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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Father, son wait and work for justice
Weeks after the teenager and his dad are violently attacked, two arrests are made.
By HELEN ANNE TRAVIS, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
Donald Hedges, 55, and his son, 18, were both attacked in January. "I spent 14 months in Vietnam," Hedges said. "I have never seen anyone as vicious as this group of kids."
[Stephen J. Coddington | Times]
In the Boy Scouts and in their talks, Donald Hedges instilled these values in his son:
Problems are to be solved legally, by the authorities. But problems are meant to be solved.
On Jan. 2, Hedges says, several men and women attacked him and his 18-year-old son near a Checkers on State Road 52 in New Port Richey. Reports from the Sheriff's Office say the same.
Until a week ago, there were no arrests - and no progress if you asked Hedges, 55. So he tried to solve the case himself.
According to Hedges, his son Tyler and the Sheriff's Office, this is what happened Jan. 2:
Tyler and some buddies went to pick up a friend from Checkers about 10 p.m. Three strangers armed with brass knuckles and nun-chucks - a weapon that consists of two hardwood sticks joined at their ends by a short length of rawhide, cord, or chain - attacked the teens. The men broke one of Tyler's car windows. Tyler, the only one listed with serious injuries, was hit in the face, head and elbow and taken to Bayonet Point Medical Center.
The search started when Donald Hedges heard of his son's attack. Through a friend of a friend of his son, he learned about a mobile home where the attackers may live.
He went there. He said he didn't go to fight, just to find information. He planned to call the Sheriff's Office from the yard if he thought his son's attackers were inside the mobile home. But as soon as he got out of his truck, five men and two women swarmed out of the trailer and threw bricks, rocks and anything else they could find, deputies say he told them.
"I spent 14 months in Vietnam," Hedges said. "I have never seen anyone as vicious as this group of kids."
Hedges was taken to the hospital with injuries to his head, arm and foot. He was in the ambulance, he said, at the same time his son was released.
The next day, Hedges couldn't work. With a bum foot and staples in his head, Donald Hedges continued his search.
"I couldn't do anything else," he said.
His son made calls to friends, trying to find information on his attackers. His father relayed their discoveries to the Sheriff's Office.
Hedges believed their assailants were members of a gang trying to build a reputation in the area. They targeted people in Griffin Park near the Checkers, he said.
"It seems like any young group that went in there to get a hamburger has been attacked by these kids," he said.
His report jibed somewhat with deputies' observations.
"We have seen some sort type of gang activity over there," said Doug Tobin, sheriff's spokesman. Tobin did not have more information but said it was mostly "wanna-be-type individuals."
The incidents occurred just a few blocks from the infamous Teak Street murder of 2006, in which a member of a white supremacist sect allegedly killed a 17-year-old boy. Neo-Nazi John Allen Ditullio Jr. faces first-degree murder and attempted murder charges.
Deputies say he broke into a neighbor's house, stabbed her and killed a teenage visitor.
Ditullio is awaiting trial, and state prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty.
About a week after Hedges and his son were attacked, Hedges said, there was a break. At 7 one morning, a detective knocked on his door with 20 or so mug shots. Hedges and his son identified their attackers.
The detective told them there would be a raid the coming weekend, they said.
Hedges watched the news all weekend. Nothing.
His father was a cop in Miami, Hedges said. He knows sometimes it takes a while to build a case.
Hedges said he wasn't scared he would be attacked again. He grew up in Miami and said these kids wouldn't last five minutes there. Tyler was more annoyed that his car was damaged than he was frightened, but to be safe, Hedges usually sent his son out of town on the weekends.
Tyler is tall like his father and has a chin-length mane.
He dropped out of high school in September during his second round of 10th grade. He said he was sleeping all the time in class, and it was smarter for him to work at his father's Port Richey body shop, Silver Streak.
They're close. Since his parents divorced in 2000, Tyler has lived with his father. His father says the worst thing he does is play too many video games. Tyler doesn't know why he was targeted.
Last week, they felt their hands were tied. They worried that it might take another attack, maybe a death, before any arrests were made.
"I just want to find out who did this and get them off the street," Hedges said Jan. 31.
He took his troubles to the other Vietnam vets who hang out at Fat Charlie's bar on Ridge Road. They said if anything else happened to him or Tyler, they'd help.
They didn't spend all that time in the war to let their neighborhood be overrun by gangs.
"It's not what we went to fight for," Hedges said. "If the cops aren't going to do anything about it, the people who live here will."
The next day, Hedges got another call from the Sheriff's Office about midnight. There had been an arrest.
Deputies would not say whether Hedges' efforts directly led them to Christian Stoudenmire, 19, whose prior arrest history includes cocaine possession and vehicle theft charges. Later, deputies added two counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon to that list.
"Any time you have a victim who's forthcoming with information, it certainly helps the case," Tobin said.
Joshua Coggins, 22, was also arrested Feb. 1. Deputies believe Coggins and Stoudenmire were involved in gang activity in the area.
Coggins faced aggravated battery charges after, deputies say, he kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach at the same Checkers where Tyler was attacked. He was not charged in either Hedges' or his son's beatings.
Deputies do not foresee any other arrests in the case.
Hedges said he had given deputies Coggins' name and identified Stoudenmire from a lineup.
Wednesday, he was calm about the arrests he had been waiting weeks for.
He attributed his demeanor to the time he spent in the military.
"I'm a 'Nam vet; I deal with things as they happen," he said. "Otherwise you endanger your own life."