Hearings Foreshadow Trials in Potomac Rape

Hearings Foreshadow Trials in Potomac Rape

Daniel Smith, 19, will testify for the state; Kevin Croker’s case sent to juvenile court

Sherry Croker sobbed on the witness stand as she talked about her son Kevin's academic and personal struggles at a motion hearing last Thursday, Feb. 24 at Montgomery County Circuit Court.

Sherry Croker testified that she and her husband had done everything they could to help Kevin Croker, who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities since early childhood and, in high school, had been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder.

In high school, she noticed changes. "His shirts got bigger. His pants got baggier and longer. The bandannas came out," Sherry Croker said. "There came a time when the core friends were still around. ... [But] the names were changing."

"We searched his room. We searched his person. We made sure there was no alcohol or drugs involved," she said.

Croker, then 17, had just started his senior year at Winston Churchill High School when, on Sept. 6, 2004, the older sister of a Churchill student was raped and sexually assaulted by three men in her home. Her house was robbed by four men. Croker, originally charged by police with taking part in the rape, was ultimately indicted by a grand jury on more than six counts, including robbery with a dangerous and deadly weapon, first degree burglary and theft greater than $500. He will not face trial in the rape and sexual assault.

Croker, who was arrested on Sept. 9, was charged as an adult and later released on bond. He currently attends the Alldredge Academy, a wilderness program and school for troubled teenagers in West Virginia. His defense attorneys Robert A. Greenberg and Leslie Janis successfully argued during an all-day hearing last Thursday, Feb. 24 that Croker should be tried as a juvenile.

"If he goes into a program with adult criminals, he will come out an adult criminal," said Stephen Johnson, a clinical psychologist who testified at Croker's hearing.

Less than 24 hours before Croker's hearing, Daniel Smith's mother watched as her son, who graduated from Churchill last spring, pled guilty in Circuit Court to three counts: first degree burglary, conspiracy to commit first degree burglary and accessory after the fact to robbery with a dangerous and deadly weapon. Smith, a former resident of Avenel, who currently lives in Germantown, faces a maximum sentence of 45 years in prison.

"Daniel, are you pleading guilty because you are guilty and no other reason?" asked Deborah Armstrong, assistant state's attorney.

"Yes," said Smith, who is scheduled to be sentenced in Montgomery County Circuit Court on May 12 before Judge Eric M. Johnson.

"I know you've been thinking about it; why did you do this?" Johnson asked Smith.

THE TWO POTOMAC TEENAGERS stood before Circuit Court judges in separate hearings last week as trial dates approach for three others involved in the case.

In addition to burglary and robbery charges, Schmouree Fordyce-Williams, 20, of Potomac, Gujan Asimlee Lee, 18, of Washington D.C., and Chris Benbow, 16, are each charged with first degree rape and first degree sex offenses.

Fordyce-Williams is scheduled to be tried in March while Lee and Benbow are scheduled to be tried in April in Montgomery County Circuit Court. All will be tried as adults, including Benbow, 16.

According to police reports, court documents and statements in court by Armstrong, Smith attended a party at the home of the victim in Potomac on Sept. 4, 2004. He took a key with the intention of returning with friends to burglarize the house. According to court documents, on Sept. 6, Smith, Croker, Lee, Fordyce-Williams and Benbow approached the house with the intention of breaking in and stealing items. Croker, Lee, Fordyce-Williams and Benbow masked their faces and broke in, Armstrong said, but Smith didn't enter the house and walked away.

Croker, who according to prosecutors owned the gun used in the commission of the crimes, left to look for Smith while the other three raped and sexually assaulted the victim as her parents and sister were asleep in the house, according to court documents. When she told her attackers that she did not have any money or access to her parents' ATM pin numbers, they took several laptop computers, a wallet and the victims' sister's purse. Croker later returned and helped take items from the home.

Smith, who was represented by John Kudel, will remain out on bond on an electronic monitoring system until his sentencing hearing in May. As part of his plea, Smith will testify in the upcoming trials of the other three men charged in the case.

"He has been assisting us and he has always been available to us," Armstrong said during court proceedings.

WHETHER CROKER should be tried as a juvenile or as an adult was the subject of last week's hearing. The crimes took place one month before Croker's 18th birthday.

According to the Maryland law governing these crimes, his case was automatically moved to the adult Circuit Court, but the law also provides for a “reverse waiver,” sending such a case to the juvenile system at a judge’s discretion. Greenberg and Janis filed for such a waiver and called five witnesses at the hearing who testified regarding Croker’s learning disabilities and other considerations to determine the appropriate jurisdiction for his case.

They cited Croker’s lifelong struggles with learning disabilities and the fact that, though he has struggled academically in school, he had not had any behavioral problems there.

Defense witnesses included a special education teacher from Churchill, a clinical psychologist, and the director of Alldredge Academy, which Croker began to attend in December after being released on bond.

All testified that Croker would better be served by the resources of the juvenile justice system — including programs like Alldredge — rather than the adult criminal system.

“We are not talking about whether Kevin Croker should be held accountable for the events of Sept. 6,” Greenberg said in his closing statement, but “he has traditionally been a follower and not a leader,” and when it appeared the other defendants were going to rape the victim “he knew it was wrong and he left.”

Armstrong and Assistant State’s Attorney Jason Abbott argued that Croker provided the gun, masked his face when entering the home. And, although he left before the sex crimes began, he did not do anything to help the victim, despite knowing that she was being raped.

Leaving the residence with the victim crying on her bed, Croker "doesn't call police, doesn't do anything to help this poor girl," Armstrong said, during the hearing.

Prosecutors argued that Croker had the benefit of years of special education and psychiatric counseling and still wound up in trouble, evidence that the treatment available through the juvenile justice system would do nothing further for him.

Circuit Court Judge Louise G. Scrivener disagreed, saying she was particularly influenced by Stephen Johnson’s testimony that Croker had passed “under the radar.”

There is “every indication that he is in fact amenable to treatment,” she said.

Circuit Court Judge Louise G. Scrivener stated in an oral opinion that moving Croker’s case to the juvenile system was “in the interest of society and Mr. Croker.”

About 25 friends and family members of Kevin Croker were in attendance for the reverse waiver hearing on Feb. 24, including Churchill classmates who had the day off school due to snow.

Family members, many in tears, hugged following the judge's ruling in the motion hearing. Kevin Croker and his mother shared a long hug, and friends then shook his hand.

The day before, only Smith's mother and his attorney walked out of the courtroom with him on Feb. 23.

Smith's attorney John Kudel asked that Smith "be allowed to remain free on bond." He called Smith's family, a "family of limited means," who "put together everything they had to put him out on bond."

Currently, Smith has been looking for a job, but has been having difficulty once employers see the electronic box and ankle bracelet he has to wear under the electronic monitoring system.

"He stands here now as a convicted felon, his job search is only going to get more difficult," Judge Johnson said.

Johnson told Smith he wants him to prepare an essay to the court in writing on why he got in trouble, which he said will be "a significant piece" at his sentencing.

"I want to know why you did this," Johnson said. "I think the question needs to be asked more of young people.

"More importantly, I'd like you to know why you did this. You're a tall, handsome, smart young man. Why did you do this?"