FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The call came in to police dispatch just after 5 p.m. on a cold November evening in the small Arizona town of St. Johns: There was a body on the front porch of a house.
Detective Debbie Neckel fastened her bulletproof vest and headed out. As she and Sgt. Lucas Rodriguez approached the blue two-story home, Neckel fixed her eyes on two people, a teenager and an 8-year-old boy standing nearby.
Rodriguez walked toward the house, and Neckel toward the boy, whom she knew from the neighborhood. His arms were outstretched, and he was near tears.
“‘My dad, my dad. My dad’s dead,'” Neckel recalled him saying as she gave her first interview about the case to The Associated Press. “‘I think my dad’s dead.'”
The boy’s father, Vincent Romero, 29, was found face-down on the staircase inside. The body on the porch was Romero’s friend and co-worker, Timothy Romans, 39, who rented a room there.
A swirl of suspects would emerge before a truth was revealed that no one saw coming: The 8-year-old killed both men.
The child came home Nov. 5, 2008, and killed his father with a single-shot .22-caliber rifle, holding the bullets in his small hand to reload after each shot. He called to Romans that something was wrong, then shot him, too.
Nine years later, the boy is days from his 18th birthday with a chance to move on from a crime that has defined his life. He will sign paperwork Friday freeing him from intensive probation, psychological evaluations, travel restrictions and having his every move monitored.
“Things will be fundamentally different,” said his attorney, Ron Wood.
The Associated Press isn’t identifying the teen because of his age at the time of the shootings.
The transition will be easier because of the support network he built since pleading guilty to negligent homicide in Romans’ death, said Wood and Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting, who prosecuted the case.
The charge for killing his father was dropped. Whiting said at the time that it was in the boy’s best interest not to be forced to acknowledge killing his father.
The boy first was held at a youth treatment center near Phoenix, then moved to a group home and then a foster home. Besides a trio of probation violations when he was 12, he’s avoided trouble. He will likely stay in the foster home beyond his 18th birthday and continue treatment until he’s 21, Whiting said.
His probation officer declined to discuss the case, and periodic evaluations of the boy that might shed light on his treatment are sealed.
Whiting said he could not discuss specifics but noted that several people have gone out of their way to ensure the boy gets help. At one point, a psychiatrist who treated him offered to take him in.
Romero’s mother, Liz Castillo, has been the boy’s biggest supporter, regularly attending hearings and visiting him. She declined to comment but said early on she would not give up on her grandson.
The boy initially told authorities he found the men dead when he got home from school.
His role might have gone undiscovered much longer if Romans had not been on the phone with his wife while he waited for Romero to grab a car part, Neckel said. Romero went in, saw his son with a gun and scolded him for getting it from underneath his bed. The boy ran upstairs, turning and shooting his father as he followed.
Romans cut short his conversation with his wife, Tanya, when the boy called for him.
“Tim, I need you to come in here,” he said, according to court transcripts. “Something’s wrong with Dad.”
Tanya Romans urged police to talk to the boy. Still, no one thought he was a suspect.
But authorities came to think he might have witnessed the crime and was in danger. Neckel was the lead investigator, promoted to detective a day before the shootings. She and sheriff’s Cmdr. Matrese Avila interviewed the child, who confessed in a videotaped interview released early on by prosecutors.
The nation watched as the boy — sitting in an oversized chair, his feet dangling — gave conflicting accounts before admitting to killing both men.
He buried his head in his jacket at the end, saying: “I’m going to go to juvie.”
Neckel told the AP this month that when they first started quizzing him, she believed the cheerful boy with a singsong voice was covering for someone.
She started to realize the truth after about 45 minutes, and when she watched the tape, it sank in. A key moment, she said, is when the boy demonstrated how one of the bodies shook and he kicked it with his foot.
“We had one focus — literally one focus — to get the name of the killer,” she said. “It was supposed to be an adult. And we were supposed to go out and save the day and get (the boy) out of danger.”
Neckel knew the boy from her neighborhood in the town of about 3,500 near the New Mexico border. He was the child who jumped on the trampoline with his cousin, played outside with his dog, tried to coax a cat from a culvert, called her “Mrs. Neckel” and said, “Have a good day at work” when she pulled out of her driveway.
After their interview, she went into the restroom and cried. Her regret, she said, was not including him in her suspect pool from the start.
No motive was revealed, but the boy mentioned he was spanked for not bringing home some school papers.
Neckel said the papers were a behavioral report from his teacher. Romero and his wife, Tiffany, told the boy he would be spanked once for each day he forgot them, Neckel said. That day he would have received four swats.
A woman who answered a cellphone listed for Tiffany said it was the wrong number. Her father, Jeff DeVall, hung up when reached on his cell.
Police investigated possible abuse but found nothing that would have warranted charges, Neckel said.
Tanya Romans thinks the justice system forgot about her husband. She said she was asked to submit any concerns for an upcoming hearing but she and their two daughters decided it’s pointless.
She’s well aware the teen’s birthday is Dec. 29. Hers is, too.
“At the beginning, people would say, ‘Time heals,’ and I was thinking, ‘How?'” she said. “All I can say is, by the grace of God, my kids have been OK.”
She remembers Tim Romans through the personalities of her four grandchildren, hears him in the raspy voice of the one named after him and sees him in the face of another.
For Neckel, she developed what she called an unreasonable fear of children for about a year after the boy was charged. But she said seeing her grandchildren on the holidays shortly after the shootings helped her cope.
She spent her free time online researching kids who kill, trying to better understand what happened in the most difficult case of her police career.
She found promise in stories of two people who killed as teenagers and later became a college professor and a crime novelist.
“I can’t give up on a kid,” Neckel said. “I hope that releasing him isn’t the worst mistake ever made. But he was a little kid. You have to give him a chance.”