NORTH ADAMS — After her son was wrongly accused by police of shooting a man, Kerrie Weldon fears her teenager will never be the same.
"He'll never trust a cop again in his life I'll tell you right now," Weldon said.
The Adams mother of three is speaking out after her son was taken into custody in connection with the shooting of a North Adams man, who was hit in the neck with a bullet July 14 while walking near 71 River St.
Weldon recalls that evening: She was riding home with family after her daughter's softball game in Pittsfield. Scrolling through Facebook she saw a North Adams post about a shooting on River Street.
Weldon's mother lives nearby and she knew her 15-year-old son was hanging out there with friends.
"Of course I call him: 'Are you in the house? Where are you?' " she said she asked. "It was like people are driving by, just shooting."
The 62-year-old man hit by a bullet was airlifted to a hospital in Albany, N.Y., for emergency surgery. Members of his family decline to speak about the shooting.
Weldon's son answered the phone that evening. He was fine. But it all changed the next afternoon, when Weldon got a call from police while at work. They told her to drop what she was doing and come to the station. "They didn't tell me for what. I'm like, can you tell me anything, and they're like, no," she said. "Nothing."
Weldon and her boyfriend, Sergio Ponce, whom her kids call their stepfather, arrived at the station to learn their son, then 15, had been arrested for the shooting. He faced juvenile delinquency charges of assault with the intent to murder, and assault and battery on a person over 60 years old, with serious bodily injury.
The family spent the summer working to prove he was innocent. Seven weeks, dozens of sleepless nights and thousands of dollars in legal fees later, authorities dropped the charges Sept. 1. The boy's lawyer presented evidence showing his client could not have been at the crime scene. Then a witness who had said the juvenile was present at the scene of the shooting recanted.
"This is every person's nightmare scenario: being charged (or having your child being charged) with a crime they did not commit — especially ones as serious as these," said Alexander Sohn, the family's attorney.
Ponce says the incident produced multiple victims. The first was the man hit by the bullet. The second was his stepson, for being wrongfully accused, and the third is the public, in his view, for not getting the whole story.
Though the charges have been dropped, Weldon and Ponce say they worry about long-term effects of the incident on their family.
"Every time I think about being in that police station that day I just that was bad," Weldon said in an interview, looking for something to wipe away tears.
"I've never been to jail in my life," Weldon said. "I can't imagine being 15 and being hours away, on top of that [in detention in central Massachusetts]. I honestly believe this will affect him for the rest of his life."
Weldon's adult brother was home at the time of the boy's arrest and advised his nephew not to say anything until his parents got to the police station. Weldon and Ponce confirmed that police did not interview their son until they were present. Once the interview began, their son, in tears, denied any involvement and told police he would take a lie detector test.
"He was shaking," Weldon said. "Trembling."
Weldon said police never asked to search the family's home for a weapon. When asked if her son had access to a firearm, Weldon said no. "Absolutely not."
Police Chief Jason R. Wood said that to protect "the integrity of the case" he could not comment on the type of weapon used in the shooting or say whether a gun was recovered or its owner identified.
Wood says his detectives have new leads in the case, but he declined to provide details. No arrest has been made. Police say the man shot was a victim and is not suspected of having engaged in any criminal activity.
"We do not feel there is any danger to the public and that party responsible will ultimately be held accountable," Wood said.
Anyone with information about this shooting should contact North Adams Police Detective Sgt. Brad Vivori at 413-664-4944.
The chief said police depend on help from witnesses. "We can't effectively do our jobs if we're not given the information to work with," he said. "It's not a matter of us not caring or wanting to do our job. If we're not given the right information we can't do that (the work)."
Wrongful charges are not uncommon in law enforcement.
Thomas Bernard, the mayor, said he has not contacted the family directly, but said he feels officers involved in the case "acted on the best information at the time" as well as in the best interest of the shooting victim and public safety. "It's unfortunate the situation, as we understand it, was based on false testimony," Bernard said.
He said the teen "was afforded due process."
The day after the shooting, the teen was taken into custody for juvenile detention, spending the night of July 15 at a facility in Worcester, before being transferred to a center in Westfield after his July 16 arraignment.
Bernard commended police at the time for making a quick arrest and for providing aid at the scene to help keep the victim alive. The police chief posted two social media updates on the incident. His post about the arrest produced more than 200 comments, in which some people second-guessed the accused's parents.
That led Weldon and Ponce to defend their son on social media and to question the police investigation and the arrest.
"I want them to be investigated," Ponce said in an interview. "They did not try to figure out the answer. They just wanted the public to feel safe," he said.
Wood said he does not agree that his department's probe fell short. "We do not feel that is the case," he said Friday by email, in response to questions. "A 15-page probable cause report was submitted and an arrest warrant was issued. One factor implicating the youth in the crime was a report from a key witness. This witness later admitted to lying. The family's attorney did an excellent job representing their client and provided law enforcement with additional information to follow up with."
The youth, meantime, remained in juvenile detention for about a week. Weldon said during that time, her son was allowed one phone call a day. He alternated between calling his mother and his biological father, she said. His younger sisters worried about him and missed him, Weldon said. She said she tried to shelter the girls from what was happening. "But they found out because of people talking," she said. "It's a small town."
Weldon said she's grateful her children weren't in school at the time, sparing the girls possible taunts about their brother. "Some people, they're just cruel," she said.
On July 20, Sohn said he reached agreement with the Berkshire District Attorney's Office to permit the teen to return home under house arrest with an ankle monitor. But things didn't become easier. The teen turned 16 in August while home wearing the monitor, with some people believing he shot a man in the neck.
Weldon and Ponce say their youngest daughter, who they described as "happy go lucky" and not one to ever shy away from saying hello to the police, has grown wary of law enforcement. "We were driving through Adams one day, and we got behind a police car driving, and she goes 'Oh no.' And we're like, 'What?' And she's like, 'The police are in front of us,' " Ponce said.
"This is affecting more than just [my son]," Weldon said.
On Sept. 8, Weldon decided to respond online to what police had first said about the shooting.
"I hope you guys write an article apologizing to my son and our family for falsely arresting my CHILD on a shooting he did not do," she wrote, referring to the department's initial announcements about the case.
As of Friday, no apology had been posted by police.
Wood said that even after the witness recanted, conflicting reports had to be cleared up and search warrants executed.
"It was these continued efforts by investigators which ultimately provided the concrete evidence exonerating the juvenile," Wood said. "This exculpatory evidence was immediately communicated to the District Attorney's Office who subsequently dropped the charges."
He said the department is aware of what the family went through.
"We recognize the hardships the juvenile and family may have endured because of this event, but also understand that disclosing additional information at this time could jeopardize the integrity of the investigation," Wood said.
Weldon and Ponce said they are not sure how they'll cover legal fees — more than $10,000, they say. They fear a background check for a future state or federal job could reveal the charges and damage their son's chances for employment.
"Every time my son walks out of the house now, I have anxiety the whole time," Weldon said. Though a probation officer removed the ankle bracelet Sept. 1, the now 16-year-old is living a more restrictive life. The family is keeping him home to study remotely this school year, and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Weldon said her son no longer wants to visit his grandparents' house or be in North Adams. He sees a few friends.
"I think [my son] realized there are things in life that are out of your control, that things are gonna happen and it happened to him. That the people who are supposed to be protecting you are the ones violating you," Ponce said.
Weldon said her son once aspired to go to college to study to become a forensic detective. Now, she said, he's thinking about becoming a lawyer.
Jenn Smith can be reached at email@example.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.