The Making of a Criminal 

Cyrioco Robinson has been in and out of juvenile hall and jail fifteen times. The experience didn't really punish him, but it didn't rehabilitate him either.

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Cyrioco's fifteen trips in and out of juvenile hall and jail are a case study in the failure of the juvenile justice system. The probation department's revolving doors let Cyrioco commit ever more serious crimes without either successfully rehabilitating him or finally giving up on him and taking him off the streets. Instead, it all but set him up for a life as an adult criminal. Indeed, each time he was let go, he went straight back into criminal life.

On a drizzling evening in October, Cyrioco's 59-year-old mother, Ruth Stovall, sits at the dining room table of a sparsely furnished new home in a semi-industrial suburb of Ceres, near Modesto. Three baseball trophies — one of them Cyrioco's — sit atop a glass buffet hutch, which is empty except for a few wineglasses. An open copy of the Bible lies next to a bowl of plastic grapes on a separate wooden buffet. A copy of Suze Orman's The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke sits on the table.

Ruth's husband and Cyrioco's stepfather, the Reverend Follis Wayne Stovall, sits in one of two plastic lawn chairs just a few feet away from the television, watching a gruesome kung-fu movie. Meanwhile, he tries to keep their puppy, a black chihuahua-poodle mix named Precious, from whimpering too loudly by snapping his belt against the dog's cage. Follis is on medication because of hip pain associated with a recent car accident. Ruth says the drugs are causing him to have trouble "thinking of stuff."

Follis and Ruth moved in with her eldest son about six months ago, to get away from Oakland. Her life in the Bay Area was far from idyllic, and Cyrioco, the youngest of her five children, was most affected by the turmoil.

He was born on December 13, 1986, weighing ten pounds and one ounce. Pictures in a worn photo album show Ruth and Cyrioco's actual father as a happy young couple wearing matching yellow outfits and feeding each other wedding cake. Follis retrieves several photo albums from the garage, but neither he nor Ruth can readily find a picture of Cyrioco. Still, Ruth proudly points out how her son's eyes and nose came from his father.

The couple got divorced when Cyrioco was just one. Ruth, a devout Christian, says her husband was abusive to the family and used religious teachings to control her. "He was a menace to anyone," she says.

Cyrioco's father moved out of state when the boy was three or four — during the time Ruth was serving 26 months in prison. The authorities say she shot and killed a man. Ruth claims her fiancé, a cocaine addict who was suicidal because she wanted to break up with him, took her pistol and shot himself in the chest. Initially charged with first-degree murder, Ruth accepted a plea of involuntary manslaughter, but proclaims her innocence to this day.

In any case, her incarceration had a profound impact on her youngest son. Cyrioco and his siblings moved in with Ruth's mother, who would take them to visit her in prison. "He looked so hurt," Ruth recalls. "He thought they were hurting me, he was crying. It was bothering him a lot, so she wouldn't bring him back."

Cyrioco grew close to his grandmother and was devastated when she was diagnosed with liver cancer and died three years later. He and his brothers then went to live with an aunt, but his mother said that only worsened matters. "That's when troubles came, because my niece is a devil," Ruth says. "She would pound on him."

Ruth adds that her sister also was abusive and would lock Cyrioco in a room while favoring her own children. After her release from prison, Ruth moved in with her sister and lived there for a year. She witnessed her sister letting the kids watch pornographic movies. "I don't know why my sister was looking at it," she said. "It messes up they mind."

Ruth sought work as a hairstylist but says she had trouble finding a job. She went on welfare, then eventually got a job putting parts in computers. With her three sons in tow, she was essentially homeless, staying in various motels and sometimes forced to leave the children alone when she went to work.

She met Follis at a gospel concert. After they married, the family relocated to East Oakland, where he lived. Ruth was the disciplinarian, she says, because Follis spoiled Cyrioco and only pretended to spank him when he was in trouble. His stepfather also bought the boy everything he wanted — radios, stereos, and expensive toys.

Going to church was important for Ruth, and her youngest son, too. Cyrioco sang in the choir and played drums. But after their pastor told the fourteen-year-old to get off the drums so that his own grandson could play, Cyrioco stopped attending. They started going to another church, but he walked out of that one too. "He thought I was making him go to church too much," Ruth recalls. "You're in my house, we're going to church, that's how I feel."

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