Frances Robles, New York Times, May 12, 2022
It was getting dark, so sheriff’s deputies used the lights on their rifles to get a better look at the two children who had been holed up in a suburban house for more than an hour.
Fourteen-year-old Nicole Jackson was using a metal baton to smash mirrors, a bathtub and furniture. As the officers closed in, she flipped her middle finger at them and strapped a loaded 12-gauge shotgun around her neck. A 12-year-old boy who had joined her in the escape from a nearby group home grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle.
The Volusia County sheriff’s deputies already knew Nicole well. They had been called repeatedly to her house in nearby Deltona, Fla., responding to complaints that she was stealing neighbors’ pets, breaking windows in a rage, trying to set the house on fire.
Now, the eighth grader was crouched on one knee near a garbage can in the driveway, a .22-caliber pistol tucked in her waistband, the shotgun pointed straight at the officers. Several gunshots rang out from the house.
“Lieutenant, I’m all for not killing kids and stuff,” Sgt. Omar Bello told his fellow officers, according to a state review of officers’ body camera footage from the scene. “But, I mean, if they’re shooting at us, we have to put an end to this.”
For 10 seconds, eight sheriff’s deputies fired toward the children, unloading 66 rounds from their Glock service weapons and .223-caliber rifles. Nicole screamed in pain, and the boy came out of the house with his hands up. “You shot my friend!” he shouted. “Don’t shoot me!”
The case of the juvenile “Bonnie and Clyde,” as they came to be known in a case that made headlines across the country, ended on that evening in June with Nicole hospitalized with eight gunshot wounds and charged as an adult with armed burglary and attempted murder of a police officer. The boy, who is not being identified because he was charged in juvenile court, faced similar charges.
Sheriff Mike Chitwood blasted the adolescent “desperadoes” but also laid blame on a state juvenile justice system that he said was leaving a growing number of troubled children out on the streets to grow into dangerous habitual felons.
For years, Nicole had cycled in and out of mental hospitals, foster care and group homes, one of tens of thousands of children who are ordered each year into crisis mental health custody in Florida.
Her story is rife with red flags that waved for years, seemingly unnoticed. A review of hundreds of pages of police reports, case records and prosecution documents, along with interviews of Nicole, her family, group home employees and lawyers, shows that Nicole was placed in five group homes, one foster home and four mental hospitals in the two years after she was removed from her mother’s custody and made a ward of the state. She was committed to psychiatric facilities on emergency mental health holds dozens of times during the course of her childhood.
Yet she received intensive residential therapeutic care just once, state records show. It lasted for less than a month.
“People say the system has failed on me,” Nicole said in a telephone interview from Volusia County jail. “I don’t think I should go to prison. Obviously, I don’t. Little kids like me, 14-year-olds, make mistakes.
“Just not this big.”
Nicole had been born in Puerto Rico but moved to the Orlando area with her parents when she was 9 months old.
Much of the time, those who knew her said, she was good-natured and compliant. But she had an explosive temper. She and her three brothers frequently brawled so violently that it took police intervention to stop them.
Her mother, Elizabeth Maldonado, who has a master’s degree in criminal justice and formerly worked as a college admissions director in Orlando, struggled to hold on to jobs while battling an opioid addiction and the tumult in her family.
Nicole was suspended from school at age 8 for going after the teacher with scissors, records show.
Ms. Maldonado once called the police to report that her daughter was setting fires, touching people inappropriately and had told people at school that she was going to shoot her family. “She is very violent and a horrible liar,” Ms. Maldonado wrote in a complaint she filed with the Orlando Police Department, stating that she was in fear for her life.
Nicole was 6 years old.
The incident would be among the first of some four dozen documented encounters Nicole had with the police over the next eight years. She was involuntarily taken to a mental hospital at least two dozen times.
Police records show she was on a variety of medications, including antipsychotics, and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
When the state took custody of Nicole in 2019, state records show that her mother did not put up a fight.
Nicole spent the next two years in a series of group homes, shipped off to mental hospitals — sometimes more than once in the same week — when she would get into fights with the staff.
In April 2021, Nicole got caught setting large fires in a vacant field.
“It was fun!” she told the officer who arrested her, according to body camera footage. “Nobody died.”
When the group home where she had been living refused to take her back, she was sent to the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home, a shelter for abused children that had a contract with the state to accept, as a last resort, foster children who had nowhere else to go.
On June 1, Nicole got into an argument with her minders at the home over a familiar topic: She wanted to go outside the fence to catch lizards. When she was not given permission, she jumped over the fence and left, hitting an employee with a stick on the way out.
She took along a 12-year-old boy, who had a disruptive history much like hers. The two children broke into a 3,400-square-foot house about a mile and a half away whose owner was not there. They broke sliding glass doors, destroyed a bathroom and smashed mirrors.
They soon found the homeowner’s guns, and started arbitrarily firing the weapons. Sheriff’s deputies, who arrived after a passer-by heard glass breaking inside the house, took up positions outside and tried to talk the children out. Nicole re-racked her shotgun.
“Make no mistake about it,” Lt. Nicholas Shephard, the senior officer on the scene, could be heard warning the other deputies on body camera footage. The young people, he said, were trying to “kill each and every one of us.” The deputies began firing.
Many of the adults involved in her care are trying to understand how it could have come to this.