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A Teenager's Traffic Tickets End in a Jailhouse Tragedy—and Boise, Idaho Wonders Why

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Even though they were divorced eight years ago, Lloyd and Janice Peterman tried to be good parents to their 17-year-old son, Chris. So when a police officer served Chris with a contempt of court summons last May 30 for failure to pay $73 in traffic fines and court costs (one was for doing 43 mph in a 30-mph zone, the other for driving without a license), each parent realized that if Chris could not pay, he’d have to spend a sobering weekend in jail. As Chris was led off, his father remembers, “I had a bad feeling. I didn’t hug him, but I put my hand on his shoulder real hard.” Over the Memorial Day weekend Chris sent home a reassuring message through a visitor: “Tell Dad not to worry. I’m in a cell with five guys my own age. I’ll be all right.”

He was tragically wrong. On the afternoon of May 31 jail guards found Chris Peterman slumped, bleeding and unconscious in a shower stall. He had been beaten mercilessly and apparently tortured. Later that day Chris died. The coroner has said that he died of cranial hemorrhaging caused by multiple blows to the head. His former cellmates, all 17 years of age, are accused of committing the sadistic crime. They face trial for first-degree murder as adults under Idaho law.

A wave of outrage has engulfed Boise (pop. 102,500) since the incident. An ad hoc parents group has picketed the jail, and calls of support have come from around the country. “Everyone realizes it could just as easily have been their kid,” says Chris’ mother, Janice, a 40-year-old secretary.

Her son was a blond, slightly built school dropout (he quit in eighth grade and did farm work and odd jobs to support himself). He had an easy grin and a reputation as a good kid. “We talked about it, and he agreed it was his responsibility,” says Janice, explaining why she decided not to pay the fine. “I thought it was the best thing for him. Now I’ll never forgive myself for not paying the tickets myself.” Her former husband, Lloyd, a golf course greens-keeper, is bitter. “If I’d known what was going to happen,” he says, “I’d have gotten a shotgun and held the cops off so Chris could escape.”

Public anger over the death is focusing on Boise Sheriff E.C. “Chuck” Palmer, a 25-year veteran law enforcement officer who runs the jail where Chris died. Though he calls the murder “tragic and sickening,” Palmer at first defended his staff against allegations of laxness. “No cries for help or assistance were given,” he insisted. But another teenager who served time in the jail has since come forward with tales of drug abuse, beatings and other irregularities. Rick Yellen, 17, jailed for a parole violation, claims that three of the youths accused of killing Peter-man had attacked him 12 days previously. He claims no guards came to his aid, and he was beaten unconscious. “I was sure I was going to die,” Yellen recalls. The authorities now admit that an audio system which might have alerted guards to the beating of Peter-man had been broken for weeks.

Sheriff Palmer maintains that he is being “crucified” over the death. He points out that budget cuts have held him to a staff of 21, while the jail’s inmate population has doubled to about 160 over the past four years. Palmer now says that he is opposed to jailing juvenile traffic offenders.

Janice Peterman is determined that

the county adult jail after they allegedly proved to be troublemakers in a juvenile detention center. “What kind of people raise kids like these?” asks Chris’ father, who cannot understand why his son was put in a cell with them. her son’s tragedy will never be repeated, and she holds Chris’ jailers as responsible as his actual killers. “I don’t believe people in that jail didn’t know what was going on,” she says. “Why was Chris put in with those kids? Since when does driving without a license make you a juvenile delinquent? What could my boy possibly have done to have provoked such a thing? Chris hadn’t even started to shave.” One sad reminder of the tragedy still lingers. At the time of his death, Chris still owed the city $73.