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Teens' Near-Fatal Joke Roils Ohio Town

Jesse Howard, 17, right, addresses Judge Gary McKinley, not pictured, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006, at the Hardin County Courthouse in Kenton, Ohio.AP Photo/The Lima News, Craig Mack)
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This northwest Ohio town is abuzz over a judge's decision to let two high school football teammates play this fall despite their role in a crash that injured two other teens, who swerved to avoid a deer decoy that had been placed in the road.

Gary McKinley, a retired Union County juvenile court judge hearing the case in Hardin County Common Pleas Court, suspended 60-day juvenile detention sentences for Kenton High School junior quarterback Dailyn Campbell and senior safety Jesse Howard until after the season.

Tammy Minter, a 35-year-old auto plant worker, said Wednesday she thinks Howard, 17, and Campbell, 16, got special treatment.

"I have a 13-year-old son. This shows him you can get in trouble, and as long as you're a football player, you can get away with it," said Minter, who also has a daughter in the high school band.

A group of teens stole the two-legged decoy from a man's home last November, created a base to help it stand upright and watched as drivers swerved to avoid the decoy, investigators said.

When Robert Roby Jr. of Kenton swerved to miss the decoy, he crashed his car into a pole and fence. His neck, collar bone, arm and leg were broken. His mother said he's facing his 11th surgery and isn't able to work or go to school.

His passenger, Dustin Zachariah, has brain damage, Prosecutor Brad Bailey told the judge.

Amy Purcell, a 39-year-old office manager with a son on the team and another child at the high school, had mixed feelings about the ruling. Organized sports usually help keep kids out of trouble, she said.

"But to put their sentences on hold, I'm not sure that's fair," Purcell said.

Kenton schools Superintendent Doug Roberts said he doesn't think people would be as upset if the students played a sport other than football, which has a large following in the district.

The Wildcats, who won Division IV state championships in 2001 and 2002, draw about 4,000 fans for games in a community of about 8,000 surrounded by farm fields.

Last fall, Campbell was named first team northwest all-district and second team all-Ohio, and Howard earned an honorable mention on the all-district team.

"Being a small school and a small community, we look at these things as a small family, and when your family has problems, you try to help them, rather than turn your back on them," Roberts said.

McKinley also placed the two teens on house arrest. They must pay fines and restitution, perform community service and each write a 500-word essay titled "Why I should think before I act."

The judge suspended two one-year juvenile prison sentences for each boy. He said he knows the decision will be criticized.

"I shouldn't be doing this, but I'm going to. I see positive things about participating in football," McKinley told Campbell at Tuesday's hearing.

A court administrator said McKinley had no further comment Wednesday because of pending trials against other defendants in the case.

"None of these guys will ever know what our sons have gone through," Mary Roby wrote in a statement to the court. "If they get nothing for what they've done, they'll do something worse later. They need more than a slap on the wrist."

Howard's father, C.J., said he wants the ordeal to be over for his son.

"Jesse has never ever been in trouble before. He doesn't drink, he doesn't do drugs, he doesn't go to parties, he doesn't go out very much," the father said.

He said he punished his son by taking away his driver's license, keeping him at home and preventing him from playing sports before the sentencing, "for just going out and not stopping what happened."

Older children have taunted Jesse Howard's younger siblings over the crash, and others in town have come up to the family to criticize them, C.J. Howard said.

In July, Campbell and Howard each pleaded no contest to two counts of vehicular vandalism and juvenile charges of delinquency by possession of criminal tools and misdemeanor theft. Trials are scheduled in the fall for three other defendants.

Zachariah now has the cognitive ability of a sixth grader, said his mother, Kathy Piper. When he applied for a job two weeks ago, he couldn't do the simple math on the application test, she said.

The teens' medical bills have reached $700,000 and are expected to top $1 million, Bailey said.

Campbell and Howard apologized during their sentencing hearings.

"I think every day that I hurt someone, and that hurts me inside," said Howard.