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Boy's death grieves N.Y. town arrest is even more shocking Teen's confession stuns neighbors

SAVONA, N.Y. — SAVONA, N.Y. -- The street is lined with maple trees and 15 homes. There is a town hall near one corner, a church on the other, and at the dead end, an elementary school to the left and a recreation park to the right.

It's safe here, isn't it? Safe enough for a mother to send her child off alone on McCoy Street for a morning of organized play?

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But on Aug. 2, Derrick Robie, a blond-haired, blue-eyed 4-year-old, picked up his brown-bag lunch, hugged and kissed his mother, Doreen, goodbye, walked out the door and never came back.

He was found a half-block from his home, under a clump of bushes and trees, at the back end of a vacant lot no larger than half a football field.

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He was beaten with a blunt object and choked.

For a week, the 940 residents of this rural community, tucked into the lush, undulating hills of New York's southern tier, lived in fear as state troopers zealously pursued the case.

They wanted the killer bad. Real bad.

But what they discovered shook them all.

The person who confessed to the killing was neither a parolee nor a pedophile nor an outsider.

He was one of their own, a red-haired, freckle-faced 13-year-old boy named Eric Smith.

"You had so much hatred for this person for a week, and then you find out that it's a 13-year-old boy, who lived three houses down from you," said Michael Sweet, the town's part-time mayor. "What can you say? What could drive someone to do that? But you keep in the back of your mind that even a boy is responsible."

The villagers are still attempting to come to terms with a killing that remains, to most, incomprehensible.

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How could one boy kill another in broad daylight, so close to a school, a park, a town hall and homes?

"It was a totally random event," said Lt. Mark Fischer, a criminal investigator for the New York State Police. "It could have been any child. You can't help but think what that poor little guy was thinking of during his last few moments on Earth."

And the motive was apparently as senseless as the crime itself.

Before being charged with second-degree murder, Eric was asked by investigators how he felt when he left his home the morning of the killing.

In a matter-of-fact tone, he answered, "I wanted to hurt somebody."

And, by his own account, he did.

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One beloved, one isolated

They lived on opposite ends of town. Their families belonged to the same church. They played in the same recreation program. They knew one another, but were not friends.

Derrick was beloved.

Eric was a loner.

Derrick enjoyed playing T-ball and kickball. When his dad, Dale, was outside their stone home attached to the Church of the Good Shepherd, Derrick was usually nearby, handing him tools or pushing his toy lawn mower.

He was fearless. Two months short of 5, he was already swimming alone at a nearby lake and riding a bicycle without training wheels.

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"Derrick was a feisty, friendly little boy," said the Rev. Neil Strong of Savona Federated Church. "He'd wave hello to everyone. He would go nonstop through a day. He was all boy."

Eric was an enigma, held back in fourth grade, described as either cocky or shy, a bully or a sweetheart. He read Stephen King novels, listened to Garth Brooks tapes, played with G.I. Joe dolls and was a drummer in a school band.

He lived in a gray house, an old washing machine on its new front porch, with his stepfather, Ted, mother, Tammy, and two sisters.

He was often seen riding around town on his BMX bicycle. Usually, he was alone. There was one other thing everyone remembered about Eric: his glasses. They were wire-rim aviators held together by a clump of tape at the bridge.

"He is a very polite kid," said Laurie Elliott, who owns the Savona Diner with her husband, Roy. "He'd always smile. Once, he cleaned my house after I gave him some ice cream. There was no toughness about him."

The Elliotts took their 10-year-old son Bradley and Eric on a Memorial Day vacation to Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa. The kids played together. Rode the rides together. And when the Elliotts bought Eric a Harley Davidson T-shirt, he wore it for a week straight.

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"Eric is a nice kid," Bradley said. "I don't like it if people look at him like he's a bad kid."

But Bradley's parents remain mystified, yet angered, by the news of the last few days.

"I feel sorry for Eric, in a way," Mrs. Elliott said. "He needs help."

"The further you get from the murder, the more lenient you feel about it," Mr. Elliott said. "There are still some unanswered things."

"But the brutality, . . . " Mrs. Elliott said. "Eric was the least likely suspect."

Death in six minutes

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MA Aug. 2 broke gray and threatening in Savona. There was a good

chance of rain, which would have forced town officials to cancel the daily recreation program that drew nearly 100 children.

But the rain held up.

Derrick left his home at 9:10 a.m. Normally, his mother would stand on the sidewalk and watch him walk nearly each step of the way to the park. On this morning, though, Derrick's 18-month-old brother Dalton was irritable, so Mrs. Robie stayed inside to calm the toddler.

Five minutes later, Bill Horn, the recreation supervisor, drove by and waved to Derrick. He would be the last person, other than his killer, to see Derrick alive.

According to the New York State Police, this is what happened next.

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Eric had ridden his BMX bicycle from the park to the vacant lot, where he spotted Derrick. Twice, he told Derrick that he knew a shortcut to the park. And twice, Derrick declined to follow the boy. But the third time, Eric convinced Derrick to take the shortcut.

After reaching the woods, according to police, Eric picked up an object and bludgeoned Derrick to death. He also strangled him. The encounter took less than six minutes.

Eric rode off to the recreation program, arriving sometime near the 9:30 a.m. start.

Forty-five minutes later, a thunderstorm burst over Savona, and the recreation program was canceled. Mrs. Robie drove to the park to pick up her son, but when he wasn't there, she began to frantically search for him.

Within an hour, kids on bicycles were scouring the neighborhoods, volunteer firefighters were on the streets with a bullhorn shouting Derrick's name, and housewives were going door to door in a search for the missing child.

By 3 p.m., state troopers were pouring in by the dozens, in cars and helicopters. Twenty minutes later, a woman's scream cut through the air. A local couple had found Derrick's body in the area that kids called "the fort."

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As men and women came back from their jobs in nearby Corning, they were met by dozens of people with mud on their clothes and tears in their eyes.

Derrick Robie, one of their own, was dead.

Where was God?'

For nearly a week after the murder, the residents of Savona were gripped with equal measures of rage, sadness and fear as the investigation unfolded.

State troopers set up a command post at the town hall so they couldinterview every man, woman and child in town.

There was a run on padlocks at the local hardware store.

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And parents kept children off the streets.

"Before this, Savona was a very calm, unsuspecting town," said Wayne Beardsley, the Campbell-Savona elementary school principal. "All of that changed."

More than 700 people turned out for Derrick's wake, the mourners shuffling past the open white casket, a baseball glove tucked beside the child, a teddy bear lying on a nearby table.

"You could see in his face the pain he must have gone through," Mr. Sweet said.

They buried Derrick on a Saturday in the rain. Pastor Strong told the mourners, "The real question is, where was God? The answer to that is, God was with Derrick, that his heart broke and then a part of him died when Derrick died."

Meanwhile, the state troopers worked around the clock. They combed the site with metal detectors and laser equipment. They consulted with psychologists. They poured over evidence at three crime labs. And they logged more than 500 leads and interviews in a computer data base.

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And they quickly concluded that only a resident could have committed the crime.

"You just kept asking yourself, 'How in the hell does this little boy get in this spot and no one sees it?' " Lieutenant Fischer said. "People would have noticed an outsider, an old man. But another kid? People just don't notice other kids running around."

Eric was among the first children interviewed. Initially, he told investigators that he had not seen Derrick. But in a subsequent ** interview with investigators, he said he saw the 4-year-old. A family member was troubled by the inconsistencies and arranged for Eric to be brought to the Steuben County district attorney's office for one last interview at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 8.

By 5 the next morning, Eric had confessed to the killing and was charged as an adult with second-degree murder, a crime that could bring a minimum sentence of five years to life, and a maximum of nine years to life.

At a noon news conference at the Savona town hall, state troopers announced the arrest to a stunned community. Doreen Robie also spoke.

"It is now time for us to start over as our 1 1/2 -year-old son does not understand why his brother isn't riding next to him in the car, or eating cereal with him in the morning," she said.

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"We will stay in the community, but not on this street. Savona now means more than just a town as we have felt every teardrop on our shoulders of mourners for our son."

Troopers wiped away tears. The town sought to move on.

'A double tragedy'

Three weeks have passed since the murder, but there is no sense that normalcy has returned to Savona.

There have been other tragedies here before. A murder-suicide. Two teens killed by a drunken driver. A child suffocated in a snowbank. A tractor accident that took the life of a promising high school senior. But nothing like this had ever before hit Savona.

"All the parents were Derrick's parents," Pastor Strong said. "They look at this murder, that 'It could have been my child.' They won't let it happen again."

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Each day, delivery people pile up flowers outside the Robies' home. Derrick's toy lawn mower is still in the driveway.

Across town, at the Smiths', they have taken down the Christmas lights that once adorned the house. The shades are drawn. Through their attorney, they have declined to speak.

The recreation program is finished for the summer. The kids are back on the streets, riding bicycles or just walking to and from the town's only grocery store. But some of the children wear whistles around their necks, ready to call for help if a stranger approaches.

"We choose to live in a small town so we don't have the violence and crime," said Tom Spart, owner of the local hardware store. "And here we are, facing a murder, committed not by some stranger, but by someone who lives here."

Publicity about the case has mushroomed. This is a killing that resonates throughout the country -- and the world. The mayor has received calls from newspapers in Japan, Australia and Germany. The Robies have been contacted by producers representing Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Maury Povich and the TV news magazine "48 Hours." So far, they have granted only one broadcast interview, to "Inside Edition."

"It's the kind of case you see on the morning talk shows," Mr.

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Sweet said. "Let's face it: This is a double tragedy."

Eric is housed with some 40 juvenile offenders at the Monroe County Department of Social Services detention center, three miles south of Rochester.

He has his own room with a bed, desk, chair, toilet and closet. He can meet with teachers.

Since his arrest, he has left the facility once, appearing for four minutes at an Aug. 11 court proceeding in nearby Bath.

As he was led handcuffed and expressionless to a waiting car, members of his family yelled out, "I love you." He was last seen publicly inside the moving car, reaching for his parents.

On the journey back to the detention center, he asked one of the investigators: "So, do you think I'll be home next week?"


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