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    Drawn to trouble

    Guns, knives and death battled childhood's happy images when Michael Gonzalez set his crayons to paper. Born to a family acquainted with crime, he now stands charged with raping and murdering an elderly neighbor. Some say his beginnings planted him on a path to trouble. Said his uncle: "We sort of expected he would go this way sooner or later.''

    By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 24, 2002


    photo
    [Times photo: Ken Helle]
    Michael Gonzalez, 15, is accused of feigning illness to get into a neighbor's Town N'Country home Jan. 10 then stabbing, raping and killing her.
    TAMPA -- In sessions with a psychiatrist, a young Michael Gonzalez was asked to express his feelings through pictures. Putting crayon to paper, the boy unveiled two separate sides of his soul.

    Life with his custodian at the time -- his aunt, Linda Garcia -- was bright and happy. He drew a clean house and big flowers and wrote "My New House" and "New World."

    But life in Michael's second set of drawings was violent and bug-infested, full of frowning suns and murderous dreams. One picture showed a gun with four bullets. "Two were for his mother," wrote Vince Wilson, the boy's elementary school guidance counselor. "And two for his father."

    To some who watched Michael Gonzalez grow up, there was little doubt the baby-faced boy was a loaded gun himself.

    Today, at 15, he is accused of stabbing, raping and killing his neighbor, 73-year-old Anna Erwin, in her Town 'N Country home. On Jan. 10, investigators say, he tricked her into letting him in by pretending he was sick and needed to use her phone. Her husband of 55 years discovered her body.

    In the quiet suburban neighborhood where it happened, neighbors are still reeling from the savage attack, still wondering how a familiar face could have committed a crime so brutal. But for some who saw Michael grow from a troubled child to a juvenile delinquent to someone charged with murder, there is something else.

    Said his uncle Robert Gonzalez: "We sort of expected he would go this way sooner or later."

    'This kid has major problems'

    His father, Dennis Wayne Gonzalez, started on drugs and alcohol at a young age, then married and had six children he couldn't properly raise, according to Dennis Gonzalez's sister and brother, Michael's aunt and uncle

    In court documents, Michael's father admitted using cocaine when Michael was a toddler. He said he quit in 1989, though he admitted to relapses.

    "I used to drink and stuff, but that has nothing to do with (Michael's problems)," Dennis Gonzalez said in a recent interview.

    Gonzalez, who worked on and off as a manual laborer, had a lengthy record of mostly small crimes: battery on a law enforcement officer, throwing objects through windows, burglary, dealing in stolen property. His then-wife Cinda Gonzalez's record includes charges of disorderly conduct and petty theft.

    Within the family, there was more serious trouble. In 1992, Michael's then 17-year-old brother, also named Dennis Gonzalez, was charged in one of Tampa's most infamous crimes, the Culbreath Isles rape case. Prosecutors said he and three friends broke into a home in the upscale neighborhood, bound and gagged a teenage boy, repeatedly raped his mother in her bed, then went downstairs and made themselves breakfast. Gonzalez was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

    In 1993, Michael's parents were charged with misdemeanor counts of depriving four of the children of food and shelter. Police said the parents were drinking at a bar when investigators went into the home and found the children in dirty surroundings with a roach-infested refrigerator. Found not guilty, the parents sued the city, unsuccessfully, for damages.

    But after the arrests, Garcia, Michael's aunt, got temporary custody of 7-year-old Michael.

    Michael seemed to like the Garcia household. His aunt, who runs a day care, said Michael always wanted to be tucked into bed and kissed good night. "He was a beautiful boy," she said.

    He marveled at the steady meals and clean clothes most kids take for granted. He loved his crisp Boy Scout uniform, and he loved trips to Shoney's buffet, where he could eat as much as he wanted.

    But he also had a mountain of emotional problems, his aunt said. Angry thoughts about his parents would cause outbursts. And he was fascinated with knives. "We always had the knives locked up," she said.

    photo
    Young Michael Gonzalez, here in a Cubs Scouts uniform, participated in the Boy Scouts while living with his aunt.
    His uncle recalled a similar experience when he took Michael in years later. The boy would finger the tips of kitchen knives and remark on their sharpness.

    "I told (state social workers), "Listen, I can't watch this kid. This kid has major problems,' " his uncle said. "I couldn't believe the things that came out of his mouth. Put the bed on fire with them (his parents) in it, stabbing them to death. Not having food to eat, not having clothes. Stuff like that will do things to your head. I was well convinced Michael was headed for big, big trouble."

    When Michael was still living with his aunt, a psychiatrist prescribed Ritalin, and it seemed to help, she said.

    But over her strong objections, the state Department of Children and Families decided to return Michael to his parents when he was 9. When Michael found out he was going home, his aunt said, he swallowed 19 asthma pills. He ended up in a Charter mental health center, where Garcia says he wrapped a belt around his neck and tied it to a doorknob in a second suicide attempt.

    DCF spokeswoman Shawnna Lee would not comment on Michael's case, as juvenile cases are confidential. In general, she said, the department tries to keep families together, but "our absolute first priority is where is this child going to be the safest."

    In his comments to the St. Petersburg Times, Michael's father blamed the boy's problems on his sister and brother -- Garcia in particular. "She screwed him up pretty bad," he said before cutting the interview short.

    Exhausted by their experiences with Michael, his family and the system, his aunt and his uncle stepped back. Robert Gonzalez had no contact with him until the summer of 2000, when DCF asked him to watch Michael until they could place him in a foster home, he said. Garcia did not pursue him either.

    "I don't think my nerves could handle it," she said.

    Michael's drawings while he was seeing a psychiatrist were often violent.

    Out of control

    Tampa police records detail his arrests: auto burglary when he was 12, home burglary and dealing in stolen property a year later. In October 2000, police charged him with assault and stealing a car. Because he was treated as a juvenile offender, the dispositions of these cases are not public.

    Michael spent time in the Dorothy Thomas truancy home, said his uncle Robert Gonzalez, and also attended the Carver Center school for emotionally disturbed children.

    "He was a severe discipline problem, just basic defiance," Carver principal Tony Colucci said. "Nothing serious like weapons or drugs. And I remember his uncle tearing his hair out. He really tried."

    In 2001, Tampa police charged him with stealing a car, crashing into a passing car, leading them on a chase through Town 'N Country and getting into a second crash.

    According to his aunt, Michael was supposed to be at a Pinellas County boot camp when Mrs. Erwin was murdered. Instead, he had been living for several months with his sister Christina in the Essex Downs neighborhood, two houses down from the Erwins, watching her three children while she worked. There was a Pinellas County warrant out for him when he was arrested in the rape and murder.

    In the quiet Town 'N Country community of retirees and young families, neighbors wonder how they failed to recognize Michael's instability.

    Chris Gautier used to let his young daughter play in the house where Michael stayed with his sister and her three young children. Since the murder, Gautier said he sleeps on his living room couch for security.

    "It could have been me," said Maria Santiago, who lives between the Erwin home and the house where Michael stayed.

    She can't forget the typical-looking teenager who stood next to her in a crowd as Mrs. Erwin's body was taken from the house. Her boyfriend remembered the teenager saying that whoever committed the crime had to be "really crazy and sick." After seeing a report on the arrest on TV, the boyfriend told Santiago the gangly boy who stood next to them was Michael.

    "I hope he definitely gets what he deserves," she said. Erwin "didn't get what she deserves. She was really nice. I feel really bad for both families. But I don't think I have any feelings for (Michael)."

    Michael's aunt and her husband, Raul Garcia, went years without touching Michael's room. It was only last year after their daughter moved back in that they rearranged some things. The television, stereo, VCR, Playstation and Miami Dolphins jacket they bought for him remain.

    Their daughter Melissa Garcia recalled once hearing Michael say he didn't want anyone to suffer as he did. Years ago he talked of becoming a police officer so he could put the bad guys in jail. He "wanted to change the world," she said.

    Now, Linda Garcia says, "Michael is ruined. Michael has to pay for what he has done."

    Michael's mother, Cinda Gonzalez, could not be reached for comment for this story.

    His father said he didn't understand what went wrong.

    "I don't know why my son did that," he said.

    But, he added, "I'm not worried about looking bad. I've got God on my side."

    -- Information from Times files was used in this story. Researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Josh Zimmer can be reached at (813) 269-5314.


    Guns, knives and death battled childhood's happy images when Michael Gonzalez set his crayons to paper. Born to a family acquainted with crime, he now stands charged with raping and murdering an elderly neighbor. Some say his beginnings planted him on a path to trouble. Said his uncle: "We sort of expected he would go this way sooner or later."

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