ST. JOHNS, Ariz. – An Arizona judge and the family of a teenager who fatally shot two men in 2008, including his father, heaped praise on him Wednesday for the progress he's made as his time on probation comes to an end.
Judge Monica Stauffer told the boy she knows the past nine years haven't been easy but admired him for the way he's handled it. She turned toward the phone in a small courtroom in St. Johns, where he was listening in, her eyes filling with tears.
"I'm real proud of you and you're going to do great things," she said. "So much of your life is still for you to live and enjoy."
Those attending the hearing were not specific about progress the teen has made but said he has shown remorse, learned to manage finances, has set goals for himself and has a good heart.
Wednesday marked the final hearing in the case that troubled police and prosecutors because the boy was 8 at the time of the shootings. The criminal charges were resolved in juvenile court with the boy pleading guilty to negligent homicide in the death of 39-year-old Tim Romans, whom he called for from inside his home and shot with a .22-caliber single-shot rifle as Romans walked up to the door.
Prosecutors said that acknowledging legal responsibility for the death of his father, 29-year-old Vincent Romero, would be too heavy of a burden for a boy to carry and dropped that charge. Romans rented a room in the two-story blue house that Romero shared with his new wife and son.
The boy thanked those who have listened to him and helped him identify what he needs to transition into adulthood Friday when he turns 18. Speaking on the phone, he sounded much older than the days when he sat in the courtroom fidgety and looking nervously at his family.
"I'm just very grateful to everyone in the case," he said.
Other than a trio of probation violations in 2012, the boy hasn't been in trouble.
Stauffer said his life turned dramatically with the involvement of clinical psychologist Dr. Alan Lewis, who helped him mature and understand that he could be known for his future, rather than his past.
The Associated Press is not identifying the boy because of his age at the time of the crimes.
Stauffer credited the boy's grandmother, Liz Castillo, for ensuring the case moved along with the boy's best interest in mind.
Castillo sat in the front row of the courtroom with her daughter and sister nearby, wiping tears from her eyes. She said the last nine years have been treacherous but was grateful for the consideration put into the case.
She said Romero and Romans always would be in her family's mind and hearts.
"We hoped and prayed we could get through this, and the time is here," she said.
Castillo told Stauffer she'd hoped the county would examine juvenile proceedings so people who are appointed to represent children are more involved.
Romans' widow, Tanya, urged change, too. She listened as people in the courtroom thanked each other for involvement in the case but wondered why there was little emphasis on the victims.
"Not once, 'How are your girls? How's everything going?'" she said as her voice cracked over the phone. "Take a look at the victims' side as well. Tim was a great man, he was. It's just sad that two lives were just overlooked."
Still, Romans said she hopes and prays the boy got the help he needs so "whatever he did won't repeat itself." She said she didn't want the boy near her family.
Stauffer apologized to Romans, saying she'd take into account suggestions for dealing with future juvenile cases.
The boy spent time in a residential treatment center, group home and foster care. He has said he wants to continue treatment until he's 21.
Stauffer said she'd let the providers decide what's best for him because the court no longer will have jurisdiction over him.
She ordered his case file sealed, saying the boy's interest in treatment and recovery weighs more heavily than the public interest in the case. Details regarding his treatment already had been sealed.
She denied a request from Castillo to issue an order prohibiting anyone from profiting off the case.
Stauffer said she understood Castillo's request but believes the boy has a story to tell of hope, change and growth.
"I see (the boy) has an important place in life and how he chooses to use his talent and skills and his walk over nine years is important for kids," she said.