Feuds, Rumors, Bravado, Hostility, Polec Tragedy Fruit Of Deadly Formula

Posted: December 06, 1994

He sits on a low ledge, staring at the spot where his brother died. Four Sundays after Eddie Polec was savagely beaten to death at the foot of St. Cecilia's church, young Billy Polec is back, alone, watching the light run out of the day.

The shrine of baseball caps and flowers is gone. Only the memories of what happened that November night remain. Billy fixes on the spot where he last saw his brother - occasionally reaching under the baseball cap pulled down over his forehead to rub his eyes - and continues his silent search for answers.

Some questions - such as why Polec was so brutally beaten - may never be answered. But police, community leaders and teens interviewed during the last few days provided new details on the events leading up to the fatal conflict and described conditions in both communities that created a recipe for murder.

In the background are problems that have existed for decades in the Northeast and elsewhere: minor turf wars, battles over girls, bruised egos and tests of teen bravado.

"It all starts off as a rumor, as a threat to someone's ego," said Northeast Police Division Inspector John Norris, who said the same stuff has been going on since he was a teen-ager more than 30 years ago. "But back then, it was with fists."

There are also newer problems. Among them the relatively low-priority assigned by city cops to groups of disorderly teens and underage drinking in the age of gunplay and violent crime. And, in the city's fringe suburbs, where a better life often means working mothers and fathers, the emergence of the mall or a local fast-food joint as surrogate parent.

These factors provide a backdrop for the events leading up to Polec's death. What brought the two groups of feuding teens together, however, may have first been fueled by several confrontations before the soda-throwing harassment of two Abington girls at a Fox Chase McDonald's the week before the deadly Nov. 11 rumble.

Abington teens interviewed said the fight occurred last April on the day before Easter.

"It was about me and my friend," said an Abington teen who asked not to be identified. "His girlfriend lived in Fox Chase and when he called there, some kid answered and started acting tough and saying we shouldn't come down there anymore. My friend was like, 'We'll go up.' "

The pair arrived at the girl's house, but found no one. Warned that a large group was on the way, they went to a convenience store in Roslyn, a section of Abington Township, and picked up a dozen or so friends before returning to the girl's house, just a few blocks from St. Cecilia's.

"We were going to leave again, but then 30 or 40 kids came up the street," said the friend, who attends Bishop McDevitt High School in nearby Wyncote.

"They were screaming 'Fox Chase! Fox Chase!' " said Phil Gore, a 1993 Abington graduate who was with the Abington group. Gore and others interviewed said at least one person in the Fox Chase group had a hockey stick.

"I got beat up really bad," said Gore. "I had 10 people on me. Every time I tried to run I got kicked down." He managed to escape, running blocks to a supermarket after leaving one shoe at the scene.

During the summer, Gore said a group of Abington teens went to Fox Chase again, but couldn't find anybody. Teens from both areas also spoke of another confrontation later in the summer at a recreation center beer party, during which bottles were thrown. The next opportunity came Nov. 11, the week after the soda-throwing incident.

Gore said he had been approached by Carlo Johnson, one of those since charged in Polec's death, at the Willow Grove Park mall. "He asked me if I wanted to go down (to Fox Chase(," Gore said. "I just didn't want to go along. I don't know why I even went along the first time. It seemed serious. I think anybody who was smart didn't go down."

But it wasn't for lack of trying. A number of Abington teens interviewed said they were approached at the mall and at Abington High School the afternoon before the rumble.

Abington sophomore Bill Baldwin said a group approached him as he left class. They asked him if he had heard about what had happened to the two Abington girls the week before. "Then they said that Fox Chase has been messing with us for a while and it's time we go down there and straighten them out," Baldwin recounted.

Baldwin would not identify the recruiters, but he said he told them he had to work.

Police sources, however, provided a more detailed picture of the deadly Abington caravan and its chieftains. They said the group had initially considered renting a U-Haul truck to make the trip, but ended up in a series of cars, one of which contained several girls.

Sources familiar with the investigation believe the evening started out at the house of Thomas Crook, one of the seven people arrested in Polec's death. Crook, like most of the others charged, is believed to be a friend of the two girls who were harassed at the McDonald's and among the first people they told about the incident.

Sources said a group consisting of one or two carloads then traveled to the house of a friend, Tommy Castorina. Castorina, interviewed by the Daily News last Friday night, said he "likes a rumble as much as anyone," but passed and instead went to the movies.

Law enforcement sources believe, however, that the bats that one of the suspects, Carlo Johnson, allegedly distributed to the attackers came from Castorina's house, something that Castorina told the Daily News last Friday night.

After leaving the house, investigators believe the group traveled to Willow Grove Park mall to gather more supporters before heading toward Fox Chase.

After the beating, the attackers returned to a house in the neighborhood where they had originally gathered. One of the group, not implicated in Polec's death, was nursing a cut above the eye that eventually required stitches. Other Abington teens present, who asked not to be identified, described members of the group as alternately quiet and nervous and "crazy."

"We shouldn't have got bats," several kids quoted suspect Bou Khathavong as saying.

Police sources said Khathavong - a former boyfriend of one of the Abington girls harassed at the McDonald's - has prior arrests for burglary, theft, receiving stolen property and assault.

Police said most of the other attackers were not strangers to trouble.

They said the Abington group that attacked Polec was made up of a core of groups - five or six kids each - who come together whenever there's a party or a fight.

"They're problem kids. They've been busted numerous times," one investigator said. "Fights, marijuana, underage drinking problems. They're involved in a lot of assaults."

Police and community leaders said that keeping teens in line was made more difficult by laws protecting juveniles. Also vexing is the degree to which kids have been allowed to run amok in the absence of parental supervision and discipline.

At Willow Grove Park mall, police and mall security guards wrestle daily with unruly groups of teens who get dropped off by their parents.

"We run a baby-sitting service here," said one security guard at the mall in Abington, surveying swarms of unsupervised teens trying to feel their way through adolescence in the third-floor food court.

In Fox Chase as well, cops and community leaders say longstanding lack of supervision, compounded by a 911 system that focuses attention on only the most horrendous crimes, has allowed a situation to build in which groups of teens have been given free reign at such places as the Fox Chase Recreation Center - and a free ride when it comes to underage drinking and fighting.

"Disorderly crowds and kids are not priorities," said Mike Hasson, a former police lieutenant and president of the Lawncrest Community Association, which neighbors Fox Chase. "So they are allowed to set up their own territories and their own rules and do what they want.

"It's all driven by the 911 system," Hasson said. "The police are out there waiting for the most horrendous crimes and all these things about the kids are not being responded to. They've been hanging out at the Rec, and they've gotten control. When things are not taken care of, you get that gang mentality."

That mentality ruled the streets of Fox Chase on Nov. 11. Now, in the days since the tragedy, little happens at the Rec. A small beer party in Lawncrest a week after Polec's death was broken up by more than six cops in five squad cars. Even at Willow Grove Park, spokeswoman Judy Trias said she's noticed more parents arriving with their children.

This means little to Billy Polec, who lost a brother - and on this Sunday was lost on a piece of pavement at St. Cecilia's.

"I've got to go," the 14-year-old mumbled, standing up in his baggy sweatpants.

He was asked if he needed a ride home. "No, thanks," he replied as he started across the blacktop he ran across with his brother that night. "I'd like to walk home."

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