Fulton County murders raise concern; Residents seek answers in wake of deadly crimes

Leader-Herald/Spencer Tulis

Police stand guard over a car parked outside a Johnstown home. The car was used in connection with the murder of Lucas Whaley, 17. The murder was one of five in Fulton County during 1998.

May 31, 1998

By: Michael Anich

The Leader-Herald

GLOVERSVILLE -- What's going wrong with the kids?

That's the question many area residents are asking after teen-agers were charged in the latest murder in Gloversville last week. Over the past four months, four people were murdered in Fulton County, and young people have been charged in three of the murders.

District Attorney Polly A. Hoye says the murder arrests don't necessarily point to a problem with juvenile crime. While the number of juvenile arrests jumped from 98 in 1995 to 135 in 1996, statistics show little change in the juvenile crime rate in the county over the past 10 years.

But law enforcement officials say they are seeing a change in children's attitude.

"You used to hear kids spouting off -- one of these days I'm going to kill somebody," Hoye said. Now, in some cases, dangerous fantasies are being played out, she said. "In some of these cases, there's no remorse whatsoever."

Johnstown Police Chief James Cook says he's noticed children today "certainly have an attitude," whether it's going onto someone's porch, messing up someone's flowers or taunting others while standing in the middle of the street.

"Whatever they want to do, they do," he said.

Last week's murder in Gloversville, Cook said, shows the suspects "obviously could (should be "couldn't) care less" about the life of the victim.

In that murder, police say Bruce Insonia and Ronald Johnson III, both 16, tied up, beat and left 77-year-old Robert D. Wittemeyer for dead during a robbery on Monday. The teens were charged with second-degree murder.

In the other Fulton County murders:

Hoye said Fulton County averages a murder every two or three years, and was statistically "overdue" for a murder after six years without having one.

Hoye said some of the youths going through Fulton County Court in recent months for violent crimes appear nonchalant.

Across America, people are seeing evidence of children lashing out in violence. The May 21 school cafeteria shooting in Springfield, Ore., is the latest highly publicized case. In that incident, a 15-year-old killed two children and wounded 22.

"It seems to be nationwide," said Arthur J. Recesso, director of the Fulton County Youth Bureau. "The crimes seem to be much more violent than in the past, a total disrespect for life."

Recesso said much of the problem starts at the youth's home, and schools have their own responsibilities.

"A lot of it is drug-related problems," he said. "As for boredom, adults are the ones telling them there's nothing to do. I think there's plenty for them to do."

Steve Serge, director of the Fulton County YMCA, said youths have a lot on their emotional plate nowadays. But, he said, that doesn't mean Fulton County's youths are any different from their peers elsewhere. "There are problems facing young people across the United States," he said.

"I would say the kids today definitely are facing more challenges and troubling times than any other time in our history," Serge added.

Hoye said it may be too early to tell whether Fulton County is experiencing a homicide trend related to youthful perpetrators.

"We're hoping that it's not (a trend)," the district attorney said, "but it certainly looks like it may be.

"Certainly, people are resorting to violence as a first option, rather than as a last option," Hoye said.

Warren S. Greene, director of the Fulton County Probation Department, said, "I think because it's a free country, we have tow competing things going on all the time."

Most people have to balance the "what's in it for me mentality" versus the personal "responsibility for community, and discipline," he said.

Greene said parents of this younger generation -- statistically in the middle of the baby boomer generation -- "blew it" by electing to seize on the "what's in it for me" lifestyle. He said their children are suffering because of an elemental family breakdown overshadowing previous good morals taught by older generations.

"I think that's to the detriment of their children," said Greene, who notices problems with Fulton County families every day.

Robert A. Martin, a criminal justice services professor at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, said he noticed the spate of recent Fulton County murders involving young suspects are "connected" because they all involved taking money from victims.

He theorized that action sends the signal there may be a "lack of jobs" in the area, or perhaps money was sought for another reason.

At the Family Counseling Center in Gloversville, Executive Director Kathy Hemmens admits young people committing serious crimes are "likely not to have very much in the way of material resources."

"We're seeing here (at the center) younger and younger kids being out of control, aggressive and violent in their behavior," Hemmens said. Those out of control can be as young as 8 or 9 years of age, she said, and center staff periodically have had to call the police to restore order.

Hemmens said in most of these children's families, there's a combination of factors leading to that type of behavior -- domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse or physical abuse. She said a persistent pattern of this type of home life can lead to escalating problems.

when the same children hit the unpredictable teen-age years. "It's not all a lack of discipline," she said. "It's a lack of affection and nurturing."