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Saturday, April 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Trial opens next week in Ephrata teen's slaying

The Associated Press

YAKIMA — More than three years have passed since police found the body of 13-year-old Craig Sorger in a central Washington park. The Ephrata boy had been beaten and stabbed to death, and two baby-faced playmates were charged with his murder.

Jake Eakin and Evan Savoie repeatedly proclaimed their innocence after the Feb. 15, 2003, murder. Both 12 at the time, they were among the youngest murder defendants ever to be charged as adults, and the case drew national attention.

A lot can change in three years. The murder has largely faded from the public spotlight. Last year, Eakin changed his story, pointing the finger at Savoie in a plea deal. And when opening arguments begin Monday at Savoie's first-degree murder trial in Grant County Superior Court, jurors will see a defendant who is no longer a boy, but a 15-year-old.

The year 2003 wasn't a good one for Ephrata, a small city in the desert scrubland of central Washington about three hours east of Seattle. The roughly 6,800 residents mourned a police shooting, a toddler's death following repeated abuse and the drowning of an 11-year-old boy in the city pool.

Sorger's murder came as the biggest shock. A special-education student who loved video games and catching turtles, Sorger had gone outside to play at a nearby recreational-vehicle park. Police began searching for him when he didn't come home before dark.

They found his body in the park, severely beaten and so viciously stabbed that he was left with 34 separate wounds and the tip of a knife embedded in his skull.

Police immediately questioned Eakin and Savoie, because Sorger had last been seen playing with them. Both said they were innocent, claiming Sorger had fallen out of a tree. They said someone else must have killed him.

More than two years passed before Eakin changed his story, pleading guilty to second-degree murder by complicity last year. A judge sentenced him to 14 years.

Prosecutors have said all along they charged the correct offenders. Sorger's blood was found on the boys' clothing. Police said they found the knife used in the attack, but released no details about it.

More than 100 witnesses are expected to testify at trial, including Eakin, who has said that Savoie told him he wanted to go on a killing spree before the attack. The pair invited Sorger to play, after which Savoie jumped on top of the boy and began hitting him.

Eakin said he did not know Savoie had a knife and was stabbing him. Later, Eakin picked up a stick and struck Sorger as well, though he said the boy was already dead.

Another boy who reportedly witnessed the murder and came forward later also is expected to testify.

Defense attorneys maintain that someone else killed Sorger, and contend that detectives botched the investigation. They have not yet said if Savoie will testify.

In one of his only interviews, which came before Eakin changed his story, Savoie told "60 Minutes" that he did not commit the crime and should not be tried as an adult.

"Anyone who is able to commit murder has to be a little odd in the head," he said in the 2004 interview. "And I think they should be locked up for as long as they could."

Savoie has been held in juvenile detention since he was charged three years ago. He has grown 9 inches and gained about 85 pounds. Now with acne, a hint of a beard and a deep voice, he looks very different from the "squeaky little kid" he once was, his court-appointed attorney Randy Smith said.

But he remains a good kid, Smith said.

"He's always been pretty reserved and in control. He's still the same respectful kid," Smith said.

The defense may have a difficult time painting a picture of Savoie as a 12-year-old child when he has changed so much, but that is a challenge defense attorneys face all the time, said Katherine Goldwasser, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

"There's plenty of ways for a defense lawyer, without impairing or saying things that are fundamentally at odds with the idea that this kid is innocent, to remind jurors of his age" at the time of the crime, Goldwasser said.

If convicted as an adult of first-degree murder, Savoie likely faces between 20 to 26 years in prison.

Regardless of how the trial ends, the case has devastated three families. The community needs some closure, Mayor Chris Jacobson said.

"It's not forgotten. Everyone's anxiously waiting for some sort of completion," he said. "It seems like this healing process will take years for the community. I don't think there's any resolution. I don't think anybody will feel good about the results."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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