ST. JOHNS, Ariz. — A week after the police charged an 8-year-old boy in the premeditated shooting deaths of his father and another man, the boy’s mother, teachers and others who know him say they are no closer to understanding the roots of such a heinous crime.
“I don’t believe he did this,” said the mother, Erin Bloomfield, 26, who has shared custody of her son with his father, Vincent Romero, 29, since the couple divorced six years ago. She said she talked to the boy every week and visited an average of once a month, driving the 20 hours to St. Johns from her home in Mississippi.
Ms. Bloomfield had just returned from her latest visit when she got a call about the shooting and immediately returned to St. Johns, a windy hamlet of horse ranches, low-slung houses and double-wide trailers about 170 miles east-northeast of Phoenix. The largest buildings are a few churches and schools along the single main road, which has no stoplights.
“People like their independence and freedom here,” said Wendy Guffey, 60, a substance abuse counselor at a local health clinic. “It’s sort of the redneck ethic. A lot of people haul their own water and live off generators and candles out here. Back to the land.”
Many of her clients struggle with unemployment, drugs and tedium. “A lot of people around here say there’s nothing to do,” Ms. Guffey said.
Ms. Bloomfield described her son as a “normal boy” who played video games nonstop and doted on his new dog, a boxer. But in recent months, she said, he “seemed to be changing.”
“There was a distance with me after a while,” she said.
Whenever she spoke with her son, Ms. Bloomfield said, “I had to go through Tiffany,” a reference to his stepmother, Tiffany Romero. “Tiffany would always sit there while he talked to me on the phone, and after a while, he became more and more distant.”
She worried, she said, that the boy might be being abused although she had no proof.
Before Judge Michael P. Roca of Apache County Superior Court blocked anyone connected to the case from talking to the news media, Police Chief Roy Melnick of St. Johns said there was no evidence that the boy had been abused at home or in school.
A person answering the door at the Romero home on Tuesday said Tiffany Romero would not discuss the case because of Judge Roca’s order.
Ms. Bloomfield said that after her son told her that his father and stepmother quarreled often, “I called Tiffany about that, and I think I got my son into trouble.”
“The next time I talked to him about it,” she added, “he said that Tiffany told him that ‘what happens in this house stays in this house.’ ”
Ms. Bloomfield also said that her son was close to his father, and that the two regularly played softball and basketball, and went hiking and hunting together, sometimes joined by the other man who was killed, Timothy Romans, 39. Mr. Romans worked in construction with Mr. Romero and rented a room in the family house.
Ms. Bloomfield confirmed that after first seeking permission from their parish priest, her ex-husband recently bought their son a .22 rifle for hunting, a common pastime of young boys and their fathers in this town of about 4,000 people.
The boy “took his religious faith very seriously,” said Sister Angelina Chavez, who has known him since he was a baby and taught his religious class every Monday at St. Johns Catholic Church. It is the church where the Romeros were married in September, and where hundreds of townspeople turned out for Mr. Romero’s funeral on Monday. “I just don’t know what happened to him spiritually, emotionally,” she said.
“This is going to take a while to get over,” Sister Angelina said. “Parishioners have come to me asking why it happened. I just don’t know.”
Ms. Bloomfield expressed disgust at rumors sweeping the town, among them that her son killed his father because he had not been allowed to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. “This town is too small,” she said. “Everybody thinks they know what happened. They’re saying all kinds of things about my son. They have smashed him down to nothing.”
Chief Melnick has said only that the boy unexpectedly confessed to the killings during the second of two interviews on Nov. 5. Neither a lawyer nor a family member was present either time, the chief said, because the boy was being questioned as a witness, not a suspect.
Prosecutors charged the boy as an adult, and Ms. Bloomfield said she was terrified they would also attempt to try him as one. The boy is scheduled to undergo three psychological examinations in the coming weeks to determine whether that is possible.
A Phoenix defense lawyer, Karyn Klausner, who is a former municipal judge, said that for the boy to be tried as an adult, the tests must show that he is competent to understand the charges against him, has a basic understanding of the court process and is able to assist in his defense. In addition, prosecutors must prove that he cannot be rehabilitated by the time he turns 18 and leaves the juvenile justice system.
Ms. Klausner said she was appalled that the authorities were considering such an option. “There’s no way on God’s green earth that an 8-year-old should be subject to the adult system,” she said.
Prosecutors also have what Ms. Klausner called the unlikely option of deciding that the boy is incompetent to stand trial, detaining him in a psychiatric facility until he is deemed competent, and then trying him as an adult.
In a separate case, a county judge in Bisbee, Ariz., on Monday denied a motion to try as an adult a 12-year-old boy accused of killing his mother. In that case, court mental health evaluators determined that the boy could be rehabilitated by the time he turned 18.
The sight of her young son being led into court in shackles on Monday was especially upsetting, Ms. Bloomfield said. His hands were bound to a security belt that had to be looped around his waist three times because of his small frame. The judge ordered the restraints removed.
“I blew some kisses at him and told him to put some in his pocket for later,” the mother said. “Later he told me he needed more kisses to put in his pocket.”
The next hearing, set for next Wednesday, is to focus on requests by defense lawyers for DNA, blood samples, ballistics and other forensics evidence from the crime scene.
Two of the boy’s friends, Lucas Graf, 12, and Jude Chavez, 11, said they, too, were baffled as to how someone with whom they wrestled and swam in the scorching summer just past could have committed such a brutal act.
“He’s a nice kid,” Lucas said. “He’s normal.”