EL CAJON, Calif. (AP) — A 10-year-old boy suspected of fatally stabbing a close friend got along well with other children in his tight-knit neighborhood, despite struggling to control his anger and occasionally exploding into violent fits.
The 12-year-old victim slept at the boy's home for two nights before being attacked at the end of the holiday weekend, said Cody Vales, a close friend of both boys. The victim died Monday in a hospital, a little more than an hour after authorities were alerted to the stabbing in a quiet, kid-friendly neighborhood on eastern outskirts of the San Diego area.
The stabbing occurred in the suspect's driveway, said San Diego County Sheriff's Lt. Larry Nesbit. The suspect's mother was home at the time but Nesbit didn't know if she was inside or outside.
Vales, 16, said the suspect appeared calmer since he began taking a new medication about three weeks ago, becoming "a new kid." He insisted his neighborhood friend didn't act maliciously. He wasn't one to pick a fight but exploded when he felt provoked.
Vales said the boy once punched him in the face for accidentally bumping his pelvis when they were jumping together on a trampoline. The boy threw a tantrum when he spilled a cup of water inside his house and was asked to clean up.
"If you pushed his buttons and cussed him out, he'd just lose it on you," Vales said.
The suspect liked to play football and practice Muay Thai boxing and jujitsu, Vales said. He was muscular and a little short for his age.
The 10-year-old boy, whose name was not released by authorities, was taken into custody shortly after the stabbing. Steve Walker, a spokesman for the San Diego County district attorney's office, said prosecutors would decide how to handle the case after the sheriff's department finishes its investigation.
Nesbit, head of the sheriff's homicide unit, said seven or eight detectives were investigating. He didn't know if there were any eyewitnesses.
California requires that children be at least 14 years old to be charged as adults, said Shaun Martin, a University of San Diego law professor. State law allows children to be detained until they turn 25, which would amount to a maximum sentence of 15 years for the boy in juvenile court.
"It's a hard case," Martin said. "It's the most serious of crimes, but punishing a 10-year-old child for murder is incredibly serious as well."
It is difficult to know if children that young fully comprehend the seriousness of the crime, Martin said. Traditionally, 10-year-olds were considered incapable of harboring such criminal intent and not charged, but attitudes have shifted.
The suspect's adoptive mother, who lived with the boy and her father, was the only person who knew how to calm him, Vales said. She hugged him and reassured him that everything would be all right.
"The nicest woman you'd ever meet," Vales said. "If it was anybody else, they wouldn't be able to put up with (him)."
No one answered the woman's door Tuesday.
Lisa Carter, the victim's mother, told U-T San Diego that she knew the suspect and his mother well.
"Please don't make it out that he was this terrible human being," she told the newspaper Tuesday. "He's not some monster."
The neighborhood in San Diego's foothills is one of modest, aging one-story homes on narrow, winding roads. The victim and suspect played often with others at a playground clubhouse in the mobile home park where the victim lived. They sometimes pretended to be pirates.
"They were like best buddies," Vales said. "I don't blame him at all for doing this. If he could change it, he definitely would."
It is unusual for children so young to kill. Law enforcement agencies reported 11 homicides nationwide by children 12 years old and younger in 2010 — the same number as in 2009 and 2008, according to FBI data.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston, said there were 242 homicides committed in the United States by children 10 and younger from 1976 through 2010, according to his analysis of FBI statistics. Of those, 48 percent of victims were family, 20 percent were acquaintances and 8 percent were friends.
Fox said there are typically no telltale signs to predict such acts of violence.
"Overwhelmingly the most common element is just an argument," he said. "It's the same motivation why kids fight."
Sally Beaulieu, a 77-year-old neighbor, saw the suspect walking down the street shortly before the stabbing.
"He was just kind of kicking rocks. He wasn't running, just walking. He didn't seem upset," she said.
Information from: U-T San Diego, http://www.utsandiego.com