KENTWOOD, Mich. (WWJ/AP) – The giggles typically associated with a playground vanished in the screams of a 9-year-old boy, who police said was repeatedly stabbed in the back by a 12-year-old boy who could now spend the rest of his life in prison.
Jamarion Lawhorn pleaded not guilty to an open murder charge in juvenile court Tuesday afternoon in connection with the death of Michael Conner Verkerke.
Lawhorn is designated as an adult in the juvenile court system, which would allow the boy, if convicted, to be sentenced as a juvenile and then as an adult once he turns 21, according to Chris Becker, Kent County’s chief assistant prosecutor.
WWJ is identifying Lawhorn, who turned 12 in March, because he is charged as an adult.
Defense attorney Charles Boekeloo told a court referee he may seek a mental evaluation to determine if Lawhorn is competent to stand trial. He was ordered held until an Aug. 13 preliminary hearing.
Authorities are continuing to investigate what led to the attack Monday at the Pinewood Village Mobile Home Park in Kentwood, near Grand Rapids.
According to police, Verkerke, his 7-year-old brother, his 9-year-old best friend and Lawhorn were playing around 6 p.m. when the older boy pulled a knife and stabbed Verkerke in the back.
“The kids, I thought they were just playing,” neighbor Barb Poelman, 50, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We were sitting right on our deck. We heard the kids run across the front … screaming. He (Verkerke) ran with the kids that were with him.”
Witnesses and police said Verkerke ran to his home and collapsed, bleeding on the porch. His mother, Poelman said, pleaded for help on the grass outside.
“She was screaming, ‘Where is the ambulance?’ while her boy was laying on the porch bleeding,” Poelman said.
Verkerke died a short time later at a hospital.
Lawhorn, meanwhile, went to Glen Stacey’s home nearby and asked to use his cell phone.
“I gave him my phone and I heard him tell the 911 operator, ‘I just stabbed someone. Come and get me. I want to die.’ It was just a sad situation,” Stacey told WZZM, adding that the boy was “very calm.”
Stacey said Lawhorn mentioned that he was upset because nobody loved him, and that he had taken multiple pills earlier in the day.
“The only time he raised his voice was when the police came,” Stacey said.
When officers arrived at the mobile home park, they first went to aid Verkerke, but Lawhorn wanted the officers to pick him up and yelled, “‘Hello, I’m right here. You’re going the wrong way,”‘ Stacey said.
When officers went back to Stacey’s yard, Lawhorn allegedly walked toward them with his hands out, as if he was ready to be placed in handcuffs.
Kentwood Police Chief Thomas Hillen said authorities are still investigating a motive for the attack. Police said Lawhorn was evaluated at a hospital and then taken to the Kent County Juvenile Detention Center.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the children knew each other. According to reports, Lawhorn does not live at the mobile home park.
Tiffany Armijo, whose son was playing with Verkerke when he was attacked, said she’s never seen Lawhorn before. She declined to discuss any details about the attack, but said Verkerke was her son’s best friend and “a good kid.”
“They always played together. He was at my house almost every day,” she said.
Residents and strangers gathered near the playground Tuesday night to hold a vigil and pray.
Susan DeGroot said her 4-year-old grandson, Ewan Beukema, has played with Verkerke and the others in the sandbox and on the colorful play equipment.
“Ewan was not here and so I’m very thankful that he was not on the playground with the children at the time,” DeGroot told the AP on Tuesday. “But it’s a tragedy for the community.”
Assistant Kent County Prosecutor Laura Clifton said she believes Lawhorn is the youngest defendant in Kent County charged with open murder, the Grand Rapids Press reported.
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