Dear Reader, there are no answers here:
Despite the hard and horrifying facts of the case, and Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood calling the suspect a “sociopath,” there are few actual answers.
We may know who, what and where, but we don’t know why.
The facts of the case also have the effect of dehumanizing the people involved: Gail Cleavenger, 46, is also Gail Cleavenger, daughter, wife, mother, sister, cousin, niece, friend. The suspect is also a son, grandson, nephew, cousin; a child.
When senseless events occur, it is a natural human reaction to try to make sense of them. We want the answer to be something understandable: abuse, drugs or mental illness. We urge our readers to refrain from jumping to conclusions. The truth is that we don’t know the truth.
The truth is that what we know is that at least three families are dealing with a heartbreaking, horrifying event.
Please keep that in mind as you read this story.
— Eli Witek
A 15-year-old DeBary boy is in detention, charged with strangling his mother to death after she and he argued over a “D” grade the boy got in school.
Two of his friends, both 17, are charged as accessories after the fact to murder. They have been released to be monitored at home by their families.
All three teens are students at University High School in Orange City.
A horrifying sequence of events unfolded over Thursday and Friday, Nov. 1-2, leading to the discovery Friday by the Sheriff’s Office of the body of 46-year-old Gail Cleavenger in a shallow grave in the woods behind a DeBary church.
Her son remains at the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center, facing a charge of first-degree premeditated murder. He was denied bond at a Nov. 4 first-appearance hearing.
The State Attorney’s Office is determining whether to charge the teens as adults. The two 17-year-olds will turn 18 in December.
The 15-year-old is a Boy Scout and a member of the Orange City Police Explorers, a group for young people interested in law-enforcement careers. He told investigators he wanted to be a homicide detective when he grew up. His arrest left the community grasping for an explanation.
At a Nov. 3 conference with members of the news media, Sheriff Mike Chitwood offered one.
“Of all the work that I’ve done,” Chitwood said, “he is probably one of the top three sociopaths that I’ve ever come across.”
The sheriff said the boy showed “no remorse whatsoever” when he finally confessed to deputies Friday evening, after first having claimed he came home from school Friday to find the house burglarized and his mother missing.
“He was a soulless individual who thought he was the smartest person in the room,” said Chitwood, who observed the boy’s confession. “He also stated to us that he believed he deserved a Grammy for the way he performed with the 911 call.”
The sheriff laid out a series of events, as pieced together by investigators:
He said the 15-year-old had returned home from an Explorers event at the Volusia County Fair and Youth Show Thursday evening, and argued with his mother over the “D.”
The boy’s stepdad, who was out-of-state at the time, apparently had a cellphone conversation with the mother later that evening that included a discussion of the grade.
The sheriff said the boy then went to his room, and came out shortly after midnight and strangled his mother in her bedroom.
Believing she was dead, he went to get a wheelbarrow from the back of the house. When he returned to her room, he discovered she was not dead, and he strangled her again.
“Keep in mind he didn’t strangle her with a rope, he used his bare hands. Which by his estimate, it took him 30 minutes to kill her,” Chitwood said.
The sheriff said the boy dragged his mother’s body through the house and loaded her into her car. He began driving to Daytona Beach, then rethought his plan, the sheriff said.
He returned to the house and got a shovel, and called two friends. The friends removed electronics and other valuables from the 15-year-old’s house and stashed them nearby, Chitwood said.
Then, the sheriff said, the two 17-year-olds helped their younger friend bury his mother under a fire pit at a nearby church.
The fire pit was a place where the friends often hung out, the sheriff said.
“Him and his two buddies, they would hang back here — they would drink, do LSD, do whatever,” Chitwood said.
After the burial, the boys went to a nearby Circle K and had what Chitwood described as a “celebratory soda.”
The next day, the suspect went to University High School, where he is a student, and attended until about 1 o’clock, according to detectives.
The boy called the police at 3:45 p.m. Nov. 2 and reported his mother missing. Police responded to find the mother’s car running in the driveway and an apparently ransacked house.
“It became quite apparent as detectives started arriving on scene and listening to the 911 call, observing the son that made that call… if you take a really good look at his face, and the injuries he’s got there, that this wasn’t adding up,” Chitwood said.
The boy had visible injuries to his face, as seen in the police photo.
“After a series of questioning and following up on his story, detectives were able to break him,” Chitwood said.
Detectives were eventually led to the fire pit at River City Church in DeBary, 1.2 miles from the house. There, they discovered the mother’s body under a stone fire pit the boys had apparently re-created meticulously after the burial.
The 15-year-old, who eventually confessed, initially stuck to his story.
At the Nov. 4 press conference, Sgt. Al Pagliari, who interviewed the suspect, said when confronted with the confessions of his two friends, the 15-year-old said, “So you’re saying my friends killed my mom?”
Confronted with what investigators had discovered, the Sheriff’s Office said, the boy finally confessed.
Later Friday night, detectives took the boy back to the crime scene to run through the events.
At the first-appearance hearing, the 15-year-old and one of the 17-year-olds were represented by Public Defender Larry Powers. The third boy was represented by a private attorney.
Over the objections of Assistant State Attorney Tammy Jaques and Director of Juvenile Detention Wendy Kwon, County Judge Angela Dempsey granted home release for the two 17-year-olds. One of the boys was to be allowed to leave his home to work at a retirement home in Sanford.
Other news outlets have reported that the two 17-year-olds were taken back into custody after a hearing Nov. 6; The Beacon was unable to confirm that with the State Attorney’s Office.
The 15-year-old is scheduled for arraignment on Friday, Nov. 16. A decision about whether he will be tried as an adult is expected then.
Editor’s note: The Beacon has a policy of not naming juveniles charged with crimes, unless they are tried as adults or are multiple repeat offenders.