TAMPA — In August, Kendrick Morris' grades began to slip. He stopped showing up for football practice. Sometimes, his family couldn't find him.
After a judge's order, his 8-year-old half sister had moved in with her father. The bitter custody battle was tough on him, according to his mother, Lisa Stevens.
"Kenny started to break," she said.
Last month, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies arrested Morris, 16, and said conclusive DNA evidence linked him to two rapes — one outside the Valrico library where he frequently played computer games and studied after school.
In a lengthy, emotional interview Friday, Stevens described her son as a troubled teen who blamed himself for family problems. But she maintained his innocence.
"My son is not capable of doing that," she said.
She said her ex-boyfriend, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Steve White, had scarred Morris emotionally and physically.
Morris told child protection investigators last year that Stevens and White whipped him repeatedly with a belt. An investigator found more than 60 marks on the boy's body.
Ultimately, sheriff's officials charged Stevens, 36, with child abuse. No charges were filed against White, who has no Florida criminal record.
Stevens claimed the investigator was biased in favor of White, whom she described as a father figure to Morris for more than a decade. She said she never whipped her son, and only learned of the scars on his body when an attorney displayed photos during a courtroom hearing.
Stevens ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of contributing to the delinquency of a child.
White's attorney, Candace R. Harriman, could not be reached for comment Friday. In a statement last month, she noted that no charges had been filed against him and said "the conclusion of that matter speaks for itself."
Last week a judge awarded White full custody of their daughter. Stevens said she is fighting that decision.
Morris and his little sister were close.
On Wednesday nights, they hunted for their favorite ice cream flavors. If they couldn't find what they wanted, they made it together. On Fridays, they watched movies.
That changed in August, when a judge awarded temporary custody to White. Morris didn't see his sister for four months, Stevens said.
He kept playing the computer game World of Warcraft and reading science fiction books at the library.
But the Bloomingdale High School freshman's behavior changed, she said.
Between November and April, Stevens said she filed eight missing persons reports for her son.
Stevens has filed at least six such reports since February, sheriff's records show.
"It was hard for him to come home," Stevens said. "He would just leave the library and stay out."
A sheriff's deputy knocked on her door one of the first times Morris turned up missing. That was in October 2004, when he was arrested and charged with animal cruelty.
Witnesses told deputies they watched Morris beat a duck with a stick until it was unconscious.
Stevens said he was chasing ducks on private property, but none of the animals were injured. Morris completed 50 hours of community service in a diversion program, she said.
Morris would never harm an animal, she said. He has six pets: a gerbil, a turtle, three cats and a dog named Snowman.
Tampa attorney Dirk Weed, who represents Morris and Stevens, said media reports have been unfair to his clients.
"Both her and her son have been portrayed in a very different way. ... It's always coming from a standpoint of opposition," he said.
Sheriff's officials swiftly arrested Morris and announced the charges against him, less than 48 hours after finding an 18-year-old high school student beaten unconscious and severely injured outside the Bloomingdale Regional Library. She remained in critical condition Saturday night. The victim's family has declined requests for an interview.
Morris went to the library that night, stopped at Wal-Mart for a drink and took a cab home that night, Stevens said.
Several days later, they said DNA evidence linked him to a June sexual battery at a Clair Mel day care center.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said Friday the investigation was ongoing.
"We have enough evidence that we've connected him to both cases," she said.
Morris, who had been living with his grandmother in Valrico, is in Hillsborough's Juvenile Assessment Center on rape charges. Officials have said he will be charged as an adult in the Bloomingdale case and moved to the Orient Road Jail.
Until recently, Morris thought he had been booked for skipping school, Stevens said.
After talking with other inmates, he mentioned the accusations to his mom a week after his arrest.
Stevens declined to describe her son's reaction to the charges. But she said he had started asking questions: "The girl that got hurt, is she someone that I knew? Was she at my school?"
Stevens said she told him she didn't know.
In Friday's interview, she repeatedly blamed White for the family's problems.
The past few weeks have been difficult, she said, but business has not suffered at her Ybor City dessert and catering company. Customers, family and friends have supported her.
But as she prepared to head to another custody-related court hearing Friday, her eyes welled up with tears.
"I just realized this Mother's Day, I won't have my kids with me," she said.
Today, she said, she'll visit her son in the juvenile detention center.
Staff writers Abbie VanSickle and Tom French contributed to this report. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2454.