Raleigh, N.C. — Over the past six months, Wake County authorities have arrested seven boys under age 16 in four homicides – a statistic Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby describes as troubling.
"It's very frightening," Willoughby said Thursday. "It's frightening to me, it's frightening to law enforcement, and it's probably frightening to the community."
The latest arrests happened Wednesday when Wake County sheriff's investigators arrested two teens, one 15, on first-degree murder in the case of Jose and Maria Mendoza, who were found shot to death in their home near Garner on Jan. 5.
Last month, four teens, one 13 and three 15, were arrested for allegedly beating Regynald Jose Brown to death with a rock. His body was found by friends on a trail of Raleigh's Capital Area Greenway.
Two teen brothers were also arrested in August for the death of 16-year-old Fernando Garibay-Benitez, who was on his way home from the store when, authorities say, a 13-year-old in a van, driven by a 15-year-old, shot him.
"We're talking about random violence, violence with firearms, people being murdered in their own home," Willoughby said. "That should be scary to every citizen who lives in Wake County."
In each of the crimes, authorities have either determined them to be gang-related or are looking into the possibility.
Willoughby believes gangs are only part of the problem. He says major cuts in recent years to the state's juvenile justice resources are another concern.
"We've closed juvenile training schools. We have long waits for out-of-home placement for juveniles, and there is a movement, on behalf of some, to expand the juvenile age up to 18, which I think would be a disaster," he said.
The "Raise the Age" effort, which has gained the approval of a House legislative committee would apply only to misdemeanors by offenders who are under 18. Those who commit a felony would remain in the adult justice system.
State officials, however, say the recent Wake cases don't reflect statewide crime numbers involving juveniles.
"They're horrible events, but they're not the norm," said Robin Jenkins, deputy director of the North Carolina Division of Juvenile Justice. "The data doesn't suggest that youth gang problems or youth violence is on the rise."
In fact, he says, the data suggests the opposite.
From 2008 to 2012, the number of juveniles in North Carolina who committed violent crimes dropped 22 percent, according to numbers from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
Wake County mirrors that downward trend. Violent crime among juveniles dropped from 8.3 percent in 2008 to 4. 2 percent last year.
Regardless of the statistics, Willoughby says that even one murder involving a juvenile suspect is one is too many.
The brothers charged in Garibay-Benitez's death, Brayan Hernandez-Sierra, 13, and Ceferino Hernandez-Sierra, 15, were indicted last month as adults on charges of first-degree murder.
Prosecutors have asked the court for the suspects in Brown's case to be tried as adults – a probable cause hearing is scheduled for Feb. 27 – and they haven't indicated whether they will in the Mendozas' deaths.
Willoughby says that generally in a first-degree murder case, it is appropriate to try teens as adults.
"Those are very serious crimes, and it would be a rare circumstance in which we would not seek to have someone in adult court for that kind of crime," he said.