Original article no longer available
By Julia Prodis Sulek, Mercury News
March 2, 2005
FRIENDS DESCRIBE YEARS OF DISCORD BEFORE FIGHT THAT ENDED TEEN’S LIFE
Neil Richardson wasn’t one to fight back.
He was a scrawny 16-year-old who got good grades and wore sneakers covered with peace signs. When his older brother picked fights, stole his stuff, urinated on his bed, Neil took it. And took it. And took it.
But on a winter day last month, Neil fought back.
“One hundred, two hundred . . .” Neil heard his brother counting the cash. It was Neil’s birthday money he had left on his mother’s desk to deposit into his bank account. And now his 17-year-old brother, Bryan, who had returned from reform school and had a new Mohawk haircut, was taking it.
On that late Sunday afternoon in Santa Clara, Neil — the family’s “golden boy” — went to the kitchen. He grabbed a knife. Minutes later, his brother was dead.
A dramatic account of what happened that day and details of the boys’ volatile relationship have been gleaned from interviews with family, friends and lawyers. A hearing before a judge will be held soon to determine whether Neil should be tried as a juvenile or an adult, which will ultimately affect how he will be punished.
Tensions below the surface
In so many ways, they were a typical American suburban family — but also a family, like so many others, that was self-destructing. A father who was rarely around. A stepfather who had left. A new boyfriend in the house.
And a 49-year-old mother trying to hold it all together.
“We were no better or worse than anyone else,” Mary Hodgson told the Mercury News. “I did the best I could.”
Now she finds herself grieving for one son, praying for the other and wondering how it came to this.
Neil and Bryan were like any other brothers, she said, “forgiving and fighting and making up. It was just the way a home was supposed to be.”
But on this day, forgiveness was forgotten and bad blood between brothers was pushed to the extreme.
“If I had been in the same situation, I might have done the same thing,” said one of Neil’s friends, Eric Sanchagrin. “You put up with crap so long, it just builds up and you don’t get it out. Then it just all comes out at once.”
Neil and Bryan grew up in Santa Clara on Oxford Drive, just one block northeast of Eden Drive. Their house was like so many others sprawling across the Santa Clara Valley: a single-story, three-bedroom ranch-style home with an attached garage and lava rock planters out front.
It was in this comfortable house of wall-to-wall carpeting and rocking recliners that Mary Hodgson remembers the happy times.
“We had a lot of fun, a lot of fun,” she said. She would sing silly songs about their brown shepherd named Dozer and dance around the kitchen.
Bryan, even in front of his friends, would kiss her on the top of the head and tell her, “I love you.” Neil considered his mother “my hero.”
Her boys, she said, were “the sweetest, nicest goddamn kids in the world.”
The father of the boys, who did not return repeated phone calls, left when they were toddlers. Shortly thereafter, their mother married C.R. Hodgson, who worked in construction. When Neil was almost 2, the couple had a baby boy together, Peter. They took family vacations to Hawaii and Lake Tahoe.
Mary Hodgson set up a desk in the living room and got work advising clients on security doors for schools and other buildings. She wanted to be home for the boys and make her house a “safe place” for their friends to come.
Their huge trampoline, the skateboard ramp and the picnic table made their front yard a magnet for neighborhood kids — including Alex and Tyler Barnes, who lived three blocks away.
“I thought at one time Neil really looked up to Bryan and considered him his best friend,” said Tyler, 17. The brothers played computer games together, he said, “like a big, happy family.”
But as they entered their teen years, resentments were brewing, said Alex Barnes, 20. Neil, the younger brother, got his own room while Bryan had to share with Peter. Bryan would often opt for sleeping on the living room couch.
The relationship often went something like this: Bryan would lash out at Neil. Neil would tell his mom. Bryan would get in trouble. Neil got more privileges. Bryan would lash out. “It goes in a circle,” Alex Barnes said.
Some days, another friend said, the only words spoken between the brothers were “Where’s the phone?” and “Don’t know.”
Boys diverge on drugs, alcohol
Bryan, who had been diagnosed years earlier with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, would often break curfew, sleep in and skip school. His friends said he smoked marijuana.
“Bryan would steal Neil’s money to buy drugs and alcohol,” said one of Neil’s classmates, Dante Tolomei. “Neil would be sleeping and Bryan would beat him up for no reason. He would come into his room and mess everything up. We just knew Neil didn’t like his brother and his brother would mess with him all the time.”
But Neil wouldn’t fight back. “He never really did anything back,” Dante said. “He would just say, `whatever.’ ”
Neil, who his mother and lawyer say suffers from mild depression and takes the medication Paxil, would retreat into his room and play on his computer.
He created his own Web page on MySpace.com. On it, he listed his “likes” as “`music, bass guitar, friends.” His dislikes? “Drugs and alcohol.”
“He said he would never use it because his family had such a bad experience with it,” Dante said.
Neil played the tenor sax in his Buchser Middle School jazz band and hung out with old band mates at Santa Clara High. He was quiet — no problems in school, his principal said — and looked forward to college.
He liked Calvin and Hobbes.
At home, their stepfather would try to discipline the boys, taking away their computers from time to time. In the summer before Mary and C.R. Hodgson split up, Alex Barnes said, they fought constantly over discipline.
“They’d yell at each other,” Alex Barnes said. “I spent a night in the living room. There was a lot of arguing.”
The stepfather left last May. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Both boys had been in psychiatric counseling for a number of years, Neil’s lawyer said, but the house was in chaos and Bryan was a terror.
“He was acting out,” Mary Hodgson said, “and with the divorce, I couldn’t take it.”
So in June, she enrolled Bryan in “Casa by the Sea,” a reform school in Baja California for teenagers with addictions and behavioral problems. The school was shut down last September by Mexican officials after reports that students were abused.
Neil, who had spent a quiet summer hanging out with friends, now had Bryan to contend with again.
“Bryan terrorized him, threatened to kill him, threatened to beat him up,” Neil’s lawyer, James Kellenberger, said. “Bryan was running with several people that were participating — they’d gang up on him.”
Bryan enrolled in Wilson Alternative High School in Santa Clara, meeting with a teacher once a week and taking work home to earn enough credits to graduate.
On Jan. 26, Neil turned 16. He received about $250 in gift money. He celebrated that Saturday with friends by taking a train up to San Francisco, and hanging out at the Metreon, listening to music, eating. He and a buddy, Zach Davis, came back to Neil’s house and fell asleep.
Zach last saw Neil the next afternoon. Neil wasn’t feeling well, he said, so he went back to sleep in his room. Zach asked Neil’s mom to drive him home.
When she returned, one son was dead, the other in handcuffs.
Police and prosecutors won’t comment on the case. Kellenberger, however, said one of Bryan’s friends, who was hooking up Bryan’s PlayStation, witnessed the fight.
After reviewing the witness’ statement, as well as Neil’s interview with police and other evidence, Kellenberger said he believes this is what happened that afternoon:
With the kitchen knife held outward, Neil stormed into the family room where Bryan was sitting on the couch. Flashing the knife, Neil demanded Bryan give back the money. He did.
But Bryan was “irate that Neil had a knife on him,” Kellenberger said. He stood up, grabbing Neil by the arm or wrist, and pushed him.
They fell into the upholstered rocking chair in the corner. Neil pushed Bryan off of him, and, in the heat of the struggle, they crashed into the wall across the room.
Stunned, Bryan asked: “What the . . ., Neil?” Then he collapsed. Neil had stabbed him in the chest.
`He’s still a little boy’
Prosecutors are pursuing it as a homicide. The boys’ mother can’t believe that.
“The only thing that matters to me is that Neil comes home,” she said. “He’s a wonderful kid and it was just bad luck, bad fate, bad I-don’t-know-what-it-was. I don’t know. It just happened. I can’t ask why.”
Over the past couple of weeks, she has visited Neil in juvenile hall.
“Poor baby. He’s just so upset. He’s so sad. He’s so scared. He’s so everything,” she said. “He’s barely 16. He’s still a little boy.”
She hopes her son can forgive himself, because she doesn’t believe it was his fault. Or anyone else’s.
”There’s nothing to forgive,” she said.” I don’t blame anybody. I think I don’t blame myself. I did the best I could.”
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at firstname.lastname@example.org