His parents listen in horror. Danny, a husky 16-year-old who admits he goaded Wayne into participating in the caper that landed him in prison, sits nearby, looking glum. He received only juvenile probation, even though he's the one who actually did the breaking and entering.

Much too soon, the guard tells Wayne that his ten minutes are up. "Mom, I love you," he says and hangs up. Roxann puts the phone down with tears in her eyes. "I can't sleep at night," she says. "All I can think about is where my son is. I feel like my life is on hold." Ken says he can't wait to drive to Hillsborough again so that he can "touch" his son, who loves to hug.

Until he was 15 years old, Wayne, who stands 5 feet 11 inches and weighed 300 pounds at the time of his arrest, slept with a teddy bear called Mungo Lungo. Just before he was arrested, he started dating his first-ever girlfriend. But he's still a virgin, according to his mother. "He saw a kid raped in jail," she says, "and said to me, 'Mom, I don't want to lose my virginity that way.' We were all crying."

Roxann and Ken don't deny that their son bears considerable blame for his predicament. They pray that no one gets hurt by the weapons he helped turn loose on the streets, only two of which have been recovered. The Dagenais family's ordeal is a sobering lesson for all teenagers who don't think about the consequences of their actions. But it's also a case study of the injustices that can result when an essentially good kid engages in thoughtless misbehavior in a political atmosphere of panic over random gun violence. Although Wayne was a first-time offender, the authorities treated him like a hardened criminal. During their investigation Sunrise police officers took unfair advantage of Wayne and Danny -- two teenagers with learning disabilities who were unable to understand their legal rights. The Broward State Attorney's Office transferred Wayne to adult court -- an action supposedly reserved for the most dangerous and recalcitrant young villains. And in court the judge appeared to be unduly swayed by repeated references to the recent school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and elsewhere.

One of those who recounted the horrors at Columbine High was the burglary victim, a former cop with a criminal record and a history of scams, who carelessly exposed the Dagenais boys to the guns. If he hadn't received a big break from the state attorney's office seven years ago, he wouldn't have been able to own guns legally in the first place.

Still, prosecutor Dan Losey feels Wayne got off easy with a youthful-offender sentence instead of harder time in an adult penitentiary. "The thing I'm most concerned about is there are guns out there that can shoot other children, thanks to him," he says. "He didn't get that many years. Hopefully, when he gets out, he'll never consider doing something like this again."

But Greg Lewen, who served as a special public defender at the juvenile court until recently, says Wayne's sentence illustrates the irrationality of the get-tough approach toward juveniles. "Who's being helped in this case?" he asks. "The victim isn't getting his restitution. The state's costs of incarcerating the kid are enormous. The kid isn't going to develop any career competency for when he gets out. This isn't public safety; it's a public fraud."

As a result of their sons' misadventures, Ken and Roxann Dagenais, who had no previous experience with the legal system, say they've learned a bitter lesson. "It's sad, because you always tell your kids to tell the truth," Ken says. "But I'll never trust a cop again."

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Harris Meyer