What Really Happened To Rodeny Hulin?

Since his death, teenage inmate Rodney Hulin has become a national symbol of why it's wrong to send juveniles to adult prisons. His true story, though, paints a different kind of troubling picture.

Apparently that wasn't enough; when high school started up again, he lasted only a month before being thrown out. He chewed out teachers and made scenes in class. Talented with computers, he took up a dare that he couldn't hack his way into the school's grading system. Finally, he was assigned to a special school for troubled kids. Rodney, though, refused to go. Instead, he began working at a Mr. Burger. He was doing well, his mother insists. He was not a bit of trouble.

"He was happy and he made his own money," she says now, "and was talking about getting an apartment when he was 17."

In the video that Bruntmyer's husband shot that Christmas of 1994, Rodney referred to having worked the previous night until 1:30 a.m. As he opened a box labeled a toaster oven, but that contained a winter jacket, his family kidded him that he would need to learn how to cook when he got his own apartment. He was a short kid, only five feet three inches tall, with a wispy mustache, scruffy hair and thick glasses.

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Things didn't go as planned. A week after Christmas, Rodney was fired for making two long-distance calls on his employer's phone, one to his father and another to a counselor. "It was like a bombshell," Bruntmyer says. "I went to his counselor and begged him to put him somewhere. He had threatened to kill me. One minute you could be doing something with him, and he could be the best of kids, the most enjoyable. The child side of him would come out and he would laugh and play. And then the dark destructive side would come out, and he would threaten and try to hurt me. He wanted to pretend like he was tough, but he wasn't."

Out of a job, the boy would sleep all day and sneak out at night. The week after he lost his job, Bruntmyer noticed a fire in the front yard of a neighbor's house. The police were on the scene investigating. "I asked Rodney if he did it," she says, "and he swore he didn't. He was the best liar that they came by."

With his last paycheck, she says, he had bought a blowgun with darts. "We didn't mind it," says Bruntmyer. "He would shoot at a target in the garage." But she later learned Rodney also shot darts at a neighbor's dog. And once in jail, he told her about a computer disc on which he had written about other misdeeds, such as setting a fire under a dump truck to see if it would explode.

Bruntmyer decided to move back to Dallas, and on Sunday, January 22, 1995 drove there to arrange housing for her family. Her husband, a long-distance driver for a bus company, was gone to Colorado. She had left her 21-year-old stepson in charge, but, she says, he stayed at a friend's house, leaving the three Hulin children alone.

After watching horror movies until early in the morning, Rodney, then 16, persuaded Rynell, 13, to help him make Molotov cocktails. They took a storage can to a nearby convenience store and bought a dollar's worth of gasoline, then went to the garage and filled three or four soft drink bottles with gasoline and stuffed rags into them for wicks. Then they started walking the streets of their neighborhood, looking for a place to throw them. It was 3 a.m. and cold and there was snow on the ground.

According to the boys' statements to the police, after walking a block or so away from home, Rynell shook a bottle to saturate the wick, and Rodney lit it with a cigarette lighter. Rynell threw it over a fence; he said he did it because his brother "was kind of pressuring me." Rynell saw smoke, but couldn't see if the bomb had done any damage. Rodney threw a couple of more gas-filled bottles in the same place, then both boys returned home and Rynell went to bed. Rodney, though, made a few more bombs and went out and threw them. According to his statement, one landed on a roof and caught it aflame, but that may have been an exaggeration. According to an offense report, his bomb "caused a small fire in a pile of empty cans against the outside wall of the residence."

When the police came to investigate later that morning, they already had their suspicions. They went straight to Rodney Hulin's residence and woke up Rynell. Smelling gasoline on his hands, they decided to take him in. Rodney was arrested as he was climbing over the back fence. According to the police report, Rodney said, "I was accused of stealing beer and I flipped."

Being arrested at this point could have been to Rodney Hulin's benefit. After all, he had not yet committed a truly major crime -- or at least no crime in which another person had been physically injured -- and it was obvious that whatever treatment he was getting at home wasn't working. A month shy of his 17th birthday, he was still legally a juvenile (in Texas, as in most states, 17 is the age of majority for being tried as an adult), and so could have been sent to a serious rehabilitation program.

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