Joseph Ramos is learning how tough on crime Bucks County can be.
Last Labor Day weekend, he and a buddy entered a neighborhood friend's unlocked townhouse when no one was there. Trading cards, a video game, a game controller, and $340 in cash were reported missing by the homeowner.
A month later, Ramos was charged with first-degree felony burglary. The Plumstead Township resident admits trespassing but denies taking anything. He faces an April 3 court date.
It might be just another incident buried in the local police blotter. Except that Joe Ramos is an 80-pound fifth grader who was 10 years old at the time of the alleged crime. And the aggrieved homeowner, T. Gary Gambardella, is a high-ranking prosecutor in the Bucks County District Attorney's Office.
Because the court system throws a protective cloak of secrecy over minors, few juvenile-justice experts have heard of Joe Ramos' case. But the reactions of those who learned about it from an Inquirer reporter have ranged from puzzlement to consternation.
Filing felony charges against a 10-year-old with no prior legal run-ins, they point out, is rare - and rarer still in a matter more typically settled among neighbors.
Of 45,504 juvenile cases reported in Pennsylvania in 2005 (the latest data available), only 26 involved felony charges against 10-year-olds. Eight of them were burglary cases, according to the Center for Juvenile Justice and Research at Shippensburg University.
Under state law, 10 is the earliest age at which a juvenile can be charged.
"This is not the sort of case that normally would get to juvenile court," said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit child-advocacy group in Philadelphia. "Kids from Tom Sawyer's day have gone where they shouldn't, but don't get charged."
Bucks County District Attorney Diane E. Gibbons is buying none of that.
"Maybe that's what's gone wrong in society," she said in an interview last week. "You can't ignore this conduct."
Age isn't the only thorny issue in the prosecution of Joe Ramos.
Despite the conflict of interest presented by Gambardella's position, the Bucks District Attorney's Office reviewed the charges and approved a warrant for Joe's arrest in October, juvenile court records show. It took three more months before Gibbons, citing that conflict, asked the state Attorney General's Office to assign an independent prosecutor.
"Approving the arrest warrant was wrong, with this kind of conflict," said Samuel Stretton, a West Chester lawyer who specializes in legal ethics.
"It's clear as a bell to me that there is a conflict here, and that the conflict is driving the case," he said. ". . . The case shouldn't have gone this way, unless someone is out of their mind in the D.A.'s Office. You don't charge 10-year-olds with this kind of thing."
To which Gibbons replies: Why not?
If a 10-year-old commits burglary, she said, charge him and let his age help guide the court.
Among the outcomes for an accused juvenile are counseling, probation, boot camp, and confinement in a detention center.
As for Joe, "he's going to be charged because he's guilty, there's no question about that," she said. "What matters is what happens after that."
Attorney Robert Listenbee, who oversees about 6,000 juvenile cases a year for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said it is not that simple. Especially with young children, whose brains are still developing, police and prosecutors must try to distinguish criminal intent from bad decision-making, he said.
"A 10-year-old is still acting under impulse and emotional factors that are beyond the control of the child," he said.
Joe, who turned 11 in January, is a dark-eyed, athletic boy whose father died when he was 3. His teachers, coaches and friends have lauded his manners, diligence and kindness in glowing reference letters, and his school recently nominated him for a district award given for caring about others.
"He unconditionally helps those who need it, without being asked, and never asks for, or expects, anything in return," wrote Briana Derry, his teacher at Groveland Elementary, in a letter she gave to Joe's mother. ". . . I would love to have Joe as my own child."
Gambardella, 45, does not share that view.
"He needs to get some counseling," he said last week. "It's not acceptable to break into people's houses and disrespect other people's property. I see a kid with major difficulties."
A prosecutor since 1987, Gambardella is chief of special investigations for Gibbons and is a past president of the Bucks County Bar Association.
He has won some big cases, including the 2002 conviction of Richard Paolino, an OxyContin-trafficking doctor, who went to prison for at least 30 years.
He is just as serious about seeing Joe in court for what happened on Labor Day weekend.
Many aspects of the case are in dispute, but this much is not:
On Friday, Sept. 1, Joe and a 7-year-old boy, both friends of Gambardella's 11-year-old son, entered the prosecutor's townhouse in the Patriots Ridge development near Doylestown. A rear sliding-glass door had been left unlocked.
Over that weekend, the 7-year-old told Gambardella that he and Joe had been in the house, and that Joe had stolen things.
Gambardella summoned police Sept. 4. He told the officers he had left $350 in large bills on his bathroom sink counter, and that only a $100 bill remained. An additional $192 had been in his son's wallet; now there was only $2. Also gone from his son's bedroom: a pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! action cards, a "Nintendogs" video game, and a game controller.
The action cards were returned by the 7-year-old. The controller was in Joe's house. Nothing else has surfaced.
When confronted by police at his home down the block from Gambardella's, Joe denied everything - and then fainted. Police called off an ambulance when the boy quickly revived.
That night, Joe confessed to his mother, Jocellyn Maisonet, that he had been in Gambardella's home, but insisted he took nothing. She called the police.
A few days later, she said, she apologized to Gambardella at the children's bus stop. Although she believed Joe had not stolen the money, she said, she offered to pay half of the losses the prosecutor claimed.
"She told me how sorry she was, and said she would make sure he was punished appropriately," Gambardella recalled. But when she offered to go half, "I said, 'What do you mean, half?' She said, 'Well, there was someone else in there.' "
Gambardella refused the offer, saying he was convinced Joe was the instigator.
When police checked back with Gambardella on Sept. 22, he "again expressed his desire to press charges," a Plumstead Township incident report says. "The D.A.'s office will be contacted and the case will be reviewed prior to filing" charges.
Gambardella said he had nothing to do with the police decision or his office's review.
"I didn't tell them to call the D.A.'s Office. I didn't ask them to seek the D.A.'s approval," he said. "This was something done between the police and my office without my interference. I don't have a conflict."
Plumstead Township Police Chief Duane Hasenauer said that his officers "handled it like they would handle any other case," and that he doubted Gambardella's standing had any influence.
"When we get a report of a crime, we have to investigate it," he said. "When it involves someone young, it is sent to the D.A.'s Office, and they approve of the charges."
That review should have been done by the attorney general, Stretton and Listenbee said, to avoid an appearance of bias.
Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., for instance, recently recused his office from investigating Eagles coach Andy Reid's two sons because of Castor's political ties to one son's lawyers.
Prosecutors should "always and immediately" bow out of a case when they or their office colleagues are the alleged victims of a crime, Stretton said, and should not first decide which charges to file.
Gibbons disagrees, saying the attorney general is free to reject the charges or decide how to pursue them.
"What's the difference who brings the charges?" she said. "The A.G. can do whatever he wants with this case - drop it, have the kid wash police cars for the summer. He's not bound by anything."
Attorney General Tom Corbett received 150 requests for outside prosecutors last year from district attorneys, most citing conflicts of interest. A handful involved juvenile defendants, said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for Corbett, but none so young as Joe for at least 12 years, if ever. He declined to comment on how his office might handle Joe's case.
Maisonet admits her son erred and has punished him. She grounded him for two months. She took his TV and games, and held him out of youth basketball. She made him memorize Bible verses and "character" quotations. She made him pledge daily, in writing, not to lie to her or go into others' homes uninvited. She made him pray for forgiveness.
Still, she says, hauling him before a judge and a special prosecutor - even in juvenile court, where rehabilitation trumps punishment - is overkill.
"I can't imagine a little boy being up there being interrogated," Maisonet said. "He made a childish decision, a stupid one. He knows he did wrong, but I don't think he deserves this."
As for Joe, he says the episode is embarrassing and has caused some pals to shun him.
"It makes me feel mad and sad because people are probably going to believe [Gambardella] because of his job," he said.
"I'm a good kid," Joe said. "I'm sorry I went into his house. But I don't have his things."
Contact staff writer Larry King at 215-345-0446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.