DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – An apology letter from a 14-year-old girl, accused of shooting at deputies in Volusia County alongside a 12-year-old boy in a standoff that made national headlines, is now considered a key piece of evidence in the case against her.
Prosecutors say the apology is also a confession letter.
“We are reviewing the cases as they go along, making sure that we get our discovery out,” said State Attorney R.J. Larizza, who oversees Circuit 7 which includes Volusia County.
The shootout between two children and deputies is not the only high-profile case involving juveniles that Larizza has had to prosecute recently.
In April, Larizza charged a 14-year-old with manslaughter after investigators discovered the child punched a security guard to death during an escape attempt. The child was being temporarily housed in an emergency juvenile shelter on the First United Methodist Children’s Home campus, known locally as FUMCH.
A month later, in May, Larizza charged a 14-year old with first degree murder when investigators discovered he stabbed 13-year-old Tristyn Bailey more than 100 times.
A month after that, in June, Larizza charged the 14-yar-old girl and 12-year-old boy for the shootout with Volusia deputies. The two children were also being housed at the emergency shelter at FUMCH when they ran away, broke into a nearby home, found guns and started firing.
“People expect state attorneys to solve these problems, but that is not what we were created for,” Larizza said. “State attorneys protect you and your families.”
However, in a one-on-one interview with News 6, Larizza admitted that problems in the local juvenile system have been going on for generations.
“I have been the probation officer for folks in a family, and then have prosecuted their kids. I have represented them and their families in private practice. Now, I am prosecuting their grandkids as state attorney. I mean that needs to be addressed,” Larizza told News 6 investigator Merris Badcock.
After the Volusia shootout, News 6 learned that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) spearheaded a special review focused on the “health of our system” in Circuit 7, according to emails obtained by News 6 through a public records request.
The emails show representatives from Larizza’s office, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) were asked about the “strengths” and “weaknesses” of the system.
According to the emails, the committee specifically focused on “crossover” children: kids who have a history with both DCF and the DJJ.
“Public safety is our number one issue. Yet we have a lot of social impact on our system because of poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity, family breakdowns, and family value issues,” Larizza said.
According to emails, the special review committee spearheaded by DCF met for roughly one month, convening in June and debriefing by July.
The records show a final report was generated, but DCF has not fulfilled a record request from News 6 asking for a copy of the report. DCF also did not share what officials learned during the special review, and where they might plan to go from here.
“We need to get more innovative. You got to get to them before they get to us. That is the ultimate goal,” Larizza said.
News 6 attempted to get the report from other agencies who were involved in the special review, but officials said they never received a copy of the final report.
Even without DCF’s response, News 6 was able to find some community improvements since the high profile incidents over the summer.
First, the emergency shelter at FUMCH, which housed three of the four juveniles Larizza charged, was shut down.
Shortly after the shootout, News 6 investigators discovered more than 250 reports of runaway kids in a five-year period from FUMCH. Since the shootout, the sheriff’s office says there have only been three runaway reports.
After the shootout, FUMCH began hiring off-duty deputies from VCSO to patrol the campus at night. However, FUMCH stopped contracting the off-duty deputies on Oct. 1.
It is not clear why FUMCH ended the special details or if it will revisit them, but there appeared to be a correlation between the hiring of off-duty deputies and reduction in calls for service which originated from FUMCH’s campus.