FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Seconds after he lit Michael Brewer on fire in the parking lot of a Deerfield Beach apartment complex, Jesus Mendez had a critical choice to make.
"I was, like, the last one to run," he told a detective hours after his arrest on Oct. 13, 2009. "Everybody ran before me. I was trying to think, should I help or should I run? And I didn't know, so …"
Video of the three hours Mendez, of Pompano Beach, spent in an interrogation room the day after the burning of Brewer was released by the Broward State Attorney's Office, responding to a public records request.
In the recording, Mendez identified his friend Matthew "Zeke" Bent as the central figure in the dispute with Brewer, confessed to flicking the lighter that ignited the blaze, and told a fellow suspect that telling the truth about the incident was the best way to stay out of trouble.
Brewer, now 17, suffered second- and third-degree burns over two-thirds of his body. Five teenagers were arrested in the immediate aftermath of the burning, but only three of them — Mendez, Bent and Denver Jarvis — were formally charged as adults with second-degree attempted murder.
The victim and the defendants were all students at Deerfield Beach Middle School. Under questioning from Broward Sheriff's Detective Mike Lott, Mendez told how he, Bent, Jarvis and a group of at least five other boys found a container of rubbing alcohol while walking along the Lime Tree Village apartment complex on their way home from school.
"That's when Zeke was like, 'Come on, let's go find Michael and we'll pour it on him,'" Mendez said. He described how the boys confronted Brewer and how Jarvis, following Bent's orders, poured the alcohol on Brewer.
Mendez took sole responsibility for pulling out the small, black cigarette lighter that changed the confrontation into a life-threatening assault. Standing an arm's length away, Mendez said he flicked the lighter and didn't even get a flame out of it — just a spark that was enough to ignite the fumes and set the boy ablaze.
"Why would you even think about igniting a lighter at a time like that?" Lott asked.
"I don't know," Mendez responded. "I wasn't thinking … I thought it wasn't going to light at all."
Mendez said he was sorry about what happened and that he felt bad for the victim.
Mendez, now 18, pleaded no contest to second-degree attempted murder last month and was sentenced to 11 years in state prison, one year of community control and 18 years of probation. His plea ended his criminal case and allowed prosecutors to release the DVD, which was previously exempt from public records access.
Jarvis, now 17, also entered a no-contest plea last month and was sentenced to eight years in prison, one year of community control and 21 years of probation.
Bent's trial is scheduled to begin next week. A video of Jarvis' statement to detectives was not released because it includes footage of him in the interrogation room with Bent. Prosecutors are not allowed to release pretrial statements of defendants in open cases.
Prosecutors say Bent, now 17, was angry with Brewer over a $40 debt, a claim Mendez repeated while he was being questioned. Mendez did not say what the money was for, but in a separate statement, Brewer's father said he believed it was over a "Little Mermaid" video game Brewer didn't even want.
Bent is also accused of stealing a bicycle that belonged to Brewer's father the day before the burning. He was arrested after Brewer's family reported the theft, and Bent accused Brewer of being a "snitch" about the incident.
Brewer survived the attack by jumping into a nearby swimming pool. After more than two months at the Jackson Memorial Hospital burn unit in Miami, he was released and has since fully recovered. He and his family now live near West Palm Beach.
The recording device in the interrogation room remained on when Lott walked out and Steven Shelton, 15 at the time, was brought in. Shelton was originally a suspect in the case but was never charged. Mendez had just finished telling Lott that Shelton was not involved in the attack.
Left alone, the two teenagers blamed Bent for the entire incident.
"I thought it was just gonna be a fight or something," Shelton said.
"Me too," Mendez answered. He also said he was in less legal trouble than Jarvis and especially Bent. "Zeke's the main one!" Mendez said.
Bent's lawyer, Gordon Weekes, declined to comment on the Mendez recording, saying only that his client never ordered Jarvis or anyone else to pour the alcohol on Brewer.
Both Mendez and Shelton said they were best off telling the truth because they believed investigators already knew what happened and would think their inconsistencies were lies.
"They want to see if you're gonna come up with a different story to see if you're lying or not," Mendez said.
The charges against Mendez, Jarvis and Bent did not include an allegation of premeditation, and even prosecutor Maria Schneider said during a court hearing that none
of the defendants went into the confrontation expecting to set Brewer on fire.
Brewer, now 17, disagreed. "They knew exactly what they were doing," he said after Mendez and Jarvis entered their pleas on Feb. 15.
His grandmother, Reenie Brewer, said Monday the teenagers should have helped Brewer when they had the chance.
"I've always wanted to believe that one thing led to another and nobody meant to do that," Reenie Brewer said. "It makes my heart feel better. But the only thing I can't get past is that they didn't help my grandson."