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The judge's dilemma: A felon, 17

The teen robbed five stores at gunpoint last summer. Friday, an agonized judge decided his fate.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 1, 2003

TAMPA -- Judge Daniel Perry had reason to frown as he looked around his courtroom Friday morning.

Whatever decision he would make in the case of 17-year-old Aaron Rhodes, the judge knew that many of the people gathered before him wouldn't be pleased.

If he decided Rhodes should serve the next 40 years of his life in prison for robbing five North Tampa stores at gunpoint last summer, then Rhodes' family and friends -- who said the teen had found God and turned his life around in the wake of his arrest -- would be crushed.

If Perry gave Rhodes a suspended sentence, then the half-dozen store cashiers, clerks and managers sitting in the courtroom, all of whom had faced Rhodes and a 9mm gun, would be devastated. Not to mention the detectives who had worked for months to solve the case.

It was a scene that is repeated every day in courtrooms across the country: A judge confronts a first-time juvenile offender. Should the judge be lenient? Or should there be a harsh punishment for a young man with a gun?

"Whatever I do, no one is going to be happy," Perry said.

* * *

Aaron Rhodes had pleaded guilty to five robberies in suburban North Tampa not far from his home. He told detectives he robbed the stores so he could get enough money to buy drugs and become a drug dealer. That, and for thrills, he said.

"Rarely have I interviewed anyone who was as arrogant and confident as Aaron Rhodes," said Hillsborough sheriff's Det. Manuel Lowe. "He was quick to point out how well he had organized his crimes."

The first robbery was a McDonald's. Rhodes told detectives he committed that one after going to church.

The second was a Hollywood Video. Rhodes used a gun this time, stolen from his father.

The third was a 7-Eleven. The fourth, another Hollywood Video.

The fifth led to his arrest. He and another teen planned meticulously to rob the Publix on Van Dyke Road in Lutz. Rhodes used to work at the Publix and knew what day the store would have the most cash.

Rhodes and the other teen, who has not yet been sentenced, waited in the parking lot. When the store closed, they rushed toward two clerks as they walked to their cars.

Christina Salvo, a 34-year-old mother of two, was dragged back inside the store. Rhodes, who was wearing a black ski mask, held a gun to her head. He couldn't find the store manager to open the safe, so he didn't get any cash.

Rhodes and the other teen walked out with three cartons of cigarettes.

* * *

It didn't take detectives long to find Aaron Rhodes. When he had spoken to Christine Salvo, she had recognized the voice of her former co-worker. Detectives were led to Sickles High, where Rhodes is a student, and then to his house.

Rhodes' father persuaded his son to tell detectives everything.

In court on Friday, Ben Rhodes blamed "outside influences" for his son's actions. He and others, including Rhodes' pastor, pleaded with Judge Perry to help the teen. Aaron Rhodes had been on the Sickles High honor roll. He had volunteered with his church group and helped the homeless, they said.

The prosecutors weren't buying it. They asked Perry to give the teen 40 years in prison. They could have asked for life on each of the crimes.

"These were well planned out crimes," said Assistant State Attorney Tarryn Burnett.

Burnett asked Salvo what sentence she thought Rhodes could get.

"I don't think he should be let off easy," Salvo said. "I just want him to be as scared as we all were."

* * *

Rhodes apologized to Salvo and everyone else. He wept. "I beg you to have mercy on me," he said to the judge.

Perry looked at the teen.

"You have to wonder," the judge said. "The parents have a son in the military, a sister in college, they have no problems. Are you a bad seed?"

"No, sir," Rhodes answered.

The judge went on. "You live an upper middle-class life. Going to school with kids I know. You've robbed the Publix that I go to. For no reason."

Everyone in the courtroom -- victims, family, detectives -- was quiet. It seemed as though Perry was the only one breathing in the room.

"Seventeen years old and looking at five life sentences," Perry said. "For the thrill of it."

Perry said he wasn't swayed by Rhodes' newfound religious conviction. "I've converted more people to Christianity than Billy Graham," the judge said.

He sighed. "I have two choices. I can do something fairly easy. Or I can take a chance on you."

Rhodes family gasped. Someone said, "Oh my God!" Salvo buried her face in a tissue.

"I know it's not going to be popular," Perry said, "But I will sentence you as a youthful offender."

A suspended sentence for six years, two of them on supervised probation, and 500 hours community service, Perry ruled.

"You commit any more crimes, you're in there for life," he said.

"No second chance."

* * *

Everyone was crying. Rhodes' mother and father held hands.

The victims filed out of the courtroom.

"It stinks," Salvo said.

The two detectives on the case weren't talking. Their sergeant spoke.

"I had 20 victims that I had to go apologize to," said Sgt. Acy Akridge. "I really don't feel that the citizens in this county really got justice today."

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