A gray-haired, 68-year-old woman digs through family photos as a rerun of Murder, She Wrote flickers on a TV in her Central District living room. Most of the photos were destroyed a few years ago when her basement flooded, and those that remain are crammed in a white, plastic shopping bag and a shoebox.
It’s cloudy outside, and she squints as she pulls out a football trading card. On the front, her grandson, an 8-year-old with a clenched smile and beady eyes, looks into the camera. The back of the card, printed in 2001, says he’s 4´9 and weighs only 80 pounds.
Seven years later, the boy, Billy Chambers, would help kill Seattle’s beloved Tuba Man, Ed McMichael, 53, known for his funky hats and for playing tunes on the sidewalk in front of local sporting and arts events.
McMichael grew up in Wallingford, supported by loving parents and a vibrant church youth group. His mother pushed him to play music, and at a young age, the shy boy turned inward, befriending the piano, then the tuba, the instrument that would one day earn him national acclaim.
Chambers was raised by his grandmother, Margaret Harris, a receptionist with DKNY glasses and a hearty laugh. His dad was perpetually in trouble with the law, and his mother left sometime around his fourth birthday.
“It wasn’t as if his mother couldn’t be there—she wouldn’t be,” Harris says. “She didn’t want to.”
The fates of McMichael and Chambers tangled near Fifth Avenue and Mercer Street around midnight on Oct. 25, 2008, when Chambers, 15 at the time, and four other teens robbed and attacked McMichael as he crossed the street toward the group. The teens, who had just left a dance at Seattle Center, circled him and rained down a series of blows and kicks, robbing him as he tried to shield himself, even slipping a ring off his finger. Initially, he survived the attack. But on November 3 he died.
What followed was an outpouring of public outrage: both at the killing of a gentle, vulnerable man, swarmed upon and beaten as he lay in a fetal position on the ground, and the minimal 18-month sentence given to Chambers, who’s been in and out of trouble ever since.
The case pushed important questions normally debated in the insular juvenile-justice community into the public arena: When is it too late to rehabilitate a child criminal, and when is it time to crack down in the interest of public safety?
Juvenile advocates say that because the brains of young offenders are still developing, they are very receptive to rehabilitation. Though a barrage of research supports that assertion, cases like Chambers’ rile the public and seem to indicate otherwise, says Gavin Thornton, an attorney with the nonprofit Columbia Legal Services. “The compulsion to respond to stories like Chambers’ and other horror stories we hear is so strong, and it’s so hard to respond with a reasoned, thoughtful, logical approach, instead of that visceral ‘Justice has to be served here’ response,” he says.
To show that rehabilitation works for even the most hardened young criminals, Thornton and others invoke the case of Starcia Ague, a 24-year-old who, with three friends, participated in a violent home invasion when she was 15. Ague was a cynical and belligerent girl before she spent the remainder of her childhood in state juvenile facilities. Since then, she’s become a public-relations coup for youth advocates, turning her life around, earning a pardon, and completing college—in the process becoming one of the leading voices regarding the state juvenile-justice system.
Juvenile advocates, to whom Ague is something of a exalted figure, are gearing up for a fight in the next legislative session with their more hard-line opponents over a policy called automatic declination, or auto-decline, which sends all 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious crimes, regardless of their background or circumstances, to the adult system. Last year, Mary Lou Dickerson, a Democratic state representative from Seattle, introduced a bill that would get rid of auto-decline. While it didn’t make it far past committee, she plans to make a major push in the next legislative session to pass it into law.
“There’s a chance that it can pass,” Dickerson says. “I think, though, that we have to do a lot more education on the subject.”
On June 23, a young pregnant woman driving in the Central District looked in her rear-view mirror and saw Chambers speeding toward her in a mid-’90s black Crown Victoria. A week earlier, she had reported him to police for breaking into her car.
When she stopped at a red light, Chambers rammed the back of her vehicle. Both cars sped up as the light turned green, weaving in and out of traffic on 23rd Avenue. As they zoomed ahead, Chambers again swerved into the woman, causing her to lose control, spin off the road, and hit a retaining wall.
He fled to his grandmother’s house, where police, when they arrived, caught the end of a phone conversation in which he was asking someone to “please tell them you did it.”
Investigators, however, had to deal with an uncooperative victim, who put her head down when asked to provide a written statement. Thankfully, they found other witnesses.
Chambers, by this point, had become a familiar face to police. The Tuba Man attack and the June incident bracketed a string of other crimes he committed, including the January robbery, using a gun-shaped lighter, of one man’s marijuana. For that, he was sentenced to eight months.
Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for the King County Prosecutor’s Office, cites a lack of cooperative witnesses as the main reason Chambers got a light sentence for his participation in the Tuba Man attack, which allowed him to get out quickly and re-offend. Though investigators believe at least 10 to 15 people saw the attack from a nearby bus stop, nobody stepped forward and spoke up, making it hard to secure tougher sentences for Chambers and his two co-defendants, Kenneth Kelly and Ja’Mari Jones—who, unlike Chambers, haven’t been in trouble with the law since completing their sentences. The other two attackers remain at large, their identities unknown to police.
Kelsey McMichael, 72, the Tuba Man’s brother, vividly remembers the 8 a.m. call from Harborview Medical Center’s emergency room after the beating. “I was really upset,” he says. “See, I was responsible for him.”
The Tuba Man was a quiet kid growing up, says the elder McMichael, who now lives in Florida. “It was kind of hard for him to make friends and relate to people. His music really changed him.”
In 1989, the Tuba Man began showing up at local games, and quickly gained a cult following, eventually earning recognition by Sports Illustrated as a “super fan.” He was a quirky and distinct figure on the local scene. McMichael played the tuba professionally for many years, including long stints with the Bellevue Philharmonic and Cascade Symphony, but at the end of his life supported himself by busking. Though his siblings encouraged him to apply for jobs in other states, he refused to leave Seattle, his brother says. “We would encourage him, and we would have paid his way to go audition, but he loved Seattle. This was his niche, and he didn’t want to leave.”
Most of the people who encountered the Tuba Man loved him, his brother says, but some, mainly hockey fans, were cruel and would purposely throw coins into his tuba, which he nicknamed “Tubby.” Since Tubby took a beating from the weather, McMichael had twin instruments, on which he belted out his take on modern rock songs as well as classic, uplifting tunes. Depending on how a game went, he adjusted his songs to the mood of the fans.
The elder McMichael says prosecutors were friendly and helpful, and he understands they were in a hard position—trying to get as severe a sentence as possible while struggling with a limited amount of evidence and a bloodthirsty public. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating to watch the attackers, including Chambers, essentially get away with murder, he says.
“I don’t see much hope he’s going to change,” McMichael says of Chambers. “He’s really set a pattern of a life of crime. I think it would probably take divine intervention to change him.”
Wearing an orange jumpsuit and sitting behind a wall of glass in mid-October, the day before he receives a 21¾-month sentence for the June incident, Chambers plays with his curly hair and picks up a phone.
He responds to most questions with a quick “yes” or “no,” and quickly denies every crime he’s been accused of, saying the police are out to get him. He says he looks forward to getting out of prison to care for his son, due in January. His wife, Markeisha, is already caring for their 1-year-old daughter as he sits in jail.
Asked if he understands why so many people hate him and are mad about the mild sentences he’s received, Chambers gets defensive. “I didn’t give myself the time, so don’t get mad at me,” he says.
When officers arrived to arrest Chambers earlier this year for underpaying a bus fare and getting belligerent with the driver, he got sassy with them. Though he denies it, according to a KING-5 report he reportedly said, “I was one of the people that stomped the Tuba Man to death. I only got three months. My attorney got me off. He’ll get me off this charge as well.”
Thornton, the Columbia Legal Services attorney, says it’s understandable why cases like Chambers’ infuriate people. “One of the problems with the criminal-justice system is there are these awful examples of people who have done horrible things,” he says. “And everyone’s reaction to that is we need to smack down on that person.”
That “smack down” happened around the country in the mid-’90s, largely in response to a juvenile crime rate that, mimicking the adult rate, rose significantly in the late ’80s and early ’90s. States like Washington passed laws, including the 1994 law which instituted auto-decline, based on a belief that harsher punishment for juveniles would better protect the public.
Under auto-decline, all 16- and 17-year-olds charged with certain serious crimes—including first-degree robbery and murder—are removed from the juvenile system and sent to the adult system. That may seem like a good idea: Why, for example, allow the possibility that a 16-year-old charged with murder might be tried in the more lenient juvenile system?
But youth advocates say judges should have the power to make that decision on a case-by-case basis. Many kids charged with serious crimes have mental-health issues or substance-abuse problems, and some have suffered horrible abuse. Automatically throwing vulnerable and impressionable kids into the adult system increases the chance they’ll re-offend, costs more in the long run, and decreases public safety, they say.
Prosecutors who support auto-decline say the public is better served by trying all 16- and 17-year-olds charged with violent crimes as adults, regardless of their individual circumstances. They point to the victims and their loved ones. It’s tough to sympathize with a juvenile defendant who helped kill your brother, they say, or who was part of a group that stormed into your house, tied you up, and robbed you while threatening you with a butcher knife.
“These are crimes where people are being murdered, shot, stabbed—crimes serious enough that they warrant more punishment than the juvenile system is allowed to give,” Goodhew says.
Since the mid-’90s, the pendulum has swung significantly from a focus on punishing juveniles to rehabilitating them. Eric Trupin, a juvenile-justice expert and director of the University of Washington’s Division of Public Behavioral Health and Justice Policy, says this happened for several reasons.
For one, former Attorney General Janet Reno took a personal interest in the over-incarceration of juveniles during the Clinton administration, showing assertive leadership at the top that had previously been lacking, Trupin says. In addition, much progress has been made in understanding how adolescents’ brains develop.
“Every parent of every teenager knows that teenagers don’t think straight all the time,” Thornton says. “With recent developments in science and brain imaging, they’ve been able to actually see these brain developments, and see that into your early 20s, your prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. That’s your decision-making center.”
Separate studies have also shown that rehabilitating juveniles costs taxpayers less in the long run because those youths are less likely to re-offend than their counterparts who enter the adult system. Hence, public safety is increased, Trupin says.
One particular study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), a nonpartisan group that examines legislation and issues studies examining its potential costs and effects, made a big splash when it came out a decade ago, according to Trupin. “[WSIPP] studies on the economic effect of various things have a tremendous impact on the decision-making part of the legislature,” he says.
A 2006 WSIPP report found, for example, that from 12 of 17 juvenile programs with comparable data, taxpayers received a benefit, per participant, of anywhere from $4,600 for juvenile drug courts to $77,798 for a treatment program for kids in foster care. To arrive at these figures, the study took into account reduced recidivism rates for youth who went through the programs, and calculated, based on the statistical chance they otherwise would have re-offended, what their future crimes would have cost taxpayers. It also included the money potential crime victims saved.
In essence: Had the kids who went through those programs not received those services, it is statistically probable they would have committed future crimes—with a cost to victims in lost property and health-care expenditures for injuries sustained during attacks, among other hardships. Costs to taxpayers would have included incarceration and trials.
In part because of these reports, the state legislature began to fund more rehabilitative services for juveniles around the turn of the decade. That investment has paid off, says Dana Phelps, a spokesperson for the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, or JRA. “There was, throughout the early 2000s up until now, a deliberate investment in research-based treatment that helped youth stay out of crime in the future,” she says. “[Studies] show very, very specifically that you can help kids climb out of crime. Even the most serious kids can be helped.”
If ever there was a kid who needed serious help, it was Starcia Ague.
“I had six pending Class A felonies,” Ague says. “I took a plea for three. I spent 214 days in detention, and got a sentence of juvenile life, from the time I was 15 until 21.”
Ague grew up in an abusive household with a drug-addicted mother and a father who cooked meth for a living. Often he’d send his young daughter to make drug deliveries.
“This kid had a horrible background,” says Travis Stearns, deputy director of the Washington Defender Association, a group that represents public-defense attorneys. “[She was] a crime victim, sex victim, grew up with drunk parents.”
When she was 15, Ague says her mom ripped off some people for money and drugs. In return, they retaliated, showing up at Ague’s house, tearing up furniture and marking Xs all over the family’s photos. Afterward, Ague’s mom told her to “go take care of business” and rob someone to get that month’s rent money.
“So I got three of my guy friends that were all older than me,” Ague says. “We were going to go rob this house, and we were drunk and high.”
Since she had previously delivered drugs there and the people would have recognized her, Ague hid in the bushes as her friends circled the targeted house. When one rang the doorbell, she heard him ask a woman for a cup of sugar. Then she heard a scream, and the door slammed shut.
Five minutes passed before Ague panicked, went to the back of the house, and saw one friend fighting to control a dog. She walked to the back door and popped it open. “I go to open that door and my co-defendant has this guy on the ground tied up with a telephone cord, with a big old kitchen knife, yelling and screaming at him with his foot on his back, going through his wallet,” she says.
The group ran off with backpacks full of silver bars, guns, drugs, and money, Ague says. Eventually police caught one of them, who identified the other members. Because she was 15, Ague was not automatically sent to the adult system, as her co-defendants were. Prosecutors still requested that she be tried as an adult. But the judge disagreed.
“I’m lucky, because he saw a kernel of potential in me,” she says. “He had every reason to give me a decline, and he didn’t.”
Ague first ended up at Naselle Youth Camp, a JRA facility in the southwest corner of Washington where kids help maintain government-owned forestland and get rehabilitative services. There, one counselor saw her potential, and began the process that helped her turn her life around.
“I was a brand-new counselor,” Jennifer Kochheiser says. “When she first came, you could tell she was extremely intelligent, but she constantly put her foot in her mouth. She didn’t know how to maneuver, kind of like a bull in a china shop.”
Ague was angry when she showed up, according to Kochheiser, who says many other workers at the facility thought Ague was a sociopath who was good at manipulating people, including her. Kochheiser, 43, was laid off in January—a casualty of state budget cuts that have also claimed Naselle, which is scheduled to close in June.
As a gay single mother of a developmentally challenged 13-year-old son, Kochheiser says she took a special, maternal interest in Ague because she saw her potential. “I remember doing rounds, and she’s giving herself a pedicure in her sink,” Kochheiser says. “Or she’s looking at magazines and staying current.”
Ague had good values, Kochheiser says. “She just had a crappy childhood and was forced to do things at a young age that kids shouldn’t be forced to do. And that really clouds your ability to determine right and wrong when you go through adolescence.”
Strolling around Echo Glen Children’s Center, a JRA facility nestled on 25 acres of state land near Snoqualmie, Patti Bernsten, the facility’s associate director, pops into a maximum-security cottage and pauses at a small monitor. In a nearby room, about a dozen kids are spread out on the floor doing yoga, instructed by volunteers from Seattle, she says.
This is where Ague ended up after leaving Naselle.
Youth at the facility have access to a host of unique services, including one donation-funded program which pairs 10 offenders with rescue dogs, which they care for nonstop—bathing them, walking them, teaching them commands. At the end, the dogs are put up for adoption. The hope is that the process will teach the kids responsibility. By rehabilitating shelter dogs, perhaps participants will see a parallel to their own lives, Bernsten says.
Echo Glen has several cottages, each of which hold about 20 juvenile offenders. Boys and girls sleep in separate barracks, but mingle throughout their highly structured days. On a whiteboard in one cottage, every minute is planned, from the time they wake up until they go to sleep. But far from a stereotypical image one might conjure of a youth prison, Echo Glen, with leaves falling and a gentle breeze rustling through the trees, feels more like a camp. The peaceful surroundings are one reason outbursts or violent incidents are very rare, Bernsten says. Kids here, though they’re not restrained by a fence, hardly ever flee.
At Echo Glen, Ague fought for the ability to take correspondence courses and begin her college education. Her transformation began at Naselle, but really manifested itself here, she says. “I don’t know if you’ve heard people refer to Echo and Naselle as kiddie camps, but in a lot of ways, compared to actual prison, they are,” Ague says. “There’s no barbed-wire fence. They’re kind of in the middle of nowhere.”
Since leaving Echo Glen in 2008, Ague earned herself a pardon, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Washington State University, and got a job as a UW research assistant working for Trupin. In the process, she’s become a poster child for the JRA—living proof, youth advocates say, that children who commit violent crimes can turn their lives around.
Dickerson, the Seattle representative fighting to reverse auto-decline, worked as a program manager at Echo Glen in the ’70s, supervising a cottage for two and a half years. Ague is a Cinderella story, she says. “She’s a star in terms of her ability to talk about juvenile justice, and think through what’s happened to her, and share it with others,” Dickerson says.
Several youth advocates familiar with Ague’s case point out that if she had been 16 when she committed her crimes, she would have been automatically declined to the adult system, with a strong possibility she wouldn’t be where she is today. Instead, a judge took pity on her and kept her in the juvenile system.
“It’s not to say Starcia wouldn’t have figured out her life on her own,” Thornton says. “But it is a stark reminder that the JRA works. It turned a kid around. The idea that this kid who grew up with this kind of background and committed this kind of crime can now be a leader in our system—it’s incredible.”
Since 2008, when Ague was released and Chambers helped kill the Tuba Man, both have undergone a transformation in the public eye: one beatified, one demonized. In turn, they have both become prominent cases cited by those who believe rehabilitation works, and those who wish to err on the side of public safety.
Chambers, 15 at the time of the attack, was tried as a juvenile. Prosecutors, fighting to secure a conviction with minimal evidence, brokered an 18-month manslaughter plea with his attorney.
If Chambers was 16, he would have been automatically sent to the adult system—where in the end he’s spent significant time anyway, because of later crimes. Thornton refers to the adult system as “felon finishing school.” It’s a matter of common sense, he and other juvenile advocates say, that kids who spend extensive time with older, more experienced criminals are bound to harden and learn things they may not have otherwise.
Unlike Ague, who spent about five years in JRA facilities, Chambers received a minimal amount of rehabilitation in the juvenile system. After he returned home, his grandmother said she tried to find a free counseling service, but was unsuccessful. Because of recent government budget cuts, parole and probation services have been severely slashed, meaning most kids are on their own when they return home. “Billy did his 18 months, he came home, and he was buck wild because he thought he could go run and do whatever he wanted to,” she says.
Goodhew, the King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman, says it’s not uncommon to see kids return home and then quickly jump back into a life of crime. “People ask me, ‘Is it surprising or frustrating?’,” he says. “It’s not. We see this; it just doesn’t get the attention in the press or public that this case gets, because Mr. Chambers is known as the killer of Mr. McMichael.”
On the flip side, those who think rehabilitation works, and who want to reverse auto-decline, cite Ague as a prime example of why it’s wrong to throw kids into the adult system. If auto-decline were reversed, a judge would decide which 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious offenses like murder would be tried as juveniles, and which would be tried as adults. The decision would be subjective, and the possibility exists that a youth could get out at 21 and commit a horrible crime.
In addition to Ague’s case, auto-decline opponents point to stories of severely abused and troubled kids who, because of the policy, have been processed through the adult system and haven’t received the care and counseling they need. And most kids sent to the adult system are going to get out one day anyway, they say, so it’s just kicking the problem down the road.
There’s a perception that if auto-decline were reversed, the system would suddenly be liberalized, says Trupin, the UW researcher. “But if we don’t rehabilitate, and we don’t reduce the likelihood that they’re going to come out and be criminals, we are in fact undermining public safety,” he says. “It’s a strategy that, from my perspective, is bankrupt, and contradictory to what we want in terms of this country.”
Less than a week after the Tuba Man attack, Robert Perez’s 17-year-old client, who shot and killed a man twice his age, was acquitted of murder. Perez, a Bellevue attorney who went to Harvard Law School, says the case illustrates the necessity of digging into the facts before passing judgment.
Though his client was eventually acquitted of all charges, because of auto-decline he spent a year in jail with adult criminals as he awaited trial. The experience hardened him, and, due to a history of sexual abuse, the boy was further traumatized, Perez says.
When he was 12 and living in Los Angeles, the boy befriended a 33-year-old man at a nearby convenience store. The man showered the boy with candy and gifts, and eventually started buying him cigarettes and beer.
“Then this guy took my client, got him drunk, and raped him,” Perez says. “The kid didn’t know how to handle it. He’s a proud Hispanic boy, he was ashamed, and he didn’t know what to do.”
The abuse continued for a long time, the man following the boy as he moved up the West Coast, first to Oregon and then to Seattle, where he got an apartment in the University District and kept raping the boy.
One night, the boy had enough and told the man off as they cruised around in his car. A struggle ensued, and the boy grabbed a gun the man kept under his front seat. “My client shoots him; runs away crying; calls his mom, who doesn’t answer; then runs toward Alki Beach and throws the gun in the water,” Perez says.
The next day, he surrendered to police. Because of the gravity of the alleged crime, the boy was automatically declined from the juvenile system, and spent the next year in King County Jail.
“He was molested by this man for five years—he’s the victim of a child rapist, and you’re going to take him out of the juvenile system and put him into custody with adult criminals?” Perez says. “Does anybody not see the problem here?”
During the boy’s year in jail, Perez says, he became very cynical and hardened. “He learned a lot from prisoners there that he probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” says Perez, who worried at times that the boy was suicidal. Since his acquittal, he’s traveled a rocky road trying to stabilize his life, the attorney says. At one point, police picked him up on suspicion of robbery, though they eventually released him.
Perez says he understands the perspective of prosecutors, whose job is to protect the public, and who support auto-decline. But he points out that even if auto-decline were reversed, that doesn’t mean young murderers and thugs would all get off with light sentences. Prosecutors would still be able to ask a judge to send serious offenders to the adult system.
What would happen if auto-decline was reversed is that judges would have sole discretion to decide whether a child should be tried as a juvenile or as an adult—in essence, whether the potential still exists for successful rehabilitation, or whether the youth has already crossed that threshold.
“It’s the height of absurdity that we would take away a judge’s discretion to allow the right thing to happen,” Perez says.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, say that auto-decline provides peace of mind and enhances public safety by ensuring that every 16- and 17-year-old charged with a serious offense is tried as an adult. Otherwise, a single judge is forced to make a subjective decision that determines whether a youth enters the juvenile or adult system.
“[Auto-decline] tips the balance in favor of public safety when a 16- or 17-year-old offender commits murder, aggravated assault, or armed robbery,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says. “In those cases, the legislature has determined that adult sanctions will protect the public better than keeping the case in juvenile court, with its limited jurisdiction.”
Tom McBride, head of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, points out that kids convicted as adults are usually sent to juvenile facilities until they turn 18. But they often spend significant time in adult jail while awaiting trial, and youth advocates say there’s a good chance any progress a 16- or 17-year-old might have made during a year or two with JRA would be lost when they are transferred to an adult prison.
McBride feels the system is fine and should be left alone. “Juvenile and adult state prison and detention populations have decreased,” he says. “The current balance is working, and should be allowed to continue.”
Dickerson says she’s working hard to round up support for her auto-decline reversal bill, House Bill 1289. When asked if she’s afraid the public will see her as being soft on crime, she says it’s a fear always on the mind of legislators. “But I like to say the evidence is pretty clear that we need to be smart on crime and that we are actually making the public less safe if we send kids into the adult system,” she says. “The evidence shows that they’re far more likely to come out and re-offend than young people who are put into the juvenile rehabilitation system.”
Auto-decline supporters, like McBride, dispute that evidence, saying there’s no uniform system for states to report recidivism rates, and that the data may be flawed.
But behind the talk of recidivism rates and the mountain of research are individual stories, both of kids heading down the wrong path, like Chambers, and those, like Ague, who are making progress and have seemingly been rehabilitated.
For Harris, it’s hard to see people think of her grandson as a monster.
“The judge, she felt that he was Al Capone, I’m assuming,” Harris says. “But are all young people, because they come into the justice system, are they all supposedly great criminals? I don’t think so. There are a lot of kids that have issues and problems.”