CLEARWATER - Angry, bored and unable to sleep, Kyle Maskell grabbed his Marksman slingshot and headed out of his foster home to destroy something that might bring him a degree of infamy that rivaled his rage, police said.
He soon looked up into the image of the Virgin Mary, the iridescent figure that had formed on the side of a glass building on U.S. 19 eight years earlier, drawing throngs of believers to Clearwater.
Maskell reached into the pouch of his slingshot and launched three or four ball bearings, striking the image's top three panes, police said. People who showed up hours later found the virgin beheaded.
That's the story Clearwater police say Maskell, an 18-year-old Clearwater High School sophomore, told them Monday morning before they arrested him on a charge of felony criminal mischief. He was being held at the Pinellas County Jail Monday night in lieu of $10,000 bail.
Police said the teen cried for three hours while recounting his deed. The guilt had eaten at him for more than two months.
"He was sorry. It wasn't anything he intended to do," said Officer Christian Zarra, one of two officers who interviewed Maskell. "It's just pretty much that life caught up to him. He was very apologetic."
Reactions from those visiting the image Monday were mixed. Some stressed forgiveness, others punishment and responsibility.
"We've been praying for whoever did it since the day it happened," said Rosie Reed, site leader for Shepherds of Christ Ministries, which owns the building. "We pray for the whole world under Mary's image. I'm going to continue praying for everyone involved."
But Jose Pombo II, who was there to light a candle Monday, had punishment in mind.
"If he's 18, he's an adult. For this kid not to know, at the age of 18, what this represents is inexcusable," Pombo said. "I think he should serve a very long time. It's desecrating a holy place. That's like going to Lourdes in France and desecrating it."
Though Clearwater police investigated for weeks, leads had slowed to a trickle.
On Monday, however, a family with whom Maskell once stayed approached a teacher at his school. In Maskell's dresser drawer they had found a slingshot, a container of ball bearings and newspaper clippings about the vandalism.
They took the items to the teacher. School staff then gave the items to Zarra, who summoned the detective who had been investigating the March 1 vandalism.
Then they called for Maskell, who was in his first-period class. It didn't take long for him to break down and explain his troubled life in foster homes.
"He's been bouncing around and never had a solid home," Zarra said. "He was angry at life."
Police didn't have any information about Maskell's parents, though arrest reports list his birthplace as New Hampshire. He worked at a Boston Market, his arrest advisory says.
Some believers had thought the vandalism was an act of religious hatred, perhaps in retaliation for the success of the movie The Passion of the Christ.
But police say Maskell didn't act out of religious motivation. He merely stumbled upon the Virgin Mary while in a destructive mood.
"This was not a religious thing," said police spokesman Wayne Shelor. "It was a case of a lost child looking for an identity, who reached out and expressed his anger in a way he shouldn't have. Under color of law, it's a case of felony criminal mischief. But we know in reality it's touched millions of people. He wept over that this morning. He was very upset."
Because the motive wasn't related to religion, police did not arrest him on a hate crime charge.
"This incident is as simple as a child who could not sleep, was bored, walked around in anger and wanted to do something to give himself a sense of identity, a sense of being somebody," Zarra said.
"He was angry and that's how he was going to release his anger, just go out and destroy something," Zarra added. "He wanted to vent his anger on something. It gave him identity. This was his big deal. This is who he is, this is what he'll be remembered by. Now he is somebody in his eye."
But those feelings turned into sorrow Monday morning.
"He has asked us to apologize to them on his behalf," Zarra said.
Officials would not say how long Maskell had been a foster child or in how many homes he has lived. But when he turned 18 in December, he went out on his own, said Lee Johnson, executive vice president of the Sarasota YMCA, which manages foster care programs in Pinellas County.
Zarra said he has never had any problems with Maskell at the school. And a former foster parent told the St. Petersburg Times that vandalism was unlike Maskell.
Neither Clearwater police nor Pinellas sheriff's deputies had any contact with Maskell while he was a juvenile, records show.
Maskell and another teen were arrested two weeks ago for shoplifting two knives, a pack of razors and a pair of jeans from a local Wal-Mart. He pleaded guilty the same day and was sentenced to six months of probation.
The vandalism charge is a third-degree felony, which carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison, but Clearwater police said it seems unlikely Maskell will receive prison time if convicted of vandalizing the virgin image. "I cannot imagine they would send him to prison for this," Shelor said.
The Shepherds of Christ, meanwhile, will continue to keep vigil at the site. They have replaced the broken panes with panels of clear glass. Though the bottom of the Mary figure remains intact, the number of visitors has declined. Still, they plan to stay put.
"Mary's face is gone," said Reed, the site leader. "That's the bottom line."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Megan Scott and Adrienne Samuels contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 727 445-4156 or email@example.com