PENSACOLA, Fla. - He was 12 years old, not quite 5 feet tall and skinny as a nightstick. He wore black high-tops and a diamond earring.
"Don't move or I'll shoot," he said.
His voice was calm, determined. He braced the semiautomatic pistol in both hands and aimed it just below Sherrie Riley's nose. His finger was on the trigger.
"When he looked at me," Riley says, "he looked me dead in my eyes. It was just like he was stealing bubble gum.
"If he didn't have the gun, I'd have whacked him one."
He reached into the cash register, shoved a wad of bills down the front of his shorts and bolted. Riley's hands were still trembling when Pensacola police arrived at Dixie Cleaners. They began rounding up teenagers for her to have a look at. No, no, she kept telling the cops, bring me someone younger, someone smaller.
They brought her Eddie McGee. He had changed clothes and removed the diamond earring. Riley wasn't fooled. "He looked up and burned me that little look he gave me when he was here," she recalls.
"He cried right after I identified him."
He's grown up a lot since then. Now he's 14. He's the youngest inmate in Florida's adult prison system. For the holdup at Dixie Cleaners, Eddie is doing 10 years.
Those who tried to throw him a lifeline - and plenty tried - were up against a mother and father too drunk or too high to care, and a juvenile-justice system that offered Band-Aids when surgery was required.
Prosecutors didn't want to put Eddie in an adult prison. They wanted to send him to a program for kids who commit serious crimes. But the juvenile authorities said Eddie was too young, that it wasn't safe for him to be in a place where the average age is 15. So instead, Eddie shares a cell at Brevard Correctional Institution with a 21-year-old who is doing his second tour of Florida's prisons.
JUSTICE SYSTEM GIVING UP
All over Florida, judges and prosecutors are giving up on the juvenile system and placing thousands of juveniles in adult prisons instead.
Eddie has been at Brevard 15 months. A reporter was his first visitor.
He speaks in angry, bitter bursts.
"They think, `Well, he gonna get in prison. They'll counsel him and he'll be a better person for life. Maybe if we take seven years out of his life, he'll become a better citizen and stuff. They'll probably change him and stuff.'
"They not going to change you here. I'm getting more and more angry."
Steve Starkey was the first to throw Eddie McGee a lifeline.
Eddie was 8. Starkey was pastor of Beach Haven Baptist Church, a congregation near the housing project where Eddie's family lived.
Starkey recruited Eddie and 10 others from the project to play on a Little League baseball team.
"We were not trying to build a baseball team," Starkey likes to say, "we were trying to build character."
Eddie was a natural athlete. He made several Little League all-star teams. He also desperately wanted to belong and would fight at the slightest provocation.
"One on one you won't find a better little guy," says James Nims, who helped Starkey coach. "But you get him around 4 or 5 guys and he has to be top dog. It's called negative glory."
He was 9 years old when he was arrested the first time. He and another child broke into Eddie's elementary school.
Starkey thought he was reaching Eddie. But Eddie's family moved across town and Starkey moved to a new church. They lost touch.
This is when Steve Ordonia came to know Eddie. Ordonia, a Pensacola cop, began to arrest him. Over and over.
Eddie was hanging around with older boys in a predominantly black area of town known as "the Avenues." The kids would steal bikes or break into cars and steal purses, wallets - whatever they could find. Sometimes they sold crack on street corners for "the big boys."
Ordonia tried to talk sense into Eddie, but to Eddie crime meant money for clothes and shoes. It meant status on the Avenues.
"I was thinking about coming up," he says. "I was thinking about making enough money. When I was young, I want all this stuff, you know what I'm saying? I wanted luxury. That's all I wanted. Luxury."
At age 11, Eddie and an older friend spent days scoping out a gun shop. One night, they snipped wires to disarm the alarm system and broke in. They stole as many guns as they could carry.
Police caught the young entrepreneurs openly selling the guns in the Avenues. Eddie was sent to the Leon START Center, a program for children 14 and under. He was committed on his 12th birthday and stayed four months. He did well. But as soon as he got out, he was caught breaking into cars. Little wonder, says Gordon Hendrieth, Eddie's counselor from the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
"Leon was just too short of a program for Eddie McGee. As long as you keep throwing a kid back into a cesspool, he's gonna stink."
ONE MORE LIFELINE
Renee Napier threw Eddie another lifeline.
She is 34, a mother of four and the force behind Royal Ambassadors, a youth group at the prosperous and mainly white First Baptist Church of Pensacola. Napier's youth group has become a refuge for many poor black children.
On Wednesday nights, Eddie and his brothers would walk up the hill to attend "Miss Renee's" Royal Ambassadors. Eddie never missed a session.
"What I saw in him was a kid who was torn between what's good and what's bad, and both sides were tugging on him," Napier says. "To me, there was still hope."
Frank Hamilton, a 52-year-old former Marine and scoutmaster of Troop 10, also saw promise. Eddie joined Troop 10, went camping overnight and learned the scout pledge: "To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight."
But back in the Avenues, among his friends, there was only one principle: "It's about coming up, about making money, about getting money, about getting paper," Eddie says.
This was not the child Jean Cook saw each morning in her sixth-grade class at Warrington Middle School.
Eddie, she says, was not a troublemaker. He was bright, and popular, particularly with the girls. When he needed to be corrected, she needed only to move behind him and gently place her hands on his thin shoulders. "Yes, ma'am," he'd say, and settle down.
Months before Eddie stuck a gun in Sherrie Riley's face, he made the honor roll at Warrington.
Everyone has stories about Eddie McGee's parents. None are good.
Linda Mason and Eddie McGee had four children together. The oldest is Eddie. Raphael is 13, Brian is 10 and Marqueta is 9.
For years the family has lived in financial chaos. They've faced a series of evictions from $200-a-month apartments. They've turned repeatedly to family members and local churches for food and clothing and Christmas presents.
On this day, Linda Mason, 31, sits in the sun behind a sagging apartment house in downtown Pensacola.
"I ain't the best parent," she says, "but I done did the best I could with Eddie. I told him wrong and right."
She softens and tears creep to the edges of her eyes. She says she's been miserable since Eddie went off to prison.
"Every day I worry," she says, "is he going to get out dead or alive?"
As she speaks, a man approaches the house from a back alley. He walks slowly, head down. This is Eddie's father. His eyes are bloodshot.
"I was at the liquor store drinking," he explains, "but I had Eddie on my mind. I love him. He's my boy. He's got my name."
The elder Eddie has a long arrest record starting at age 18. Nothing, though, quite tops what he did to Donald Wright last year.
Wright is a 77-year-old retired rear admiral who lives on the edge of Pensacola Country Club and hired the elder Eddie McGee to do yard work. Wright liked McGee, who soon had free run of the house.
Over two months, McGee tore dozens of checks out of Wright's checkbook, forged his name, and cashed them for nearly $10,000.
Sentencing guidelines called for 17 to 22 years. The public defender said McGee was the victim of a raging cocaine habit. The judge sympathized. He gave him two years on house arrest.
WORKING ON A RAP SHEET
His son Eddie, late in July 1991, started hanging around with Aaron Grayson, a 19-year-old with a rap sheet of his own.
About 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday, they jumped a 21-year-old man outside a popular Pensacola restaurant. Grayson held the man in a headlock and stuck a gun to his neck. Eddie also had a gun.
The man struggled, and Eddie says he nearly pulled the trigger. But the man stopped struggling.
The $150 they got from his wallet was gone within hours, rolled away in a dice game. The new partners slept for a few hours, then started thinking of ways to get more money for the dice game.
Eddie thought of Dixie Cleaners. Grayson stood outside as lookout.
Eddie remembers how scared Sherrie Riley looked staring down the barrel of his loaded .380-caliber semiautomatic. Does the memory bother him?
"No, it ain't bother me," he says. "I ain't have no remorse."
When Renee Napier heard about Eddie's arrest from a friend at First Baptist Church, she cried.
Prosecutor Marci Goodman was torn. She knew precisely what was needed. Eddie needed to be sent to a juvenile program long enough to secure his academic potential and to realize that the Avenues weren't a promising career track. He needed what Florida doesn't have - a program where a kid can live and learn for two, three, even four years.
What Florida does have is the Arthur Dozier School in Marianna, a 200-acre campus surrounded by a 13-foot fence. Most kids stay six to nine months - attending classes and therapy sessions - before being released to make room for others. Goodman wanted to send Eddie there - give him one last chance.
The Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services wouldn't go along. Not because Eddie was too dangerous, but because he was too young.
FEDS SET AGE LIMITS
Under a 1987 federal agreement aimed at forcing improvements in Florida's juvenile system, the school can only accept children at least 14 years old at Dozier. The idea was to protect younger children from mixing with older ones.
Rather than have Eddie go to an adult prison, the state agency could have submitted a waiver request to allow him to go to Dozier. But officials say they assumed Eddie's request would be rejected by the federally appointed monitor. So they didn't ask.
With Dozier off limits, Goodman felt she had no choice but to prosecute Eddie as an adult.
A grand jury indicted Eddie for the armed robberies outside the restaurant and at the cleaners. Two months shy of his 13th birthday, Eddie McGee legally was an adult.
Jay Williams, his public defender, told his young client he could go to trial, almost certainly lose and get 27 years in prison under sentencing guidelines. Or he could accept a plea bargain, for a recommendation of a 10-year prison sentence.
Eddie was scared and alone. His parents hadn't shown for his court appearances. There were no more lifelines. He took the plea offer.
Marci Goodman called state prison officials to warn them they were about to receive custody of a 13-year-old.
"All you could hear was shock on the other end of the phone," she recalls. "They had no idea what to do."
Florida assigns inmates age 24 and younger to one of three prisons, depending on the seriousness of their crimes. Eddie was placed with the most serious youthful offenders.
Andy Gravina is Eddie's classification specialist. He controls Eddie's prison life - where he works, where he lives. Gravina is assigned 140 other inmates, but he says he gives Eddie special attention because of his size and age.
"He's one of my babies."
Gravina remembers Eddie's first days at Brevard. Eddie was "a puny little guy" who was clearly scared silly, and just as clearly intent on proving he was not. Within two weeks he was sent to "the box" for throwing a lit piece of toilet paper on an inmate. He spent a month in isolation. Six days later it was back to the box, this time for assault.
"He was out of control," Gravina says. "A kid his size, a lot of time people pick on him and he has to prove how tough he is. In his case, he felt being aggressive was the way to survive."
Eddie shows off the scars on his fists like a soldier showing off combat medals. "Knocked a chunk of meat out of my hand here," he says pointing to a jagged scar on his knuckles. "I ain't never seen anything on the street like prison, man."
He says he hasn't been sexually assaulted, but once an older inmate looked at him with "funny eyes" and played "sex games" - patting his rear. Eddie says he punched him in the face as hard as he could.
Eddie can't remember when last he spoke with his parents.
"They want to come down and see me," he says, "but every time they try . . . , I'd have gotten in some more trouble or something. And it's a long ways from here to Pensacola."
His loneliness runs deeper than he lets on. He wrote to a 14-year-old cousin: "I'm always wondering why haven't anyone wrote me. I'm always wondering do anybody care about me anymore. Does anyone think about me? . . . Do I have someone to come home to?"
Because he used a gun to rob Sherrie Riley, he must serve at least three years before he even can be considered for early release. Andy Gravina says Eddie probably won't be released until late 1996. By then, he'll be 18.
Eddie knows this better than anyone. It's part of what stokes his rage - this feeling of wasted time, wasted youth.
He says, "If I go home when I'm 19, man, I know what's going to happen. I might just get back there and get into some more trouble, man. 'Cause I'm going to feel like, look, they took all this time off my life."
Those who have watched the downward arc of Eddie's life, are frightened by what's ahead.
Andy Gravina: "He's gonna get out in six or seven years and go right back to where he's from."
Sherrie Riley: "When he's loose and on the streets he's gonna kill somebody."
Steve Ordonia, the Pensacola cop, knows it's only a matter of time before he and Eddie McGee meet again in the Avenues.
"We'll be ready for him."