Two boys missing for nearly two weeks were shot and killed in a secluded field shortly after their disappearance, police said Friday.
Police also announced the arrests of two other teenagers, each on two counts of second-degree murder: Matt Phelps, 15, and Anthony Brasmeister, 16, both students in the Greater Amsterdam School District.
They are accused of killing 13-year-old Jonathan Dejesus and 16-year-old Paul Damphier shortly after the teens disappeared July 9. Their bodies were discovered Thursday in a 35-acre soybean field off Snooks Corners Road near the New York State Thruway and the Chuctanunda Creek, after police received a tip.
In announcing the arrests Friday afternoon, state police declined to identify the 15-year-old by name. They also said a decision had not been made on whether he would face charges in open court as an adult.
Contacted later Friday, Montgomery County District Attorney Jed Conboy said the 15-year-old is now facing charges as and is being prosecuted as an adult. With that decision, Conboy also confirmed Phelps’ identity.
Conboy also called the case a first for him in all his years as a prosecutor, dating back to 1983.
“I’ve never seen allegations such as this, where two people of such young age are alleged to have intentionally murdered two other very young individuals,” Conboy said. “It’s devastating on both sides of the equation, for four families, the families of the two deceased and the families of the two defendants.”
The motive for the shooting remained under investigation, police said at a Friday afternoon news conference, but they said they are examining the possibility that marijuana was “loosely connected.”
The victims were last seen by their families after being dropped off at Vanderveer Street, and were reported missing the next day.
Police revealed little about what led them to the suspects, but said they believe it was the 15-year-old who fired the fatal shots. Phelps is believed to have taken the rifle from the home of a family member, authorities said.
Both boys were arraigned Friday morning in Florida Town Court. Brasmeister was ordered held at the Schenectady County jail, and Phelps was sent to a secure juvenile detention facility.
State police Bureau of Criminal Investigations Capt. Steven James said one of the suspects had a residential tie to the area where the bodies were found.
He also said they have statements from the young suspects, but he declined to characterize the statements as confessions.
“We do have cooperation, we do have admissions that were made that weren’t within these individuals’ self-interest,” he said.
The investigation that led to the discovery of bodies and to the arrests began the day after the boys were last seen.
The parents of the boys each went to police separately July 10 to report their children missing. The two friends were last seen by Damphier’s mother, who told police she dropped them off at Dejesus’ residence on Vanderveer Street the previous afternoon.
State police said that they later identified other witnesses who saw the boys in the time period after they were dropped off.
Police also later learned that Dejesus’ mother, Bridget Massie, received a Facebook message July 11 alerting her to the possibility that the missing boys were going to “steal weed from someone.” She also saw a message posted on Damphier’s Facebook page stating that the two boys were “fine” and did not want to be found.
Police, though, worked the case from the start, doing interviews and following all leads that came in.
Family members have been critical, saying police should have used the media to generate leads. A brief mention of the disappearances appeared in The Sunday Gazette on July 15.
Amsterdam police Detective Lt. Kurt Conroy, though, noted the initial reports included no indication of foul play, ruling out an urgent response like an Amber Alert. They also continued to receive and follow up on reports of sightings of the boys, right up until Thursday.
“We were still receiving leads last night of spottings of the children on Midline Road in Amsterdam,” Conroy said. “Every lead the police department received, we acted upon.
“I can tell you that the police department did everything in its power, and, as part of that investigation, we were able to give the state numerous pieces of information to go on which led to the quick arrest of these individuals.”
The crucial tip came Thursday, leading investigators to the field and the realization that the case was no longer a missing persons case. Police did not elaborate on the source or details of the tip, but Amsterdam police began to investigate it, then turned it over to the state police as the focus moved from the city to the town.
As investigators checked the fields, they discovered the bodies out in the open. The boys were identified through dental records, BCI Capt. James said. Other physical evidence was recovered from the scene, he said.
“We do have a long-arm rifle, which we believe to be the murder weapon,” he said.
Both victims were shot in the torso, James said, though he would not say how many times.
Investigators remained at the scene Friday looking for other possible evidence. A helicopter also assisted in the search.
James said one of the two suspects had involvement with police previously, but he didn’t elaborate.
Asked what the suspects were doing in the days after the killings and before their arrests, James said they were “more or less” living life as normal.
Phelps’ public Facebook page indicates that, with four innocuous posts from July 9 to 11.
The boys — the suspects and the victims — all knew each other, authorities said.
Brasmeister’s Facebook posts, if any, were not public, but his friends list was. Friday afternoon, his list counted Damphier as a friend. Damphier’s page, though, was no longer accessible later in the evening. Also listed among Brasmeister’s friends was Phelps.
The state police Computer Crimes Unit has been called in to cull through social media for clues, James said.
Though having two young accused killers is unusual, it is not unique in the region. In October 2004, two 15-year-olds were charged in Schenectady in the killing of a Montgomery County man who sought drugs. Both were initially charged as adults and publicly identified from the start.
In that case, Tiheem Morris, the shooter, was sentenced to nine years to life in state prison, the maximum sentence that could be imposed on a person under the age of 16. He is eligible for parole for the first time next year. His co-defendant, Brandin Brown, was sentenced to seven years to life.
Phelps would face a similar maximum sentence, if he is convicted. The 16-year-old Brasmeister, though, is expected to face up to 25 years to life if convicted.
Also, Brasmeister’s sentences could run consecutively if convicted of both killings. Whether Phelps gets back-to-back nine-to-life sentences was unclear Friday.
After Friday’s news conference, Amsterdam Police Chief Gregory Culick called the killings simply senseless. In years past, the chief said, disputes between youths that were hardly 16 would be settled with fists, not guns.
“There’s a disconnect there,” the chief said. “Somewhere these kids disconnected from society to think the people were disposable like this.”