The unusual first-degree-felony case against Joseph Ramos, a fifth-grader charged with burglarizing the home of a senior Bucks County prosecutor, is set for juvenile court today.
The boy will appear before county Judge Rea B. Boylan. The hearing is closed to the public because of his age.
Joseph admits that on Sept. 1, he and a 7-year-old friend trespassed by unlawfully entering the unlocked Plumstead Township home of T. Gary Gambardella, chief of special investigations for Bucks County District Attorney Diane Gibbons. The boys were friends, neighbors and playmates of Gambardella's 11-year-old son.
Joseph maintains he stole nothing, but is accused of taking at least $340 cash, a video game and game controller, and a set of children's trading cards.
The felony burglary charge he faces has drawn widespread attention for two reasons.
First, 10-year-olds rarely are charged with felonies in Pennsylvania - only about once in every 1,700 juvenile cases statewide. Second, the charge was approved by the district attorney's office despite Gambardella's status there as a high-ranking supervisor.
Not until January did Gibbons, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest, ask that the state attorney general take over the case. Her office had approved the charges on Oct. 2.
Gibbons has said that the case was handled appropriately. Joseph, who has since turned 11, was charged with a felony, Gibbons said, because she is convinced he is guilty of burglary. Gambardella's employment presented no conflict in reaching that decision, she said.
Some experts in juvenile law and legal ethics disagree, saying that the felony charge is excessive for a child so young, and that Gibbons should have recused her office as soon as the incident was reported.
The case took on added controversy on March 19, the day after The Inquirer published a story detailing the handling of the case.
Gibbons responded by accusing the boy of being a serial burglar.
"Look, this is the third house this kid has burglarized. This conduct has got to be addressed. Something is going on with this kid," she said in a story published on the front pages of the Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer of Doylestown.
Gibbons' accusation has been repeated several times in opinion columns, letters to the editor and on at least one talk-radio show.
The Inquirer, however, has found no evidence to back her claim.
Plumstead Township Police Chief Duane Hasenauer, whose officers investigated the case, says he knows of no other complaints made by anyone about Joseph or his family.
Gibbons did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.
In a March 15 interview with The Inquirer, however, she accused Joseph of committing two other burglaries. When asked for specifics, she summoned Gambardella to the phone.
Gambardella told of a dispute involving an art kit and a vague episode about a missing piece of computer equipment.
Neither even came close to being burglary, says Joseph's mother. According to Jocellyn Maisonet, both involved the same accuser: the 7-year-old boy who was with Joseph when he went into Gambardella's house Sept. 1 while the prosecutor was not home.
The computer equipment, Maisonet said, was a disk the 7-year-old had left at her house over the summer while playing. As for the art kit, she said the child had handed it to Joseph, and that it belonged to the boy's older brother. Both items were returned, she said.
The 7-year-old, listed in a police report as Joseph's "conspirator" in entering Gambardella's home, is too young to be charged under Pennsylvania law. Children under 10 who commit delinquent acts may be referred to child-welfare workers, who check on how the child is being supervised at home.
The 7-year-old contends that he saw Joseph steal the missing items from Gambardella's house. Joseph denies this.
The only items recovered were a pack of trading cards, which the 7-year-old had, and a game controller that Joseph turned over when police asked about it. He said that Gambardella's son had left it in his house the last time he visited.
Maisonet has said her son is guilty of trespassing and deserves to be punished, but contends that Gibbons' office has gone overboard. She has produced references from family friends, coaches and teachers, all of whom describe Joseph as a caring, well-mannered child who made a mistake.
Last week, Maisonet hired a private defense attorney, Andrew Schneider, to represent her son. Efforts to reach him for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.