Former Walt Whitman High School students Justin Schweiger and Patrick Lazear will be tried as adults for the armed robbery of a Smoothie King in Bethesda, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge ruled last week.
"This is not ‘boys will be boys,’" said Judge Joseph A. Dugan Jr. "I do not see this as a juvenile prank."
Judge Dugan set separate trial dates for each defendant; Schweiger’s trial is set for Oct. 30, and Lazear’s on Nov. 29. Each is charged with armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery in relation to a holdup of a Smoothie King in Bethesda last March. Each charge carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment.
Thomas Ashley, Alexander Krouskas and Robert Warren, Whitman students at the time of the robbery, were also charged. Hearings on their motions to be tried as juveniles are scheduled for later this month.
Schweiger’s motion was heard on Thursday, Aug. 31, and denied by Dugan that afternoon. Lazear’s motion was heard on Wednesday, Aug. 30, and denied by Dugan two days later. In each case, Dugan heard a day’s worth of testimony from witnesses who described Schweiger and Lazear as polite, hardworking young men with plenty of promise.
Dugan said he was impressed with the witnesses’ testimony in both Lazear’s and Schweiger’s hearings. But the fact that Lazear and Schweiger had been involved in a theft together in which they were tried as juveniles, as well as the severity of the current charges against them, weighed in the judge’s decision.
"When you have to make these decisions, it’s difficult to sleep at night," said Dugan.
CHARACTER WITNESSES for Lazear included a retired county judge, a Montgomery County police officer, a Whitman teacher/varsity coach, a professional athletic trainer and an attorney who coached Maplewood youth football coach.
Witnesses during Schweiger’s hearing included a Whitman teacher/varsity coach and a Jewish educator and camp director.
"I hear what everybody’s saying," Dugan said shortly before he ruled on Schweiger’s motion on Thursday. Dugan described himself as a "euphoric believer" in the virtues of extracurricular activities. This is part of what bothered Dugan about the case, he said — that in school Schweiger was doing everything he was supposed to do.
However, he had to consider the prior juvenile adjudication in both Schweiger’s and Lazear’s case — for unauthorized credit card use less than a year before the Smoothie King robbery.
"It’s just so baffling," Dugan said.
UNDER MARYLAND LAW, anyone 16 or older charged in a range of criminal offenses — including armed robbery — is automatically tried in the adult justice system. To have the case transferred to juvenile court, a defendant between 16 and 18 must prove that transferring the case to juvenile court is in the interest of the child or society.
All five students charged in this case were 17 at the time of the alleged offense.
According to police, an armed and masked gunman entered the Smoothie King at 7200 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda on March 30, approached two male employees, displayed a handgun and demanded money. Police said the employees gave the gunman $463 in cash, and the gunman fled the store.
According to police, Krouskas, who was one of the employees at the time of the robbery, identified Warren as the person who committed the robbery. According to police, Warren later admitted to committing the robbery, and identified Ashley, Krouskas, Lazear and Schweiger as participants in the planning and commission of the robbery. Police said that Lazear drove the getaway vehicle.
Whenever a state indicts a juvenile as an adult, said Tom DeGonia, the prosecuting state’s attorney, "It’s something that is taken very seriously."
In opposition to Lazear’s motion, DeGonia described the alleged offense as "more than just a lapse in judgment. It’s a disregard for the rule of law."
WITNESSES DESCRIBED Schweiger as a good student and a hard worker with a shy, but determined personality. Several also described obstacles Schweiger overcame in life, including diabetes and growing up without a father.
Eric Wallich, a physical education teacher and head varsity football coach at Whitman, said Schweiger was one of his favorite players in the Viking football program. "He’s a very loyal person. I feel like I can count on him for anything. … He’s not the most gifted kid athletically; he does what other kids will not [to excel]," Wallich said.
Wallich runs a painting business during the summer months, and hired Schweiger to work for the business during the summer months.
"I still think he’s a good person and I know he’s going to be a quality man," Wallich said.
Had it not been for Schweiger’s prior juvenile adjudication, Dugan said, "The scale would probably balance in a substantially different way."
In November 2004, Schweiger was found delinquent of misuse of a credit card for an incident in which he stole a credit card from a woman’s purse, then went with Lazear and several other friends and made purchases with the credit card, according to court testimony.
Schweiger had already been in front of a judge and given terms of probation, Dugan said. "That was so he would realize that this wasn’t going to happen again," Dugan said.
"He’s someone who should have been keeping his nose clean all along. … He arguably was in a position to at least walk away," Dugan said.
"My heart goes out to you," Dugan said to Ellen Schweiger, Justin’s mother.
LAZEAR WAS ALSO described as a model student-athlete by several witnesses who testified during his hearing. A star running back and defensive back who had an A-minus grade point average, Lazear was being recruited by Division I college football programs. Heading into his senior year, he already held the career records for touchdowns (33) and yardage (2,207) for Whitman’s 44-year-old program.
Jason Hadeed, a strength and conditioning coach for Elite Athlete Training System, has known Lazear through his high school years, and testified that he considers Lazear’s personality and work ethic to be exemplary in a way he rarely sees in high school athletes. Lazear helped Hadeed’s family move furniture when they moved into the area.
"He has a key to my home; that’s how much I trust him," Hadeed said.
Andy Wetzel, a tech-ed teacher at Whitman, taught Lazear for three years and coached him as the head varsity wrestling coach and a former assistant football coach.
"With the teachers, his reputation is pretty good. He’s a pretty respectful young man," Wetzel said. Lazear gets good grades, and doesn’t have attendance issues, Wetzel said. In Wetzel’s tech-ed class, Lazear helped out as a student aide. "I’m in a unique situation where I coach him and I teach him. … He does what you ask him to," Wetzel said.
Lazear was also charged in relation to the same credit card-related offense as Schweiger in November 2004. Lazear was on probationary supervision until May 2005, according to court testimony.
"Ten months later, not only has that all been forgotten; you’re involved in a robbery with a dangerous weapon," Judge Dugan said.
"Part of what really bothers me in this case [is that] I can’t really figure out why you got involved," Judge Dugan said to Lazear.
At several times during the hearing, Dugan described Lazear as the ‘big man on campus,’ somebody who could have stopped his friends’ wrongdoing with a snap of his fingers.
"What’s the driving force behind this whole thing? I happen to think it might be you," Dugan said.
In summarizing his opposition to Lazear’s motion, DeGonia told the court, "Just because he’s a superstar at Whitman doesn’t mean he’s a superstar here. … Just hold him to the same standard you would hold anyone else to."
"WE’RE DISAPPOINTED by the judge’s decision. We understand his [thinking], however," said Daniel Steven, Schweiger’s defense attorney.
"The evidence against [Schweiger] is very weak, and that was reflected, I think, in the judge’s thinking," Steven said. He added that he and co-counsel Gary Diamond have every confidence that a jury will find Schweiger innocent and acquit him.
None of the five students charged in the robbery are attending Whitman this year. Four of them were transferred to a different county high school by Montgomery County Public Schools, and Warren is now attending Urbana High School in Frederick County, according to court testimony.
Schweiger is attending Rockville High School, and is playing on the varsity football team.
Lazear is at Wheaton High School and playing varsity football; his teammates voted him captain last month. Since Lazear’s arrest, his bond conditions have been temporarily modified on several occasions, once so he could visit Ohio State University in June and again in August so he could attend football camp in Salisbury, Md.
Shortly after Dugan denied Lazear’s motion on Friday, he granted Lazear’s request to modify bond so he could travel to Ohio in early October, a visit that will be in part family-related and in part to revisit Ohio State.
"My heart goes out to the parents of Mr. Lazear, perhaps more than anybody else," Judge Dugan said during Lazear’s hearing.