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Malcolm X's grandson has led a troubled, nomadic life, family friends and police say Now the boy is accused of setting a fire that injured his grandmother

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- When Malcolm Shabazz flew to San Antonio to rejoin his mother a few months ago, he and his family hoped it would be a new beginning for the boy, who had endured years of nomadic wanderings, then a two-year separation from his mother.

But as Malcolm, the 12-year-old grandson of Malcolm X, was brought into Family Court in Yonkers yesterday, accused of setting a fire that has critically injured his grandmother, it seemed that he had found not stability but chaos.

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When he arrived in Texas around the beginning of the year, his mother, Qubilah Shabazz, was newly married to a man who the police said sometimes beat her. She abused alcohol, police said, and refused to drive the boy to school.

Enraged, Malcolm attacked her in February, and police took him to a psychiatric hospital, according to police reports and interviews with family friends.

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With the promise of a new life quickly unraveling, Malcolm withdrew from school and was sent back to New York about a month ago to live with his grandmother, Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, who had cared for him before when his mother could not.

Yesterday, the boy who had once dreamed of a stable family stood accused of nearly killing one of the only stable figures in his life, his grandmother.

As Malcolm walked into court yesterday afternoon, hiding his head under a red plaid blanket, his grandmother clung to life, her body covered with burns from the fire that the police said Malcolm set deliberately outside her bedroom early Sunday.

Dr. Bruce Greenstein, the director of the burn unit at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, said Shabazz "is in a life-threatening situation and will be for a long time."

As relatives and friends kept vigil in the hospital last night, conferred by telephone and waited for Qubilah Shabazz to arrive from Texas, they outlined the most recent troubled months of a young man from a family that has suffered greatly since Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965.

"He is a child who came into a climate of tragedy," said Percy Sutton, the lawyer and longtime family friend who is representing Malcolm in court. "And he is a child who has suffered much over the years. And he is a child who needs care. It would not be in his best interest for me to describe that which he said, except to say that he said how sorry he is."

The police said the boy set the fire in a hallway outside Shabazz's bedroom in her sixth-floor apartment in Yonkers early Sunday. Shabazz, dressed in a nightgown, who had to run through the flames to escape the burning apartment, limped to the front door, opened it and collapsed in the hallway, her nightgown seared from her body.

"She seemed to say, 'My grandson,' " said Cathy O'Hara, a neighbor who found her lying there. "She kept repeating 'the bedroom.' She said that three times. My impression was that she thought he was there."

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"I said, 'Betty, you'll be OK, you'll be OK,' " O'Hara said. "Then I said the Hail Mary. I didn't know what else to say."

In court yesterday, Judge Howard Spitz adjourned Malcolm's arraignment until tomorrow at Sutton's request when Qubilah Shabazz could attend the hearing and formally retain him as her son's lawyer.

People who knew Malcolm and his family struggled yesterday to explain how the boy's life could have come so unraveled. Charles Andrews, a nephew of Sutton's and the general manager of the San Antonio radio station where Qubilah Shabazz worked, said the boy "obviously was disturbed."

"It's hard for someone with mental problems to supervise someone with mental problems," said Andrews, referring to mother and son, both of whom have been hospitalized for mental illness. "She tried real hard, but she just couldn't handle it."

Qubilah had drifted from place to place and job to job for most of her adult life, avoiding notice, until two years ago, when she was charged with trying to hire a hit man to kill Minister Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Many have suspected Farrakhan of involvement in the murder of her father, who changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz when he left the Nation of Islam and converted to orthodox Islam in the last year of his life.

Prosecutors agreed to drop the charges if she "accepted responsibility" for her actions, underwent counseling and avoided trouble. So in the fall of 1995, she went to San Antonio to remake her life. She assumed a new identity, adopting the name Karen Taylor, and got a job at Andrews' radio station.

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Her son, who had accompanied her as she wandered from city to city, was left in the care of her mother in New York for two years.

After they reunited, Malcolm and his mother clashed, and he was eventually sent back to live with his grandmother.

"She realized she was not being successful with him," Andrews said of Qubilah Shabazz. "When he was gone, she acted as if a big load had been taken off her shoulders."

Pub Date: 6/03/97



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