By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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.
"Here and the mall," he says. "In Sugar Land, that's the only place to go."
But tonight Casey isn't just hanging out, he's keeping an eye out while his friends sell drugs. The theater's massive parking lot -- so big, one wonders if AMC has ever filled it -- provides an easy cover for meeting up with buyers, they say. Until recently, the two or three off-duty police officers AMC employs rarely wandered beyond the main patio and almost never checked out the parking lot.
Casey's friends are pushing ecstasy and Xanax -- or "tabs" and "bars." These are expensive and lucrative drugs, especially for kids who still rely on their bikes to get around. Ecstasy has a street value of about $20 a pill. Xanax sells for between $2 and $5. But since Xanax is usually stolen out of medicine cabinets, the profit there works out to 100 percent.
On the surface, Casey's the sort of kid every parent dreams about. He has a face like Justin Timberlake's and sports the same carefully managed -- though not too thick -- facial hair. He's smart and well spoken, and throughout the night various girls stop by to say hi, playing with his knit skullcap or inquiring about his pierced eyebrow. He could be an Abercrombie model in his neat button-up shirt.
On his arm is a three-inch self-drawn tattoo. "It means strong," he says.
For Casey, looking strong is crucial to hanging out at the theater, which he says is a mecca for kids looking to fight.
"You just come up here and give somebody a wrong look and you'll fight," he says. "That's why everybody rolls up here with a big group of people -- so they won't get their ass kicked." He says he's been in one fight, between a group of Asian and white kids, but managed to get away before the police broke it up.
"It's all the Willowridge and Mo City kids," he says. "They're coming down and they don't have anything out there and they're all big and trying to prove shit."
While Sugar Land is fairly diverse, it's still a place of former Enron executives, million-dollar homes and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who grabbed 63 percent of the vote in 2002 after barely campaigning. "It's a little white community," Casey says -- one that doesn't react well to black kids. Missouri City, just a few miles down the road and home to Fred's and Roderick's middle schools, is a much more diverse community. But the theater is still the place to go for weekend fun. Fred or Fred's family would be there just about every time a big release came out. Roderick had been hanging out at the theater for almost three years.
Nearly every youngster interviewed at the theater said the police are harder on black kids, tossing them out at the slightest provocation and searching them when they get an excuse. "I could hold up the snack bar while the cops are watching the black kids walk," says Casey.
A large group of black teens from Missouri City walks up to Casey, acting hard and messing with his group. But they're friends, and they're just checking to see what's going down. It's still early, only 9 p.m., but most of these kids will have to be home before midnight.
When asked if the police are tougher on black kids, they all agree vigorously, and each has a story of being singled out. Some were friends with Fred, and backed the rumored account of the night, saying the fight was stupid and "about a ho." Most fights aren't like that, they say; they're between kids from different schools. In a middle-class world, what school you go to is the one major thing you can fight about.
"We've got no gangs in Mo City," says one talkative kid. "It's just people who thinks they hard." School colors replace gang colors. Other kids say that Fred's death has increased tension between Lake Olympia and Quail Valley middle schools, but that most of the school fights are among students from Fort Bend Independent School District's eight high schools.
Things are starting to cool off with Casey's pusher friends. Most people have gotten their Friday-night kicks. Casey says now is when people start coming up to the theater drunk or on drugs. "People come up here drunk as hell."
Right as he says that a blond girl called Cathy (not her real name) stumbles up. "See what I mean?" he says. Cathy is 14 and still sporting a bit of baby fat around the edges. Her red shirt reads, "Cowboys make better lovers."
"You smell like puke and vodka," Casey taunts. Cathy can barely open her eyes and starts searching for a place to vomit in the bushes. It's a minor-in- possession charge waiting to happen, but both cops are inside the air-conditioned theater.
"You can't blame it on parents. They think cops are everywhere. It's the kids' decision" to drink or do drugs, Casey says. "Movies don't appeal to people anymore. You have to give it a little kick. People come up here on 'shrooms or acid to give it that. Every movie's starting to be the same."
Casey and his friends decide to kick it up a notch by dropping some of their X, something they say they've all done many times before. Some nights they'll stroll through a nearby field and smoke a joint or climb up onto the roof of a storage facility across the street. Tonight's pill is a "blue wavie," named for its color and design. It's not a special occasion or anything, really, just an antidote to boredom. A friend sums it up: "It makes Sugar Land better, 'cause Sugar Land fucking sucks."
Yolanda Conner-Canty got the call that night at 11:15, the call that every parent dreads when the phone rings late at night and the kids aren't at home.
Fred's friends had picked up her son to go out at around seven. By that time, it was already dark out. They headed off to the AMC First Colony and bought tickets to see Barbershop 2. Halfway into it, Fred got up and left the theater without his ticket -- apparently he had given it to a girl to hold onto. When he tried to get back in, his friends say, the theater security wouldn't let him and kicked him out. He called his buddies on his cell phone in the middle of the movie. They came out and joined him. That's when they all saw Roderick.
It was Fred's phone calling his mother at 11:15, but it wasn't Fred on the other end of the line.
"They told me that Frederick had been into a fight and that he fell. The boy hit him in his mouth and he fell back and he can't get up. And I asked, 'What do you mean, he can't get up?' " says Conner-Canty, her voice and ire rising. She rushed to the parking lot and followed the ambulance to Polly Ryon Memorial Hospital. (Fred was later LifeFlighted to Memorial Hermann.) The X-rays, she says, revealed a blood clot in the back of his head the size of a fist. Fred was throwing up and speaking incoherently. When she asked about the fight, Fred only repeated feverishly, "Coach, get them off of me! Coach, get them off of me!"
"[I] asked him, do he know what year, does he know what year that he's living in -- he says he living in the 16th century," she says. "This is what my son's saying His mind was playing tricks on him." At other moments, he could correctly identify himself, his mother and father and return an "I love you."
A few days later, doctors performed brain surgery on Fred. His brain did not stop swelling. They gave him heavy anesthetics, so that his whole body numbed up and a breathing machine kept him alive. On February 18, doctors determined that Frederick was brain-dead. They let the medicine wear off, to see if he would still come around.
He died the next day.
Fred's family had moved from New Orleans nine years ago, hoping to escape the grittiness of the projects.
"We move out here because we heard that it was a safe environment -- for our kids," says Maurice Canty, Fred's stepfather, a mountain of a man with a N'awlins accent, standing on the sidewalk in front of their home. By any standard, their cul-de-sac glows with that hope: red brick houses, a basketball hoop next to the mailbox, a bicycle left in the driveway and a country club around the bend.
But for Fred's parents, standing underneath the dim streetlight, retelling the story of the death of their son has a way of quieting that dream.
"It's just ridiculous how it's gone down this road. I mean, my child wasn't supposed to go like that, he wasn't supposed to leave me like that!" says Conner-Canty, puddles of tears filling in beneath her eyes, her voice brittle and cracking. "He wasn't supposed to go! He wasn't supposed to leave me!" She shakes her head and sniffs back the tears.
A Fort Bend County grand jury convened in late March to review one of two possible charges: criminally negligent homicide and aggravated assault. Roderick's mother brought him to the police station to give a statement the Sunday after the fight. As the district attorney's office believes the fight was consensual and the fall -- which caused Fred's death -- was largely accidental, the grand jury voted not to pursue criminal charges against Roderick.
"It's a very, very tragic and unfortunate scenario. It really is. It's just that it did not rise to what we believe to be criminal charges," says Tyra McCollum, chief assistant district attorney of the juvenile division. "You have to wonder if either of those boys knew that if they fought and one of them was definitely going to die as a result of it, that it still would have happened."
Teenagers are always very welcome for us, and by and large the majority of them are well behaved," says Rick King, an AMC spokesman. For AMC that's just smart business, as teenagers constitute the most active moviegoing demographic. A 2003 Cinema Study report found that 71 percent of kids age 12 to 17 in the United States had been to a movie theater in the past month.
The large crowds at AMC First Colony aren't unique, King says, and similar groups of teens congregate at suburban theaters across the country. "There are a lot of teens, and we recognize that at any large area, problems can arise. It's a priority for us to maintain a safe environment."
"I have fun [at AMC], but it's pretty much a lack of options," says Briscoe Junior High School student Ellen (not her real name), whose parents dropped her off from Rosenberg. Most times she does find a movie to watch, but warns that "if it's not attention-grabbing," she'll walk out and go back to socializing.
Freshmen Allison, who goes to a private school, and Hannah, who attends Clements High School, say they always watch the movie, but still will do some socializing before it starts. They get dropped off and have to call their parents as soon as the movie's over.
A month and a half after Fred's death, police report the arrest of another 15-year-old boy for firing a shot at a group of kids in the theater parking lot in what appears to have been a botched drug deal. No one was hurt and the teen sped off with an older driver and was later arrested. Since then, security has been stepped up significantly. King would not comment on specific procedures such as the number of police, and local theater managers are barred from talking to the media, but a recent night found seven police officers patrolling the entire theater premises.
A review of Sugar Land Police Department records for the AMC theater reveals that between January 2003 and April 2004 there were two assaults, 14 car burglaries, six instances of disorderly conduct, seven drug violations, two cases of public intoxication, three robberies, five stolen cars and one ticket for indecent exposure.
Sitting on a bicycle in the parking lot on a quieter evening was Officer Mark Floyd, a 21-year-veteran of the Sugar Land Police Department. Floyd says he's surprised by kids complaining they have nothing to do. "There's a lot more to do here than in a lot of places," he says, but he adds that they used to do the same thing when he went to high school at Dulles.
"We rode horses and roped calves," he says, but also hung out at the only movie theater, a defunct spot over on State Highway 90. They'd go there even when they didn't expect to like the movie. "I remember my mom telling me I wouldn't like [All the President's Men], but saying, 'I'm going anyways.' "
While the officers may have scared off some trouble -- Casey and his friends are nowhere to be seen on this recent visit -- most visitors say they enjoy the extra security, even if they've never needed it.
"We've never had any trouble," says 62-year-old Sylvia Farmer, leaving The Alamo with her husband. "We feel like it's our home theater." The Farmers say that while they notice the large groups of teens and visit the theater about twice a month, they've never been bothered, either by noise in the theater or otherwise, but she confides, "Honestly, we don't go to the teenage movies."
Even teens can appreciate the extra security, like Ruben, a wiry 16-year-old sophomore at Hightower High School. That way he knows no one is going to mess with him. Also a weekly regular at the theater, he adds that the largest fights occur when a big-budget release like Bad Boys 2 or 2 Fast 2 Furious comes out. "The most times is when a good new release come out and there's a lot" of people.
But he finishes with the same familiar complaint, the reason he's stuck hanging out and meeting girls at the theater: "There's just really nothing. You can't go to clubs or anything. This is the next best thing."
Fred's death "was not accidental," says Yolanda Conner-Canty, his mother. "That was not. That boy murdered my child. That's all I have to say, he murdered my child. And until I see some justice, I ain't gonna be able to live right, I ain't gonna never be able to sleep till I see some justice."
Much of the feud between Fred and Roderick remains shrouded in a fog of grief and anger -- a combination of protective parents, the sometimes impenetrable code of young teens and actual family law code that withholds details because of the teens' ages. As some witnesses were being interviewed, one father whisked his child away as soon as the subject turned to details of the fight. Fred's family is still contemplating the possibility of a civil lawsuit.
Fred's family accuses Roderick of using some of sort of weapon, such as brass knuckles -- yet the assistant district attorney says they found no evidence to support that claim. Roderick, who admits that he's been in fights before, says Fred pepper-sprayed him last Halloween in an attack over the same girl. Fred's family denies that, arguing that he was home passing out candy.
"If I woulda known about Mace please!" says Conner-Canty. "I woulda went to his parents and Fred woulda been punished till next year."
A few weeks after the fight, Roderick was pulled from classes at Lake Olympia Middle School and put in Fort Bend ISD in an alternative school for students who have been suspended from their regular campus. Out of concern for his safety on the part of school officials, he will remain there until the end of the school year. Other kids report that tensions have grown even higher between the two middle schools.
Fort Bend ISD spokesperson Mary Ann Simpson says that while the school district was not aware of "any particular instances" or "extra tensions between those campuses, that's not to say there isn't."
For middle school boys, tough-guy posturing is a part of growing up. Even so, at 15, Roderick Victor seems to be sincere in his remorse that a death -- albeit accidental -- is on his hands. He also speaks with the nervousness of a marked man: "When I go somewhere, I always gotta look behind my back and stuff to see if somebody gonna try to do something to me."
Samantha Hunter, Roderick's mother, says that following the fight the family received numerous threatening phone calls. One day after school, Roderick was stepping off the school bus and a car tried to hit him and a friend, the two boys rushing into the safety of his house just in time. Later that day, Hunter says, the same car of young men attacked Roderick's brother near a McDonald's in the area. The family says they have started recording their phone lines and have put out extra lights and cameras around the house. More recently, it's quieted down. This is even more unsettling, they say.
Kids his age see him as a killer, Roderick says, especially those who don't know him personally. He speaks simply and softly about wanting to turn back time: "I wish I wouldn't never went there."
In late April, a few weeks after Easter, the Quail Valley Middle School athletics department holds a year-end banquet to give out awards and celebrate the accomplishments of its young Raider athletes.
Summer's coming soon, and in the back of a large cafeteria-type room, teammates have jammed into a low table, squeezing in elbow space for their paper plates of barbecue beef and bread slices. Some fidget in the dressy clothes. A few crack jokes above the noisy chatter.
At the podium in front, a school official congratulates them. Both students and parents should be proud to have reached this moment. A lot of people start the season, he says, but this group has followed it through to the end.
Maurice Canty and Yolanda Conner-Canty have dressed up for the occasion, and they sit at one of the tables full of adults. Fred's little brother is there, too.
They begin reading the names of the students alphabetically: Caples. Castro. Comeaux. Cornett.
Frederick Conner's name is right there in the little yellow program, right there as a member of the eighth-grade football team. If his parents notice the omission, that their son has been forgotten, they don't react immediately. A school official comes over and whispers something in their ears. Canty nods.
After the whole team is announced, they give out the MVP award. Now his name rings out, loud and clear, through the microphone and across the room:
The room explodes with cheers. As Canty and Conner-Canty rise out of their seats, the rest of the parents in the room stand with them, applauding. The kids in back shout out for Fred. Dad smiles. Mom cries and cheers. The ovation lasts a good half-minute, and when they come back to their seats, she clutches the plaque tightly, holding onto something far, far more than just an engraved name.
Frederick Conner was the oldest of seven. His one-year-old sister still wakes up at night and calls out Fred's name. The rest of the children, Canty says, are getting counseling and therapy at school, and they're looking into getting it after school, as well.
Fred's mother doesn't try to hide it -- she can't cope. She's lost her grip on things.
"I really don't even feel like I have a reason to even much" -- she stops short of saying it. "I mean, I know I love my other kids, but that was my oldest child and he did so much for me -- to help my children and us, to where I could do anything -- I could put a roast in a bag and he could put the roast in the oven, you know what I'm sayin'? And doing so much just to help me with me, with my children. My kids can't even see their brother outside shootin' basketball, talkin' about a career, he had a career in basketball, football and track -- and no tellin' what else he wanted to do!"
Her voice is breaking, now again in the darkness of the cul-de-sac, standing beneath the basketball hoop that Fred used to practice on. It doesn't make sense. Not at all. It was just one punch. And it wrecked much more than just one jaw or even two lives. Neither family has felt comfortable letting their children go back to the movie theater since -- perhaps the one thing that they can agree on.