Severely beaten in a remote wooded and watery section of Florida International University’s north campus, 15-year-old Bela Perdomo somehow, made her way back toward a building and found someone who could help.
A few hundred yards away, by the edge of Biscayne Bay, her high school classmate, 16-year-old James Critz, was on the ground with a fractured skull. He and Bela had both been beaten with a blunt object by an attacker.
When police arrived, they found Bela near the Kovens Conference Center, not far from where the attack took place. She was injured and bleeding from her head. James, police said, was semi-conscious at the site of the attack, his head badly injured after being struck with a tree limb or branch, a family member told a local television station.
Nothing was stolen and neither student was sexually assaulted, police said. The only description of the attacker: A 16- to 18-year-old black male wearing basketball shorts. The assault happened shortly after 10 a.m., on Monday.
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“We’re aware a tree branch may have been used as a weapon, but I can’t confirm that,” said FIU Police Chief Alex Casas. “We’re following every possible lead we can ... Any available video footage all over our campus. We’re interviewing anyone who was working, listening to all tips.”
The teens’ parents told WTVJ Channel 6 that their children passed by their attacker and said hello. And that less than a minute later he returned with a large tree limb and began his assault. Bela and James were part of a larger group of high school students who didn’t have class on Monday but volunteered to go to the FIU campus, their high school principal, Matthew Walker, said. But at some point, the duo separated from the group.
A day after the horrific beatings, if police have much to go on, they aren’t saying. The Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) students who study at FIU’s Biscayne Bay campus remained hospitalized at Hollywood’s Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hospital. Though badly beaten, police said, the prognosis for each is good.
The area where the students were assaulted is not frequented by visitors, police said, but is well-traveled by students and at the end of a dirt path.
“It’s a remote area by the water’s edge,” said Casas, the FIU police chief. “There are usually no passersby. They were doing a class project, collecting samples.”
Monday evening, eight hours after the attack, an email blast was sent to the parents of MAST Academy students who were studying at the Biscayne Bay site. It said a campus-wide alert had been issued by the university and asked parents to speak with their kids about “remaining vigilant and aware of their surroundings.”
FIU, meanwhile, also sent an email notice to students. But the university refrained from sending out a text alert, which is generally sent to inform students of real-time incidents.
“This was not deemed to be imminent danger,” said FIU spokeswoman Maydel Santana.
Most FIU students interviewed for this story said they didn’t learn of the attack until they got home and watched the news. Some said they’re familiar with the site where the assault took place and feel safe there.
“I wouldn’t say I don’t feel safe,” said senior Nadia Diaz, 21. “But this is definitely something I’ll keep in the back of my mind.”
Tuesday afternoon police released a redacted copy of the incident report that showed little else than the time and location of the attack. There was no narrative.
At an press conference Tuesday at the FIU campus, President Mark Rosenberg said school administrators and police were still trying to piece together what happened. Casas said his detectives were trying to speak with the students who were attacked, but they’ve been in and out of consciousness.
“It’s hard to get a full story,” he said.
Also there, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who called the spot where the teens were assaulted safe and known “for its great environment.”
Police said the high school students were collecting samples for a marine biology project on Monday morning during a teacher work study day for Miami-Dade Public Schools students. The university, at Northeast 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard, was in full session.
It wasn’t immediately clear what samples, the students were collecting. Bela’s work in trying to protect the environment has gained recognition. In November, she was named an Eco-Hero in a WPLG Channel 10 contest and won a trip to Antarctica with ZooMiami communications director Ron Magill.
Bela invented something she calls “Cleaner Bottoms.” It’s an ultrasonic sound wave machine that would replace chemicals used to clean boat bottoms and rid the ocean of toxic waste. Her work has been recognized by the U.S. Navy.