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Fourteen-year-old Roderick Victor arrives at the AMC theater at First Colony Mall on this cold February 6 night with a few friends and no definite plans. The Sugar Land movie theater is a place to hang out, a place to chat up the girls -- not necessarily a place to see movies.
Frederick Conner, 14, arrives with his own set of friends. The two boys know each other and are in some ways mirror images.
Both make good grades at their rival middle schools in nearby Missouri City. Both do well in football, basketball and track. Fred had 22 touchdowns last season; Roderick had 15. Their March birthdays are just 15 days apart.
According to Fred's mother, the two may have even been friends once. Yolanda Conner-Canty heard that they ran track together and bought each other cold drinks. Fred's friends say he's "a real jokester," "one of those guys you'd never see him not smiling."
But tonight Fred's not smiling and Roderick's not smiling.
There is some sort of simmering feud going on, started last year over a girl. The details remain as hazy as the events that follow. They stare at each other, the two groups of young men, and the stares give way to smack-talk over a recent basketball game between the two schools, Fred's Quail Valley and Roderick's Lake Olympia. Friends on each side escalate the argument in front of the theater.
"His friends was like, I had been waitin' for this and all this and I was about to get beat up and stuff," says Roderick, an eighth-grader whose body fits somewhere between the awkwardness of later boyhood and the sturdiness of the pro athlete he hopes to become. "And I was like, this is why, who's gonna come beat me up and then he was bumpin' and then the security guard came around the corner."
The boys get the message: If this thing is going to happen, it can't happen here. They walk off into the night, still yelling at each other, meeting up in the back parking lot of the nearby Methodist hospital.
An AMC spokesman would later say that the private security guard saw no signs of "hostility," which was why he made no attempt to intervene.
"One of his friends was like, man, y'all gonna do this or what?" says Roderick. "And then I asked my friend, I was like, man, should I fight this dude? And he was like, man, I don't know. That's up to you."
They scuffle, grabbing and kicking and swinging at each other in front of a group of ten or 15 kids. Roderick tosses Fred to the ground once. Gets on top of Fred. The group of kids pulls him off. More kicking and swinging and grabbing. Roderick tosses him to the ground again. Fred, tearing at Roderick's jersey as he's held down, gets off a whack at Roderick's eye. Roderick pushes him off and Fred gets back up.
Roderick throws his first punch, his only punch. Fred's upper lip splits open like butterfly wings. His teeth crumble into a mess of broken Chiclets. Fred stumbles back. The back of his head slams against the parking lot pavement. He does not get up. He does not move.
Thirteen days later, Frederick Conner is pronounced dead.
After opening in 1997, AMC theater became a beacon for Sugar Land's teens -- the one place they could go to get their parents off their backs for a few hours. Pretty soon that beacon was broadcasting all the way down State Highway 6 to Missouri City and south on U.S. 59 to Rosenberg. For miles around, AMC First Colony became the place to be if you had nowhere to go.
It didn't take long before "going to the movies" had little or nothing to do with actually watching a movie, and on a warm spring night the population of teens outside the theater seems to swell into the hundreds. It starts around six o'clock on Friday and Saturday nights: A convoy of middle-class minivans, SUVs and luxury cars begins pulling into the parking lot, unloading kids, the drivers almost uniformly waving good-bye and reminding, "Call me when the movie gets out."
The theater's entrance fills to capacity, resembling a middle school dance, with brightly outfitted teens darting back and forth, trading the latest gossip, seeing who likes who, and maybe, if they get around to it, checking out a flick. While AMC technically has a policy of no loitering, it's hard to tell a 14-year-old with no car to get out and easy to imagine the crowd of infuriated parents should management ever take that step. Certainly that became an issue for Fred Conner's enraged parents.
It's a month after Fred's death, and sitting outside the theater, taking in the whole scene is Casey, a 15-year-old freshman at nearby Clements High School. He's careful to say "Class of '07," eschewing the word freshman. "That's a bad word around us, especially if you're talking to girls," he says. Casey -- whose name, along with the names of some other minors in this story, has been changed -- is a veteran of the theater scene, which he calls a "meeting spot, a chilling spot," where kids old enough to have friends who can drive start out their night.