Michael Brewer loves his skateboard, SpongeBob and the tree swing in his front yard. Now the 15-year-old whose family calls him Mikey has burns over two-thirds of his body and is fighting to live after authorities say five other teens — some of whom were at his house to play a month ago — doused him in rubbing alcohol and flicked a lighter.
Authorities said the attack happened after a dispute erupted over a video game that then escalated with the attempted theft of a bicycle belonging to Mikey's father. The boys accused in the attack are in a juvenile detention center, and Mikey is in a Miami hospital's intensive care unit, unable to speak and fighting for his life.
"It's certainly beyond the realm of anything normal," said Sgt. Steve Feeley, one of the Broward County sheriff's detectives investigating the case. "It's scary. It's scary that these kids would do that."
Doctors say Mikey is doing as well as can be expected, but grimly note that the boy faces years of skin grafts, therapy and surgery. Potentially fatal organ failure and infections are common in cases this severe.
Dr. Nicholas Namias of the University of Miami-Jackson Memorial Burn Center said that it is premature to say that Mikey is out of the woods in terms of danger from the burns.
"He isn't even in the woods yet," Namias said on the CBS Early Show.
The boys accused of attacking Mikey have been charged with aggravated battery. The one accused of flicking the lighter also faces an attempted second-degree murder charge. He was remorseful when detectives interviewed him, but two others laughed when they were questioned, Feeley said.
They are charged as juveniles; the state attorney could decide to move some, or all, into adult court. If convicted as adults, they could serve 15 years in prison — and up to 30 years for the attempted second-degree murder charge. All have prior juvenile criminal records, authorities said.
"My son is innocent and that's what I'm sticking with," said Dennis Bent, father of 15-year-old Matthew Bent, who is charged.
No one answered the door at the other four teens' homes; phone calls from The Associated Press were either not answered or not returned.
The horrific crime has gripped South Florida, and Mikey's family has received supportive e-mails and phone calls from around the country.
Everyone is wondering: How could boys this young set one of their own on fire?
"I still can't believe that there are kids who are that wild out there," sighed Kyle McCombs, a 30-year-old neighbor of the Brewer family. McCombs brought a mylar balloon that said "Get Well Soon!" and a card to the Brewers' home on Wednesday.
"Where did they even get the idea?"
Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor and specialist in child crime at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said young teens are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and impulsive actions.
"Kids will get these ideas, and they can't literally stop to deliberate and think, 'God that's a really stupid thing,'" she said. "The second thing you have is group dynamics — kids will do things in groups that they will never do individually."
Mikey lives with his mom, dad and sister in a working-class neighborhood of Broward County, about 40 miles from downtown Miami. He's in the seventh grade at Deerfield Beach Middle School — he was held back twice — and is known around the neighborhood for building skateboard ramps in his driveway.
According to the Broward Sheriff's Office, problems between Mikey and the kids started when Matthew Bent gave Mikey a video game and expected him to pay $40 for it, Broward County Sheriff's Office spokesman Jim Leljedal said. Mikey never paid, so Bent tried to steal a $500 custom bike that belonged to Mikey's father, Leljedal said.
It's unclear what game the boys fought over — or if it even exchanged hands.
Mikey called authorities Sunday — also his 15th birthday — when he saw Bent trying to steal his dad's bike. Bent was arrested Sunday night, and released from jail Monday. He wasn't in school. Neither was Mikey, who went to an apartment complex about a half-mile from his home to visit a friend.
Coincidentally, Bent was also at the complex. He had met up with four friends — brothers Denver and Jeremy Jarvis, 15 and 13, Steven Sheldon, 15, and Jesus Mendez, 15 — and while walking, came across a bottle of rubbing alcohol. They contemplated setting a house on fire with it, said Feeley, who added that he doesn't think the boys planned on seeking out Mikey to set him on fire.
"I don't think a tremendous amount of thought was put into it," Feeley said.
In the parking lot of the complex — a group of low-slung, tired-looking buildings clustered around a coin-operated laundry room and two swimming pools — Mikey ran into the five teens.
According to sheriff's reports, Mikey tried to walk away from the group. But Bent taunted him, calling him a "snitch."
Bent ordered Denver Jarvis to pour the alcohol on Mikey and then Mendez flicked a lighter in his direction.
Mendez allegedly told detectives he made a "bad decision" and that he "just wanted to see what would happen."
Awash in flames, Mikey ran toward a pool and jumped in; a paramedic who lives in the complex dove in and helped pull him out of the water. Mikey's mom and dad, who are unemployed, haven't left their son's bedside. His 23-year-old sister, Malissa Durkee, hasn't seen Mikey yet.
"I'm not in the right state of mind," she said.
Family friend Danny Martinez has set up a Web site and a foundation so people can donate to help; it's unclear whether the family even has health insurance to pay for care.
"Mikey's parents right now are still in shock," Martinez said.
Valerie Brewer, Mikey's mom, told NBC's "Today" show and ABC's "Good Morning America" that her son couldn't talk but was communicating with her by motioning with his hands.
"It's a complete nightmare," she said.