Sunday, September 23, 2018
Education

17-year-old charged with luring younger student from a Pinellas school, attempting sexual attack

PINELLAS PARK — The 11-year-old boy was stewing during in-school suspension when a 17-year-old fellow student passed him a note.

The older boy said the two could leave campus together and hide out. "If we go, I got money for McDonald's," Zachary Connor Wynn-Marksberry had scrawled.

The younger boy nodded, and the two left their desks and strolled out the double-doors of Pinellas Secondary School, an alternative school for grades six through 12 at 8570 66th St. N in Pinellas Park.

But instead of getting fast food, the boys scampered behind abandoned buildings and into a wooded area, where police say Wynn-Marksberry, a 255-pound, 6-foot-1 high school sophomore hugged the 73-pound sixth-grader and told him they were going to have sex. He preferred boys ages 8 to 13, he later told Pinellas Park police.

According to accounts of the Feb. 16 incident by police and the victim's mother, the boy escaped by faking an asthma attack and asked Wynn-Marksberry to let him call his mother from a nearby business.

Only later did the boy's mother find out that Wynn-Marksberry had been previously accused of sex-related crimes in 2013: one alleged assault on an autistic 8-year-old boy at Calvin A. Hunsinger School, a special needs school, and another six months later at a Hillsborough County group home.

How could it happen again? And how were the students able to leave Pinellas Secondary School?

"It's pretty shocking and disturbing," said the mother, whose name is being withheld to protect her son's identity. "I just feel really let down by the system altogether."

The day of the alleged attack, she said she knew her son was being sent to in-school-suspension, where, according to district officials, the student-to-teacher ratio was 2-to-1. He cussed out a teacher that day, and she had ignored his plea to bring him home from school early.

About two hours later, she received a call from an unfamiliar local number. It was her son, asking her again to come pick him up. This time he didn't feel well. He told her he wasn't at school, he was at a business.

The mother said her son and Wynn-Marksberry had walked into Art Works Graphics and Design to use the phone. Calls to the business were not immediately returned.

After receiving another phone call from a school guidance counselor notifying her that her son was off-campus, she received a second phone call: The principal, Darren Hammond, needed to meet with her immediately.

When she arrived, "they very vaguely explained he was lured off campus by a 'troubled' student," she recalled. Just before she left, administrators told her police were investigating a possible assault but didn't elaborate.

"Is he going to jail?" she asked, referring to her son.

No, they replied. Her son was the victim.

"Of what?"

We think a possible rape, they responded.

Hammond did not return calls for comment.

Pinellas County School District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf was unable to confirm details of the incident on Wednesday, citing student privacy.

"We want parents to know that Pinellas County schools takes safety and security of their child seriously," she said. "All of our classrooms are taught by certified and qualified staff who are trained to serve their student population."

Wolf could not confirm whether anyone at the school is under official district investigation or will face discipline. But she said the area superintendent overseeing the school, Barbara Hires, conducted her own review of the incident and concluded "all proper procedures were followed."

In 2013, after a teacher found Wynn-Marksberry in a bathroom with an 8-year-old child at Hunsinger, the then 14-year-old was placed in a pretrial diversion program at a group home in Hills­borough. Adjudication was withheld, meaning he was not formally convicted. At the group home, he molested another child in the bathroom, according to prosecutors, and was again placed in a pretrial diversion program.

Months later, Wynn-Marksberry found himself back in a Pinellas County school — Pinellas Secondary, which is designed for students with behavior problems. The 11-year-old boy came to the school two weeks before last week's alleged attack.

Wolf said the district has a legal obligation to educate every child in the county. "We work to place those children in the most appropriate school site to address their needs," she said.

The 11-year-old boy is returning to his zoned school today.

Last week, police arrested Wynn-Marksberry and charged him with lewd and lascivious conduct on a minor and interference with custody for removing the 11-year-old from school. He is currently in custody at the Pinellas Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

Elizabeth Rios, who was listed as the representative of the group home where Wynn-Marksberry was living in St. Petersburg, declined to comment. "I'm sorry, I can't discuss anything that has to do with a minor," she said.

Neither school administrators nor investigators told the 11-year-old victim's mother that her son's alleged assailant had a past. She said she pieced together his name from dropped clues and searched on the Internet. She found a Facebook post from Cheryl Brockmeier, the mother of the 8-year-old boy from Hunsinger, and contacted her.

Reached Wednesday, Brockmeier said she was "in disbelief" after hearing Wynn-Marksberry had been charged again. She regretted accepting his plea deal in her son's case, she said.

"I have to live with the guilt right now."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

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