Preschool Police

With virtually no evidence, Belmont County charged a five-year-old with assault. The price of zeal proved expensive.

The Women of Star Trek Voyager Convention Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, 24 Public Square Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27
Is this the face of a criminal? Tyrel Simmons, age 5. - Courtesy of Lisa Simmons
Courtesy of Lisa Simmons
Is this the face of a criminal? Tyrel Simmons, age 5.
Three years ago, Sherry Beavers watched her two daughters play from the window of her apartment in St. Myers Terrace, a low-income housing project that locals call "the Moon" because of its distance -- literally and figuratively -- from main street Martins Ferry, a river town this side of Wheeling.

Three-year-old Janice, the younger of the two, disappeared from view. Beavers went to look for her and saw two boys exiting the nearby woods. The boys said her daughter was back there and gestured toward the trees. While Beavers searched, a neighbor found Janice and brought her home.

But something happened in the woods. Janice had a large abrasion on her cheek and scrapes on her elbows and side. Her injuries were not believed to be the result of a fall, but an attack. "They hurt my peepee with a stick," Janice said.

The cuts and scrapes prompted a visit to the emergency room. A Belmont County Family Services worker, Jamie Pickens, arrived at the hospital and spoke to the girl and her mother. A police report was filed. Two days later, the case landed on the desk of Trina Kurucz, a Family Services case manager. By this time, the two boys Beavers saw -- Tyrel Simmons and Chevez Chambliss -- had emerged as suspects.

How two preschoolers came to be viewed as the perpetrators of an assault remains behind the sealed lips of local officials. Martins Ferry Police Chief Paul Canter did not return repeated calls. Family Services Director Dwayne Pielach directed questions to civil attorney Doug Boatright, who directed questions to Belmont County Prosecutor Frank Pierce, who directed questions to Juvenile Prosecutor Michael Shaheen, who declined comment.

But James McNamara, an attorney hired by the Simmonses, believes Tyrel and Chevez were tainted by housing project gossip. "Rumors fly around there faster than kids on bicycles," he says.

It would result in social workers taking the unusual step of pressing assault charges against five-year-old Tyrel, despite little evidence. Three years later, in what has become a recurring theme in Ohio, the county would pay dearly for do-gooder motives that took it well beyond the laws of reason.

Two days after the incident, Kurucz and Pickens interviewed Janice and her mother. Janice identified her attackers only as little boys -- no names. Later that day, Kurucz and Pickens interviewed Chevez and Tyrel at Head Start. They spoke with Chevez first, who allegedly said that Tyrel pushed the little girl down, kicked her, pulled down her pants, and hit her with a stick. Chevez was sent out of the room, and Tyrel was brought in. Kurucz said Tyrel at first denied the attack, but later admitted he had pushed her down and kicked her. Why would the boy turn on the girl? Tyrel said she was mouthy, according to Kurucz.

Kurucz was concerned Chevez and Tyrel were themselves the victims of or witnesses to abuse at home. Why else would little boys do such a thing? She spoke with her supervisor about getting them counseling, and they decided on a course unusual for a case of suspected child abuse: They approached Michael Shaheen, a private attorney who prosecutes the county's juvenile cases, who agreed to file criminal charges against Tyrel, thus allowing a judge to order counseling.

"She admitted she did it just for the purpose for the right to intervene in the family," McNamara says of Kurucz.

Steven Drizin, the supervising attorney at the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University School of Law, says he's never heard of a child that young being charged criminally. "I'm stunned that a prosecutor would approve those charges."

Drizin says children under age seven are considered incapable of criminal intent. Moreover, anyone familiar with five-year-olds knows they are prone to say anything at any time. Belmont County may have had the best intentions, but Drizin wonders why it resorted to filing charges when it has other mechanisms to deal with suspected child abuse. "It's cruel to bring a case like that into the court system."

More troubling is that there's no indication social workers tried to speak with Tyrel's parents during the investigation. They might have learned something. The day of the attack, Lisa Simmons, Tyrel's mother, responded to the housing project gossip. She took Tyrel to Beavers's apartment and asked Janice if he was the one who attacked her. "She said in front of her mother and father that he wasn't the boy," says Lisa, a Bob Evans waitress and mother of three. After learning from a Head Start teacher that Tyrel had been questioned, an upset Simmons called Kurucz and told her not to contact Tyrel again unless through an attorney. "Parents should be outraged at the fact an adult is interviewing their child without their being notified," Drizin says.

As the county hoped, filing the criminal petition allowed a judge to order counseling for Tyrel. The therapist discovered that Tyrel was a five-year-old kid who likes to play with robots. Nothing suggested he was privy to abuse.

"He's a wonderfully adjusted young man with caring parents," McNamara says.

A judge dismissed the case after reading the counseling report. Not satisfied, the Simmonses hired McNamara to sue the county. McNamara argued that the charges were brought without probable cause, that Tyrel shouldn't have been interviewed without his parents' knowledge, and that the county interfered with his mom and dad's ability to parent.

In deposition, McNamara questioned Kurucz's investigative skills. He asked why she didn't interview Janice's older sister and why she failed to identify the neighbor who found Janice. Kurucz said she didn't deem it necessary. As for the interviews with Janice, her mother, Chevez, and Tyrel, Kurucz was unable to recall much detail. She had thrown away her notes after typing up reports.

McNamara also asked Kurucz if she knew anything about Tyrel's mother prior to the case. Kurucz reluctantly admitted hearing an office whisper about possible drug activity in the home, though she could not remember who said it. (Kurucz did not respond to calls made by Scene.)

McNamara portrays the investigation as a rush to judgment, a case of a "white knight" social worker knowing what's best for a family of the projects. He maintains that Tyrel had nothing to do with the attack, and that his supposed confession isn't worth a thing. "Either they got him to say it . . . or they're making it up."

In an attempt to thwart the civil lawsuit, the county's attorneys had the judge amend his dismissal a month later to say there had been probable cause. An appeals court invalidated the judge's change. "The trial court never undertook to ascertain whether probable cause existed," the appeals court ruled in March, prompting the county to settle with the Simmonses for a five-figure payment.

Today, Lisa Simmons would like to move out of Martins Ferry, but her mother is in frail health. She's leery of government workers, suggesting they assume the worst about the black population in a county that is 95 percent white. "I don't have a problem with you doing your job -- just do it right. They stir up the poop in the yard and leave it there to stink."

Three years later, Tyrel carries what his mother calls a "complex" about the accusations. When he plays with other children, he is careful to mind his manners. "He thinks they think he might have done that to that little girl," Lisa says.

At least one playmate doesn't have a problem with him. Lisa says Janice has no fear of Tyrel.

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