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Signs of trouble appeared at early age in man charged with two murders

CLEARWATER

Before he reached the second grade, Craig Wall had drowned the family kitten in the toilet, hanged his baby brother from a bunk bed, set fire to the kitchen and placed a booby trap designed to drop heavy toys onto his mother's head.

By the time he was 9, a psychiatrist confirmed what his family already knew: that Wall was "a seriously disturbed and dangerous child . . . (who) presents a serious danger to his family."

In a report dated March 5, 1985, the doctor recommended psychotherapy and offered a chilling warning: Failure to give Wall the help he needed "could, conceivably, make the difference between a treatable individual and one we may read about in the newspapers one day."

The doctor was right. In February, Wall was charged with killing his infant son, then his girlfriend. But that wasn't the first time he appeared in the paper.

His life of violence is traced in headlines.

Wall's first article in the St. Petersburg Times came just three years after the doctor made his prediction.

• • •

Parents wage fruitless battle to tame son's violence/Meet Steven, 12, a boy out of control — March 13, 1988

Steven was a pseudonym, as the article noted, to protect the identities of Wall and his family.

Published a week before Wall turned 13, the article chronicled a decade of violent outbursts and his parents' struggle to get him help.

In February 1988, Wall threatened his seventh-grade teacher with a knife after, he said, the teacher pointed it at him and another student.

"The knife was lying on the table so I went around the desk, picked up the knife and pointed it at (the teacher) and said, 'Now you did this to us and I don't like it so why don't you take your own medicine,' " Wall told a Times reporter in 1988.

Things were no better at home.

"I live in fear for the safety of my other . . . children,'' said Wall's mother, Candy Zilich. "If I ground him," she told the Times, "I might not wake up."

• • •

The psychiatrist who called Wall "disturbed and dangerous" asked his patient to draw a picture of his home and the people in it. It's a common exercise used to determine a child's intellectual maturity and detect any personality disorders.

Typically, the child places the home at the bottom of the page with some features, such as a walkway and windows. Shy children add little windows. Outgoing children add big doors.

Wall's had jail bars.

In the lower left corner of the drawing, Wall placed a head with no body labeled "Ron-Ron." That was the younger half brother he had hanged from the bunk bed and who had been saved by the last-minute intercession of their mother.

The head in the drawing was circled in light red. The face had a dark red mouth, two red teeth and black eyes with yellow centers.

• • •

Wall was born in Erie, Pa., on March 21, 1975.

His parents, who were not married, split up before he was born. When Wall was 2, his mother married Ronald Zilich Sr.

Candy Zilich said her son had a bright smile and a disposition to match, at first.

But as a toddler, he began to tense up, rocking himself back and forth.

At age 3, a new babysitter grew alarmed when Wall described sex acts he had performed with a previous sitter and asked if they would do the same.

The abuse had gone on for at least a year.

Authorities did not prosecute the first sitter after discovering she was a sexual abuse victim herself, Candy Zilich said.

The Ziliches sought help for their son. But, according to medical records provided by Wall's stepfather, they were initially rebuffed by counselors who said they needed to deal with Wall's disciplinary problems before they could begin to treat him.

Candy Zilich said she believes the sexual abuse and the subsequent lack of help from rape crisis professionals began her son's downward spiral.

By the time he was ready for elementary school, doctors had Wall on powerful medications that included lithium (to treat mania or impulse control disorders), Cylert and Ritalin (for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Valium (for anxiety) and Mellaril (an antipsychotic).

His hostility, aggression and mood swings continued.

Intelligence tests showed Wall to be a bright child, scoring above his age level. But abnormal results on a visual-motor test and an electroencephalogram hinted at possible brain dysfunction. Doctors never ordered further tests to explore that possibility, Candy Zilich said.

"(Craig) used to bump the side of his head with his hand and say, 'My mind is telling me to do bad things,' " she said.

She wonders whether the potent cocktail of drugs damaged her son's brain.

• • •

Wall's family moved to St. Petersburg in 1983, when Craig was 8.

He was enrolled in Richard L. Sanders School for severely emotionally disturbed children.

Trouble continued in his teen years, as Wall was cited with stealing at school, a gas station and a grocery store. He was arrested for pulling a false fire alarm and damaging school property.

In 1991, a judge sent Wall to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna after he set fire to the halfway house where he was living.

Soon after he was released in 1993, Wall barged into a St. Petersburg home, pointed a gun at a couple and demanded the keys to their Ford Taurus.

An inmate in a cell next to Wall's in the Pinellas County Jail testified that Wall had admitted the crime to him. Wall threatened the inmate by scrawling the message "anybody who testifies against me will be killed," according to court documents.

Wall was sentenced to 17 years in prison. While there, he was disciplined 36 times, mostly for disobeying orders, disorderly conduct and spoken threats.

By the time he was released in 2008, Wall sported numerous Aryan Nation tattoos. Family members said Wall told them he got the tattoos in prison to fit in and protect himself.

Wall spent a total of 14 years at various state prisons. During that time, not one family member came to see him.

• • •

Wall walked out of Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka on Sept. 3, 2008, and went to Tennessee, where his parents now live.

A month later, the Gallatin, Tenn., Police Department obtained a warrant for Wall's arrest, accusing him of threatening to kill his mother and his stepfather at their Gallatin home. He was not arrested.

When Wall returned to Florida is unclear, but by February 2009 he was living at Keystone Mobile Home Park in Largo.

There, he met Laura Taft, who lived down the street. She got pregnant and moved into his mobile home.

Neighbors said they often argued loudly. Marie Johnson, 56, who lived nearby, said she heard Wall tell Taft at least twice that he would kill her if she left him.

"I would slam the door," she said, "just to let him know someone was watching him."

In October 2009, the couple moved into Park Place Apartments in Clearwater.

Just after Christmas, their son was born.

The couple named him Craig Wall Jr. and called him "C.J."

• • •

Month-old infant stops breathing Feb. 6, 2010

On Feb. 5, an ambulance responded to Park Place Apartments and raced C.J. to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Detectives spent the afternoon removing evidence from the apartment. As Taft rushed to be by her son's side, Wall was questioned by Clearwater police.

Wall told a detective he didn't know how C.J. was injured, but acknowledged it happened while he was watching him.

"Whether or not he has a brain injury, then it's my fault . . . I don't know what happened. I told you what happened. I don't know. I don't know what happened," he told the detective.

"I f------ killed my son," he said.

The statements, Clearwater police said, did not amount to a confession.

On Feb. 6, Wall updated his MySpace page, username "kriegaryan:

"my son died at 5wks. old. i am dying," he said. "i lost everythig."

The headlines now came in quick succession.

• • •

Infant dies, police continue investigation — Feb. 9, 2010

An autopsy report showed that Craig Wall Jr. suffered broken ribs and swelling to his brain, injuries consistent with being thrown hard onto a soft surface.

On Feb. 8, two days after C.J.'s death, Taft got a restraining order against Wall, saying he had threatened to kill her if she left him.

The order required Wall to stay away from Taft. He started sleeping in his pickup in a Walmart parking lot.

On Feb. 14, Taft gathered with family and friends at a church in Largo to say goodbye to C.J. Wall showed up and was jailed for violating the restraining order.

At a hearing the next morning, the assistant state attorney assigned to the case never mentioned that Wall was a suspect in the death of his son, even though police had noted that fact in the arrest affidavit.

He was released later that day.

• • •

Father a suspect in death Feb. 17, 2010

As that story came off the press, Wall was at Taft's new apartment.

Police say about 3:20 that morning, he kicked in a sliding glass door and plunged a knife 4 inches into her chest.

A neighbor found Taft, 29, just outside her front door, a broken blade protruding from her shoulder.

Brutal death for baby, then mom

That headline ran Feb. 18, followed eight days later by:

Man indicted in double killing

A grand jury indicted Wall on two counts of first-degree murder. The state will seek the death penalty.

For Wall, the next headlines will likely report the legal maneuvering leading up to his trial.

That proceeding may, or may not, address the question of what turned Wall from a happy, bright-faced toddler into a man accused of murder. Wall, now 35, would not address that issue, or anything else, with the Times.

Candy Zilich said she thinks his problems began with the babysitter's assault all those years ago, a lack of prompt treatment for the sexual abuse and the effects of strong prescription drugs.

The Times asked the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of South Florida to review Wall's medical history.

Dr. Michael Bengtson doesn't necessarily agree with Wall's childhood psychotherapists, who thought his problems began with the babysitter.

"To say all this is because of sexual abuse is not correct," Bengtson said. Intensive psychotherapy or medication would not have worked for Wall, though he received "reasonable care."

"We don't have any kind of treatments for this," he said. "Even though we know the diagnosis it doesn't mean we can cure it."

Wall, Bengtson said, exhibits traits of a psychopath. It appears, he said, as though he does not have remorse."I think he probably didn't have it when he was born."

Wall is "a little bit of a bad seed," Bengtson concluded.

Ron Zilich, the half brother Wall tried to kill three decades ago, offers much the same interpretation.

"He's psycho," Zilich said. "He's a bad person. He's just a person who no matter what could never be right.''

Times researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds and Shirl Kennedy and Times staff writer Mimi Andelman contributed to this report.

About this story

This story was based on court, police and medical records, interviews with Wall's family and medical professionals, and newspaper reports. Craig Wall refused to comment.

Signs of trouble appeared at early age in man charged with two murders 07/23/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 25, 2010 1:25pm]
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