LARGO — The judge sat on her bench Tuesday, looking at five young men.
They were slight in stature with scared faces, none older than 18. They were guilty. They were ashamed and sorry.
Circuit Judge Chris Helinger had taken a week to reach her decision. She read every court document and psychological assessment and letter from friends and relatives multiple times. She spread the photos over her kitchen table.
She thought about her own children. She thought of these teens, who had more life advantages than the criminals who normally cycle through her courtroom. Why did they do what they did?
She thought of every possible way this could end.
"I think this may be the most painful case I've had since I've been here," said Helinger, who has been serving in the Pinellas criminal courthouse for more than a year. "I cannot tell you how many hours — and that is my job — I have spent sifting through in my mind what is the right thing to have happen in this case."
• • •
Over two nights in January and February, the teens filled IBC root beer and Orange Crush bottles with gasoline. They put wicks in the bottles and lit them.
They launched them at random cars and homes throughout Pinellas County. They threw bricks, slashed tires and shattered windows with baseball bats. Sometimes, the firebombs exploded in homes where people slept.
Victims — at least 25 — lost their transportation to work, church, school. Some moved. Some said they still wake at night, afraid of flames bursting through the door. St. Petersburg firefighters called the second night, Feb. 1, their busiest night since the 1996 riots. In all, 70 police officers worked the cases.
The teens are Mathew Kiernan, 17, Francis Du, 17, Alain Nguyen, 18, Tan Tran, 17, and Quoc Lam, 18. On the second night, Kiernan dropped his wallet at a crime scene. That's how they were caught.
In a plea agreement to give them juvenile status, the teens pleaded guilty to dozens of felony charges. The week before Helinger decided their sentences, she heard directly from them.
Du: "I regret my actions every day, but I'm thankful for everything I've been through because it has been a life-changing experience."
Lam: "We can replace your damaged property, but we can't give back the feeling of safety in your own homes."
Tran: "I know we all make mistakes in life. It's how we learn from them that defines us."
Kiernan: "There's no one reason I can give to justify the things I decided to do."
They were good boys, family members told the judge, with some baggage.
Lam, who participated only on the second night, was an honor roll student and wrestling captain at Lakewood High. His father was absent, and Lam took on the role. He got depressed after a wrestling injury, but had been accepted to three colleges.
Nguyen, who went to Robinson High in Tampa, cried over what he had done. As the oldest, he was ashamed he didn't show leadership. Tran, who went to St. Petersburg High with Kiernan and Du, had a passive personality, but went to a youth group and enjoyed basketball. Du struggled in school, but his cousin wrote the court saying he had goals.
Kiernan's sister, Elizabeth Kiernan, called her brother a bright, respectful people pleaser who thought about becoming a nurse. Before his father died in 2005, Kiernan would walk to the local McDonald's to buy cheeseburgers for his sick father.
"Mathew, along with the rest of us siblings, was forced to grow up a little faster," his sister said in court.
But everyone has struggles, Helinger said. Why would they do something this extreme?
They said it was fun. They were bored. They started by throwing eggs. It progressed from there. They weren't drunk or high, they said.
Psychologists who testified pointed to adrenaline rush, but also the power of group think. No one wanted to defect for fear of becoming an outcast.
In a way, they were looking for approval.
• • •
Helinger considered the victims' wishes. Some asked for the maximum of six years in prison. Some wanted more. Some considered the teens dangerous. Some wanted them to get counseling. Some simply wanted money for their damaged things.
One woman thought the teens were very angry inside.
Helinger thought about their potential, and the need for consequences. "What does it all mean?" she said. "You have to look at it in the big picture."
She sentenced Kiernan, the group leader, to three years in prison and three years of probation.
Du, Tran and Nguyen received two years in prison and four years of probation. Lam received one year in prison and six years of probation. She withheld adjudication for Lam, sparing him from being a convicted criminal. She ordered him to get therapy and do community service.
They'll be treated as youthful offenders. They must pay back their victims.
The teens aren't bad people, Helinger told them. They have potential to redeem themselves after prison.
But it won't be easy.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.