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Trial opens for last defendant in Michael Brewer burning case

An adolescent prank gone horribly wrong.

A cold-blooded crime that nearly resulted in murder.

Defense attorneys and state prosecutors took turns in Broward County Criminal Court on Tuesday casting their own interpretations on the burning of Michael Brewer in a Deerfield Beach apartment complex in 2009.

Jurors were assembled for the opening day of trial for Matthew “Zeke” Bent, 17, the last remaining defendant in the notorious case that generated international headlines, and unleashed an outpouring of sympathy for the Brewer family.

Bent is charged with attempted second-degree murder with a weapon, accused of encouraging a friend, Denver Jarvis, to pour rubbing alcohol on Brewer.

A second boy, Jesus Mendez, then flicked a lighter and set Brewer ablaze, causing second- and third-degree burns over 65 percent of Brewer’s body.

Jarvis, 17, and Mendez, 18, have pleaded guilty to their roles in the crime. Jarvis was sentenced to eight years in prison, followed by 21 years of probation. Mendez received an 11-year prison term, one year of house arrest and 18 years of probation.

Bent decided in February to take his case to a jury trial. If he is found guilty of orchestrating the crime, he could face as much as 30 years in prison.

Perry Thurston, Bent’s lead defense attorney, told jurors that the boys just wanted to play a prank on Brewer. They never meant for things to go so far.

“Nobody intended for Michael Brewer to get burned,’’ Thurston said. “There was no plan. There was no plot. There was no sophisticated scheme.’’

But Maria Schneider, the assistant state attorney prosecuting the case, countered that Bent knew exactly what he was doing when he ordered a friend to douse Brewer with rubbing alcohol.

“Matthew Bent set in motion a series of events, knowing he was acting recklessly … that led to Michael Brewer being set on fire and almost killed,’’ she said.

Brewer, who saved his own life by jumping into a pool, was flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where he underwent seven skin grafts and three throat surgeries during a five-month stay.

And while he appears healthy and recovered, Brewer, 17, still undergoes therapy to soften the thick scar tissue that limits his mobility and tears easily.

Seven witnesses testified Tuesday, including Valerie Brewer who provided perhaps the most compelling testimony of the day.

Valerie Brewer described the horrible feeling of receiving a call from the Broward Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 12, 2009 — one day after Michael’s 15th birthday — telling her that her son had been set on fire.

She watched from her front yard as a trauma helicopter transported Michael to the hospital, she said, and described seeing him for the first time more than 12 hours after the attack.

“I walk into the emergency room. He’s laying on a gurney. He’s got blisters all over him,’’ she said. Then she broke down in tears before gathering her composure.

Valerie Brewer said her son still suffers “night terrors’’ from the attack.

“On a weekly basis, he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night that he’s on fire,’’ she said.

Prosecutors allege Bent was angry with Brewer over a $40 debt for a video game and because Brewer’s parents had Bent arrested on Oct. 11, 2009, for attempting to steal a bicycle from the screened front porch of the family home. Johnny McCray Jr., Bent’s second defense attorney, said his client was going to borrow the bike and never intended to steal it.

However, the alleged theft was followed by a tense confrontation between Bent and Brewer’s father, who is also named Michael.

Michael Brewer Sr. testified Tuesday that he went looking for Bent after hearing about the attempted theft. He said he found Bent a few blocks away, told him to stay away from the house, and then uttered a racial epithet at the boy as he drove away.

About 15 minutes later, the elder Brewer testified, Jarvis knocked on the door of the Brewers’ home, with Bent standing in the street pulling at his shirt and yelling for Michael Brewer Sr. to come out and fight.

The Brewers called police and pressed charges against Bent.

The attack on Michael Brewer occurred the following day in the parking lot of an apartment complex near Deerfield Beach Middle School, where all the boys attended.

Calvin Kenny, 17, was with the group of boys when the attack occurred. He testified Tuesday that he overheard Bent telling Jarvis to pour a bottle of rubbing alcohol, which the boys had just found, on Brewer.

“He said pour it on him to mess with him,’’ Kenny said.

Kenny added that he also saw Bent motion to Jarvis to pour the rubbing alcohol on Brewer, who had his back to Jarvis. But Kenny did not see Mendez flick the lighter. He said he only felt the heat of the flame, and then saw Brewer run away screaming.

Leslie Nielsen, who was living in the apartment complex at the time, said she saw Brewer engulfed in flames “from head to toe.”

She said she ran to the pool after Brewer. “He reached out his hands, and his skin came off,’’ Nielsen said.

Nielsen’s boyfriend then jumped into the pool, she said, and pushed Brewer up a ladder by the seat of the boy’s shorts. She said she saw Brewer take a lighter out of his pocket and toss it behind him.

Prosecutors played a recording of Nielsen’s 911 call, in which Brewer is heard screaming in agony in the background.

“Please help me,’’ he screams.

Trial resumes Wednesday, when Jarvis and Mendez are scheduled to testify. Jarvis and Mendez never struck a deal with prosecutors, though, and their sentences did not depend on a promise to testify against Bent.