In a teenage culture that sometimes puts a premium on taunting the weak and infirm, Jermaine Lee, Joseph Bonner and his 13-year-old brother, Ronald Adams, stood out for their cruel indifference to others.

Friends said that the boys had taunted other people

"They have a lot of troubles. They get in a lot of fights. They're not real good kids," said 16-year-old Louinel Sterling, a friend of the three Hartford teens charged with savagely beating a mentally retarded man Saturday. The man later died. "For a lot of kids, it's fun to pick on people because you can all laugh at them," she said. "But they went too far, in my opinion. Way too far."

The three city teens are accused of tormenting and attacking Ricky Whistnant, 39, in the lobby of his Hartford apartment in the Barry Square neighborhood. After one teen threw a full bottle of soda at his head, Whistnant collapsed and struck his head against a wall, according to police and two witnesses who watched a videotape of the attack. Whistnant died soon afterward at Hartford Hospital.

The three teens appeared in court to face charges of first-degree assault on a mentally retarded person and conspiracy to commit first-degree assault on a mentally retarded person, Hartford police said. Adams was arraigned in Juvenile Court, while Bonner, 14, and Jermaine Lee, 14, appeared in Hartford Superior Court to face adult charges. The suspects could still face more serious charges, such as murder or manslaughter, depending on the outcome of an autopsy performed Monday by the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Hartford police said. The medical examiner's office said the cause of death is pending further study. Bonner and Lee were transferred to adult court; the state allows juveniles 14 or older to be tried as adults in especially serious crimes.

At Superior Court, a woman named Claudia Smith told court officials she was the mother of Bonner and his brother as well as Lee's legal guardian. She and other family members later declined to comment on the case. Lee and Adams are students at Burr School, a Hartford source said. Bonner had been a student at Fox Middle School but is now in homebound instruction, the source said. Adams formerly attended Fox Middle, the source said. All three have prior arrests as juveniles, sources said.

Lee appeared in court wearing a black jacket hanging off his shoulders while Bonner wore a gray sweat shirt and jeans. They did not speak publicly but traded whispers with a public defender. They were ordered held, with bail set at $500,000 each, and are to appear in court again April 22.

Friends and witnesses said the three teens could not resist the opportunity to follow Whistnant from a corner market Saturday afternoon to his building. In the lobby of the building at 22 Elliott St. once known for heavy drug-dealing before becoming a haven for people with mental impairments in recent years the teens confronted Whistnant, jeering and taunting him as he took a seat on a radiator and prepared to open one of the soda bottles he had just purchased, according to witnesses. The boys grabbed the bottles and hurled them at Whistnant. One of the bottles struck him on the side of the head and sent him to the ground, according to building officials who reviewed the incident on a security videotape.

"You could see him kind of drop to the ground next to the windowsill and then the kids kept pouring soda on him and kicking him," said Oscar Negron, the building superintendent. "There were a bunch of kids in the lobby, but it was really these three who were doing most of the damage."

Melinda McGloin, the victim's former sister-in-law, joined other family members at court Monday and wondered why social services organizations placed Ricky Whistnant in the apartment building. "This is a building that is not unfamiliar to the police," said McGloin. Her comments were confirmed by Hartford police officials, who said the building was known for heavy drug activity during the 1990s. "Why would they let mentally challenged people stay here? These are vulnerable people," McGloin said.

Ricky Whistnant was one of more than a dozen mentally impaired people who live in the building, Negron said. He said one resident, a woman, was standing outside the lobby, pacing nervously, when the attack took place. "She was helpless. All she could do was watch," he said. The woman, who declined to be identified, said she moved into the building several months ago and has already been the victim of an attempted rape. She said she will no longer go out at night.

Whistnant was placed in the Southbury Training School at age 19 after he endured the death of two of his brothers, one killed in an accident and the other murdered. At Southbury he was often placed in restraints and heavily medicated as he coped with his retardation and a separate, unspecified mental illness that drastically affected his moods and behavior, McGloin said. But three years ago, Whistnant was given a state award for taking control of his life and learning to be self-sufficient. He was moved from Southbury, and by last year, a private outreach group called Community Enterprises Inc. had placed him in the Hartford apartment building on a temporary, emergency basis, according to family members. Officials with Community Enterprises, a Massachusetts-based organization that receives funding and guidance from the state Department of Mental Retardation, declined to comment Monday.

Peg Dignoti, executive director of ARC of Connecticut, said Whistnant should have been in a more supervised setting. While at Southbury, he received excessive supervision, but he was "under-supervised in the wider world," she said. His killing, sounds to me like a hate crime at its worst," "He never should have been living on Elliott Street."

Peter O'Meara, the DMR commissioner, said his agency plans to contact Community Enterprises within the next day or so to find out if the Elliott Street building is unsuitable for placing retarded clients. "It's certainly an issue we will be looking at along with several others," O'Meara said.

Negron and others who live in the Elliott Street building said Whistnant was an eccentric but harmless presence. They said he sometimes dressed in a Batman costume and stood in the hallway or "patrolled" the grounds, vowing to prevent crime. "Everyone called him Batman and he could be kind of crazy," said Nataskia Haywood, 16, who lives in the building. "He would sometimes mouth off at kids, cussing and things. But we just ignored him. It was no big deal." Sometimes Whistnant would get into heated exchanges with people, but it never led to violence, said Haywood and other tenants.

Sterling said he was hanging out with the accused teenagers before the incident Saturday, but left before it took place. He said he did not believe the teens knew Whistnant or were planning to attack him before they encountered him in the nearby market. "It just sounds like it happened out of the blue," he said.

Monday night, family members placed flowers in the lobby of the apartment as a memorial to Ricky. McGloin said funeral arrangements and calling hours will take place later in the week.

By Matt Burgard,0,454204.story?coll=hc%2Dheadlines%2Dlocal