A family's tragedy
By Jason Cato From staff reports
(Published October 26‚ 2003)
Editor's note: This is part of a two-day series in which The Herald will explore the events surrounding the deaths of a Chester County couple allegedly at the hands of their then-12-year-old grandson and issues involving juveniles in the adult criminal system.
By Jason Cato
After driving more than an hour in the crisp darkness, the black Nissan Pathfinder pulled off on a gravel road parting a hunting club in rural Cherokee County.
A half-mile later, it veered to the right on an old logging road. For the first few hours of Nov. 29, 2001, the driver hid in a grove of pine saplings with Christy, his golden retriever mix, and a cache of weapons, including the shotgun police say he used to kill his grandparents.
Miles away, a neighbor reported a fire at 950 Slick Rock Road just before midnight Nov. 28. Within hours, the bodies of Joe Frank Pittman, 66, and Joy Roberts Pittman, 62, were discovered in the rubble of their Chester County home. Onlookers noticed the Pathfinder was gone. They soon discovered the couple's 12-year-old grandson, Christopher Pittman, also was missing.
Police issued word to be on the lookout for both. It was the second time in five weeks such a search was needed for the boy.
When he was found this time, the stakes would turn out to be much higher. Police charged him with double murder.
Christopher's troubles existed for more than a matter of weeks, however. A state psychologist reported he was "a young man who'd had difficulty with the adults in his life." He felt alienated from others and reported a family history of emotional problems and mental illness, she said.
His family does not deny that. This was the culmination of painful experiences and a life quickly spun out of control, they say.
"This was a lifelong progression of sadness and depression, of being let down and a lot of loss from those he loved and trusted," said his maternal grandmother, Del Duprey of Wildwood, Fla.
Some say his personal problems don't justify killing his grandparents, an act portrayed by the prosecutor as cold-blooded.
Though they may describe the act, that characterization does not apply to her grandson, Duprey said.
"To me, in my world, there are no 12-year-old monsters," she said.
Troubles in his life began with his parents, Joe Dolphas Pittman and Hazel Jones Pittman. A family member called the relationship doomed from the beginning.
They met in 1986 at Wildwood High School in central Florida and quickly fell in love. Joe was a sophomore, Hazel a freshman.
Their daughter, Danielle, was born the next year. Hazel was 16.
Joe graduated the following year and joined the U.S. Army. He began boot camp at Alabama's Fort McClellan on May 11, 1988. Eleven weeks later, he and Hazel were married.
It would be his first in a string of failed marriages.
On April 9, 1989, the young couple's second child, Christopher Frank Pittman, was born in Huntsville, Ala. Six weeks later, he'd experience the first of a half-dozen family splits, divorces and separations when Hazel left Joe and returned to Florida.
By October 1990, she'd given birth to another son by another man and Joe was deployed as part of Operation Desert Storm.
Hazel left the family while Joe was away, leaving the children with Duprey, her mother. It'd be a decade before the children would see their mother again.
"They had no relationship with their mother, and that was her choice," said Duprey, who adopted Hazel's third child, Christopher's half-brother, and raised him as her own son. "My daughter left them when they were born, basically."
Joe returned from the Middle East in March 1991 and moved with the children back to Alabama, where he was stationed. When he was discharged that December, they moved in with his parents in Oxford, Fla.
Joe remarried in 1992 but was separated again a year later. He and the children moved back in with "Nanna" and "Pop-Pop," as his parents were called.
"My mom and dad were really like their parents," Joe said.
Joy cooked for the family and washed the children's clothes. She drove Danielle 40 miles round-trip to dance lessons in Ocala, Fla. Every morning, she took Christopher to North Sumter Primary School, where he went to class and she worked as a receptionist.
Around the house, the kids played on the 5-acre property, swimming in the pool or taking rides with their grandfather on his Allis Chalmers tractor.
Joe and the kids eventually got their own place a few miles away, but the children still saw their grandparents daily.
Christopher and his grandfather were especially close. They shared a middle name, Frank, and many of the same passions, including hunting, fishing and taking things apart.
"My dad was his hero," Joe said. "He (Christopher) was under his feet constantly, waiting to learn from him."
In 1997, the grandparents moved to South Carolina, building a house in rural Chester County.
Joe Frank Pittman was born in 1935 in a mill village in Lando. He and his wife often visited family there. In the 1980s, the couple bought 20 acres deep in the woods off Slick Rock Road, where they long planned to retire.
The move devastated the grandchildren they'd helped raise. Christopher, then 8, took their departure especially hard.
"I did, too, to be honest," his father said.
Life goes on
A maintenance worker with the Sumter County, Fla., school district, Joe, now 35, did all he could to give his children normal lives.
Christopher liked playing video games and played centerfield for his youth baseball team. He was nicknamed "Bug" because of his love of insects.
Described as quiet and reserved, Christopher was whippet-thin. Family photographs, some salvaged from his grandparents' burned house, depict his chestnut eyes and hair and a smile stretching to the edges of his narrow face.
Although Joe Frank and Joy had moved nearly 500 miles away, their grandchildren visited often. Christopher became friends with many of the boys in the area.
"He (Christopher) was well-rounded, well-liked," said the Rev. Chris Snelgrove of New Hope Methodist Church. "He was as normal and carefree of a little boy as there was."
In Chester, Christopher enjoyed swimming in creeks, camping and playing in the woods, his father said. He loved riding his grandfather's four-wheeler. Neighbors said he also enjoyed driving the family car up and down the long, dirt driveway -- something they say his grandfather often allowed.
Life in Florida changed in 1996, when Joe remarried once again. This one brought more children, two daughters. Their arrival, however, had a negative effect on Christopher, a state psychologist reported.
The boy's father said those effects were no different than what many other children experience. "There are a lot of things that affected Christopher, just like they would any child," Joe said.
Christopher and his sister were held to high academic standards. In March 2001, Christopher was chosen to participate in a Florida program that would provide four years of college after graduation.
Like his own father, Joe was loving but strict; and Christopher got into trouble at times that brought spankings or being restricted from watching television, using the computer or playing video games.
He once wore his father's Army fatigues for Uniform Day at South Sumter Middle School. When a boy took his hat, Joe said Christopher "jumped on the kid" to get it back.
Another time, he and a friend shot up a mobile home with a pellet gun. And there was an instance when he chased after his sister with a baseball bat.
"Taken out of context, it sounds terrible," Duprey said. "It was just kids being kids, though."
Joe and his third wife split in 2001. Later that summer, Christopher and Danielle got something they'd always wanted: a chance to get to know their mother.
"They'd been through two stepmothers and naturally wanted their own mother," Duprey said.
The reunion proved bittersweet.
Hazel came to Florida for a two-week vacation a few months after giving birth to her seventh child. The stay ended up lasting months, Duprey said.
Hazel told her mother and Joe she'd changed and wanted to get to know her other children.
As the stay got longer, Hazel rented a mobile home near Oxford and brought her four children who were living with her down from Virginia. Her husband was to follow, Duprey said.
Hazel and Joe, however, began to rekindle their old relationship.
"She told Joe that she and her husband were separated," Duprey said.
As the romance grew, so did the relationship between Hazel and her first two children, Duprey said.
Hazel and Danielle shared clothes. She met her daughter's friends and even took her to register for high school, Duprey said.
Christopher and his mother also shared things, Duprey said. Both are shy by nature.
"He seemed very happy around her," Duprey said. "They both were. They thought it was wonderful. They finally had a mother -- their mother."
By October, though, Hazel's husband threatened to take custody of their children.
The next time Joe and the children came by her mobile home, Hazel told them to get their things, Duprey said. "She told them to leave and don't come back. She said she wasn't going to lose custody of her children over this. ... She hurt them all over again."
Within days, Christopher decided he'd had enough, Duprey said.
Running to Chester
He ran away from his Sumter County, Fla., home sometime after 11 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2001, taking a back pack and $70 cash. Deputies in neighboring Marion County picked Christopher up at an Arby's restaurant along Interstate 75 the following day, according to a sheriff's office report.
A day earlier, he'd asked his sister which way was north. He was planning to run away to his grandparents' home in Chester.
Life at home had grown unbearable. Bad grades had Christopher on restriction -- no television, no video games. The relationship with his father was strained from arrival of his two new siblings and the dwindling attention coming his way, a state psychologist later explained.
Christopher reported his father had beat him, but an investigator from the Florida Department of Child and Families determined the claim wasn't true. That night, the boy threatened to harm himself.
He was committed to Lifestream Behavioral Center in Leesburg, Fla., for a few days, his father said. Doctors diagnosed him as clinically depressed and put him on Paxil, an antidepressant widely used to treat depression in adults but not approved for people under 18.
A temporary move
Hoping it would help, Joe agreed to let Christopher temporarily move to Chester.
"When he left here, he was thrilled," Duprey said. "He was going to live with Nanna and Pop-Pop."
Christopher was enrolled at Chester Middle School and attended New Hope Methodist, where Joy played the organ and Joe Frank sang in the choir. He was also taken to a family doctor, who switched his medication to Zoloft, an antidepressant the family blames for causing the deaths.
Church members knew Christopher had problems and that his grandparents were working with him, the Rev. Snelgrove said.
It was clear the boy had changed from prior visits. He'd become withdrawn and mouthy, Snelgrove said. "It was a noticeable difference that everyone could see."
Family members in Florida also noticed a change, though in a different way, when Christopher and his grandparents visited Florida for Thanksgiving. He was happy but hyperactive, something that was out of character, they said.
"He never did anything in 10th gear," Duprey said. "He was always so laid back."
Joe said his oldest daughter first noticed the change but didn't think much of it because he was so happy. Joe remembered his son couldn't wait to take his medicine.
"He was almost like a drug addict," Joe said. "I thought it was odd but thought he was trying to be responsible."
Within days of returning to Chester, that would prove to be terribly off-base.
On the way home from school on Nov. 27, 2001, Christopher began picking on a smaller, younger boy, according to another child who was on the bus.
All three boys got on and off at the same bus stop, said the boy, now 11.
Near the end of the 45-minute ride, Christopher pinned a then-9-year-old boy's head against the window and choked him using two fingers. "It began by him playing around," said the boy, who was sitting between the two.
The younger boy soon began crying, and the third boy said he tried to break it up. When they got off the bus, Christopher told the boy he'd kill him if he told anyone. The boy dismissed it as nothing.
The next day, the parents of the boy who was choked reported the incident. School officials called the Pittmans.
The boy's grandfather picked Christopher up and told officials he'd "handle it when he got home," Chester County Sheriff Maj. James McNeil said. Investigators later said the grandparents demanded that Christopher write a letter of apology. They also threatened to send him back to Florida if his behavior didn't improve, the state psychologist reported.
That night, the couple attended rehearsal at church. Christopher went with them. Witnesses, including the boy who'd tried to break up the fight, reported that Christopher was extremely quiet. He sat alone while other children rehearsed for a Christmas play.
The Pittmans left around 8 p.m., and everything seemed fine, a witness said. They were going home to help their grandson with his homework.
Within hours, a fire was reported on Slick Rock Road. People first thought the woods were burning because of the intense red glow in the night sky. As firefighters and dozens of neighbors arrived at the scene, they realized it was the Pittmans' house. Most thought no one was home because the car was gone.
Combing through the rubble, investigators discovered two bodies. Labeled as Jane and John Doe until they could be positively identified, everyone knew they were the bodies of Joy and Joe Frank Pittman. They were found side-by-side on the remnants of a mattress in an upstairs bedroom.
When a third body wasn't found, police issued an all-points bulletin for Christopher and the Pathfinder.
Solving a mystery
Terry Robinson hadn't heard the news by daybreak when he saw the Pathfinder while hunting near Thicketty Creek in Cherokee County. The off-duty firefighter said no one was inside.
His hunting partner, Roland Pennington, soon came across Christopher in the woods. The boy was wearing camouflage and carrying a rifle, Robinson said.
Christopher's dog, Christy, was barking nearby.
The boy told the men there was "a bunch of money and guns in the car," Robinson said. "He said some guy had him down in the woods. He claimed he'd been kidnapped."
The three walked about two miles to the Corinth Volunteer Fire Department. Robinson took investigators back to the site. Christopher stayed at the station, watching cartoons and eating cheeseburgers, Robinson said.
The boy told firefighters, like he would later tell Chester County and State Law Enforcement Division investigators, he'd been sleeping in his grandparents' house when he heard a noise outside. He said he looked out the window of his first-story bedroom to see a black man enter the house from the front porch.
Christopher told officers he ran outside and hid, because he was afraid of the intruder, Chester County Sheriff's Detective Lucinda McKellar said during a June court hearing.
Christopher told authorities he heard four shots fired before the man came outside and ordered him to get the keys to the Pathfinder. The man then used a gasoline can to set the house on fire before forcing him into the car and taking him to Cherokee County.
When asked about the dog, however, investigators got suspicious. The boy said Christy followed him. "That's when the red flags went up," McNeil said.
Information about the fight on the bus came in around the same time and McKellar's approach changed. Christopher became a suspect. He was read his rights and taken to the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office. That's where investigators say he confessed.
Details from the boy's father and testimony given by a state psychologist, a SLED fire investigator and McKellar at June's family court hearing revealed many details of what really happened that night.
After returning from church, Joy went straight to bed. She was exhausted because of the stress caused by Christopher's troubles at school. The boy and his grandfather stayed up for a while, watching a nature program on television in the living room of the ranch-style house.
They both eventually went to bed, Joe Frank in the loft upstairs and Christopher to his bedroom at the bottom of the staircase.
Sometime later, the boy got up and went into the living room. From the gun cabinet tucked beneath the stairs, he removed the pump-action, .410-gauge shotgun his grandfather had given his father for his 10th birthday.
Joe gave the gun to his son at Thanksgiving, something he says he now regrets.
With the shotgun loaded with bird shot, Christopher climbed the stairs to the dark loft. He turned left at the top landing and faced the side of the bed where his grandfather was likely sleeping. Without turning on the lights, he fired at least two shots -- one into his grandfather's open mouth and another into the back of his grandmother's head.
He found candles in the medicine cabinet of the upstairs bathroom. He placed lit candles around the house and set a blaze with lighter fluid and gasoline from a can for the four-wheeler.
Making sense of it all
The confession led to charges of double murder and arson. Though he was 12 at the time of the killings, a family court judge agreed to waive the boy up to adult court in June. John Justice, 6th circuit solicitor, requested the move, citing the "absolute cold-bloodedness" of the crime.
The death penalty was not sought. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court set 16 as the minimum age for capital punishment.
Now 14, Christopher could get 30 years to life in prison if convicted. The case may go before a grand jury within the next few weeks for an indictment to go to trial. The defense and prosecution could also reach a plea agreement at any time and avoid a trial altogether.
His family, however, isn't interested in a plea agreement. They don't doubt that Christopher pulled the trigger but feel he doesn't deserve to spend a day in adult prison. He may have committed the act, but he is not criminally responsible, they say.
They blame the medication.
Though he suffered from depression, Duprey said antidepressants changed her grandson.
"Until that point, he was still Christopher," she said. "Then you bring medication into the equation, and it changed this quiet boy. And all of this happened in a very short period of time."
Instead of jail time, the boy's father believes his son needs extensive therapy. "He'll need that just with the trauma of having to live with this the rest of his life."
Christopher just wants this all to end, Duprey said. "He wants closure. He wants answers to what he's facing. It's been two years."
The answer, however, could bring years -- possibly all he has left -- in prison.
Duprey hopes that doesn't happen. She doubts the criminal justice system could punish her grandson as much as he'll punish himself.
During a recent conversation in Columbia, Duprey said Christopher told her, "Grandma, I know God forgives me. I know my grandparents forgive me. But I don't think I'll ever forgive myself."