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Did grief spark auto thefts?

Counsellor says teen's homicide may have prompted pals to steal again

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/12/2009 (2798 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE recent spike in auto thefts in Winnipeg may be connected with the tragic death of the city's 26th homicide victim of the year, Jessie McKenzie.

Liz Wolfe, program manager for the Empowering Justice program at New Directions, said McKenzie was a well-loved friend of many of the boys in her program, including Level-4 auto offenders.

The 17-year-old was fatally stabbed in a Main Street bus shelter on Dec. 5 after apparently trying to intervene in a domestic dispute.

Wolfe said many of the boys, ranging in age from 15 to 19, didn't know how to react to McKenzie's sudden and violent death.

"The level of hurt and anger, I believe, (pushed) many of them to regress back to car theft," she said, explaining that most of the teens in her program have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Wolfe said people with FASD can be highly reactive and impulsive and have a tough time understanding cause and effect.

Case workers of the Empowering Justice program work closely with the boys, their parole officers and Winnipeg police, Wolfe said, noting the program has had a high success rate.

People need to understand that FASD is a disability that these kids have had since birth -- and cannot control, Wolfe said.

Some kids with FASD become vulnerable to gang activity, especially if they don't have a strong family unit.

"A lot of needs are met in ways like that," said Wolfe, referring to a gang lifestyle. "They learn how to steal cars from older brothers or gang members, and it's something that gives them a sense of mastery."

Wolfe said that for Level-4 auto offenders who have FASD, having any skill -- even stealing cars -- is sometimes the only thing they've got. Although Wolfe believes some of the people committing recent auto thefts are acting out their grief over their friend, she is hopeful she and her team can help these kids find better outlets for their despair. "We can't, as a city, just toss these kids in jail," she said. "It can't end there."

Wolfe would not discuss specific cases, but a stolen Hummer was involved in an accident that killed a Winnipeg man on Dec. 11, and teens in a stolen car led police on a high-speed chase Dec. 21.

shelley.cook@freepress.mb.ca

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