Trial looms in Fla. burning attack on teen
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—The day he was set on fire, Michael Brewer didn't attend classes at his middle school because he was afraid he might get beaten up by some other boys.
It was a Monday in October 2009, the day after his 15th birthday. There had been a dispute between Brewer and Matthew "Zeke" Bent over a video game and a bicycle that led to Bent's arrest. And Bent, like Brewer a student at Deerfield Beach Middle School, was not happy about it.
"Zeke wanted revenge on Michael," said Jesus "Junior" Mendez, who would take part in the attack on Brewer, which drew national attention for its barbarity and the youthfulness of those involved. Mendez would later plead no contest to attempted murder. "Zeke's the main one. It was Zeke's idea."
Bent, now 17, faces a trial in June on attempted murder charges that carry a potential 30-year prison sentence because a weapon was used. He has pleaded not guilty. Mendez and a third boy, 17-year-old Denver "D.C." Jarvis, have already admitted their roles in setting Brewer ablaze and have been sentenced to 11 years and eight years behind bars, respectively.
Police video and audio recordings made by the seven boys involved and several other witnesses give an account of a chance discovery and a split-second decision that almost killed Brewer. As it was, he spent months in the hospital with second- and third-degree burns over more than two-thirds of his body.
The chain of events began at a neighborhood park on Oct. 11, 2009 -- Brewer's birthday.
Bent approached Brewer and demanded that Brewer buy from him a video game based on the "Little Mermaid" movie. Brewer refused and walked home, with Bent following. Once they reached the Brewer home, police say Bent tried to steal a bicycle and also stood on the street yelling threats at Brewer family members, even challenging Brewer's father to come outside and fight.
"He came to my house. He tried to take my dad's bike. He threatened me. He threatened my sister. He goes, `Don't worry, I got something for you and your friends, too,'" Brewer told police. "It was because he wanted me to buy something from him that I didn't want to buy."
Fearing retaliation, Brewer's parents notified school administrators they were keeping him home the following day. A little after school let out at 2:40 p.m., Brewer decided to walk over to a friend's house. At the same time, Bent was wheeling around the neighborhood on his bicycle. He hadn't gone to school, either.
A group of other boys including Jarvis and Mendez were walking home from school near an older, pink-colored apartment complex called Lime Tree Village when they came upon Bent. One of them, Calvin Kenny, said Bent was saying things like "who snitched on me, who got me locked up? He was, like, mad." Other boys said Bent offered them $5 each if they would punch Brewer.
Then they made a discovery that changed everything.
Sitting atop a low wall along the apartment complex's parking lot was a large, clear plastic jug a little more than half filled with liquid. Jarvis, the boy nicknamed "D.C.", picked it up, twisted off the top and several of the boys took a whiff.
"D.C. opened it and they're like, `Oh, this is rubbing alcohol -- you all smell it,'" Kenny said.
Just then the group spotted Brewer and another boy walking about half a block away. As Jarvis carried the jug, Bent rode his bike over to confront Brewer, accusing him of being a snitch and causing his arrest the day before.
"Michael was telling him, `I didn't snitch -- that was my dad and I told him to stop,'" Mendez said.
Bent also repeated his demand for $40 from Brewer. Several of the boys said Brewer agreed to eventually pay and the two of them shook hands. Brewer and another boy walked away, climbing over the low Lime Tree wall into the parking lot. Jarvis and Bent began discussing what to do with the jug of rubbing alcohol.
"That's when they're like, `We should pour it on him just to mess with him,'" Kenny told police. "I thought they would pour it on him, kind of soak him, and then run. Just to mess with him."
Most of the boys climbed the wall to follow Brewer, with Bent riding his bike around through a gate. Again they confronted Brewer. Bent was in front on his bike. Jarvis, clutching the jug of rubbing alcohol, was behind Brewer, with Mendez to one side. The other boys formed a sort of half-circle.
In Mendez's hand was a black lighter.
Several of the boys say Bent motioned for Jarvis to pour the liquid on Brewer, who described how it felt at first.
"Just cold stuff all over my clothes," he said.
Then Mendez stuck out his arm and flicked the lighter.
"It was barely close to him and it just lit. It just sparked and the sparks got him and it just lit," Mendez said. "The lighter, like, blew up in my hand, kind of."
At that moment, apartment resident Jennifer Nielsen was watching TV with her boyfriend.
"We were watching a zombie movie so that was already enough screaming. And we heard more screaming. It sounded like painful screaming," Nielsen said.
The two of them rushed outside and saw Brewer on fire and running. They yelled that he should stop, drop and roll, but he was heading for an apartment complex pool. He jumped the fence and plunged into the water.
The group of boys scattered in several directions. Jarvis dropped the empty rubbing alcohol jug into a garbage can. Brewer tore off his burning shirt, leaving a scorched area in the grass where it landed. The alcohol also ignited a small fire in some bushes. The hair was singed off one of Mendez's arms.
Nielsen ran over to where Brewer was in the pool, dialing 911 on a neighbor's cell phone. She coaxed Brewer out of the water. In the background on the call Brewer can be heard screaming in pain.
"He's 15 years old ... and, and his skin is peeling off," Nielsen told the dispatcher. "Somebody poured stuff on him."
"Please help me!" Brewer yelled over and over.
Paramedics arrived and Brewer was airlifted to a Miami hospital. It was far from certain that he would survive. Two of the boys went to check on Brewer at the pool, promising him they'd go tell his mother what happened.
"He had burnt skin everywhere," Kenny said.
Investigators quickly learned from Brewer's sister about the dispute with Bent from the day before. They found Bent, Mendez and several others from the group in the backyard of Mendez's house. Bent was arrested, followed in the coming days by Jarvis and Mendez.
Only Bent has opted to go to trial, against the advice of his former lawyer who says Bent is being unduly swayed by family members into hoping for an unrealistic outcome. Bent's new lawyer did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
"Matthew Bent still reasons like a child," the former attorney, Gordon Weekes Jr., wrote in a court filing. "Matthew Bent harbors the hopes of a child. Matthew Bent still clings to childlike dreams."
Still, University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks said it won't be a slam-dunk case for prosecutors.
"One of the things that's difficult about this case is that you actually have to show that Mr. Bent has said something. Everything turns on what he actually said, because he didn't commit any physical acts against the victim," Franks said.
Brewer has largely recovered physically from his lengthy hospitalization and rehabilitation. He and his family now live in Palm Beach County. His family did not respond to requests for comment.
Because of the widespread media coverage, potential jurors are being prescreened. Final jury selection is set to begin Monday.
The defense will likely try to shift the blame on Jarvis and Mendez.
Jarvis put the case succinctly in a brief statement to investigators.
"Lighting somebody on fire, that's pretty much trying to kill somebody," he said.
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