Teen: leader offered money in Fla. burn attack

June 13, 2012 - 7:35 PM

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A teenager who admitted dousing a Florida middle school classmate with alcohol before the boy was set on fire testified Wednesday that the alleged ringleader offered him money to do it.

Denver Colorado Jarvis testified that 17-year-old Matthew "Zeke" Bent offered him $5 or $10 to pour the flammable liquid on Michael Brewer, who was then 15. Jarvis, also 17, was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading no contest to attempted second-degree murder.

Bent is charged with attempted second-degree murder and could get 30 years in prison if convicted.

Jarvis' testimony in many ways contradicted that of the other boys involved and sometimes his own previous statements to police. He told a six-person jury he has been trying not to remember the events of Oct. 12, 2009.

But Jarvis insisted that Bent offered him the money. Others have testified that Bent had a dispute with Brewer over a purported unpaid debt the day before Brewer was set on fire. Bent also attempted to steal a bicycle belonging to Brewer's father and was arrested on attempted burglary charges, according to testimony.

Walking home from Deerfield Beach Middle School, Jarvis and the other boys by chance found a jug of rubbing alcohol sitting at apartment complex. They had the jug when they confronted Brewer near the complex parking lot. Brewer stayed home from school that day, fearing reprisals from Bent over the arrest, family members testified.

"He (Bent) said 'I'll give you $10 or $5 if you throw that on Michael.' I said OK," Jarvis testified. "I waited until I seen Zeke coming into the parking lot and I threw it on him."

Another teenager, 18-year-old Jesus Mendez, also pleaded no contest to attempted murder charges and admitted flicking a lighter that set Brewer ablaze. Jarvis said he was walking over to collect from Bent when he realized Brewer was on fire. Brewer jumped into an apartment complex pool but suffered second- and third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body.

Prosecutors said Bent was the instigator. But during a recorded conversation between Bent and Jarvis in a police interview room, Bent repeatedly said he was not involved.

"I had nothing to do with this," Bent said on the tape played for jurors Wednesday.

Mendez, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence, also took the stand Wednesday but insisted he could not remember anything about what happened. Prosecutors played a recorded police interview in which Mendez acknowledged lighting the lighter and pointing to Bent as the one who came up with the idea of dousing Brewer in alcohol.

"Zeke was like, 'come on, let's go find Michael and pour it on him,'" Mendez said on the tape. Asked why he lit his lighter, Mendez said, "I don't know. I wasn't thinking, I guess."

Earlier, other boys who were there that day but were not charged testified that Bent offered each member of the group $5 to fight Brewer.

"Did he appear to be serious?" Assistant State Attorney Kal Le Var Evans asked Jesus Mendez's younger brother Joell Mendez.

"Yes," Joell Mendez replied.

Jarvis, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, said he felt "pressure" testifying before a crowded courtroom and described the day of the burning attack as like "living in a movie." He also said he is not a troublemaker.

"I've never been through this before. You can check my background, I'm not a bad kid," he said.

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