It's a crime that police officers in a small eastern Arizona community can hardly fathom yet have to deal with: an 8-year-old charged in the fatal shootings of his father and another man.
"Who would think an 8-year-old kid could kill two adults?" St. Johns Police Chief Roy Melnick said Friday.
The crime that unfolded Wednesday evening sent shock waves through St. Johns, a community of about 4,000 people northeast of Phoenix. The boy had no disciplinary record at school, and there was no indication he had any problems at home, prosecutors said.
"It was such a tragedy," said the boy's defense attorney, Benjamin Brewer. "You have two people dead; you have an 8-year-old in jail. It tugs at the heart strings. It's a shocker, no doubt about it."
On Friday, a judge determined there was probable cause to show that the boy fatally shot his father, Vincent Romero, 29, and Timothy Romans, 39, of San Carlos with a .22-caliber rifle. The boy faces two counts of premeditated murder.
Melnick said officers arrived at Romero's home within minutes of the shooting Wednesday. They found one victim just outside the front door and the other dead in an upstairs room.
Romans had been renting a room at the Romero house, prosecutors said. The two men were employees with a construction company that had a contract to do work at the Salt River Project power plant near St. Johns, which is about 170 miles northeast of Phoenix.
The boy went to a neighbor's house and said he "believed that his father was dead," said Apache County attorney Brad Carlyon. Police later obtained a confession from the boy, Melnick said.
Brewer said police overreached in questioning the boy without representation from a parent or attorney and did not advise him of his rights.
"They became very accusing early on in the interview," Brewer said. "Two officers with guns at their side, it's very scary for anybody, for sure an 8-year-old kid."
A judge has ordered a psychological evaluation of the child, who was being held at the Apache County juvenile detention center.
Prosecutors aren't sure where the case is headed, Carlyon said.
"There's a ton of factors to be considered and weighed, including the juvenile's age," he said. "The counterbalance against that, the acts that he apparently committed."
Carlyon said the boy had no record of complaints with Arizona Child Protective Services.
"He had no record of any kind, not even a disciplinary record at school," he said. "He has never been in trouble before."
City Manager Greg Martin said the community was "saddened" and "shocked."
"Not something that happens very often and hopefully never happens again," he said. "It's been on their minds ever since it happened."
FBI statistics show instances of children younger than 11 committing homicides are very rare. According to recent FBI supplementary homicide reports, there were at least three such cases each year in 2003, 2004 and 2005; there were at least 15 in 2002. More recent statistics weren't available, nor were details of the cases.
Earlier this year in Arizona, prosecutors in Cochise County filed first-degree murder charges against a 12-year-old boy accused of shooting his mother to death.
Under Arizona law, a juvenile under 8 years old is treated as a dependent child. Charges can be filed against anyone 8 or older, which Melnick argued are warranted in this case. He said the child didn't act on the "spur of the moment," though he didn't elaborate on what the motive might have been.
Defense attorney Mike Piccarreta, who is not involved in the case, said each case has to be considered on its own merits, but it would be hard for him to comprehend that an 8-year-old has the mental capacity to understand the act of murder and its implications.
"If they actually prosecute the guy, it's a legal minefield," he said. "And, two, society has to make a decision as to whether they want to start using the criminal justice system to deal with 8-year-olds. That doesn't mean you don't have a troubled kid."
Wednesday's homicides were the first in at least four years in the community where most people know one another, Melnick said, noting that before that, no one had been killed there since 20 years ago.
Romero had full custody of the child. The boy's biological mother was visiting St. Johns over the weekend from Mississippi, and returned to Arizona after the shootings, Carlyon said.
Brewer, the defense attorney, said the child "seems to be in good spirits."
"He's scared," he said. "He's trying to be tough, but he's scared."