Park Attack Sets New York on Edge. `Wilding' rampage by inner-city youths has city examining itself to find reasons behind assault


NEW YORK police are still trying to piece together details of the savage attack on a woman jogger in Central Park by a roaming pack of teen-agers. The young Yale-educated investment banker was raped and severely beaten April 19. As she emerged slowly from a coma this week, even hardened citizens accustomed to violence say they are disturbed by the attack.

Of the six youths indicted so far on charges of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, and assault, some are as young as 14, although they are being charged as adults.

The suspects are believed to be part of a group of 30 or more who were out ``wilding,'' a ghetto term for random, often violent forays by roving packs of young men.

While the police are investigating whether race was a motive, news coverage has emphasized the fact that the victim was white and her attackers black and Hispanic.

Although members of the black and Hispanic communities have called for harsh sentences for the perpetrators and have conducted prayer vigils for the woman, letters to newspapers and calls to radio talk shows suggest rising racial tensions.

Vernon Boggs, an assistant professor of sociology at City University of New York, says a media focus on crimes committed by blacks against whites is creating a powder keg.

``It scares me,'' he says, noting a lack of coverage of the violent crimes in which blacks are victims. Mr. Boggs, senior editor of ``The Apple Sliced: Sociological Studies of New York City'', says he doubts that race was a motive in the recent attack. ``I think they ran amok, and this lady fell into the free-fire zone.'' Police report that the pack also attacked a number of other people the same night, some of whom are black.

So far, no patterns are evident in the youths' backgrounds that might provide clues to the tragedy: no visible history of violent behavior or of domestic trauma that behavior specialists say might foster such anger and bloodletting.

Although the suspects live in an area with many single mothers, a number were raised in two-parent homes in a moderate-income apartment complex. Most of those charged are described by their teachers, friends, and neighbors as ``good kids'' from ``good families.'' Only one had a police record (for robbery). Several reportedly attend church regularly.

Their problems seem typical of teen-agers. One was described by his math tutor as quiet and shy, a little insecure. Another played on a Little League team his father coached; a teacher described him as likable, though easily distracted. A lawyer for one, a 16-year-old, says his client suffers from a learning disability, cannot read well, and can barely write; classmates say the youth boasted about his experience with drugs and sex.

Experts on violence say that while nothing can diminish the offensiveness of the attack, they add that it is important to temper anger with an attempt to grapple with fundamental causes. As for the violent behavior of the pack, experts say energy can feed on itself until, in Boggs's words, ``Individual personalities merge, and the crowd takes on a life of its own.''

He cites the behavior of crowds at sporting matches as examples of controlled violence: ``Sometimes it takes violent forms, sometimes it doesn't.''

A detective with the New York Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit who investigates incidents of this nature agrees. ``I ran with gangs when I was a kid,'' he says. ``I knew how far I could go. But then there were more ways for us to gear our energies, like after-school programs.'' He says he thinks a lack of organized activities and supervision has played a role what he sees as an upsurge in wilding.

Boggs, who was raised by his mother in the ghetto, says low-income youths feel pressured to prove their manhood - ``a warped manhood.'' For minority youth, ``masculinity and physicality are the flip side of the same thing.'' Sports and other displays of strength and physical prowess are stressed, he says.

Several suspects lacked a male role model: A 14-year-old was raised by a mother who has been a semi-invalid for six years; a 17-year-old, charged in a related assault that same night, was raised by his grandmother in a public housing project along with five other grandchildren.

Andrew Vachss, a lawyer who has directed programs for troubled teens and ran a maximum-security prison for violent youth, discounts the ``warped manhood'' factor in such incidents. ``There's a difference between old-fashioned fighting street gangs and torture and rape,'' he says.

Most of those involved, Mr. Vachss says, are likely to be ``emotional drifters,'' but he says he doubts the level of violence would have that high without the involvement of true sociopaths. Vachss, who now exclusively represents children, many of them abused, says most sociopaths concluded when they were young that no one cared about them and grew up incapable of empathy.

One 15-year-old, in his written confession, chillingly said: ``It was something to do. It was fun.''

``The prisons are full of dangerous, committed degenerates who got the genesis of their evil as children,'' Vachss says. ``I have represented horribly abused kids, and several years later they're back in court because they've harmed someone else horribly. Today's victim is tomorrow's predator.''

``Why does the government talk about interdicting dope, which is impossible, but not about interdicting monsters, which is possible?'' Vachss asks. ``Child protective services is the only true crime prevention program in America.'' He says workers in that field are ``underpaid, underfunded, and profoundly disrespected,'' and so professionalism is often very low. ``We ought to put our money where our mouth is and to stop talking about `The Year of the Child' and other cheap rhetoric about how much we love children.''

Boggs says schools are the most critical institution in showing young people what is acceptable behavior: ``The schools have failed to tighten the reins of the youth.''

Another problem is that community programs, which have seen their federal funds cut dramatically during the Reagan years, are in Boggs's view too few and often run by people who lack the understanding to meet the basic needs of the young. ``Street cops have this inner sense of being able to pick up when something is `going down,''' he says. ``It's the same with youth workers - they have to have that ability to pick up that something is going down, and have to intervene.''

Last week in Washington, Rep. Chuck Douglas (R) of New Hampshire, responding to the Central Park attack, criticized the treatment of violent juveniles by a justice system that ``is modeled basically for the middle class - the children of folks like us, the children ... who may get into trouble with shoplifting at an early age.'' Representative Douglas, a member of the House Republican Research Committee Task Force on Crime, called for making 16-year-olds candidates for the death penalty.

Vachss calls such responses the easy way out. ``It's simple for a politician to scream `get tough,''' he says. ``If you really want to get tough, you have to put money into child protective services. But the results won't be seen for years, so it's politically unattractive.''

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