‘Absolute family tragedy’: 10-year-old Milwaukee boy charged as an adult in the fatal shooting of his mother

A 10-year-old Milwaukee boy shot and killed his mother, not in a tragic accident as investigators first believed, but after his mother would not buy him a virtual reality headset, according to prosecutors.

The boy was charged in adult court last week with first-degree reckless homicide and is being held in the county’s juvenile detention facility.

The boy first told police the shooting was an accident, but a day later, his relatives contacted police questioning his story and the child later admitted that he intentionally pointed a gun at his mother before shooting her, according to a copy of the criminal complaint obtained by the Journal Sentinel.

The boy’s family told detectives he had received an unspecified but “concerning” mental health diagnosis from a therapist and had a history of disturbing behavior, including setting the living room furniture on fire and swinging a puppy by its tail, the complaint says.

The Journal Sentinel is not identifying the boy or his mother at this time because of his age and the circumstances of the case. The child’s family declined to speak with a Journal Sentinel reporter on Wednesday and one of his attorneys, Angela Cunningham, said she was still gathering information about the case.

“This is an absolute family tragedy,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think anybody would deny or disagree with that.”

“The adult system is absolutely ill-equipped to address the needs of a 10-year-old child,” she added.

Such cases of children being charged with homicide are rare, but not unprecedented in Wisconsin.

State law requires children as young as 10 to be charged as adults for certain serious crimes, at least to start the case. Those crimes include first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide and attempted first-degree intentional homicide.

Children’s Court Judge Marshall B. Murray set the boy’s bail at $50,000 after prosecutors asked for $100,000. The case is assigned to Judge Kristela Cervera and a status hearing is scheduled for next week.

Boy had keys to gun lockbox

The shooting occurred shortly before 7 a.m. Nov. 21 in the 7400 block of North 87th Street, on the city’s northwest side.

According to the criminal complaint:

The boy initially told officers he got the gun from his mother’s bedroom and went to the basement where his mother was doing laundry. He said he was twirling the gun around his finger when it fired.

The boy told his 26-year-old sister, who called 911.

Police allowed him to stay with family because of his age. The original news release from Milwaukee police indicated the fatal shooting was caused by a child “playing” with a gun. It also stated no arrests had been made and prosecutors would review the case.

A day later, relatives called the police with their concerns.

When the boy’s aunt arrived to pick him up from the house, she asked him where the house keys were. The boy grabbed the keys and said he had hidden them from his mother. The set of keys contained one that opened a lock box where the boy’s mother stored a handgun.

When his aunt questioned him about the shooting, the boy said he pointed the gun at his mom, who then said to him, “Why do you have that? Put that down.”

The boy never cried or showed remorse about his mother’s death, his aunt and sister told police.

The two also had learned the boy had logged onto his mother’s Amazon account and ordered an Oculus Virtual Reality Headset on Nov. 22, the morning after she died.

That same morning, the boy physically attacked his 7-year-old cousin and had to be pulled off the child. His aunt then drove the boy to his grandmother’s house to meet with child welfare workers.

When they arrived, the boy’s grandmother was crying.

“I’m really sorry for what happened. I’m sorry for killing my mom,” the boy said without empathy or compassion, according to his aunt.

He then asked if his Amazon package had arrived, she said.

Family had long been concerned about boy’s mental health

The boy had a history of unsettling behavior, his family told police.

The criminal complaint included the following accounts from his family:

When the boy was 4, he swung the family’s puppy by the tail until it howled in pain. His mother got rid of the dog because she feared it would defend itself and attack the boy.

Throughout his life, relatives said, he had “rage issues.” They also described him as intelligent and manipulative. His mother eventually stopped sharing details about his behavior and no family member would agree to babysit him.

Six months ago, family told police, the boy filled a balloon with a flammable liquid and set it on fire in the family’s home, causing an explosion that burned furniture and the carpet.

When his mother asked why he would do something like that, he said his “two sisters told him to do it,” according to relatives’ recollection of the situation. When he was questioned further, the boy said he hears five different, imaginary people talking to him: two sisters, one older woman, one man and a second man who the boy described as “mean.”

After learning these new details from family, Milwaukee police interviewed the boy again. This time, he told detectives he aimed the gun at her with two hands while in a shooting stance.

He said he tried shooting a wall to “scare her” when she walked in front of him and he shot her, the complaint says.

The boy told police he got the gun from the lockbox that morning because his mother woke him up early — at 6 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m. — and because she would not allow him to buy something on Amazon he wanted.

He told police he understood guns can kill people.

On Wednesday, the boy’s neighbors expressed shock at what had happened.

Brenda Brown said she had seen the boy riding his bike down the street and her husband even helped him fix the bike. She had not heard of any disturbances at the house before the shooting and said she could not believe what the boy had done.

Mark Pinckney, who lives in a nearby apartment, said the family seemed to keep to themselves.

“They’re pretty private,” he said.

Wisconsin has fewer limits on trying children in adult court

The case likely will draw scrutiny to how Wisconsin treats children and teens accused of serious crimes.

The state is one of only three that require all 17-year-old defendants be charged as adults. Wisconsin law also requires children as young as 10 to be charged as adults for certain serious crimes, like first-degree intentional or reckless homicide.

The U.S. legal system has long recognized a difference between children and adults — that’s why the juvenile system was created — and acknowledged young defendants have different needs than adults.

Wisconsin is an outlier in the country as other states have moved to limit trying children in adult courts, recognizing a child’s brain has not fully developed.

Craig Mastantuono, an attorney who defended a 10-year-old boy charged in the Charlie Young beating case in the 2000s, said it can be a “real disaster” to put children through the adult criminal justice system, which has fewer treatment resources available. Children, he said, cannot fully think through the consequences of their actions given their brain development.

“The reason that’s important is because the criminal justice system operates on a rational response model, meaning if people are fearful of consequences, like jail, they don’t do something wrong,” he said. “And when they are still developing, their level of ability to appreciate right from wrong is very limited.”

Wisconsin rolled back juvenile protections in the criminal justice system in the 1990s in reaction to perceptions of crime that have since become better understood.

“We placed ourselves in a harsh minority when it comes to juvenile crime in the 90s and we’ve never revisited that,” he said. “Saying that someone should belong in the juvenile system doesn’t mean that you’re an apologist for the action.”

In Wisconsin, if a child is charged in adult court, his or her attorneys can seek to move the case back to juvenile court. 

To be successful, they must prove the child cannot get adequate treatment in the adult system; moving the case to juvenile court would not “depreciate the seriousness of the offense;” and staying in adult court is not necessary to deter other children from similar offenses.

Adult court carries much longer terms of imprisonment than juvenile court, which focuses on rehabilitation and offers more services. State law also offers more privacy protections to children and teens charged in juvenile court and allows for the withholding of defendants’ names to the public.

These kinds of cases, in which young children are charged with killing someone, are rare but not unprecedented. 

In 2018, a 10-year-old girl in Chippewa Falls was charged with first-degree intentional homicide as an adult after prosecutors said she stomped on a 6-month-old baby and killed him. She was placed in a secure state-run mental health complex and initially determined not to be competent for trial. 

Her case ultimately was transferred into juvenile court and results of future rulings will not be made public, The Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire reported earlier this year.

In 2018, a criminologist from Northeastern University told the Associated Press there were only 44 children age 10 or younger who were believed to be responsible for homicides in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016.

Sophie Carson and Sarah Volpenhein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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