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Two teenagers, a gas station owner, a fatal encounter

Three lives shot through with tragedy

Tuesday, August 8, 2000



They were two sets of strangers before their lives twined -- when Jerrard Comer had his peace, Darryl Berkley had his freedom and Adam Boston had his life. But that was before the bullets left their chambers.

Comer was an elderly gas station owner, a man defined by routine. Up at 4 a.m. At work seven days a week. At the same job at the same corner for almost 40 years. He didn't particularly like how the world had changed, and he packed a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson in a spring-loaded holster every morning.

Berkley and Boston were teenagers who rolled out of bed around noon. They guzzled Mountain Dew for breakfast. They had no plans for the future, apart from raising their score on an 007 PlayStation game. It was the closest anyone saw them to guns.

But on April 26, they shoved two loaded guns into Comer's face and robbed his Skyway station a mile from home. Their motive: money for a bag of weed; maybe a new video game.

It was a punch in the gut to the youths' friends and family. But what hurt them more was this: Comer followed Boston and Berkley, and in less than five minutes the terrified victim killed one of his teenage attackers.

More than half a century separates them. Their work ethics made them opposites. But fate washed them together, scarring everyone in the way.

In Burien, a father regrets that he never told his teenage stepson he loved him.

At the Regional Justice Center in Kent, 18-year-old Berkley feels his youth wilt before a long prison sentence.

And 69-year-old Comer -- no matter how justified he feels about the shooting, or how many golf swings he takes to clear his head -- can't erase the fact that a human being died by his hands.

Lately, the death he's been talking about is his own.

Charming but volatile

Judy Ringold last saw her son alive on Easter Sunday. At 17, Boston was handsome, popular with girls and "a vain little creature," she said.

He did silly things that made her laugh. He would pour milk in a wine glass and snootily sip "white wine." He would jokingly throw a chokehold on his sister and yell, "Sissy! Family bonding!"

Before heading to Southcenter Mall -- prime flirting territory -- he would gel his hair, douse himself with Brut and make sure his extra-large jeans had a sharp crease.

But he had two sides: charming or volatile. A high school dropout, he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, which made him hyperactive, drained his attention span and made learning difficult.

"I'll be honest with you, he was no angel. This child drove me crazy. When he was good, he was cute, he was funny, he was wonderful. But when he was bad, he was horrid," said Ringold, a 54-year-old law office assistant.

But at Easter dinner in their small Burien apartment, he had been affectionate. He was going to stay at his friend Darryl's house, and before pedaling off on his bike he doled out a round of hugs and kisses.

When Ringold wanders into her past, she is grateful for that goodbye hug. He was supposed to come home three days later. Instead, she got a call at work. Her son was at Harborview Medical Center.

"They took me to see him," she said, crying. "And I thought, he looked so pretty, he didn't look dead."

Veteran packed a gun

Comer bought his gas station in April 1961, when Renton Avenue South was a calm, two-lane, tree-lined road.

He had worked hard since he was 14, when he bagged groceries for 35 cents an hour. He had grown up in rural Orting, joined the Air Force at 19, and was a crew chief during the Korean War.

When he came home in 1955, he worked for The Boeing Co. as a flight-line mechanic on B-52s, until he was transferred to 707s. When he was about to be demoted in a cost-cutting move, he quit. He wanted to be his own boss. So he became the proud owner of a new service station.

In the 1970s, he married a woman who shared his love of flowers, and they later raised four children.

"I never was in any trouble," he said recently, shaking his head over a big slice of banana cream pie.

"We never heard of drugs. If we stole a bottle of beer from the fridge and shared it with three people, well, you were really somebody."

As the years passed, he felt his quality of life decline. Casinos, a bowling alley and a fried chicken joint popped up near his station. Loud rap music booms from passing cars.

"This area is not as nice an area as it used to be," he said, adding that whites, Asians and elderly people used to live here. "Now, it's . . ."

Several years ago, a teenage boy pressed a knife to his throat as he was opening his station. But the burglar alarm sounded, and the boy fled. It was the closest he had come to being robbed.

A long time ago -- 15, 20, maybe 25 years -- he began putting on a gun every morning. "Just like my shirt," he said.

"I don't really know why I decided to have one. I just feel safer with it."

The hustler's dream

Berkley, who is black, considered Boston, who was white, his best friend. It was a little unusual because all of Berkley's other friends are black.

But they met on the neighborhood basketball court about three years ago. They both liked Cheech and Chong movies and the same rap music. Berkley's sisters loved calling Boston "white chocolate," "pilgrim" and "pinkie."

"Adam's my baby," said sister Shanika Doage. "He was loud and funny, and he dressed ghetto. I mean, ghet-to."

When things didn't go well at home, Boston spent months at a time at Berkley's place. He called Berkley's mom "Mom."

The teens enrolled in a diploma equivalency program; Berkley finished, but Boston dropped out. Neither had a job. Each had been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting, but never charged.

Everyone knew they weren't saints, but armed robbery? Neither had been busted for a violent crime.

But there had been trouble with Boston.

In the weeks before his death, he punched a hole in a wall because he didn't feel like doing dishes. And he threatened to kill a Metro driver who booted him off her bus. When officers arrested him on suspicion of "unlawful conduct," he resisted, according to a police report. Later, he said he had only been "talking trash." The case was pending when he died.

It was Boston's idea to rob the neighborhood BP station, according to Berkley.

Friends say they never saw Boston with guns, but on the night before the holdup, he had two handguns: a stolen .380 and an old .38. Sheriff's detectives don't know how he got them, but believe the stolen gun passed through several hands before reaching Boston.

Berkley had been inspired by the movie "Nothing to Lose," which stars Martin Lawrence and Tim Robbins as good-natured criminals. From it, he decided they would cut the phone cord at the gas station and make their victims count to 100.

But no shooting, they told each other.

"We never meant to hurt anyone," Berkley said in a jail interview. That night, he listened to his favorite rapper, E-40, sing about "the hustler's dream." He woke his friend up at 4 a.m.

'Give me all your money!'

They gathered their guns and black masks in a backpack, smoked a little pot and slipped out the bedroom window.

They walked the few winding blocks to Renton Avenue, past the silhouettes of firs and cedars. As they watched the sky brighten, they sat on the curb behind Comer's station.

"We were thinking this night could end f----- up," Berkley said. "We could have some money at home, or we could be in jail." Boston worried about his mother. She had lectured him about staying out of trouble.

Comer got to work at 4:45 a.m. He was counting cigarette cartons when his longtime assistant, James LaBrie, walked in and grabbed his customary coffee and a smoke. At 6 a.m., they turned on the "open" sign.

6:11 a.m.: Two men in black rush in. Customers late for the bus, LaBrie thinks. But he sees the guns, the covered faces. Terror bolts through his body.

"Give me all your money!" one robber yells at Comer.

"Get on the ground!" the other screams at LaBrie. He points a chrome revolver close to the assistant's forehead, and LaBrie drops to the cold, oil-stained concrete floor like a dead weight.

Shaking, Comer gives the robber $120, the opening till amount. Six 10s, eight 5s, 20 one-dollar bills. "You don't have no 20s?" the robber yells. The men are herded into a back service bay. This is where my life ends, they think. This is how my life ends. Right here, right now, near these yellow stacked-up oil cans.

But the panicky robbers run away, leaving the phone line uncut. Comer calls 911, climbs in his pickup and trails the robbers on South 118th Street. He tells the 911 dispatcher their every move on his cellular phone.

As Berkley and Boston sprint home, they stash their guns in a backpack. They're elated.

"It was like an adrenaline rush," Berkley recalled. "We was like so sure we got away. It was like, 'Hell yeah.'"

But a squad car suddenly screeched in front of them, just blocks from the station. Frozen, they looked at each other, as they put their hands on the hood of the police cruiser. Then the old man they had just robbed walked toward them.

'I was so scared'

When the high-pitched "felony tones" shrieked on her police radio, King County Sheriff's Deputy Barbara Vallor was just minutes into her 6 a.m. shift. She was first on the scene.

Vallor is a 14-year deputy with many arrests under her belt. But this one almost killed her.

Comer said Vallor asked him to watch Boston, while she handcuffed Berkley. "Well, I wasn't too much for it, but I thought, whatever," Comer said later.

Following her instructions, he put his hand on Boston's back. A split second later, both teens lunged, knocking Vallor to the ground.

She wound up wrestling with Berkley, who grabbed her gun and fired twice before the weapon jammed.

Comer said he moved to the back of the car, saw Vallor and Berkley scuffling, and heard two gunshots.

A bullet grazed his chin. Suddenly, Boston rushed toward him, he said.

"I was so scared," Comer said. "I didn't know if he was going to shoot me or beat the s--- out of me. I'll be 70 next February. I'm not going to get into it with an 18- to 19-year-old teenager."

He didn't aim, or steady his arm. From about a car's length away, he drew his gun and pulled the trigger, just as Boston turned away. The unarmed teen took the bullet in the back.

Both Berkley and Comer say they fired in self-defense, and their stories are contradictory. Vallor, who was injured in the incident and still hasn't returned to work, declined to be interviewed. And her partner, Deputy Melvin Dickson, pulled up just as three shots rang out.

Police say an inquest will be held next month to sort out the sequence of events.

From behind thick, scratched jail glass, Berkley shook his head bitterly. He said he saw Comer reaching for his gun first and thought the man was bent on revenge. So he grabbed the cop's gun and fired in self-defense.

"He didn't have to shoot him," Berkley said. "I'm just wondering if he's going to get away with murder."

Prosecutors don't anticipate filing charges against Comer, because they're satisfied it was justifiable homicide.

On July 10, Berkley pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and disarming a police officer. When he is sentenced next month, he faces up to nine years in prison.

He told his sister: "Adam's in heaven, and I'm in hell."

Nightmares and self-doubt

After Comer finished talking to police at the shooting scene, he returned to the gas station and said nothing to LaBrie.

He crumpled up the yellow crime tape and swept away the charcoal fingerprint powder. He intended to reopen later that day.

"It was almost like nothing had happened," said LaBrie. Only when they were ready for business did Comer tell him he shot the robber.

Over the next few weeks, Comer appeared to act normally: He rose at his usual hour and continued to work. He mowed the lawn.

But he suddenly talked about dying. He began slipping away to the golf course. He told his son he wanted his ashes sprinkled on the links.

"He's been talking really crazy, saying he's gonna die soon," said Amanda Comer, his wife of 23 years. "The way my husband is acting, I know he's feeling something, but he's not saying. I think he's depressed."

She was relieved that he wasn't hurt, but felt bad for Boston's family.

"Many, many times I thought about his parents," she said. "I thought about his mom. I thought she must feel awful. I wanted to send flowers."

Mild-mannered and bespectacled, Comer chats easily about the blooming cycles of his tomatoes, or the pancakes his granddaughter likes. But ask him about the shooting, and he gets terse.

"I'm sorry that it happened," he said. "I just feel I did what I had to do, that's all."

He still has nightmares about the robbery. He feels anxious when he's alone at the station. Self-doubt still creeps in.

"It's still in the back of your mind, that you shot somebody," he said. "You wonder if you should have done something differently, if you should have stayed and let them get away."

Most of his customers told him he did the right thing. "That made me feel a little better ..." he said.

"It's hard to take a life."

Family scarred by alcoholism

It was a life that began as it ended: in chaos.

Boston was born in a parking lot off a state highway in Heyworth, Ill., a blip of a town. When Judy Ringold went into labor, she was a 37-year-old alcoholic who had stopped for cigarettes on her way to the hospital.

He was the youngest of four children in a tumultuous family. His dad drank heavily. At night, his parents fought so loudly that his older sister would curl up in his crib at night.

His birth was a bright spot in his mother's bleak life.

"She had him when she was at a really low point. He was her shining light. He was her whole life," said Boston's sister, Chelli Sewell, 28.

Ringold crawled towards sobriety. She divorced her husband, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and moved in with her mother on Vashon Island. Growing up in treatment circles, Adam liked to chat with strangers and quote AA's "Big Book."

"Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today," he would say as a young child.

He attended a school for homeless kids, while his mom and new husband lived in cheap motels. By the time they moved to a North Seattle trailer, he had blossomed into an affectionate child.

"Outstanding love! There's no other mother like you," Adam wrote in blocky second-grade letters on one of his many handcrafted Mother's Day cards. "Every time I look at you, I love you more."

But he had a hard time with his new dad, Ken Ringold, a recovering alcoholic. When Adam was 11, Ringold fell off the wagon and threatened to hurt him, prompting Judy to seek a protection order, according to court records. But she quickly rescinded it, saying her husband was getting sober.

Now a 42-year-old recycling plant sorter, Ken Ringold no longer drinks.

At Cascade Middle School, Adam had hardened into a mouthy adolescent. Teachers described him in school records as "disruptive, hyper, angry, disrespectful." He was disciplined for refusing to pull up his low-slung pants.

He stopped taking medication for his hyperactivity and couldn't cope with his learning hurdles. He became a dogged truant.

"I'd take him to school, leave him there, and he'd take the bus back and sometimes beat me home," Judy Ringold said.

At Tyee High School, where he dropped out for good, teacher Andy Berkbigler recalled how Adam struggled to connect with anyone.

"You could tell he was sliding down," Berkbigler said. "But I couldn't tell from what."

Sweet dreams, Adam E. Boston

More than 100 people attended Boston's funeral. His friends -- normally tough and sullen -- played a rap song and sobbed. A friend wrote Boston a profanity-laced letter that captured the overwhelming grief.

". . . You was only 17. I'm hella mad that you did that s---," he wrote. "What I wanna no (sic) is why? Why did you do that s---, man? Why didn't you call me, we could of kicked it that day."

Berkley's sisters, Shanika and Bree, went to the Lucky Devil tattoo shop to ink sorrow on their arms: "Sweet Dreams. Adam E. Boston."

In the weeks after his death, Judy Ringold would rise early and stand helplessly in her son's messy bedroom. She called his voice mail, for a chance to hear him speak again. She missed the economy-size bags of cereal, boxes of burritos, the 12-packs of soda he devoured.

"God, I miss him," she said recently, hugging a lumpy pillow he had slept on as a child.

During his life, she had sagged with guilt that her drinking caused his disabilities. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a group of birth defects that can stunt growth and impair memory and learning.

When he died, she didn't blame herself. She couldn't undo her biggest mistake. But she told herself she had done everything possible -- tutoring, special classes, lectures, tough love, hugs -- to raise her son right.

Her son had made a terrible decision, but so had others, she thought. One police expert says Vallor should have waited for backup before handcuffing two violent suspects and that she shouldn't have asked a citizen for help.

There are no plans for an internal investigation into Vallor's conduct during the arrest, said sheriff's spokesman Jerrell Wills.

"I'm angry at the situation . . .," Ringold said. "I want to know why the storeowner shot him, why the police let it happen. My baby should be in jail. He shouldn't be dead."

When Boston was younger, he and his stepdad used to talk baseball and share "beers" -- root beers. Ken Ringold had cared deeply for the only child he ever raised. But the relationship had grown stormy over the years.

Ringold had recently begun trying to smooth things over. To be close again.

But time ran out.

"I wish I would have told him I loved him," he said. "I took it for granted he knew."

P-I reporter Vanessa Ho can be reached at 206-448-8003 or vanessaho@seattle-pi.com

) 1998-2000 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

-- Cherri (sams@brigadoon.com), August 09, 2000


Boston was born in a parking lot off a state highway in Heyworth, Ill., a blip of a town. When Judy Ringold went into labor, she was a 37-year-old alcoholic who had stopped for cigarettes on her way to the hospital.

He was the youngest of four children in a tumultuous family. His dad drank heavily. At night, his parents fought so loudly that his older sister would curl up in his crib at night.

Some people suck. No excuse for the losers robbing the station owner. Why is it so easy for humans to reproduce? Such a vile species.

Is it 5:00 pm yet?

-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), August 09, 2000.


This is off topic because I had already read the article in the PI. Question:

I will be in Seattle next week. Have they fixed the 520 bridge; eastbound lanes Should I fight the 405 traffic or do the bridge. Thanks.

Best wishes,,,


Best wishes,,,,

-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), August 09, 2000.

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