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"Crime Boy' buries his past, now looks to the future

"Crime Boy" is dead, symbolically buried in a rock-covered grave marked by a pine cross. And good riddance.

So said Percy Campbell as he watched his dark side interred Wednesday on the grounds of the Last Chance Ranch, a rehabilitation program for violent teens who otherwise would be in prison.

The funeral, the first ever held at the ranch, was a good idea, Campbell said.

"That could have been me," he said. "I hope this is never the real thing."

Campbell, now 16, earned his "Crime Boy" sobriquet as a one-kid crime wave who terrorized his Fort Lauderdale neighborhood and racked up 57 arrests before his 13th birthday. In doing so, he became a national symbol of youth crime and the problems of coping with it.

Counselors at the Last Chance Ranch, about 20 miles west of Lake Okeechobee, were leery of taking Campbell 20 months ago. Now they think he might make it.

"He was in so much trouble when he came here we would only accept him if he agreed to stay four years," said Philip Adams, who on Wednesday left the ranch he had directed for more than four years for a similar position in Arkansas. "But now I can't think of any kid we've had in my time who has been more rewarding than Percy."

"(Percy) couldn't even talk when he came here. His vocabulary was below first grade," said Lamar Crenshaw, the ranch's program director. "Now he can speak clearly and precisely. I've never seen a kid accept a new way of thinking and living like him."

Campbell, a well-muscled power lifter who has won a half-dozen trophies in area competitions, bears little resemblance to the teenager who thought nothing of sticking a pistol in the face of a convenience store clerk, snatching a purse or stealing a car.

And he's far from the youth who once told police: "We used to go around lookin' for somebody we didn't like or someone we hated. One time this old man cussed me out . . . so when he was sleepin' we wrecked his car. I laughed so hard I fell down."

Despite the efforts of police, counselors and a church elder who took the boy under his wing, Campbell continued his terror campaign and seemed destined for a life in jail.

Campbell's mother, now serving time in a Georgia prison for murder, was 15 when he was born. He has never seen his father. His grandmother, with whom he was close, died last year of AIDS. An uncle, also in prison, taught him to steal cars when he was only 8.

Sitting at a picnic table near the weight machines he has used to sculpt an adult body, Campbell talked about his life before he was sent to the ranch, his time there and his chances for a normal life.

"I try to forget all that past stuff, but it was like a survival course," he said. "I didn't see a real end in that. That wasn't the real Percy Campbell. I don't really think like that anymore."

About the ranch: "When you first get here, you don't know what to expect. I was used to people putting me down, everybody against me. But here, when they called me dumb, I learned to take it for what it is, part the truth and part kidding. I just grew up. I feel old sometimes."

The future is not as clear, but ranch director Adams has encouraged Campbell to pursue his weightlifting.

"I'm going to try to make a living out of weightlifting. I want to be a bodybuilder," said Campbell, who easily lifts more than 300 pounds.

Adams has grown particularly close to Campbell, who now reads, writes and speaks at a seventh-grade level. Adams says he thinks Campbell has a good chance to break away from his criminal past.

"He has become a leader," Adams said. Campbell knows the Last Chance Ranch may indeed be his last chance.

"This time, it's now or never," he said. "This place kept me from getting killed. I think I have a 50-50 chance."