By the time they reached Deerfield Beach Middle School, four of the five young teenagers accused of setting a classmate on fire had already grown up in a fractured world where crime or violence was a fact of life.

Most were raised in families in which one or both parents have numerous criminal arrests and a history of domestic abuse. In several cases, court records show the parents have drug or alcohol problems. And investigators say all five boys, ages 13 to 16 -- have had brushes with the law.

But the group of seventh-graders now face charges for a crime far worse than the criminal mischief of their past. The boys -- acting together -- ganged up on 15-year-old Michael Brewer outside a Deerfield Beach apartment complex on Oct. 12. Acting on the orders of one boy, they doused him with rubbing alcohol and set him ablaze. As Brewer screamed in terror, they all ran, authorities say.

At least three of them laughed about it after they were arrested, according to Sgt. Steve Feeley of the Broward Sheriff's Office. Their motive, Feeley said, was retaliation against the victim for snitching over a feud involving a $40 video game and a bicycle.

A Miami Herald review of court and police reports, along with interviews of law enforcement authorities and others, reveals a troubling portrait of the five suspects' family lives.

Records in Palm Beach and Broward counties show that the parents of four of the boys have convictions for a litany of crimes, including child neglect, drunken driving, assault and battery, burglary, fleeing police, drug possession, and drug dealing.

Among other things, one suspect's father was accused of stabbing a man who owed him money. Two other teen suspects -- brothers -- were once removed from their home by state child welfare authorities because of child abuse. A fourth suspect's father had been arrested a dozen times -- the boy's mother had been arrested nine times.

Their parents' arrests often resulted in guilty pleas and no-contest convictions on lesser charges, according to court records the newspaper was able to obtain. But not all of their arrest records detail what, if any, jail time was served.

In the aftermath of the attack against Brewer, who suffered burns over 65 percent of his body and will remain hospitalized for months, the callousness of the crime, the childish dispute that led to it and the young ages of the suspects have astonished even the most hardened investigators.

What might have triggered something so evil is something the parents, lawyers, police and psychologists will likely argue endlessly in the months and years to come.

Yet assistant Broward state attorney Maria Schneider, the prosecutor in the case, believes the boys' history of family strife offers at least one explanation.

``Having parents engaged in the criminal justice system, parents who aren't engaged in their schools and their activities, and the kids' exposure to domestic violence almost always is an indicator of future trouble . . . it doesn't excuse it, but it explains it,'' she said.

For now, the teens remain in Broward's juvenile detention center, awaiting hearings. Michael Bent, 15; Steven Shelton, 15; Denver Colorado Jarvis, 15; and his brother, Jeremy Jarvis, 13, all face charges of aggravated battery. Jesus Mendez, who turned 16 on Friday, is charged with attempted second-degree murder.


The year was 1993. And Dennis Bent was angry that another man owed him and some buddies money.

According to Boca Raton police, Bent and his two friends broke into Andrew McLeary's home, pilfered jewelry and other possessions, then threatened to kill him. Bent thrust a kitchen knife at McLeary so hard that it broke, the report said. He then grabbed a pair of scissors and began stabbing McLeary as two other men, Kent Samuels and Gershon St. Fleur, held him down.

``I'm going to kill him,'' Bent growled as he slashed McLeary in his face, stomach and right thigh, the police report said.

According to police, Bent, along with the other two, confessed. They all were charged with attempted murder, home invasion, armed robbery, armed burglary and use of a weapon. In Bent's case, the most serious offenses were dropped, but he pleaded guilty to burglary and battery charges. He was placed on probation for two years.

Bent's son, Matthew, wasn't yet born when this crime happened, but over the years his father's arrest record of felonies grew -- everything from drug possession to aggravated battery. Bent, 43, declined to comment for this story. But he said that he and his wife, Cheri, have been married for 26 years and have seven children, including Matthew.