As armed robberies go, this one was pretty tame.
On Nov. 9 at around 2:30 p.m., two young black men crossed paths with three other young black men on West Street near Cleary Square in the Hyde Park section of Boston.
A conversation started when one of the teens from the first group asked the teens of the second group for a cigarette. According to statements made later to police, the conversation took a different tact when instead of a cigarette, the questions — demands, really — turned to money, then marijuana.
All of sudden, a cell phone rang.
That is when someone flashed “a black colored firearm,” and said, “Empty your pockets.”
Two cell phones were quickly turned over, and for the next month, the life of 15-year-old Jeremy Wall, the son of longtime community activist Rev. Bruce Wall, became distorted, transforming like a Picasso painting from the age of innocence to the age of guilt.
The story has a good ending — at least for Wall, his son and his family.
On Dec. 1, one of the victims of the armed robbery was eating at Papa Gino’s on Hyde Park Avenue when he saw one of the teens who robbed him come into the fast-food restaurant. He called his father, who then called the police. Before long, a group of officers walked into Papa Gino’s and, after a brief struggle, made the arrest.
But this is a story about the process, and how an innocent kid could be named as a suspect in an armed robbery.
Mistakes were made along the way, the most important of which was the unintended consequence of a well-intentioned desire to help the police; the second was the leaking of police information involving a juvenile to the tabloid Boston Herald.
As descriptions go, this one at least narrowed the field. The group of three victims, one of whom is the 13-year-old son of a Boston police officer, told police that one of the assailants wore a black cap, khaki pants and a grey hooded sweatshirt. The second assailant wore black slacks, a blue dress shirt and a black jacket with what appeared to be Chinese symbols on both sides of the chest.
In addition, the victims told police, one of the assailants was light-skinned and had a scar on his right hand.
Armed with those descriptions, police officers visited the three or four charter and private schools in the Cleary Square area. One of those schools was Boston Trinity Academy. Founded in 2002, the small Boston charter school prides itself on its rigorous curriculum and Christian faith.
On Nov. 16, police talked with Headmaster Timothy P. Wiens, who, according to Rev. Wall, told them that he had a student who matched their description.
According to the Walls, his son was in class when he was told to go to the headmaster’s office. On this particular day, Rev. Wall was in Washington, D.C. Jeremy’s mother, Rev. Karin Wall, received a telephone call and was on her way to the school.
By the time she arrived, the police officers were sitting outside the headmaster’s office while her son was inside the office. When she heard the reason for the meeting, her eyes welled with tears.
She signed off on the Miranda rights and the police started asking Jeremy questions. School officials then searched his backpack and his school locker. For his part, Jeremy said he thought that if he told the truth, the meeting would only take a few more minutes.
He said he was innocent.
But the story was far from over. In fact, it had just begun.
The police obtained a photograph of Jeremy and included it in an array of photographs of possible suspects. One of the victims of the Nov. 9 robbery pointed to one photograph — the one of Jeremy Wall. The next thing anyone knew, the media was calling Rev. Wall.
Rev. Wall said the telephone call came from Michelle McPhee, the Herald’s police bureau chief and columnist. According to Wall, she left a voice mail saying that his son was identified as a suspect in at least one armed robbery, possibly three.
Wall was shocked and was faced with both a public and private dilemma. Of the two, the first was probably the easiest for him to resolve — either remain silent and allow the criminal justice system to get to the bottom of the situation, or go public and proclaim his son’s innocence.
Rightly or wrongly, he went public.
To take steam away from a Herald exclusive, Wall and his media advisers reached out to the Boston Globe. On Nov. 27, the same day that an article appeared in the Herald, a story written by one of the Globe’s police reporters appeared in that newspaper, as well as a column written by Adrian Walker. While all three stories named Rev. Wall and his son, none of the journalists claimed Wall’s son actually committed the crime. All of them did say, however, that he was a suspect.
The second problem was more personal. More than most, Wall knows what can happen to juveniles caught up in the system. For 24 years, he was first assistant clerk magistrate of the Boston Juvenile Court. He recently retired, but in his ministry, Rev. Wall — host of a Christian radio talk show and pastor of Global Ministries Christian Church in Dorchester — has counseled countless others, guilty and innocent.
But this conversation hurt. He sat his son down and told him the worst-case scenario. He talked about being arrested, and having the police take a photograph and fingerprints, as well as searching their home.
The reverend talked about an arraignment and posting bail money. He also talked about possible jail time and the potential that a district attorney could charge Jeremy as an adult. Given the fact that a gun was involved, prison time was all the more likely.
The pressure was taking a toll. Right before Thanksgiving, Rev. Wall said his son had collapsed and was taken to a hospital for observation.
Fortunately for the Walls, the worst-case never came to pass.
On Dec. 3, Rev. Wall sent out media advisories telling all that were interested that he was holding a press conference about the police clearing his son.
During that press conference, he singled out three police officers for what he described as their “resolute professionalism and integrity” — Superintendent Paul Joyce, Superintendent Bruce Holloway and Captain Frank Armstrong.
Rev. Wall said throughout the ordeal, he was assured on several occasions that the investigation would be handled thoroughly and fairly.
Wall’s attorney, Jill Klowden, particularly thanked Armstrong for knowing just how unreliable identifications can be.
“Thankfully,” she said in a statement, “[Armstrong] slowed this process, which easily could have turned into a witch hunt based on the word of one child … He was, in fact, a saving grace for this family, but too often, this is not done. Too often kids are overlooked in the system when there is no one able to speak up for them … I hope the young man who wrongly accused one of his peers and we, as a society, can learn a lesson because unfortunately wrongful accusations and wrongful convictions are an epidemic.”