In one sense, the story of two boys nicknamed Antoine and Tony came to an end in late January when a Cook County judge sentenced them to prison, turning them into America's youngest inmates.

At age 10 and 11, the boys had killed 5-year-old Eric Morse by dropping him from a high-rise window; now they would be locked away from a society that had recoiled at the crime and their utter lack of remorse. But, in many respects, the boys' story is just beginning for an army of social workers, psychologists and prison officials who have been given an urgent and perhaps impossible task by Juvenile Judge Carol Kelly.

Since the boys, who are now 12 and 13, can be held only until they are 21, Kelly has ordered the experts to figure out how they could kill as casually as they scooped up creatures from Lake Michigan to take home as pets.

Then she wants the experts to do what they can to ensure that when Antoine and Tony emerge from prison in less than a decade, they don't kill again.

In bluntest terms, that means reaching into their personalities and discovering what makes them 12- and 13-year-old human beings and not cold-blooded killers.

Some pieces of the puzzle will emerge Monday when prison officials and other experts appear before Kelly to disclose comprehensive treatment and educational plans for each boy. For months, experts have been analyzing the boys' histories and backgrounds to devise their strategies.

It would be easy to see the outlines of their stories and dismiss them as products of painfully familiar inner-city "risk factors": drugs, gangs, neglect and blight.

But a reconstruction by the Tribune of their lives from psychological and probation office reports, court records and interviews with teachers, relatives, mental health workers and law enforcement officials, indicates a more complicated picture--and some signs of hope:

- There's the scene of tiny, rugged Antoine in 1st grade carefully tending a peach plant so it would be ready to give his mother and grandmother on Mother's Day.

- There's the recollection of a family friend that he was a playful little boy, "always clean, wearing these little cotton clothes." And the boy's own distinctively conventional answer to a psychiatrist's request to tell his three wishes: a red Chevrolet, a house and a store of his own.

- Even after the boys plummeted into a ragged life on the streets, Tony displayed the human touches of friendship: He fed and took care of his younger buddy, Antoine.

Such moments that defy the grimmest portrait may be critical in figuring out how they can be infused with traits of compassion, empathy and trust.

The same kids who tossed a 5-year-old out of a window because he wouldn't steal candy for them also had an unusual fascination for animals.

"They'd go to the (Lake Michigan) beach and bring back turtles, fish, frogs, worms, crabs and other sea animals. They'd put them in a tank," said Andrew Wesley, an 11-year-old Ida B. Wells public housing complex resident who lives in its low-rise apartments.

The same criminal histories that log arrests for theft, battery and possession of weapons and narcotics contain a poignant incongruity: Antoine and Tony once were arrested for something that seems almost "normal," stealing a hamster from a downtown pet shop.

Still, there are formidable social and psychological hurdles.

Antoine and Tony grew up at 527 E. Browning Ave., one of a handful of high-rise buildings in the Wells development, a drab 63-acre complex about a mile and a half south of McCormick Place. One of the CHA's larger complexes, it is close to the lake and has some newly renovated units for working-class families. But it also has many units that typify the worst of urban slums: cramped, filthy, overrun by roaches and in appalling disrepair.

As they grew, the boys were alternately nurtured and ignored by adults whose own lives were combustible and unpredictable, though neither came from stereotypical single-parent households characterized by a string of unplanned pregnancies.

Tommy Jenkins and Sandra Johnson, Tony's parents, had been together for many years and in fact dated for three years before his birth. Johnson was regarded as a quiet, ambitious woman who worked at a fashion shop while attending classes at Malcolm X College.