A Conspiracy of Dunces

Welcome To Pima County, A Place Where Being A Teen With The Usual Twisted Sense Of Humor Is Cause For Alarm.

JAMIE ROINICK IS certainly no trouble-making Bart Simpson. The 9th-grader is thoughtful, polite and more aware of events in the world at large than many adults.

His neighbors on Sugarbush Place on Tucson's far east side attest to his honesty and good upbringing; they've frequently entrusted their children to his babysitting skills.

In short, Jamie Roinick is about as close to the perfect kid as any male teen in our society is likely to get -- that is, without benefit of intensive conservative religious indoctrination, a medically supervised program of mind-controlling pharmaceuticals, or strict military regimentation and iron-clad discipline.

A normal kid, brighter than average. He's even got the psychiatric reports to prove it -- something most parents can't say about their kids.

Which makes what happened to Jamie Roinick this past summer all the more outrageous.

As court records now show, Jamie did almost nothing to provoke what befell him. Unless you count being a male teen, with the usual goofus sense of humor and the usual goofus school chums, as something dangerously off-kilter and menacing.

Unfortunately, that was exactly the view of the folks in charge of the upscale Tanque Verde School District, the Pima County Sheriff's Department, the County Attorney's Office, the Juvenile Court, and last, but certainly least, the daily press which purports to report thoroughly, honestly and fairly on them all.

When all is said and done, Jamie's offense consisted of being a 14-year-old boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Three hundred-odd years ago, he might have found some empathy from, say, an older woman living alone in a Salem Village besieged by inexplicable illness and mysterious crop failures.

But the modern-day Pima County witch hunt that ensnared an unsuspecting Jamie Roinick and his parents began this past May, during the days immediately following the terrible massacre at Littleton, Colorado's Columbine High School on April 20.

Yes, the media shockwave from that blast of savagery, which claimed the lives of 12 teens and one teacher, seared the national soul. The carnage wrought by two alienated male teens will remain, in many ways, beyond the comprehension of normal human beings.

Yes, people were worried about copycat killers.

And, yes, the local press was clamoring for assurances such unthinkable horror could not happen here. Please, dear God, don't let it happen here.

As it turns out, however, although it pales into insignificance compared to mass murder, something very bad did happen here.

If it had happened to a cartoon character like Bart Simpson, we could laugh at him, and all those buffonish, vacuous cartoon officials pontificating their way through the satirical plot in sorry-ass Springfield, Bart's hometown.

But it happened to Jamie Roinick, a real person. And to his parents, Gene and Linda, law-abiding Pima County citizens supposedly possessing Constitutional rights. It happened to roughly 30 other students and their parents across the Tucson basin in the paranoia-fueled aftermath of the Columbine killings.

Unfortunately, the only cartoon characters in this plot are the well-paid, but incompetent officials who dreamed up and executed their very own impromptu farce at the Roinicks' expense.

Its theme: the madness of groupthink in a poorly-knit, increasingly alienated community that projects upon its own most vulnerable members -- its youngsters -- the demons at the core of its unhinged collective mind.

Or something like that, give or take a few wackily colorful adjectives.

ON MONDAY, May 3, 1999, Emily Gray Junior High School officials staged a school-wide assembly in response to the Columbine massacre. School officials discussed an evacuation plan in the event of an armed intruder on campus.

Principal Tracey Reimer also warned students that any threats from the peanut gallery would be "dealt with in an appropriate manner," in the words of Emily Gray Vice Principal Mike Donovan, who was deposed months later. "He [Reimer] warned the kids not to be making a mistake of talking about harming anybody or making threats, intimidation, things like that," Donovan said. "You know, that kind of behavior would be taken seriously, and that at no time should anybody engage in any kind of threatening behavior."

Donovan noted that the students have access to classroom and campus rules in their "TimeTracker," a notebook issued to each student at the start of the year.

Also, Donovan said, "The teachers have classroom rules, which talk about being respectful and non-threatening, along with not chewing gum."

Certainly a code we can all live by.

On Thursday, May 6, Jamie Roinick was in the boys' locker room at Emily Gray, 4201 N. Melpomne Way. Two of his school chums, Kenny, 13, and Eddie, 14, were among the dudes there as well.

"Kenny's a big joker," Jamie, now 15, says. "He was, like, the joker of the school. Just a real funny guy."

According to witnesses, Kenny and Eddie were "critiquing" the Columbine shooters', uh, technique. And Kenny had prepared what the daily media would soon quote law-enforcement types as describing as a "detailed plan" for blowing up a whole bunch of Emily Gray's students and teachers.

In reality the "plan," casually scrawled over an official map of the campus taken from Kenny's TimeTracker, had so little detail that it might as well have been done in Crayola -- by a puppy.

While it purports to show a bomb consisting of a "wooden box, nitroglycerine, battery, wire" and a "watch," there is no detail beyond the most cartoonish of levels.

Also on the map is what appears to be the most efficient -- to the junior-high mind, at least -- route for planting bombs to take out nearly everyone on campus.

There's also a notation to "cut communications," and something about a "counterattack of 28 other antichrists."

Not the brightest example of juvenile humor on the planet, especially considering the tenor of the times, but no doubt a serviceable document for locker room discussion among one's pimple-plagued, hormonally hijacked peers.

And during the loud, joking conversation between Kenny and Eddie, as several witnesses would later testify, that peer group did not -- repeat, not -- include Jamie Roinick.

"I was sitting about three or four people down, talking to my friend Scott," Jamie recalls. "And Kenny and Eddie were looking at this map, and I guess they were talking about it, and Jason and Chris saw them doing that."

Apparently, in their next class, Jason and Chris were talking about what they'd overheard between Kenny and Eddie. A teacher overheard them, and in turn reported it to Vice Principal Donovan.

Donovan would later testify that he "talked to a few kids in the classroom, and eventually I got this kid. And he told me the story of the conversation he overheard."

The kid had gotten a good look at the map Kenny and Eddie were discussing, and described it to Donovan, even sketching up a facsimile at Donovan's request.

"So I went and called Kenny out of class," Donovan is quoted as saying in court documents. "Had him bring his stuff. I asked him for his Tracker, opened up his Tracker. Low and behold, there's the map that this other young man observed for me."

An incisive example of the art and craft of vice-principalship. But there's more:

"And so at that time Kenny pretty much fell apart," Donovan continued. "I mean, I looked at Kenny and said I couldn't believe it. He just kind of fell apart there on me and started crying, and it was like, 'Ah, I don't mean it, you know?' "

Donovan made him explain the map. "And he goes, 'It was just a joke, and I don't know why I did it.' "

And at that point, Donovan said, Kenny "went into another story about how Jamie and Eddie were going to put C4 on his [Kenny's] back, and he was going to run into a crowd of kids crying and screaming to gather more kids around. And then they were going to blow it up."

A few points should be emphasized here concerning Vice Principal Donovan's shocking discovery:

· The conversation which the tearful Kenny described among himself, Jamie and Eddie had occurred the week before the May 3 assembly at which students were warned to keep a lid on talk of violence.

· All the students agree it was clearly mere joking, with Kenny performing what all concerned described as a "Jim Carey" routine in which he flailed about goofily to demonstrate how he would, in theory, draw a crowd of unsuspecting victims.

· None of the boys possessed detailed knowledge of C4, a plastic explosive, other than what they'd gleaned from that most sinister of sources, TV and movies.

· Finally, while minors don't possess all the rights of adults in our constitutional democracy, the First Amendment shines brightly on all citizens, young and old alike.

And in the United States of America, the right of free expression -- including that of the most juvenile of junior-high jokers -- is, under normal conditions at least, generally considered to be an unalienable component of our very being. To put it bluntly, the right of free speech is every bit as sacred as your God-given right to eat beans and blow it out your ass.

OF COURSE, SOCIETY doesn't look kindly on rubes who fart in public. And any knee-jerk martinet is quick to point out it's illegal to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre with the sole intent to cause panic.

Perhaps somewhere between those two examples lies the appropriate metaphor for Jamie Roinick's behavior; and when all is said and done, how one views his "offense," if that's what it was, is a subjective matter.

Donovan recalled summoning Jamie into his presence. "And I said, 'Do you know why you're here?' And he said, 'I have no idea.' And I told Kenny to explain it to him. And Jamie goes, 'Oh, yeah,' you know. 'And we were just joking.' And he was kind of smiling at me. Kind of a smug look and, you know, it was almost the identical story Kenny said. You know, I mean from the crying."

Jamie later explained he was smiling because he was remembering Kenny's goofy behavior.

Donovan said to Jamie and Kenny, "I was told that Eddie knew how to get all the materials [for the C4 bomb]. And they said, 'Yeah,' you know, 'Eddie says he knows how to get all the material.' And both of them confirmed that Eddie was the guy to get the materials."

It's a bit of a stretch, isn't it, to say that, on the one hand, "Eddie says he knows" how to get bomb materials, while adding with the next breath, "Eddie was the guy to get the materials"? Unfortunately, Eddie wasn't there to explain, as he later did, that he, too, was joking. Donovan had granted him an early dismissal to go to the dentist. And besides, neither Jamie nor Kenny believed Eddie, who they describe as prone to comic exaggeration.

But back to the central question on the table: Did Jamie Roinick's participation in the C4/Jim Carey pantomime constitute threatening behavior?

Certainly not to his schoolyard peers. No one had complained.

But here's what Vice Principal Donovan -- the only authority who mattered at that moment -- said under subsequent deposition by Jamie's attorney, Michael Piccarreta:

Q: Why did you feel that you needed to call the cops? Did you take it as more than just a joke?

Donovan: Absolutely, I felt this was not just a, an ordinary day for school. I felt it was serious enough at that point to make sure the police were notified. And, uh, you know, just to make sure our school was safe.

At that precise point, one could argue, Jamie Roinick's Simpsonsesque, summer-long nightmare had begun.

Perhaps somewhere deep within the vice principal's brain a cartoon light bulb clicked on. Or perhaps a vision flashed before him: the blasted bodies of Emily Gray students strewn everywhere; the subsequent humiliating tongue-lashing before the Tanque Verde School Board; years of professional disgrace and banishment to the hideous Tucson Unified School District, with its thousands of dope-smoking, pierced-tongued, heavily armed zombie-students.

Whatever. As Descartes concluded so many years ago, we can have no knowledge of other minds.

And that certainly appeared to be Donovan's guiding philosophical truism when pronouncing his vice-principal's judgement on the three boys in his charge. Boys he'd supposedly known for nearly nine months, and for at least part of the previous school year before that. Boys whose lives he forever changed by calling the cops during a time of rising, irrational fear.

And just who were these dangerous troublemakers Donovan was referring to the criminal justice system? In his own words:

"All three of them are eighth graders," Donovan said in deposition. "Um, you know, three kids who, you know, haven't caused me much headache this year -- except for this."

Donovan didn't view Jamie and Kenny as enough of a threat to detain until authorities could be summoned. He sent them home, with instructions to call Eddie and tell him to be at his office in the morning. All of them were ordered to show up with their parents.

Another problem neatly dealt with, no doubt according to the strict, finely honed tradition of vice-principals down through the ages.

The boys were unaware, however, that they were about to be ratted out to the Pima County Sheriff's Copycat Task Force. (Motto: "The Spanish Inquisition? What's that?") Donovan, at the cops' request, didn't bother to inform them.

SO YOU CAN imagine the surprise in the normally placid Roinick household when, around 9:45 p.m., there came a knock at the front door

"I answered," recalls Jamie's mother, Linda, a barber. "And right away this detective, Sgt. Willie Belin was his name, had quite an attitude. He was ready to just come right on in. I asked him what he was here for. He didn't want to tell me. He just said, 'Open the door.' And I asked him again what was happening. And he just repeated, 'Open the door.' "

She did as she was told.

Jamie's father, Gene, an administrative human resources manager for a local fire equipment company, recalls the SWAT troops entering and heading straight for the master bedroom.

"I told them where Jamie's room was, but they ignored me," Gene Roinick says.

Besides their normal assortment of weapons, the cops were armed with a search warrant signed by Pima County Superior Court Judge John Davis. The warrant alleged of the Roinick household, as it did of the homes of Kenny and Eddie:

"There is now being possessed or concealed certain property or things described as: explosive-related materials/components or nitroglycerine, C4, grenades, explosive devices, any substance or item that can ignite, burn, combust, detonate or deflagrate. Any other firearms, ammunition, any diagrams, drawings, maps or other items that depict the school buildings, grounds or other structures at the school, or any additional other structures. Any plans, documents, papers that depict or suggest an organized violent attack on the school or persons. Any instructions, books, manuals or other documents written or transmitted to related acts of violence."

In short, the cops alleged certain dangerous items were in the house -- based on the joking conversation of a couple of teens and the sterling detective work of Vice Principal Donovan. But by the time they had gotten to the first "any" in their warrant description, the cops were actually indicating their intention to engage in a vague fishing expedition.

Judge Davis had asked only a few cursory questions before approving the search warrant.

Of course, Det. John A. Chavez, the sheriff's deputy charged with calling the judge, made the "plot" sound much more threatening.

Court records indicate that Chavez, who identified himself as a member of a task force specializing in threats made toward schools, first told the judge that he had "achieved over 400 hours of law-enforcement training" in various specialties, adding that he had gained "much insight into the behaviors of juveniles."

And while Chavez pointed out in his spiel to Davis that the kids had claimed they were joking, the detective added, "But Mr. Donovan did not believe the subjects," in the next breath noting, somewhat incongruously, that Donovan had sent the boys home.

In his very next breath Chavez added: "In the past two weeks, there have been over 12 threats to educational institutions by students investigated by the Pima County Sheriff's Department." As if those "threats" were all genuine, and as if the mere fact of investigation had some bearing on the specific request before the judge at that moment.

Furthermore, Chavez used the term "conspirators" when referring to Jamie, Eddie and Kenny, adding, "Explosive ordinance investigators from the Pima County Sheriff's Department agree that the map and the verbalized plans indicate more than a juvenile prank."

Juveniles who use maps and verbalize -- now there's a self-evident threat to the established order. Perhaps it was a line of reasoning gleaned from intensive study of Planet of the Apes. At any rate it must be true -- the "experts" on the Sheriff's child psychology/bomb squad say it's so.

Furthermore, one has to wonder:

Why does society bother paying for judicial oversight of the warrant process if, in a time of widespread fright and uncertainty, it's simply the role of the judiciary to quickly acquiesce to any and all "special task force" requests to invade the sanctity of our homes? Is this less-than-cursory telephonic process somehow supposed to make us all more safe and secure?

The Roinicks certainly were not basking in safety and security that evening. It would be months -- and thousands of dollars in legal fees they could ill afford -- before their lives resumed any semblance of normalcy. And even today, they say, the realization is ever present that, in Pima County anyway, virtually nothing protects ordinary people from the toxic confluence of self-serving and lazy officials resulting in the mindless exercise of law-enforcement power.

THE SWAT SQUAD yanked Jamie from his room, cuffed him and placed him in one of six Sheriff's cruisers jammed into the normally quiet cul de sac in front of the family's home.

Gene Roinick's demand that deputies refrain from questioning his son went unheeded.

Meanwhile, inside the house, deputies confiscated two BB guns in Jamie's room, plus dozens of poems he'd compiled for a class project -- including demonic incantations scrawled by that devil-humping antichrist Robert Frost. Next they ordered Gene Roinick to open his gun safe.

The warrant issued by Judge Davis indicated deputies were looking for dangerous items in the possession of the boys. But as the elder Roinick explains, "All my guns are kept unloaded and locked in a gun safe in my bedroom. Only I have the combination."

He recalls that didn't dissuade the deputies from telling him, "If you don't open it right now, we will."

The following day, Tucson's news media would make much of the cache of weapons seized from the Roinick's, as well as the other two households -- 33 weapons in all, 17 from the Roinick home. None of the first-day articles or breathless TV reports would mention Gene Roinick's locked gun safe, or the fact that his weapons were unloaded.

Not one of the supposedly unbiased news professionals dedicated to "balance" in their corporate-mandated short-form reporting would bother to ask for Gene Roinick's side of the story.

However, the Tucson Citizen pompously noted it felt justified in identifying the juveniles by first and last names -- treatment generally reserved for 17-year-old ax-murdering prostitutes caught with human kidney meat still in their teeth -- "because of the seriousness of school threat incidents." Never mind about issues of guilt, innocence or the irrational madness of crowds.

As it turns out, Gene Roinick has three very good reasons -- not that he needs any at all under the law -- for owning firearms.

"In the first place," he says, "we moved here from New Hampshire. It's a rural state, and like most people there, we lived far from a town. So it's just common sense to have a handgun or two for protection -- nobody's going to be there if there's trouble.

"Also, back there, everybody hunted. I hunt today, and I take my family hunting. Most of the stuff they took were hunting weapons."

Finally, and certainly most ironically, Gene Roinick notes that several years ago Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, then in one of his endless budget battles with the Board of Supervisors, sent a form letter to everyone in the neighborhood. The Sheriff admitted he didn't have enough manpower or equipment to guarantee residents' safety, and advised them to buy firearms and learn how to use them.

Perhaps Dupnik had been devoting a tad too much of his chronically tight budget to spiffy special task forces.

Understandable -- they do so jazz up one's image among the otherwise perpetually snoozing voters. Plus, the mental focus task force duty requires also distracts underpaid deputies from thinking too hard about things -- silly things like, oh, say, when you and your adrenaline-addicted deputy buddies are all dressed up like hammers, why does every little 14-year-old kid uncannily tend to resemble a nail?

"They were like a bunch of armed thugs," Gene Roinick says of the deputies and detectives who invaded his home. "They really were. When I tried to go out to tell them not to interrogate our son without a lawyer, they said, 'You're not going anywhere,' and they threw me up against a wall."

They grimly informed the Roinicks that the charges included conspiracy to commit multiple murder, that they intended to try Jamie as an adult, and that their son was looking at a 20-year-to-life sentence.

"It was terrible what they did," Linda Roinick says of Pima County's finest.

Even as the Copycat Task Force members were sadistically torturing the Roinicks with their worst-case scenario, one detective seemed a bit more humane in his approach.

"Gary Burns was his name," Gene Roinick recalls. "He was telling me, 'This is just a bunch of bullshit. We'll have this straightened out in a day, and your son will be back.' He's telling us all this stuff, and he's being real nice, and he gave me his number and said to just give him a call. Of course I called him about 20 times, but he never returned a call."

Even the most cynically independent of thinkers finds it difficult to resist the power of groupthink.

THEY HAULED JAMIE off to the Sheriff's Rincon Substation, where Detective Jill Murphy was in charge of interrogating the "conspirators."

"She was mean," Jamie recalls. "She came in, and I was sitting there in handcuffs, and she was like, 'These charges are very serious. You're being charged with three things, do you want to know?' And I said yeah, I guess so.

"She says, 'Interrupting a school learning environment' and I'm thinking, hey, that's not too big. And then she says, 'threats and/or intimidation' and I'm thinking well, that's a little more serious. And finally she says, 'and conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree,' and I'm thinking HUH! WHAT!"

Struggling to maintain his composure, Jamie declined to answer all but the most basic of questions without the presence of an attorney.

As a result, Murphy, in an apparent effort to wring every last potentially damning tidbit from the youth's mind-blowing predicament, would later note: "Throughout the interview Jamie appeared to be unconcerned about the entire incident. His attitude was lackadaisical. When I told Jamie he was being arrested for conspiracy to commit murder, he merely said, 'OK,' and did not appear disturbed at all."

More than likely she was merely following orders.

From the substation, the still-handcuffed Jamie was delivered to the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center, where he was deprived of his freedom for the next 10 days.

"What bothered us more than anything in this whole mess," says Gene Roinick, "was that when Jamie was stuck in that juvenile detention hall, and we had to wait a long time to visit him, we'd talk to some of the other people there, some of the other parents. And at that time they'd arrested about 37 children in Tucson for conspiracy to commit acts of violence at schools. And there was one lady, I can't remember her name, but her son, from what she said, sounded really innocent. But she had no money. And what really bothered us was that we had the ability to borrow the money to hire a good attorney, and she didn't. If we hadn't had that money -- and we wound up spending about $20,000 -- things might not have turned out the way they did."

(Eventually, about a dozen of the 30 local students charged in the wake of the Columbine killings would be convicted, according to Juvenile Court records. Most of those convicted didn't bother contesting the charges, but instead quickly admitted guilt.)

In the meantime, the hysteria circus had fully arrived in town, and all the clowns were popping out of their little red car.

Amid the newspaper revelations and speculations and the TV news "team-coverage" orgies, the Tanque Verde School District staged a meeting for Emily Gray parents.

In a performance worthy of The Simpsons, Principal Reimer, who had just been named one of Arizona's top school administrators by his fellow educators, bellowed to the crowd, "I'M GONNA PROTECT YOUR CHILDREN!"

"I couldn't believe it," says Linda Roinick. "It was just awful. There was no threat. And yet Reimer was making out as if it was a complete threat to the school and to the children. I just couldn't believe it. They were calling my son a threat to society. A boy 14 years old? Someone who's never done anything wrong?"

The Arizona Daily Star's Sarah Tully Tapia obviously understood the nature of what was happening. She reported:

The meeting took on the air of a pep rally as parents loudly applauded school officials for the way they dealt with the situation. They cheered and stamped their feet when Reimer reeled off a list of the school's achievements.

And in a deft touch worthy of a Simpsons script, Tapia deadpanned:

Parents reserved their venom for the media, which they said cover only the bad news at Emily Gray. "My daughter was traumatized by the media today," one woman said.

The Sheriff's Department sent its investigators to interview the school's 7th and 8th graders, looking for more dirt on the "conspirators."

"I actually had children call me up," Gene Roinick recalls, "and say, 'They're trying to make me say things that aren't true. They're trying to put words in my mouth.' "

Sgt. Belin appeared on an exploitative KGUN-TV special, Loss of Innocence, to point out the obvious: "You can't yell fire in a crowded theatre." Then he added, "And you can't walk into a roomful of people and say you're going to blow them up. That's why we arrested them."

What the social philosopher/detective didn't add, of course, is that Jamie did not yell "Fire!" He didn't tell people he was going to "blow them up." And the only "theatre" involved was a darkly sinister virtual theatre of the absurd spun of irrational fears and the actions of incompetent officialdom.

IN THE END, what all the honking and jibberish came down to was every bit as nonsensical as in the beginning.

After ordering Jamie to undergo a psychological evaluation -- which revealed him to be as typical as any other male his age, but for his "superior intellect" -- Juvenile Court Commissioner Theodore Knuck released him -- as well as Kenny and Eddie -- from the detention hall pending trial.

School was out by that time; no Emily Gray official seemed the least bit concerned about the 8th-grader missing classes or making up his work.

As a condition of his release, he was required to wear an electronic tracking device around his ankle; it was so sensitive that he couldn't go out in his yard. If he walked down the hall to the laundry room, the thing would go off.

"I couldn't even go to the back of the house to get a soda," Jamie recalls.

And when the court finally ordered the device removed, he was placed under house arrest for the remainder of the summer. All the boys were forbidden to cruise the Internet, as a sop to Christian right-wingers who expressed fears that the youths might stuff their brains with satanic materials. No doubt penned by the evil minions of Robert Frost.

On top of all that, the court ordered Jamie and Gene to attend an anger-management course at VisionQuest, a sort of emotional boot camp for troubled and delinquent youths.

While they were there, both say, they witnessed what Gene describes as an adult VisionQuest counselor allegedly "assaulting" a 7-year-old.

"The kid just wanted another drink of milk," Jamie recalls, "and the guy shoved him back and told him he couldn't have any more."

"And then this other guy came out screaming at the top of his lungs," Gene adds, "and told everybody to line up and stand at attention. And I'm thinking, we're here for anger control?"

When they offered to testify about the incident if the 7-year-old's parents were to sue, they were quickly excused from the course.

Even as it grew increasingly obvious that school officials and sheriff's detectives were unable to tie Jamie to anything illegal, Deputy County Attorney Tom Weaver refused to drop the charges against him.

Finally, on July 28, 1999, Weaver relented and dropped the charges -- with the provision that they could be refiled if new evidence came to light. Kenny subsequently went to trial and was found not guilty; Eddie's charges were dropped.

"This is one of those cases where you are damned if you do, damned if you don't," Weaver told the Star's Tapia. "We erred on the side of community protection."

Oh, well. And damn the cost to the innocent victims of such a wretchedly sloppy exercise in state-sponsored paranoia.

BUT THERE WAS yet one more ridiculous plot twist in this real-life Simpsons episode:

Patrick Dellabetta, the superintendent of the Tanque Verde School District, was quoted in the daily press as saying he didn't think the boys were serious; but Dellabetta announced he was in favor of expelling them from the district anyway.

"I've tried and tried, and I just can't figure that out," Gene Roinick says. "I guess there's no rational explanation. An innocent boy who's done nothing wrong, and they still want to expel him?"

But Tanque Verde officials were merely playing the typical game of officialdom everywhere -- Cover Your Ass.

They told the Roinicks that in order for Jamie to avoid expulsion, they would have to agree not to sue the district; and in return for Jamie's leaving quietly, Tanque Verde officials would cover his costs, if any, at a non-district school.

Gene Roinick says his lawyers advised him, for the good of his son, who needed to get on with his life, that a court battle over the issue simply wasn't worth fighting.

"I think he got robbed of a year," Gene Roinick says of Jamie. "He went from being a kid to being an adult overnight. But, you know, such is life."

Things have worked out as well as one could expect -- even though some parents still won't allow their children to go near Jamie, and some of his former schoolmates whisper among themselves and look the other way when they spot him in public. He's on the honor roll at a charter school he really likes; he's about to get his learner's permit; and he's already got a job lined up for the summer.

He's also learned an unforgettable lesson about the madness and irrationality festering just below our community's thin veneer of rationality:

"What I find really weird," he says, "is that when an adult goes completely crazy, goes to work and kills five or six people, the workplace generally doesn't set up metal detectors so it can search the workers. But when two kids go crazy and kill people, the entire country goes insane."

Says his father:

"It's difficult to believe that something like this could happen in our country, in our city. I mean that you could be arrested for some kind of conspiracy that officials have put together solely in their own minds. It's difficult to believe that you can actually go to jail for something so absurd. But it can happen. It happened to us."

As it turns out then, the true "conspirators," are still zealously on patrol. Their aim is nothing less than to protect us from ourselves at all costs, and from other monsters -- real or imagined.

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