'Life Means Nothing'

Violence: In Houston, six teenagers are accused of mindlessly killing two girls and seem not to care. Is adolescent brutality on the rise?

Even for a society accustomed to daily reports from its urban war zones, this was a chilling tale. On a hot, steamy evening late last month, police say, six members of Houston's Black N White gang gathered in an isolated area near the White Oak Bayou to down some beers and initiate two wannabes into their ranks--a macho ritual that demanded the newcomers fistfight the veterans. Around 11:30 p.m.--just after the induction ended and some members left Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, set out from a pool party. They called home to say they were on their way. And then they took a deadly shortcut into the woods. Police say they stumbled onto the path of the still-pumped-up gang. "Let's get 'em," one allegedly urged. The nude bodies of the girls were found four days later; they had been raped repeatedly and strangled, one with a belt, the other with shoelaces. It was not enough. "To ensure that both of them were dead," a police spokesman said, "the suspects stood on the girls' necks."

The details of the killings stunned Houston and the rest of the nation. The viciousness of the attack near the remote railroad tracks was bad enough, but the cavalier attitude of the six 14-to 18-year-old suspects was even more disturbing. All six teens, police say, participated in the rapes and strangulations of the two young girls. Despite the serious charges, some of the suspects seemed to glory in their 15 minutes of fame. Once again, a sex crime has touched off grim questions: Why are boys not even old enough to vote allegedly assaulting women with a hatefulness that seems to defy all reason? And how can anyone so young snatch a life as casually as he might a car stereo?

Ever since the "wilding" spree in 1989, when a gang of New York City youths brutalized a woman jogger in Central Park, adolescent sexual aggression or violence seems more and more commonplace. This spring a group of California high-school jocks called the Spur Posse boasted their way onto the junk-TV circuit with brazen tales of how they kept score of the girls they had sex with. Last month in Montclair, N.J., six boys, 13 to 16, were arrested on charges of sexual assault on a seventh-grade girl. And last week New Yorkers were introduced to "whirlpooling" after police arrested two Youths for allegedly assaulting a 14-year-old girl in a South Bronx pool. Typically, observers say, the "game" involves gangs of teenage boys who lock arms and move through public pools, surrounding girls and groping them under cover of the churning water. This time, several boys allegedly ripped off the girl's suit. and one inserted a finger into her vagina.

In a culture that allows young men to strut down the street wearing You STUPID BITCH T shirts and to wade through city pools, reportedly rapping "Whoomp, there it is" at females, the increase in adolescent violence is no illusion. Howard Snyder of the National Center for juvenile justice says that in the last five years the number of murders committed by youths under 18 has skyrocketed by 85 percent. FBI figures show that while arrests for adult sex offenses rose by 3 percent between 1990 and 1991, the increase was three times as high for adolescents.

The violence hits hardest at the underclass, for whom aggression is a daily fact of life. Of course, as the Spur Posse and the New Jersey case prove, comfortable middle-class suburban youths are not immune. Michael Cox, head of a sexual-abuse treatment program at Texas's Baylor College of Medicine, calls the violent youthquake a "downward extension of the dysfunction we're seeing in society-with drug problems, guns, split-apart families."

Whether those were factors in the lives of the Houston suspects won't be known for a while-if ever. Officials have not even sorted out the backgrounds of all six boys. "He's probably the most hated person in Houston right now," attorney Donald Davis says of his client, Peter Anthony Cantu, 18, the alleged ringleader in the killings. Cantu comes from an intact family. He dropped out of school in 10th grade and ever since has worked with his father doing light construction. Like some of the others, he attended an alternative school for emotionally disturbed adolescents and students considered at high risk for landing in the juvenile-justice system. So far. defendant Derrick Sean O'Brien, 18, seems to bear the most visible scars of trouble. The product of a broken home, he was raised by his grandmother and no one knows who his father is, says Lon Harper, his court-appointed attorney. Harper says O'Brien was sexually abused by a male teacher and has attempted suicide several times.

Yet, to the public, the most overpowering image of the boys is their lack of remorse. One by one they seemed to spit in society's eye. "Hey, great! We've hit the big time!" defendant Raul Omar Villareal, 17, allegedly told O'Brien after hearing they might be charged with murder. Houstonians recoiled. too. at the realization that, a day before the slayings. O'Brien had appeared on a local TV program about gangs and, hoisting a beer, boasted: "Human life means nothing." Although the attorneys deny the boys are callous, even prosecutors are astonished. They are not alone. At a hearing on June 30, the suspects showed up in court with derogatory remarks scrawled on the backs of their tan jumpsuits, presumably by revulsed inmates at the Harris County jail. I'M A FAG, read a message on Cantu's uniform. I'M A BITCH was scribbled on O'Brien's.

Youthful violence, of course, is not new. But some recent crimes seem to disregard even the barest of human boundaries. Richard Pesikoff, a Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist for children and adolescents, calls the escalating mayhem a "Molotov explosive experience" fueled by a potent mix: aggression, drugs, alcohol, race and an ever-darker attitude toward women. The result: gang members spur each other downward, "encouraging each other to perform more and more heinous acts." Some experts blame the breakdown of families and their extended support networks. The gaping holes left by absent parents are too frequently filled by gangs-an often deadly bargain struck at a time when teens are naturally pushing away from home.

To Cox, it's "the rebel finding a cause": the gang gives members the identity and attention missing from the rest of their lives. The result can be deadly what many call a "feeding frenzy" spurred by a gang leader who provides direction and sanction to the rest. Over the years, University of Pennsylvania criminologist Marvin Wolfgang says, research has shown that about 85 percent of juvenile offenses are committed in groups of two or more. And in a gang the conscience that normally would stop a healthy person from committing a crime is damaged or missing altogether. That's when gruesome acts can happen. The victim becomes dehumanized in the attacker's mind, Pesikoff says, and then "they are treated as a thing."

Such theorizing is small comfort for Connie Pena, the grandmother of one of the slain girls. "She used to say to me the world is OK, there weren't any bad people out there," Pena said last week. "'No, Grandma,' she always told me when I described dangerous folks to her, 'they're not like that.'" It is an innocent faith-and one that makes the girls' deaths even more tragic.