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Family, thankful to be alive, recuperating from shootings

A 10-year-old Georgia girl, a bullet above her heart and her mouth scarred by a gunshot wound, thanked the Lord on Saturday for sparing her family's lives from a barrage of bullets unleashed by teenagers who barged into their motel room.

Vicki Smith of Hinesville, Ga., was in stable condition at Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando. She was shot twice during a Thursday night rampage by teenagers in eastern Polk County.

The girl was in town for an annual family reunion when the attack occurred at a Haines City motel Thursday night. Detectives said it was the final act in a series of botched robberies and failed carjackings that killed two and injured seven, including five members of Vicki's family.

The girl, in a hospital gown and attached to a heart monitor, was overcome during a Saturday afternoon news conference and couldn't hold back the tears or finish her short statement.

"I want to thank my Savior Jesus Christ for being with me and my family," she said. Then, her father, Dale Smith, took over the reading: "Granny, if you see this, we're okay. Be home soon. Love, Vicki."

The beeps on the heart monitor were audible in the conference room and speeded up noticeably as Vicki tried to compose herself.

Hospital spokesman Joe Brown said Vicki, with a stitched upper lip where two teeth were struck by a bullet, was responding to treatment and may be able to go home during the week.

Another bullet will remain lodged near her pulmonary artery because doctors believe it is stable and embedded in soft tissue.

The three teenagers charged with murder and attempted murder in the attacks appeared in court Saturday morning. They will be held without bail while the State Attorney's Office seeks a grand jury indictment charging them as adults.

Sylathum Antwan Streeter, 16, of Dundee; Victor Lester, 17, of Haines City; and Curtis Shuler, 16, of Haines City were arrested early Friday.

All three are charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Streeter and Lester are charged with seven other counts of attempted murder and Shuler with two other counts of attempted murder. Detectives said Shuler was not at the motel when the Smith family was attacked.

Detectives believe the spree began last Sunday when Larry Steven Tyler, 32, was shot and killed near Haines City Sunday night during a botched carjacking.

On Thursday night during an hourlong shooting rampage through three Polk County communities, Kristina "Kristi" Large, 20, of Lake Alfred in Polk County, was killed, deputies said, when one or more of the three teens opened fire on her and two friends in a car during what detectives said was another failed carjacking.

Just before Large was killed, another woman was shot as she stepped from her car to retrieve mail from her Davenport mailbox. She was not seriously injured.

All three teen defendants have been previously arrested for juvenile crimes. John Joyce, a spokesman for the state Department of Juvenile Justice, said Shuler and Streeter are on juvenile probation.

They had caseworkers who would check on them periodically to make sure they were going to school and keeping out of trouble.

Shuler has a record of aggravated assault charges, burglary and petty larceny. Joyce said he did not know the disposition of the charges. "They may have been dropped or mitigated," Joyce said. "But he obviously had enough that a judge felt he needed to be on community control."

Streeter had two references on his juvenile record: a charge of assault and battery that was not adjudicated, and an undefined felony for which he was placed on community control.

Lester had also been on probation for a grand larceny charge in 1995. Joyce said he was released after completing the terms of the probation.

Frances McMichael, spokeswoman for Polk County schools, said Shuler had recently been assigned to a school program for students with discipline problems. But, she said, the teens' academic and school disciplinary records are unremarkable, particularly as compared with other students who wind up in serious trouble.

Descriptions of the three from their classmates at Haines City High were mixed.

Sophomore Quentin Johnson said he knew all three of the arrested students and had been around them earlier in the week.

"I can't believe they'd do this out of the blue, because they were all cool and calm Wednesday," he said.

He added that Shuler was a person who would not back down if challenged. Fellow sophomore Beatriz Morales also said Shuler was aggressive. "He liked to start fights," she said.

Student Stephen Owen said he knew Streeter and described him as "a nice guy. It's hard to believe he could do something like this."

Rev. Anthony Lawrence of Faith Church of the Nazarene in Bartow, who visited the three Saturday, said Lester "just broke down and cried." Shuler came close to tears, said Lawrence, while Streeter remained silent.

Of those injured, Vicki Smith and her uncle, Edward Moody, 61, were the most seriously hurt.

Moody was in stable condition in surgical intensive care at Lakeland Regional Memorial Hospital on Saturday. The other three family members who were wounded had been released earlier.

Moody, partly paralyzed from a cerebral hemorrhage several years ago, was shot in the chest and neck when he answered a knock on the door of the family's motel room. He had just checked into the motel and was expecting his brother, Earl.

_ The Ledger in Lakeland and Times Staff Writer Janet Marshall contributed to this report.

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