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A teen pleads guilty to shattering a Clearwater building's glass windows with an image of Mary that believers found inspiring.
By CHRIS TISCH
Published July 13, 2004
CLEARWATER - The small, white-haired woman emerged from the courtroom gallery Monday morning with a cross dangling from her neck and a message to deliver to the judge.
On the other side of the aisle stood an equally undaunting figure: a wiry young man with blue eyes and a tight haircut that made his ears look big.
The woman was Rosie Reed, the site leader for Shepherds of Christ Ministries, which owns the mirrored building on U.S. 19 that many think holds the rainbow-hued image of the Virgin Mary.
The youngster was Kyle Maskell, the teen who slung steel balls into the top windows of the image, shattering the image and beheading one of Clearwater's most beloved figures.
Despite the damage, Reed told the judge: "Shepherds of Christ Ministries does not wish to press charges."
But the State Attorney's Office did. After the teen pleaded guilty to a criminal mischief charge Monday, prosecutors asked Judge Brandt Downey to sentence him to jail.
Downey jailed Maskell for 10 days and ordered him to pay the ministry $1,200 for the damage.
"He took something that is irreplaceable to the community," prosecutor Doug Ellis told Downey. "That's like slashing the Mona Lisa."
Because Maskell had already served some of those days in jail after his May 10 arrest, the 18-year-old could be free by the weekend. The jail stay will be followed by two years of probation.
Maskell's attorney, Roger Futerman, had initially hoped his client could receive pretrial intervention, in which the charge would have been dropped if Maskell fulfilled court-ordered requirements.
But Futerman said State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who could not be reached for comment Monday, told him prosecutors would seek jail time because the crime angered a lot of people in the community, including some who wanted to see the case tried as a hate crime.
"We understand the state's position," Futerman said.
Authorities said the vandalism was not a hate crime because Maskell was not spurred by religious motives when he broke the windows.
Instead, Futerman said, Maskell was motivated by the anguish that has marked his young life.
Futerman said Maskell, who is estranged from his parents, claims his father twice tried to kill him. He spent most of his childhood in foster homes. At 18, he is a sophomore at Clearwater High School.
"He has certainly gone through some horrific circumstances," Futerman said. "We're not excusing his act; we're just trying to explain it."
On March 1, Futerman said, Maskell was having nightmares about his childhood and couldn't sleep. He grabbed his slingshot and headed outside, looking for something to break. He came upon the iridescent Virgin Mary image, then fired at least three steel balls into the top panes of the figure.
"He was just mad at the world," Futerman said.
Two months later, a friend with whom Maskell had once stayed was cleaning out a bedroom when he came upon a slingshot, steel balls and newspaper clippings about the vandalism. The friend turned the items over to Clearwater High School officials, who told police.
During a teary interview, Maskell admitted the crime to officers, who arrested him on a charge of felony criminal mischief, which can carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
An anonymous benefactor hired Futerman to represent Maskell and bailed him out. Maskell has since been living in a foster home in Clearwater and working day labor jobs, Futerman said.
"I've seen him remorseful from day one until now," Futerman said.
Not long after the windows were shattered, a messenger with the ministry received word from God that the vandal should be spared, said John Weickert, president of the Cincinnati ministry.
"That came from above me," Weickert said.
The image has drawn millions of people to Clearwater since its presence became widely known in 1996. The ministry, which began leasing the building in 1998 and later bought it, had set up a shrine at its foot and erected a crucifix next to the windows.
While believers saw the image as a miracle, cynics said it may have been caused by the building's sprinklers and foliage.
Ministry officials have said the number of people visiting the building has decreased since the vandalism. The broken windows have been replaced with panes of clear glass.
However, ministry officials said another image that they think is Jesus' face can be seen in the glass; they claim that figure has become more apparent since Mary's decapitation.
Weickert sent Reed to court Monday to tell the judge the ministry didn't want to pursue charges or seek restitution. Prosecutors can, however, pursue criminal charges without a victim's consent.
After speaking with Maskell, Futerman told Downey his client would accept the punishment. Maskell pleaded guilty to the charge, though Downey withheld judgment against him. That was important, Futerman said, because Maskell feared a conviction would dash his hopes of one day joining the Marines.
In addition to the $1,200 in restitution, which covers the cost of the windows, Maskell must pay almost $1,100 in court and investigative costs. He also must receive a psychological evaluation and have no contact with the ministry.
Downey said if the ministry refuses the restitution, the money will go into a victim's fund.
After he was sentenced, Maskell - wearing Dockers khakis, a white shirt and a blue tie - signed some papers and had his fingers rolled for prints. Then bailiffs led him to jail.
Next week, Maskell will head to two summer camps, one a Juvenile Welfare Board camp in Sarasota that addresses anger issues in foster kids, the second a Salvation Army Bible camp in Gainesville.
Ministry officials have said they will pray for him.
"Jesus would forgive," Reed said after the hearing. "And we forgive."
-Chris Tisch can be reached at 727 445-4156 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified July 12, 2004, 23:52:20]