Smart, Charming, Incorrigible?

A Tough Street Kid Becomes Car Thief

From the beginning, the deck was stacked against Juan Carlos Castro. His mother was a drug addict who abandoned him. He grew up in foster homes.

As a young teen-ager, he stole scores of cars. Was there anything that anyone could have done to save him? 48 Hours Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.

Marlene Aquino was 15 when she gave birth to her only child: Juan. The father walked out; Aquino became a prostitute. "As a mother I feel that I did him wrong," she said of Juan. "That I failed him."

Juan and his mother moved from Newark, N.J., to Tampa, where their life was no better. At age 6, Juan was found abandoned, sleeping in a car.

As a young child, Juan was more or less on his own.
Discovered alone again at age 8, he was officially taken away from his mother and put into foster care. He lived off and on in at a state-run group home. "From the time when I was, like, 7 until I was 13, I don't remember seeing my mother at all, period," Castro said.

By age 14, he had gone through 35 foster homes. He had stolen more than 100 cars and been arrested for theft, armed robbery and aggravated assault on a police officer.

In 1994, Juan was arrested for carjacking. He wasn't sent to jail, but to a boot camp for young offenders. "That's a tough kid," said Carlos Semellan, the detective who arrested the 14-year-old that day. "Probably the toughest street kid I've had to handle in my nine years."

Juan's mother Maria was a drug addict and prostitute.
But Semellan also took a liking to Castro, and formed a bond with the charming teen. "I seen a kid that didn't know what love was," Semellan said. "I seen a kid that had no direction. I seen a kid that had no self-esteem."

At the boot camp, Juan was forced to live under strict discipline. His head was shaved, and he learned to march, to call cadence and to keep his cell neat.

"Juan Castro never was stupid," said the head of the camp, Commander Lee Vallier. "He never was ignorant. He just tried to be tough."

"Behind that toughness I think there still lies a mischievous little boy and I'm going to get at that," he added.

To find out more about juvenile justice, check out the National Center For Juvenile Justice.
Commander Vallier saw that Juan had potential and believed that he could help him reach that potential. Vallier also felt a more personal connection to Juan; he, too, had grown up without his mother. She had been murdered, and he had been raised in an institution, until he was 13.

The two formed a bond. One day, Juan admitted to Vallier that being alone hurt him: "When other kids are with their family and everything, sir, like on Sundays, sir, I sit up there and watch them go with their families to visitation, sir. It just; it makes me cry, sir."

Commander Vallier began yelling at Juan upon his arrival at boot camp.
Vallier believed that the camp was helping Juan: "I seen a young man who walked in the gate who, you could look in his eyes and you could almost see a soul that was dying, if you will, to a kid who now has a twinkle in his eye and hope for the future."

While in boot camp, Juan became a father, for the second time. The girl was named Devin. After four months, Juan was released but not to the street.

Bill Clyburn, a sociologist who studies troubled teens, had offered to give him a home. He and his wife Brenda had three kids of their own. "Juan needs a family and we're here for him," said Brenda Clyburn.

Juan was the first troubled child ever to move in with the Clyburns. "This is home," said Bill Clyburn at the time. "This is not a temporary stay."

It was a new world for Juan. For the first time, he attended regular school, regularly. He had never gone to regular school for more than two weeks straight.

Juan also decided to become involved with his daughter Devin. The baby, already abandoned by her mother, was living with grandparents.

Another good source for information on juvenile justice is the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
There was a lot motivating Juan to be good. But life in suburbia was in some ways tougher than boot camp. There were more temptations. He was also on a short leash; he was serving eight months' probation.

At school, Juan was an object of curiosity. One day, he answered his classmates' questions about hi past. One girl asked whether he thought he would end up in jail again.

"I ain't gonna do anything that will get me back in there," he said. "I'm still the same person. I just changed my beliefs about certain things."

But old habits die hard. One day, Juan took off his belt and threatened another kid with it. After he stayed out all night, the Clyburns sent him back to boot camp for a while.

While there, he tested positive for marijuana. Bill Clyburn thought about not taking Juan back, but decided to give him another chance.

For a while, the situation improved. Juan joined the track team and became a pole vaulter.

Detective Semellan, who had kept up with Juan, came to watch a meet one day. "It looks like he's changed," he said.

Learn about the next chapter in Juan's life in "Unable To Escape His Past."

Produced by David Kohn;