Teens Who Murder Over Loss of Phones, Video Games

Teens obsessed with phones, games unable to cope with being cut off by parents.

BySarah Netter
February 02, 2009, 4:03 PM

Feb. 5, 2009— -- When a 13-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., girl decided to exact revenge on the grandmother who took away her cell phone, authorities say she planned carefully.

Jermea Simmons allegedly waited a week, then packed her clothes, doused her house with lighter fluid and set it ablaze while 10 members of her family slept inside, including her 8-year-old sister who suffers from cerebral palsy. Her step-grandfather didn't make it out alive.

"I thought I was close to her," said her grandmother, Gennie Fairfax, who escaped the June 2007 fire. "I wasn't angry. I was distraught. I didn't understand it."

Simmons is one of an increasing number of teens who have made headlines for apparently resorting to violence in the face of losing their beloved computers, video games and cell phones. It's a type of violence that shocks generations that came of age before the home electronics revolution, but not the experts who study today's kids.

From the Michigan teen who reportedly shot both of his parents over a cell phone last year to the Ohio teen convicted last month of killing his mother over a video game, experts say a small subset of young people are ill-equipped to balance their electronic life with the real world.

When their whole world is wrapped up in text messaging or video games, being cut off leaves them frantic.

Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, said there's no hard evidence that points to why this sort of extreme violence has become the reaction for some teens as it's a fairly new phenomenon.

Teens, in general, often carry a lot of anger and "incredible levels of frustration as they are trying to flex their muscles," Sheras said.

Today's teenagers are also so wrapped up in virtual communication, he said, that they are not as equipped to handle inter-personal relationships. Combine that with a media and Internet culture that seems obsessed with extreme behavior, such as the well-publicized beatings posted on YouTube.com, and "we've almost institutionalized rage as a positive behavior," he said.

"These kids have no sense of perspective," said Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and founder of WiredSafety.org. "If you hit them where it matters ... they will react."

Simmons has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Vincent Fairfax, according to local news reports, and her case has been transferred to family court. Gennie Fairfax said she has not yet apologized for the fire.

"I don't hate her, but I think what she did was wrong," Fairfax said.

The fire, she said, appeared to have been set at the door of Jermea's uncle, Darran Booker. It then swept through the house, destroying all the family's belongings. Fairfax said the alarm above her bedroom door never went off and she suspects her granddaughter may have disabled it beforehand.

"She was angry," she said. "I wouldn't wish it on nobody."

Fairfax had raised Jermea and her siblings since the teen was 5 years old. Fairfax said she was teaching her granddaughter to cook and to braid hair. She'd had her phone taken away before as punishment.

"If I had to do it all over again, she would never get a cell phone," Fairfax said.

Fairfax said her granddaughter would use the phone to talk to boys and, sometimes, to pick fights with other girls at school. When Fairfax took away Jermea's phone for the last time, she also yanked her access to the teenager's MySpace account after finding out she'd been talking to adults "about things she shouldn't have been."

"No kids should be on MySpace at that age," she added.

Aftab said parents all too often take the easy way out and choose to placate their kids with more games and electronics, rather than take a chance at disciplining them. If computers or cell phones or video games interfere with day-to-day life, she said, that's a red flag that something is wrong.

Cell Phone Restriction Leads to Double Murder

When police in Adrian, Mich., found the bodies of Marshall and Carmen Sosby, each with gunshot wounds on the night of Sept. 23, 2008, officers initially believed they were dealing with a murder-suicide.

But after talking to the Sosby children, police say that the Sosbys had been killed by their eldest son, also named Marshall, who allegedly killed them following an argument over his cell phone usage.

Adrian Police Det. Vincent Emrick said the Sosbys had taken away their son's cell phone after he'd run up too many minutes talking with his out-of-state girlfriend.

When they returned home that night, he said, they went upstairs looking to talk to Marshall, then 17.

"As they were coming back down the stairs, that's when he ambushed them and shot them both," Emrick said.

Sosby had apparently threatened to kill his parents in conversations with friends, Emrick said, "but they didn't take it seriously at the time."

Birgit Sosby, Marshall's grandmother, declined to comment for this story, saying, "We don't really care to speak about it."

Marshall, now 18, was charged with two counts of murder and various firearms offenses. He was recently deemed unfit for trial, Emrick said, and has been ordered transferred to a state facility.

Police across the country have responded to violent scenes stemming from similar circumstances. Some of them are far less severe, such as reports of a Florida teenager who was arrested for throwing a taco in his mom's face over a cell phone dispute.

But over the last five years, teens have not only pulled guns on their parents over cell phones and video games, they've been accused of everything from poisonings to arson.

Parents Hiding in Fear

Delaware State Police arrested a 16-year-old girl last month for allegedly going after her parents with two large kitchen knives when they took away her cell phone.

Lt. Mark Rust told ABCNews.com that the parents hid in a bedroom with their younger child after the teen threw a knife and then went after them. They had taken away her phone, Rust said, because she had been making late night phone calls to friends.

Police declined to release the girl's name or those of her parents, citing her juvenile status.

"She first picked up a kitchen shear and threw it into the wall," Rust said, adding that the argument had been an all-day affair.

She was charged with aggravated menacing and possession of a deadly weapon during a felony, both felony charges, as well as disorderly conduct, terroristic threatening and aggravated assault, all misdemeanors.

While other generations of teens had their own obsessions -- the Beatles, record players, even television -- the difference between them and the teens of today, Aftab said, is that cell phones, video games and computers dominate every part of the teens' existence.

In the case of cell phones, she said, "it's their lifeline." Teens sleep with their phones under their pillows, they take them into the bathroom, sneak them into class.

"It actually has a physical addiction," she said. "They have an adrenaline hit when they get a text message."

In the case of video games, teens tend to form intense relationships with other players through role-play, which blurs the line between reality and fantasy.

"The kids on these sites don't have the friends the kids with cell phones do," she said.

So, when the games are taken away by parents, Aftab said, it's not unusual for the kids to react violently -- and then be surprised when life doesn't "reset" like the game does.

Aftab used the Microsof XBox 360 game "Halo 3" as an example. "You shoot people in the head. That's what you do."

And players earn points for doing so.

But she doesn't blame the video games for causing kids' violent behaviors. She blames them. And their parents, who were unable to get control of their kids.

John Grohol agrees. A non-practicing psychologist and founder of mental health Web site PsychCentral.com, Grohol said teens have been using technology for decades without resorting to murder, suicide or assault in the absence of such.

"It's an example of more about parenting and disciplining ... rather than a technology issue, per se," he said.

He echoed Aftab's sentiments about teens' tendency to build their entire lives around technology that requires active participation.

Taking Responsibility

Grohol said it's hard to tell whether the instances of teens becoming violent after being denied their electronics is a growing problem, or if the media is simply doing a better job of reporting it.

The defense attorneys for 17-year-old Daniel Petric tried to avoid jail time for their client by using the insanity defense after Petric was charged with killing his mother and shooting his father in the face after they took away his "Halo 3" video game.

Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge, who declined to speak about the case to ABCNews.com, rejected the defense's case that Daniel's addiction was to blame for the crime. He was found guilty last month and faces life in prison.

Lorain County Sheriff's Office Det. Sgt. Donald Barker said police were called to the Petrics' Wellington, Ohio, home on Oct. 20, 2007, and found Sue Petric dead on the floor and Mark Petric begging for help.

Barker said Daniel initially told police Mark Petric shot his wife and pointed the gun at him before shooting himself, but Mark Petric survived to tell police it was his son who wielded the gun.

"He told us he had the gun in his pocket," Barker said. "He told them to close their eyes, he had a surprise for them."

Daniel's father, a local pastor who's said he's forgiven his son, testified for the prosecution. Daniel's defense attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.

As for Gennie Fairfax , she's still working to rebuild her family's life in Buffalo. Her other grandchildren, all younger than Jermea, will not be allowed to carry cell phones until they are much older and can prove their responsibility.

Jermea, Fairfax said, is "still my granddaughter and I love her."

Restricting Kids from Cell Phones and Computers

Parents who have coped with an unimaginable loss of this kind often have to live with the realization that they tried to do the right thing, but it turned out all wrong.

That's certainly the case for the father of Brad Hoffman Parker, who says he restricted his then-12-year-old son's computer access after he ran up an exorbitant Internet bill, often secretly in late-night chatrooms.

On a September night in rural Missouri some 12 years ago, Brad shot his mother six times in the head before turning the gun on himself.

"I look back at so many things I said and did that I wish I could take back," his father, David Lee Parker, told ABCNews.com.

Brad was a gifted student whose grades slipped when he was moved to a rural town where he didn't quite fit in, and took solace in his computer.

His father said he and his ex-wife, Ann Hoffman, had seen Brad's psychologist the morning of the murder-suicide. While he agreed with the discipline, Parker said the psychologist countered that the complete computer restriction might have been too harsh for the circumstances.

"I don't know how many times I've gone over that in my mind," Parker said. "I stuck to my guns and I wish I hadn't."

Parker said he never would have dreamed his son would be capable of such a crime and knows in his mind that he did everything he could for his son. But his heart tells him something different.

"Being a parent was really the only job I had and I blew it," he said.

ABC News Research's Melissa Lenderman contributed to this story.

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