Kevin L. Buford had been in and out of the criminal justice system much of his life, to the point where his sons Kevin D. and Deangelo Buford hardly knew him.
On Jan. 21, 2008, the younger Bufords — then 16 and 17, respectively — met for the first time their uncle Robert N. Buford, who was homeless and had a criminal record too, though with less serious marks than his older brother.
The family foursome — along with Raymond Pirtle, a 17-year-old friend of the teens — drove around that night smoking weed they’d stolen from a dealer at gunpoint, drinking booze and searching for another robbery victim, according to Kathy Morante, assistant district attorney for Davidson County. The elder Bufords sent the juveniles out of the car on at least three occasions to rob someone, but each time the robberies fell through — either because the boys got nervous or they thought they saw witnesses.
Then the elder Kevin Buford spotted Billy Jack Shane Tuders counting his daily pay as he walked from the Xpress Lube on Clarksville Highway to a neighboring market.
“The dad says, ‘There’s a good one,’ ” Morante said. “And then he says, ‘Hurry up, we have to pick up your stepmother from work in 15 minutes.’ ”
This time, Uncle Robert joined the younger Kevin, Morante believes to make sure the robbery happened. Video from a nearby surveillance camera shows Tuders as he leaves the market and walks through a nearby carwash stall, where the two Bufords stop him. The 16-year-old points a gun at Tuders. He swats at the gunman’s outstretched hand before turning and running. Kevin D. Buford shoots Tuders in the back, killing him.
“It was kind of just a family [thing] … ‘We’re going to teach you how to do [aggravated] robberies,’ ” Morante said.
There are numerous examples throughout Davidson County of what could be called low-rent crime families, in which siblings and/or parents team up for nefarious and sometimes deadly acts. In some cases relatives strike out on their own, racking up criminal records individually. But many times prosecutors see family members accused in the same cases. These are not the coordinated, profitable crimes of mob families, of course. A few are homicides or rapes, but most are lower-tier crimes that are poorly executed. It’s a cycle to which many social and familial factors can contribute. It frustrates those who see these usual suspects time after time, and it’s certainly difficult for those stuck in the cycle. (See related story here.)
Sources of aggression
As a prosecutor in juvenile court (a role from which she’s currently transferring), Morante has watched the younger generations of criminal families trace through the system. “I think it’s really the most depressing aspect of the job,” she said.
Morante said she wants to keep criminals off the streets and young people out of trouble, “but coming up in that kind of environment with those kinds of role models, it just feels overwhelming. What can anybody do, and what can the community do? And I don’t know the answer.”
Gary Jensen, professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and a fellow of the American Society of Criminology, said a variety of social learning mechanisms could help explain why offspring or siblings might engage in similar activity to that of other family members.
Imitating peers or parents in certain activities is one of those mechanisms. “If you come from a family where other members of the family … are involved in any form of drug use, or criminal or delinquent behavior themselves, it increases the odds of youth being involved,” Jensen said.
The content and moral standards of what parents teach their kids is another factor. “To the degree that parents are not particularly attached to the law, just those sorts of attitudes can greatly affect the behavior [of children],” Jensen said.
Then there is simply the reward and punishment of certain behavior.
“There could be subtle ways in which kids could be rewarded for deviance,” Jensen said. “Pride in a kid beating up on other kids, things that could lead to criminal or delinquent records, could be things that are actually encouraged in some families.”
But, he added, those mechanisms can only increase the odds of similar behavior, not determine it.
Iris Avery told prosecutors she was just the getaway driver on the evening her brothers David and Frederick Avery planned to rob a couple from whom they’d bought drugs in the past.
Late on the afternoon of June 23, 2006, she drove her brothers to the home of Sam Gift and his girlfriend, Stephanie Regen. David Avery had called ahead to arrange the deal, and the two brothers showed up to buy $10 worth of cocaine, according to the investigation.
As Regen weighed out the coke on a scale, David Avery walked up behind her, grabbed her by the hair and with a green box cutter sliced across her throat, though not deep enough to kill her. He then walked Regen to the bedroom, demanding all the drugs and money in the home.
Regen told the Avery brothers everything they wanted was in the safe in the kitchen. David reacted by again grabbing her hair and cutting across her throat, this time slicing into Regen’s index finger as she tried to block the blade. Meanwhile, Frederick stood guard near Gift, while David searched the house demanding the couple “give it up,” referring to the drugs and money.
Frederick forced Gift to lie on the bed next to Regen, who was bleeding heavily, and while Avery searched Gift’s pockets, his brother walked up from Gift’s blindside to cut his throat as well.
The Avery brothers made off with about $2,000 that night, with some of that ostensibly going to their sister for driving the getaway car, although she told investigators she didn’t know anyone would be hurt. Gift and Regen both survived the attack.
Assistant District Attorney Rob McGuire successfully prosecuted the Avery brothers, and Iris pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
“It happens a lot,” McGuire said about seeing members of the same families pass through the criminal justice system. “More than you would think, I guess.”
The fact is, certain names ring bells within the DA’s office.
“It shouldn’t be surprising at all,” said Larry J. Siegel, professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “If your brother commits crime, you’re much more likely to commit crime yourself.”
Several factors can help determine behavior, according to Siegel. The family effect suggests a strong association between parental conflict and bad behavior. The environment in which someone is raised, such as in a bad neighborhood, can affect behavior as well.
But what appears to be a family effect could also be the environmental effect masked as such. Two brothers, for instance, might grow up in the same home on the same street in the same bad part of town, so it could be the bad neighborhood leading to delinquent behavior and maybe not parental conflict.
Some research also suggests, according to Siegel, that behaviors such as bullying and abuse — both physical and sexual — might be generational. Not that they’re necessarily inherited, but if a dad is a bully, a son might be a bully as well.
As for the genesis of behavior, Siegel said bad is no different from good. When a gunman opens fire on a crowd, people ask, “What caused him to act that way?” But when a student aces the SAT, the question of why or how is hardly ever raised. It’s no shocker, Siegel said, for a father with a doctoral degree and a physician mother to have a child who goes to college. National Football League Pro-bowl quarterback Archie Manning had two sons, Peyton and Eli, both of whom have won Super Bowls. “We don’t ask why they’re good at football,” Siegel said.
And if the family situation affects one child, there’s little reason to believe it wouldn’t affect another child as long as he or she grew up under the same circumstances.
Independent of parental influence, sibling influence can also influence behavior, Siegel said. Whatever the older brother does, often but not always, the younger brother does as well.
In 2009, police arrested two brothers, Michael and Monroe Dodson, along with their cousin William Peebles for a string of home invasion armed robberies including a rape in East Nashville. Police charged Michael Dodson and Peebles with especially aggravated robbery, kidnapping and burglary in two separate home invasions in January 2009.
In one on Jan. 7 of that year, the two watched as Abdullan Sharif parked his cab after work outside the North Eighth Street apartment where he lived. One of the suspects walked up to Sharif and poked a black handgun into his neck, forcing him inside, where two other victims were. Police said the two men robbed the three of their laptops, cell phones, a $30 watch and about $180 in cash.
Later that month, four friends stood on the front porch of a Petway Avenue home smoking cigarettes when police said Dodson and Peebles walked up asking for a light. The cousins flashed a gun and forced the two women and two men inside, where one of the suspects held them at gunpoint while the other searched for valuables.
Calling each other “cuz” throughout the ordeal, one of the men complained to the other, “You always miss stuff when you search.” After collecting the victims’ ATM cards and PIN numbers, one of the cousins stood guard over three of the victims while the other drove the fourth victim to different ATMs, withdrawing up to $500 a pop out of the various checking accounts. In all, the cousins made off with more than $1,500 cash, cell phones, an iPod, a digital camera and a blue 2001 Toyota.
A probation violation sidelined Michael’s older brother Monroe Dodson, 23 years old at the time, who was in jail for the January invasions. But he was along just three days before Christmas 2008, for the rape and robbery of a young couple the night before they were to leave town for a holiday trip.
The 22-year-old woman and her 24-year-old boyfriend had been wrapping presents
inside their home on North Second Street when someone knocked on the door. Thinking he recognized one of the voices, the man opened the door, and Peebles and the Dodsons rushed in, according to police. The men tied up the couple and blindfolded them, wrapping a scarf over her eyes and a tie over his. The three allegedly took the woman into a back room and repeatedly raped her.
The Dodson brothers pleaded guilty. On Jan. 12, a jury convicted Peebles on multiple counts of aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary charges in the case.
And still, the family ties to crime that are a way of life for those who live them draw some compassion from the people who prosecute them. Discussing the case of Kevin D. Buford, who will be 20 in July and received an automatic life sentence for Tuders’ murder, Morante can’t help but feel a little sorry for the young man.
“I’m not somebody who’s going to generally feel sympathy for people who murder other people, but you have to feel a little bit of sympathy for a teenager who is the shooter and is going to spend 51 years in prison, minimum, when his father was telling him to do it,” she said.
“He needs to be there. He pulled the trigger, and he killed the victim. But at the same time, what kind of a chance does somebody have when they’re in that situation?”