Unfortunate Son 

He killed his father. Now a 13-year-old boy straddles the thin line between self-defense and retribution.

The call came in about 20 minutes after noon on a sunny June day. Cedric Johns and Michael Eddie, veteran Cleveland paramedics, had just completed a hospital run when dispatch crackled over the radio: "Unknown medalert at 3369 East 145th."

Minutes later, as Johns and Eddie sped toward the address, a second message came over the radio: "Possible shooting at 3369 East 145th." Both men had been to plenty of shooting scenes in their time on the job. They usually arrived to find a chaotic, gruesome mess. But as they turned their ambulance onto East 145th, it was oddly quiet.

All they could see was a young man, sitting alone on the porch. He was tall and skinny. Johns placed him at 13, maybe 14 years old.

"What's going on here?" he asked as the young man approached.

The boy calmly told him that the shooting was at another house, six blocks away, in Shaker Heights.

"Do you know who got shot?" Johns asked.

"Yeah, my dad is shot in the head."

Johns was taken back. The kid didn't look as if he'd been anywhere near a shooting. There were no obvious marks, no signs he'd been in a struggle. The only thing Johns noticed was the boy's odd bearing. He was eerily calm, even nonchalant. Months later, Johns still struggled to put his finger on it: "It just seemed like he had a sad disposition."

"You saw your father shot?" Johns asked incredulously. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," the boy said slowly. "Me and my father didn't really get along. He was mean to me."

As Johns stood on the porch, looking the boy over, trying to process what he was saying, a question kept bouncing around inside his head.

"Did you shoot your father?"

Six blocks away, Shaker Heights police soon found the body of 40-year-old Gregory Scruggs Sr. on the second floor of his small green house on Milverton Road.

Clad in a white Browns jersey and gray sweatpants, Scruggs lay slumped in a chair at the dining room table, a half-eaten sandwich before him. His head leaned to one side, an eye still open. He had been shot in the back of the head with a single .38 caliber bullet. Death, the county coroner would later rule, had been instantaneous.

Gregory Scruggs Jr. was immediately taken into custody. He would tell almost everyone he saw that day -- his cousin Lavelle, paramedics Johns and Eddie, the cops who drove him to Shaker police headquarters -- the one thing nobody wanted to believe: He had killed his own father.

The murder attracted no small bit of attention, for it was a story that touched on the ultimate act of childhood rebellion: parricide. And as the public tried to grasp why a 13-year-old would kill the man who'd been the only parent he'd ever really known, two competing narratives quickly emerged.

To many of his friends, neighbors, and colleagues, Greg Scruggs Sr. was a strict but loving man, a single father who had done his best to raise a deeply troubled son. "He could win the father-of-the-year award, as far as I'm concerned," a friend told The Plain Dealer not long after the shooting. "He was a quiet, dedicated parent." If Greg Sr. had been stern with his boy, it was only because he cared, because Greg Jr. had spun so out of control.

But to others, including some of Scruggs's closest relatives, the shooting was years in the making, the result of a lifetime of physical and psychological abuse piled upon Greg Jr. for transgressions high and low, real and imagined. As the boy would tell his mother after the shooting: "I feel bad that I did it, but I'm glad I don't have to live with him anymore."

On October 16, Gregory Scruggs Jr. went on trial in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court on charges of aggravated murder and murder. After years of abuse, the boy escaped his father's control the only way he could, his attorneys argued. The shooting was an act of self-defense. "He was trying to alleviate his suffering," said public defender Anthony Kellon in his opening statement. "Sometimes the taking of a life is justified . . . This was such a time."

Unlike most murder cases, however, this trial wasn't about the who, how, or even why the killing occurred. Those questions were never really in doubt: On June 9, sometime between 11:30 a.m. and noon, Gregory Scruggs Jr. believed he was about to get another beating, so he put a bullet in the back of his father's head.

No, this case was about a far murkier question: Where does the instinct for survival stop and the taste for retribution begin?

Gregory Scruggs Sr. cast a long shadow over his only son's trial. Though it was Greg Jr.'s fate being decided, it was Gregory Scruggs Sr.'s life being judged.

He was 26 when he met Nafia Matthews. They were standing in line at a check-cashing store on Kinsman. She dropped her ID. He picked it up. They made small talk. Intrigued, he followed her home.

It's not hard to imagine Matthews's attraction. Greg's life seemed to have all the things hers lacked. She was 19 and already a mother. He, in turn, was smart and athletic, had gone to college and had a good job. "It seemed like he had it together," she says.

But their romance was never that serious. She didn't know his friends. He never took her around to meet his family. They never even talked on the phone. "It was never like, 'That's my man,'" she says. "I wanted it to go further, but after I got pregnant, his whole attitude changed. He stopped coming around."

About a month before the baby was due, Scruggs reappeared. He started stopping by her small apartment off Shaker Boulevard. Soon, he was spending more time at her place than he was at home. Before long, they were living together.

On January 31, 1988, she delivered a healthy baby boy. She named him Gregory Junior, but everyone called him Little Greg. His father, however, refused to sign the birth certificate. "He acted like he didn't know for sure if it was his child," remembers Arlene Smith, a friend of Matthews. "He said something like 'Ain't no bitch going to be taking me for child support.'"

Yet his attitude would quickly change. Fatherhood, his friends soon realized, had a profound effect on Scruggs. He began to limit his nights on the town. He spent money more prudently. "He just got more mature, more reserved and responsible," recalled Darren Clayton, a friend of Greg Sr.'s since childhood.

But there was also a downside to his focus on Greg Jr. He became stubborn and possessive, controlling to the point of cruelty, constantly badgering Matthews about her care for his son. "He would always demean her about the way she was taking care of the baby," says Smith. "If she caught the bus somewhere with the baby, it was like that was beneath his son, being on the bus."

Says Matthews: "As far as he was concerned, I couldn't do anything right."

A few months after the baby was born, Matthews wanted to return to work, but she was worried about medical insurance. When she quit her job, she started receiving welfare. As long as she was getting assistance, Greg Jr. had health coverage. That might not be the case if she went back to work.

Greg Sr. proposed a solution. He could put the baby on health insurance he got through his UPS job. But there was a hitch: Because his name wasn't on the baby's birth certificate, he said, he'd need a notarized statement saying he had custody of the child.

A few weeks later, the couple went to see Greg Sr.'s lawyer, who had Matthews sign a custody document. It was an easy way to get the baby medical insurance, but she would immediately regret the decision. As they walked out, Greg turned to her. "If you want to see Little Greg," he told her, "you're going to have to make arrangements with me." Then he left without her.

The next day, Matthews showed up at the house they shared on East 83rd. When she tried to enter, Greg shut the door. She called police. All she wanted was to retrieve her clothes and her baby, she told the cops. But when police went to get her things, they found nothing. Her stuff had been removed. When the cops asked about the baby, Greg Sr. showed them the legal papers. "I looked like a damned idiot," Matthews says.

She moved in with her mother and saw Greg Jr. as much as she could over the next few years. But visits were always on Greg Sr.'s terms. He would call, and she would have to drop whatever she was doing. Even worse, she claims, were the times he forced her to perform sex just to see her son.

By the time the baby was three, the hassle, the fights, and the humiliation were too much, she says. "I just couldn't do it anymore."

In a case that constantly tugs between perception and reality -- between what people thought and what they knew -- there's one thing that's hard for Greg Sr.'s friends to reconcile: He seemed like such a great father.

Actually, he seemed like more. At a time when a lot of African American kids grow up without male role models, he seemed a paean to responsible living. In his 30s, he had become a substitute teacher in the Cleveland schools. He owned his own home. He didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't do drugs. He had never been in trouble with the law. "He was a person with his morals together," said Floyd Arrington, a friend since childhood. "He came from a good background. He was a spiritual person. He was just . . . a hell of a guy."

He was also devoted to Greg Jr., his friends say, taking him to Indians, Rockers, and Browns games. He enrolled him in judo. He helped coach his baseball team. He took him to the library, the zoo, the Metroparks. As Clayton said: "He was always taking the little man somewhere."

But he also had very clear expectations of his son. "He wanted him to be a good student, a good citizen, and he wanted him to be successful in life," said Arrington.

And nowhere were these expectations more important than in education. Greg Sr. would preach the virtues of learning to those he barely knew. "I could tell he was really strict on education," said Tonya Stevens, who occupied the first floor of Scruggs's Milverton Road triplex. "He made sure to let me know that education was the most important thing in life."

In time, it would become an endless source of conflict between father and son. For all Dad's entreaties, Greg Jr. constantly struggled in the classroom. As early as third grade, his teachers noted how he seldom did homework, how he seemed determined to languish.

The problems grew as he did. As a fifth-grader at Shaker's Woodbury School, it took him longer to finish assignments than anyone in class, a teacher later told police. Most of the time, he didn't complete assignments at all.

His schoolwork was only part of the problem. As Greg Jr. got older, his behavior became increasingly troublesome. Socially awkward, emotionally immature, he struggled year after year just to get along with his peers. "It's an unusual thing for a third-grader to cry as much as Greg did," one teacher recalled. "The kids liked him, but he never developed any friendships with any of them."

Indeed, throughout elementary school, teachers noted how Greg Jr. didn't fit in, how he seemed unable to relate to other kids. His behavior often veered from one extreme to another, from meek to profane with no stop in between.

Once, in fifth grade, he got in trouble for bringing a wooden cube to school. On each side he had written sexual remarks. This was typical. In accounts of his behavior over the last several years, sex and vulgarity are common themes. He brought pornography to school. He wrote nasty letters. He propositioned classmates of both sexes. He pissed in and on everything that didn't move: in a locker, on a radiator, in a fish tank.

Over one six-week period in 1998, one of Greg Jr.'s teachers documented a dozen misdeeds -- everything from disobeying directions to fighting to downloading porn on the school's computer.

"He was obviously a disturbed boy," the teacher told police.

By the time Greg reached sixth grade, that view was becoming consensus. It was clear he needed psychological help. In November 1998, Greg Sr. was called to Woodbury Elementary to discuss getting his son counseling. At first, the father agreed, a teacher would recall. But two weeks later, he called to revoke permission. Instead, he told school officials that he would retain his own psychologist.

To his friends, Greg Sr. simply wanted his son to succeed. He knew his child had problems, but he didn't want him labeled -- stuck in an environment where he would never reach his potential.

"Big Greg was definitely concerned about the Shaker system wanting to put his son in a behavioral atmosphere," Clayton recalled. "He was concerned he wouldn't be able to get the academics he needed."

But as his son continued to have problems, Greg Sr. ran out of options. He reached out to colleagues in the Cleveland school system, asking about psychologists. He tried to punish Greg Jr. by taking away his video games, banning him from television or going outside. Sometimes he had Clayton, a security guard at Alexander Hamilton Middle School, sit down with the boy. He conferred with Khalid Samad, who runs Peace in the Hood, a faith-based anti-violence group that deals with young men.

"I saw him to be someone really concerned about his son," says Samad. "He may have been kind of rigid in his perspective on certain things . . . [but] that was because of the fear he had about what could happen to his son if he became part of the system."

Greg Sr. moved his son from school to school, hoping to find a situation in which he would thrive. During the last school year alone, Greg Jr. attended four schools. By year's end, he was back where he started, at Shaker Middle School.

But this, too, wasn't to last. At the end of April, Greg Jr. was accused of urinating in a fish tank during study hall. He told his father he didn't do it, but it mattered little. Days later, he was suspended for fighting and recommended for expulsion.

A week after that, he was in the Juvenile Detention Center, accused of killing his father.

In the spring of 1997, Nafia Matthews was working at a day-care center on Cleveland's East Side when one of her students asked if Matthews had ever been married to her uncle.

Matthews soon realized the little girl was Greg Sr.'s niece. She asked the girl about her son. For almost six years, Matthews had only sporadic contact with Greg Jr., usually over the phone. During that time, her life had changed dramatically. She had been in a long-term relationship and had given birth to another son.

The girl's answer, however, wasn't what Matthews expected to hear: Some people were going to take Greg away, she said, because his dad hit him real hard.

Over the next few days, Matthews tried to contact the Department of Children and Family Services to find out what, if anything, had happened. Her efforts were futile, but the exercise sparked her determination. She wanted to renew contact with her son.

That spring, her attorney submitted a motion to reestablish visitation. Two months later, a judge ruled that Matthews could see Greg Jr. every other Sunday at the Shaker Heights Library. If everything went well, he could eventually visit her home.

For a while, the visits did go well. Greg Jr. got to meet his half-brother. He and Matthews got to know one another again, and he started to open up. "It wasn't like it was normal, but he started to get comfortable," says Matthews.

But Greg Sr.'s behavior was souring the situation. Under the court's order, he was supposed to drop Greg Jr. off. He never did. Every week, he would hover off to the side, watching mother and son as they talked. "He wasn't supposed to come," says Arlene Smith, who often showed up to support Matthews, "but he came to every visit."

And he wasn't content to just watch. "When we played," remembers Matthews, "Greg would stand off to the side, screaming at Greg Jr., 'Hit the ball like I told you.'"

Still, Matthews was happy. Things were going well. By late fall, she felt comfortable enough to ask her son the question that had been bugging her for six months.

One Sunday, as they sat outside the library talking, she finally got the nerve: "Is your dad smacking you?"

"No," he said, looking over her shoulder, directly at his father.

Matthews's worries stemmed from more than the words of Greg's small cousin. When her son was just a few months old and she was still living with Greg Sr., they moved from her apartment off Shaker Boulevard to a house on East 83rd. There, Greg Sr.'s repertoire of abuse expanded from verbal to physical. He'd call her a "stupid-ass fuck" and throw her against the wall, she says. One time when he hit her, her face snapped against the corner of a wall. The next morning, she woke up with two black eyes.

In the weeks after she'd get a beating, she'd walk everywhere, too scared to ask friends and family for rides, fearful they'd notice the bruises. When Smith came over, Matthews would keep the lights off so she wouldn't see the marks. "She kept it a secret for a while, but when she started walking [from East 83rd] to Harvard, I knew then that something was going on," says Smith.

In the years since she'd split with Greg Sr., Matthews wasn't the only one to worry about her son. In 1995, not long after father and son moved to the house on Milverton Road, Greg Jr. started third grade at Onaway Elementary. Almost immediately, he had problems. He often failed to complete his homework -- a situation that often resulted in his teacher, Julie Artale, calling Greg Sr. A familiar routine developed. Greg Sr. would come to the school to speak to Artale. They would discuss his son's homework. The father would assure her the work would get done. It never did.

Soon, each time Artale told Greg Jr. she was going to contact his father, he would break down crying.

That's when she started to notice the bruises.

Whenever she called the boy's father, Artale realized, she would see a bruise soon after. "I don't remember exactly where the bruises were, but I do remember when asking about how he got those bruises, he would say he fell down or something like that," Artale told Shaker Heights police.

One day in early 1996, Artale told Greg Jr. she was going to call his father. He begged her not to, saying that Greg Sr. would beat him if she did. When Artale brought the boy to the principal's office, she and Principal Rosemary Weltman lifted his shirt. Across his back they found a pattern of welts and scars.

The case was referred to the Department of Children and Family Services. Juvenile Court Judge Janet E. Burney, who is presiding over the Scruggs case, sealed the records, but according to people familiar with the matter, Greg was temporarily placed in his grandmother's home -- with Greg Sr.'s consent. Not long after, the boy was allowed to return to his father's home. Several months after the agency was notified by the school, it closed the case.

Yet it wouldn't be the last of the county's involvement. Two years later, in the spring of 1998, Gregory showed up at Woodbury Elementary with a black eye. When his fifth-grade teacher, Bertha Louise Pope, asked him about the injury, he said he'd run into a door. When another teacher asked him about the eye that same day, he gave a different answer.

Once again, the matter was referred to DCFS, which found that Greg had been abused, though social workers couldn't determine how. The reason: The boy told different stories about how he got the bruise. Father and son were forced to undergo counseling and referred to family preservation services.

As testimony in Gregory Jr.'s trial would reveal, the DCFS cases only scratched the surface of how Greg Scruggs Sr. chose to discipline his son.

He often told Clayton, one of his best friends, of his punishment methods. "Me and Big Greg would work out occasionally, and he would tell me he would have to whup Greg sometimes for getting suspended at school," Clayton recalled.

One time last year, while Greg Jr. was a student at Alexander Hamilton, Clayton broke up a fight between Scruggs and another student. He noticed some bruises and a Band-Aid on Greg's neck. "He looked like a warrior, like he had been through a war. I figured Little Greg had been fighting a lot at school, but two or three weeks later Big Greg said, 'I might have left some of them bruises on him.'"

Among some family members, Greg Sr.'s brand of discipline was even less a secret. It was common knowledge Little Greg received regular beatings. At least one relative refused to allow her children to go to Big Greg's house.

"I know he used extension cords or wooden paddles and belts, and he used his hands sometimes, depending on what was available when he was angry," Greg Jr.'s cousin, Lavelle Scruggs Jr. -- whom everyone knows as Dinker -- would later tell the police.

Dinker was one of the few who had firsthand knowledge of Greg Sr.'s discipline. He was once talking to him about grades when Greg Jr. said something his father didn't like. Greg Sr. slapped him so hard that he knocked him to the ground.

It wasn't all physical. Sometimes Greg Sr. was content to berate his son, often in front of other people. He'd tell him his mother lived in the projects; that she didn't want to see him. He made Greg Jr. write lists of things he'd done wrong. He made him copy Bible verses and explain what he learned. A week before the shooting, in his neat handwriting, Greg Jr. wrote in a notebook what he'd learned from a passage of Proverbs:

"When you have knowledge you are wise and you have self-control, you will also have good sense. Knowledge begins with respect for The Lord. But foolish people hate wisdom and self-control. When the Lord discipline, do not reject it. And don't become angry when he corrects you, because he corrects those he love, just as a father corrects the child that he likes."

But as Greg Jr.'s behavior worsened, his father's discipline turned harsher. He told Clayton he was going to make a paddle to use on Little Greg. Crystal Scruggs, the wife of Greg Sr.'s brother Lavelle, once noticed stitches behind Greg Jr.'s ear. At one point, Greg Sr. told his brother that he had used handcuffs to discipline his son.

The methods of punishment reached the point where Greg Sr. and Lavelle openly argued about how the boy was being treated. "I heard my husband on several occasions tell [Greg Sr.] to ease up off him," said Crystal.

Once, Lavelle told Greg Sr. that, if he saw another mark on Greg Jr., he would "kick his ass and call the police," Greg Jr. later told his mother.

Yet, whatever concern family or friends had, they never called police or children's services. Said Crystal Scruggs: "I figured that he was my husband's brother, and I would let him handle the situation."

Nor did friends and family fear that Gregory Jr. was quickly reaching his breaking point -- despite plenty of warning. Six months before the killing, he told Dinker that he found his dad's gun. Dinker told him not to touch it. Then, the Sunday before Greg Sr.'s slaying, Little Greg spoke to his Aunt Crystal at church. He told her he had dreamed of killing his father.

She never mentioned it to anyone.

"I just took it as a dream, nothing more, nothing less," she said. "I didn't think it was nothing but a dream."

Aside from his son's troubles at school, the first week in June was a good one for Gregory Scruggs Sr. The last day of school arrived, and he was looking forward to some time off.

That Friday night, June 8, he had a date. About 9 p.m., he dropped Greg Jr. off at his grandmother's house on East 145th. When he returned, he stopped by his home's third-floor apartment, where Lisa Thomas, Clayton's girlfriend, lived. He chatted with Clayton for a while before getting ready for the night.

The next morning, Clayton saw Greg's black Ford Explorer turn the corner and down the street to pick up Little Greg from his grandmother's house. Five minutes later, Clayton passed the Explorer as the Scruggses drove back to Milverton. It was just after 11 a.m., and the last time Clayton saw Greg Sr. alive.

Around noon, Dinker was sitting in the living room of his grandmother's house when he noticed Greg Jr. standing at the back door, holding a black duffel bag. Greg Jr. walked in.

"I shot my father," he said.

Dinker didn't believe him. The two cousins always joked around. Besides, he knew how afraid Greg Jr. was of his father. Just the night before, Little Greg got nervous every time a car came by, thinking his father was going to bust him for watching a basketball game on TV when he wasn't supposed to.

He said it again: "My father is dead."

"Stop playing," Dinker told him.

Greg said it once more. This time, Dinker looked up to see tears welling in his cousin's eyes.

Dinker needed to see for himself. When they arrived at the Milverton house, Dinker saw his uncle slumped in a chair at the dining room table. He called his name. Then he noticed the small hole in the back of his head where blood and brain oozed out.

Dinker was sick. He had to get out. As they walked back to their grandmother's house, he tried to figure out what happened, if his cousin even understood what he'd done. Greg Jr. told Dinker that his father found out he'd watched the NBA playoff game the night before. When they got home, Greg Sr. started slapping him around. Then he told his son to get the paddle.

Instead, Greg Jr. walked into his father's bedroom and pulled the gun from the shelf.

When he returned, he stood in the hallway, just outside the bathroom door. He pointed the gun at his father's head. Greg Sr. was sitting at the dining room table, five feet away.

Greg Jr. pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

There was only one bullet. He hadn't put it in the correct chamber. According to Greg Jr.'s account that morning, his father recognized the click of the revolver immediately.

"Put the gun down, Greg," he said very slowly.

But it was too late. Greg knew he had to shoot him now, he told Dinker. If he didn't, his father would kill him. He pulled the trigger once more.

Over three days of testimony, which often lasted well into the evening, prosecutors Matthew Golish and Blaise Thomas called more than a dozen witnesses to prove Gregory Scruggs Jr. had committed premeditated murder. At about 8:20 p.m. on October 18, the state rested its case.

Defense lawyers immediately made a motion arguing that the state had not proved "prior calculation" to warrant an aggravated murder conviction. They also argued that the judge should amend the complaint to manslaughter.

It is a common defense move, always argued and seldom granted. Yet just after 10 p.m., Judge Burney ruled that Greg was no longer on trial for murder. The aggravated murder count was thrown out, and the complaint was amended to voluntary manslaughter.

It was a huge win for the defense. Yet because of time and scheduling problems, Greg's attorneys won't put on their defense until November 13 -- almost a month after the state presented its case.

The strategy of public defenders Anthony Kellon, George George, and Jason Haller and appointed counsel Martin Keenan is hardly a mystery. They will assert that, after years of abuse, Greg Jr. was acting in self-defense; the only way he could escape serious harm was by taking his father's life.

It will not be an easy sell. Though Ohio is one of two states that sanctions the defense, known as battered child syndrome, it has never been used successfully here. And while Greg Sr.'s history of violence has already been established, there remain questions that will likely never be answered: Why didn't someone intervene? What really happened the morning of the murder? Did Greg Jr. fear for his life, or did he plot revenge?

Whatever the outcome, almost everyone involved believes the boy badly needs psychological treatment. His father may no longer be in his life, but most of his problems still are. During the boy's stay in juvenile detention, he has been written up more than 35 times for his behavior -- everything from bullying other inmates to threatening social workers. He now faces additional delinquency charges.

Over the last four months, he has been evaluated by several psychologists. One noted that he showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps the most accurate description of Greg didn't come from a shrink, however. It came from Cedric Johns, the paramedic who talked to the boy for 10 minutes on a sunny day in June. "There was something about this kid," Johns says. "It just seemed like his soul was torn."


More by Andrew Putz


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