One early Sunday morning in July,
Once upon a time, over the bridge, across the Delaware, past Camden and through the checkerboard maze of strip malls and subdivisions, down the White Horse Pike in the tiny town of Oaklyn--there, along with his father and his little brother, lived a monster.
He's not home right now. You see, he's residing at the Camden County Correctional Facility, under a suicide watch. He's been charged with conspiracy to commit murder, aggravated assault, possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose and carjacking. If convicted, he's looking at 40 years behind bars. His bail has been set at $1 million.
He is 18 years old.
His name is Matthew Lovett. It is alleged--and everything you're about to read is predicated upon that proviso--that in the wee hours of Sun., July 6, Lovett and two teen accomplices, ages 14 and 15, embarked on a soon-to-be-thwarted killing spree.
Dressed all in black, each teen was equipped with a rifle or a shotgun strapped across his back, a handgun and a sword or machete jammed into the waistband of his pants. Each carried a bulging bag of ammunition. They called themselves the Warriors of Freedom, and they were about to start a war to free humanity.
The first step in their grim plan was to carjack a set of wheels and proceed across town killing anyone who got in their way--including, but not limited to, three classmates who bullied them unmercifully--until they ran out of bullets. When the three were arrested 15 minutes later, before they fired a single shot, they had 2,000 rounds of ammo in their possession.
By the next day the "Matrix Teens," as they quickly became known, had become an international headline that blared darkly around the globe and back to Oaklyn (pop. 4,200). There was blood in the water in Oaklyn, and within minutes the media shark pack converged for a feeding frenzy.
Like Matthew Lovett, Oaklyn was never meant for fame. It was gonna be infamy or nothing at all. This was the most exciting thing to happen in Oaklyn since ... well, nobody can remember anything exciting ever happening in Oaklyn.
A sleepy working-class borough spanning less than one square mile, Oaklyn looks like it was put up cheap and could be taken down in a hurry if need be. The main strip is a slice of Norman Rockwell Americana gone to seed. The storefronts, dimmed by time and neglect, suggest a more innocent time: Elsie's Beauty Shop, Phila. American Shuffleboard and Billiard Co., Terminal Vending, Yummies Ice Cream, a barbershop, complete with striped pole.
The kids still go by on scooters, but they all have cell phones now. They giddily step in front of the news cameras, eager to tell what they knew about the would-be killers: "They had that Matrix look down." "It was obvious they didn't have much money, and the kids made fun of them for that." "They were quiet and scary. They were the weird people you wouldn't mess with because you were afraid they would try something like this."
The police provided the requisite perp walk, leading the black-clad Lovett out in handcuffs on his way to the Camden County jail. One of the bags of bullets the Warriors of Freedom were carrying was held up for the cameras like a pot of gold, a cluster of full metal jackets glittering in the summer sun.
In all likelihood, the case won't go to trial before next spring. But both the prosecution and the defense began trying the case in the court of public opinion almost immediately. The next day Lovett's father went on a media counteroffensive, apologizing to the townsfolk for his son's actions, and telling anyone who would listen--from CNN to NBC's Matt Lauer to Fox's Bill O'Reilly--that Matthew was a sweet kid who just couldn't take it any more and finally snapped.
Yes, said Ronald Lovett, Matthew liked The Matrix, but he also liked The Green Mile. Yes, he drew violent pictures, but he also drew fairies. "If he walked through the room, he would bend over and pet the cat," Lovett's father told the Associated Press.
The father of the 14-year-old said Lovett forced his boy to join in the planned killing spree, refusing to let him go home or use the phone that night. During the attempted carjacking, "My son kept walking away from the car to get as far away as he could," Joe Olson told the AP. "He helped the guy get away."
Unmoved, Camden County prosecutor Vincent Sarubbi sought to have both the 14- and 15-year-olds tried as adults. If convicted as juveniles, both teens could be out in four years. Like Lovett, if they are tried as adults, they could go to jail for 40 years.
"My client just turned 15 last month," says attorney John Underwood of the 6-foot-1, 250-pound boy. "He's the kind of kid you'd hire to shovel snow."
And on it went. Ronald Lovett, who legally owned all the weapons used in the crime and was at the shore when all this went down, told anyone who would listen that the guns were fairly harmless antique replicas.
"All the guns are fully functioning and capable of killing," Oaklyn Police Chief Christopher Ferrari fired back. "All the guns were fully and properly loaded with a round in the chamber. The 14-year-old had a .44 cocked with no safety tucked into his pants. That's a recipe for disaster."
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4