RODEO ARSON: Suspect's defense: alcohol poisoning in womb

Brain damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure caused Leonard Gregg to falsely confess, lawyers, relatives say


Leonard Gregg dropped out of school in the eighth grade and is childlike in many ways, says his adopted brother Wilson Gregg Jr. (right). Despite having heart problems, Gregg's adoptive mother, Rena, is refusing bottled oxygen since Leonard Gregg's arrest. "I shouldn't take it easy on myself when he's feeling all the pressure," she says. Below: Gregg in middle school.
Photos by XAVIER GALLEGOS/Tucson Citizen

Leonard Gregg young

Tucson Citizen
July 27, 2002
CIBECUE - The family of the man suspected of starting the devastating Rodeo fire believes he has fetal alcohol syndrome, and his lawyer is investigating whether the 29-year-old firefighter suffers from brain damage brought on by prenatal alcohol exposure.
Leonard Gregg is in federal custody in Phoenix, charged with setting the fire a few miles from the Cibecue home he shared with his girlfriend and her five children.
He also is among several suspects in as many as 220 cases of arson in the Cibecue area on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, said Daniel Hawkins, a Bureau of Indian Affairs investigator.
Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, sometimes even in moderate amounts. FAS leaves its victims with permanent brain damage, telltale facial abnormalities, poor impulse control and a lack of judgment, said Teresa Kellerman, director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Resource Center in Tucson.
Gregg's lawyer, Federal Public Defender Deborah Euler-Ajayi, said last week she is having Gregg evaluated for FAS. She said she did not know when the evaluation would be complete.
"It could impact the case," she said.
Relatives say Gregg was identified as having FAS while in preschool and was placed in special education classes.
Generally, adults with FAS are more difficult to diagnose. Facial abnormalities that are easy to spot in children generally soften in adulthood.
For a diagnosis to be made in adulthood, psychologists rely on childhood photos and other records, Kellerman said.
Kellerman said if Gregg is guilty, he should be held accountable.
"Just because a person has FAS, we shouldn't say, 'Oh, well, you have FAS. Go home,' " she said.
But if Gregg does have FAS, his neurological disorder should be taken into account, Kellerman said.

"People with FAS cannot learn good judgment. This is a neurological function that is not working properly," she said. "There's nothing we can do to fix it."
Camilla Strongin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, which is prosecuting Gregg, would not comment on the possibility that Gregg has FAS.
"We don't want anything to be perceived as prejudicial," she said.
But his family believes poor judgment that goes with FAS may have caused Gregg to confess to a fire he did not commit.
Gregg reportedly confessed to lighting dry grass with matches.
During his reported confession, he spoke of his anger over his parents' alcoholism and his desire to earn money fighting the fire.
The blaze quickly raged out of control and merged with the Chediski fire, becoming the largest wildfire in Arizona history. Hiker Valinda Jo Elliott, who said she set the Chediski fire to attract rescuers after she became lost, will not face charges.
The fires burned 469,000 acres, destroyed 467 homes, caused $28 million in damage and cost $43 million to fight. It has been estimated that it will take 300 years for the forest to recover.
"They persuaded him to say, yes, he did this," said Nora Johnson, 47, Gregg's adopted sister, a teaching assistant at Cibecue Community School.
Kellerman, who has trained judges, lawyers and police officers about FAS, agreed people with FAS are more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit.
She also said a person with FAS is more likely to commit a "dumb" crime, or one in which he or she would become a hero.
While Kellerman, who adopted a baby boy with FAS 24 years ago, does not know Gregg, she said "it makes perfect sense when looking through the FAS glasses."
"I've seen several young men commit crimes because they want to be important," Kellerman said. "In their lives, they are always screwing up, but they want to be grandiose. They want to be heroes."
Kellerman said information about Gregg's childhood, his behaviors and the crime indicates he could have FAS.
Shortly after his arrest, a flurry of e-mails circulated among those who work in FAS prevention, questioning whether Gregg is afflicted.
"He sure has all the signs," Kellerman said.


Psychologists trying to determine whether Leonard Gregg (left, after his arrest) has fetal alcohol syndrome likely will examine childhood photographs for facial abnormalities that are signs of the neurological disorder.

People with FAS and other prenatal exposure to alcohol are likely to commit crimes and be locked up. A University of Washington study found that among those affected, as many as 78 percent were confined in prisons, mental hospitals or alcohol/drug treatment programs at some point in their lives.
Tucson defense lawyer Carla Ryan said people with FAS are more likely to commit impulsive crimes and are more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit.
"Their brain does not work the way it should," Ryan said.
Ryan represented convicted killer John Patrick Eastlack in 1997 after he was sentenced to death for the murders of two elderly Tucsonans.
"They do things for the moment, rather than think of the consequences," Ryan said.
After his conviction, it was determined Eastlack had FAS. His death sentence was reversed, and he is serving a life sentence for the murders of Leicester and Kathryn Sherrill.
Gail Harris, a community activist who has trained communities about FAS for 20 years, said "all the bells went off" when she read about Gregg.
She suspects FAS.
If Gregg is guilty and does have FAS, "yes indeed, he should be held accountable at some level," Harris said.
"But the more important issue is for people to understand the seriousness of the disorder and understand the need for prevention.'
Gregg's birth parents were alcoholics, and when their mother was pregnant, she drank homemade beer made with malt, yeast, sugar, potatoes, rice and raisins, said Gregg's brother, Wilson Gregg Jr., 41.
"They were always drinking," Wilson Gregg Jr. said.
As a toddler, Leonard Gregg was frequently left on his own, Wilson Gregg Jr. said from the porch of his gray-stucco home, which overlooks the yard where Leonard played as a child.
"He was left behind all the time," Wilson Gregg said. "My dad was a very kind person, and he would always tell me to take him home with me."
He was frequently left in the care of his older birth sister, who also cared for a younger sister.
Wilson Gregg recalled one day when he spotted the child sitting alone in a peach tree, looking for his parents.
Gregg was removed from the home of his birth parents by the Apache tribe as a young child and was sent to live in a church-run home for children in Cibecue, said his sister, Nora Johnson. She said Gregg lived at Eastport Lutheran Nursery in Cibecue until he was 5.
He then was placed in the home of an uncle but was removed when that uncle "got into problems with alcohol," Johnson said.
He then stayed with another uncle and was finally adopted by Rena and Wilson Gregg Sr. when he was 10, Johnson said. Wilson Gregg Sr. died in 1996.
Before his adoption, he spent a great deal of time in the Gregg household.
Wilson Gregg Jr., a retired firefighter, said his brother had little success in school and dropped out in the eighth grade.
"It was too hard for him," he said. "I would help him with his math, and he just could never get it. He could never keep his addition, subtraction, multiplication and division straight."
As he reached his teens, he remained childlike, playing children's games, Wilson Gregg said.
Kellerman said immature behavior is common among people with FAS.
Vivi Ann Gregg, Wilson's wife, said Leonard Gregg writes and reads at the level of her son, who is 8.
The family showed a postcard they received from Gregg from jail earlier this month.
The handwriting looks like that of a child. In the postcard, he misspelled his adopted mother's name twice, spelling it differently each time.
In the brief postcard, he asked family to visit him.
"I miss you all. Just pray for me," he wrote.
As an adult, Gregg requires advice and help in every area of his life, Wilson Gregg said.
"He needed guidance every day," he said. "All basic living things he needed help with."
People harmed by alcohol prenatally need supervision and assistance throughout their lives, according to the University of Washington study.
According to the study, among those affected, 82 percent need help managing money, 78 percent need help making decisions, and 47 percent need help staying out of trouble.
Sitting on a porch chair, watching the clouds roll in, Gregg's adoptive mother wiped away tears as she spoke of her son in Apache.
"I hate it," she said through an interpreter. "I miss him."
Rena Gregg, who has asthma and a heart condition, relies on oxygen. But since her son's arrest, she has refused to use it.
"Why should I breathe easily when he's in jail?" she said. "I shouldn't take it easy on myself when he's feeling all the pressure."
The family said Gregg is a shy, gentle person who trusts only family and close friends.
They are trying to gather money to travel to Phoenix to visit him. And they hope lawyers will step in at no cost to assist Gregg's public defender.
The family, like many White Mountain residents, is angry that Gregg was charged while Elliott, who set the Chediski fire, was not.
They said they hope the public and legal system will understand what they believe is Leonard Gregg's FAS.
"I didn't know about fetal alcohol syndrome back when he was kid, I just knew something was wrong with him," Nora Johnson said.
Just a few drinks can impair baby's brain
Drinking during pregnancy - even just a few during a critical time in development - can cause permanent brain damage to an unborn child. Alcohol causes more damage to the brain of a developing fetus than crack cocaine or any other drug.
People with fetal alcohol syndrome have brains that are smaller and may have holes in them, said Teresa Kellerman, director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Resource Center in Tucson. That brain damage causes poor impulse control and impairs judgment, she said.
But drinking among pregnant women continues to rise, said Gail Harris, who educates communities on the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.
She said one study found that in 1995, four times as many pregnant women admitted to consuming alcohol as in 1991.
"It's a problem across socio-economic, cultural and ethnic groups, but appears to be highest among Native American and African-American men," Harris said.
She said in Native American communities, 3 in 1,000 babies have FAS, compared with 1 in 10,000 Anglo babies.
Far more babies do not have full-blown FAS but are affected by their mother's drinking during pregnancy through behavior problems and learning difficulties later in life.
"We need funding and support for women who need treatment," Harris said.
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