Drug debt prompted burning, defendant in Michael Brewer case claims

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. - The accused ringleader in the fiery attack on Michael Brewer told an investigator the 15-year-old was set ablaze because he owed a drug debt to the boy who lit the fire.

Matthew Bent's statement to police the night he was arrested is the only indication that a debt over marijuana was at issue in the Deerfield Beach burning that shocked the nation. Earlier accounts state that Brewer owed Bent $40 for a children's video game, possibly one based on Disney's "The Little Mermaid."

A summary of Bent's statement is part of a Broward Sheriff's Office report obtained by the Sun Sentinel.

Brewer's grandmother Reenie Brewer denied any drug debt.

"I don't care what this was about," she added. "You still lit a 15-year-old kid on fire and stood there and watched him burn."

Prosecutors have portrayed Bent as the driving force behind the assault on Brewer, and his insistence on collecting on the video game debt was cited as the origin of their dispute. But Bent suggested Brewer owed another debt to Jesus Mendez, who admitted to detectives that he flicked the lighter that set Brewer ablaze.

Prosecutors last week released a recorded conversation in which Mendez admitted having marijuana in his bedroom at home. He said nothing about selling drugs to Brewer or anyone else.

No other witness has identified anyone having a dispute with Brewer other than Bent.

Bent has been charged with second-degree attempted murder, with only a competency hearing this week standing in the way of jury selection. He faces 30 years in prison if convicted.

Though prosecutors say Bent ordered his friend Denver Jarvis to pour a container of rubbing alcohol on Brewer, his statement indicated Jarvis acted on his own. Furthermore, the blame and motive for the fire, he said, fell solely on Mendez.

"When I asked Matthew why Jesus would do that to Michael, Matthew replied that Michael owed him [Mendez] money for marijuana," the report states. The deputy who wrote that portion of the report is not clearly identified.

Bent told the deputy he was just a bystander.

Later, Bent and Jarvis discussed the afternoon's events in an interrogation room, with recording equipment capturing every word. It's unclear from the report whether they knew they were being recorded, but Jarvis said nothing to implicate Bent.

"Why would Junior [Mendez] do that?" Bent asked Jarvis. "Why would he set someone on fire?"

"I swear I did not try to kill cuz [Brewer], bro," Jarvis said. "I was just gonna throw it on cuz and walk away… That n----- dies, man, that's blood on my hands and Junior's hands."

Brewer survived the attack by jumping into a swimming pool. He has since mostly recovered from his wounds and now lives in Palm Beach County .

Prosecutor Maria Schneider and Bent's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, declined to comment on the contents of the report. Efforts to reach Mendez' lawyer by phone and email Tuesday were unsuccessful.

On the day he was set on fire, Brewer was surrounded by a total of nine teenagers, some of them close friends, in the parking lot of the Lime Tree Village apartments in Deerfield Beach.

At least four gave statements indicating Brewer owed Bent money. No one mentioned a debt to Mendez. Bent had allegedly tried to collect the day before the burning, and Brewer's family called police and had him arrested when Bent allegedly tried to steal a bicycle from the property.

Bent told police the next day that he had no problem with Brewer despite the arrest.

The case appeared headed for an end last month, with Mendez and Jarvis pleading no contest to their attempted murder charges. Mendez was sentenced to 11 years in prison, a year of house arrest and 18 years' probation. Jarvis got eight years in prison, a year of house arrest and 21 years' probation.

But Bent, apparently at the last minute and against his lawyer's advice, elected to go to trial. On Monday, Weekes asked the judge to move the case to the juvenile court system, arguing his client lacked the capacity to fully understand the consequences of his legal decisions. Robinson turned him down.

Schneider then asked for a hearing to establish that the defendant is competent to stand trial. That is scheduled to take place Thursday.

Robinson will also consider a request from Weekes to move Bent's trial out of South Florida or bring in a jury to Broward from another part of the state to hear the case, possibly the Jacksonville area.

"The pretrial publicity and community reaction … is so great that an attempt to obtain impartial jurors in Broward County would be futile," Weekes wrote.

Brewer suffered second- and third-degree burns over two-thirds of his body in the attack. He has since largely recovered from his wounds and has moved away

from Deerfield Beach. He and his family have expressed frustration at the slow pace of the legal proceedings.


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