FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A teenager doused with alcohol and set ablaze by middle school classmates testified Thursday he thought he would die and feared the alleged ringleader but also revealed for the first time a marijuana pipe and not a video game was the original cause of their dispute.
Michael Brewer, now 17, testified in the attempted second-degree murder trial of Matthew Bent that he didn't to school that October 2009 day because he feared reprisals. Bent, also 17, had been arrested the day before on a charge that he tried to steal a bicycle belonging to Brewer's father. Those charges remain pending.
"I thought Matthew Bent was going to hurt me because I got him arrested," Brewer testified.
Brewer said the reason behind their dispute was Bent's supposed attempt to force him to buy a "bowl" used to smoke marijuana. In previous sworn statements, Brewer had said their beef was over a $40 video game based on "The Little Mermaid" story.
"This is the first I'm hearing this," said Bent attorney Johnny McCray. "Are you telling us you lied to us back when we took your deposition?"
"Yes, sir," Brewer replied, without offering further explanation.
McCray and Bent's other attorney, Perry Thurston Jr., said outside the courtroom that Brewer's testimony might unfairly link Bent to drug use and taint him in the jury's eyes.
Brewer, 15 at the time, was set on fire after encountering Bent and several other boys down the street from Deerfield Beach Middle School. He survived after leaping into an apartment complex swimming pool, suffering second- and third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body.
Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider asked what he remembered about the attack.
"I just remember a cold liquid going down my back. I started walking and I started feeling burning," Brewer testified. "I started running towards the pool. I jumped a fence and dove into a swimming pool. I remember looking down and seeing skin hanging from my arms. I felt like I was going to die."
Denver Colorado Jarvis, 17, and 18-year-old Jesus Mendez have both pleaded no contest to attempted murder charges — Jarvis for pouring the alcohol and Mendez for flicking the lighter that set Brewer on fire. Jarvis is serving an eight-year prison sentence; Mendez was sentenced to 11 years.
Bent is accused of orchestrating the attack, which came after the boys by chance found a jug of rubbing alcohol sitting along a low apartment complex wall. If convicted, Bent faces a maximum 30-year prison sentence. Jarvis testified earlier that Bent offered him between $5 and $10 to pour the alcohol on Brewer.
Under questioning from McCray, Brewer said he did not see Bent give any signals or say anything leading Jarvis to pour the liquid. In fact, Brewer said he couldn't recall any of the other boys surrounding him before the attack, as several of them have testified previously.
"He told me that nothing was going happen. 'Nobody's going to do anything to you.' I just stand there. He came closer and closer, cause he was trying to distract me or something," Brewer said.
It's unclear if Bent will testify in his own defense. Either way, closing arguments could come as early as Friday. Brewer was the prosecution's final witness.
Brewer, whose case and recovery have made national headlines, appeared physically fit, wearing a dark blue shirt and striped tie. He and his family moved north to West Palm Beach after his lengthy hospital stay and rehabilitation. He still requires physical therapy and testified that he has many scars on his back and legs.
"I get a burning sensation on my back. When I stand too long my legs start to burn," said Brewer, adding that when temperatures get cold his scarred skin tightens up.
"I can barely move."
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