Akeem Rolett Rooks was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison for sexually abusing a child, then intentionally setting a house fire that killed his 4-year-old sister and 2-year-old brother last spring.
Rooks, 19, was arrested and charged May 2, 2008, after a fire in Cherry Creek that destroyed the log home of his grandmother. Rooks' little sister Keya, 4, and brother Marvin, 2, were inside and died in the blaze. Another sister, Lady Hawk Rooks, then 9, managed to escape.
Rooks pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to two counts of second-degree murder of a child under 18 and one count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child under 12.
The sexual abuse charge stemmed from an incident that happened earlier on the day of the fire. According to court testimony, Rooks was attempting to conceal evidence of the sexual abuse crime when he used a kitchen knife to cut the home's telephone wires, then spread gasoline through the house and lit a match.
Rooks had been left to babysit his younger siblings while his mother, Wenona Rooks, grandmother Veda Catches and sister Amani Rooks went to a bingo church fundraiser at a nearby community center.
Akeem Rooks faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison for his crimes. At Tuesday's sentencing in Rapid City, defense attorney Jana Miner asked U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier to consider giving Rooks a sentence of years in prison rather than life.
Miner said Rooks grew up suffering "horrendous treatment" by his mother, whom she said abused Rooks, introduced him to alcohol and encouraged him to join a gang. The boy had no semblance of family life and basically grew up in various institutions from the time he was 10, she said.
"No one told him what was right and what was wrong," Miner said, noting that Rooks developed serious anger problems as a result of his experiences.
He is remorseful and expects a long prison sentence, she said.
Still, "there has to be something at the end. There has to be some light so that his life isn't just totally wasted," Miner said, her voice choked with emotion. "The sentencing guidelines … do not talk about compassion or mercy. But at some point, that is the role of the court."
Rooks told Schreier he has nightmares about the fire. He then turned to face Donnie Evenson, who sat in the front row of the courtroom wearing a jacket printed with "In Memory of (Marvin) and Keya" and their dates of birth and death. Evenson, of Rapid City, was Marvin's father and said he also considered himself a father to Keya.
"I wanted to tell Donnie I'm sorry," Rooks said. "If I could trade my life for them now … I would."
Rooks said he can't forgive himself for what he did.
"I take full accountability and responsibility for what I did," he said. "What I get is what I deserve … I'm sorry."
Rooks put his head down on the defense table when Lady Hawk Rooks, now 10, took the stand.
"When I think about the fire, I feel mad inside," she said. "I wish that the fire had never happened and that they were still alive."
Lady Hawk - who, like her sister Amani, now lives in a group home - said Christmas was sad without Keya and Marvin.
"Because of what Akeem did, my family is all torn apart," she said, adding that she has nightmares about the fire. "I would like Akeem to stay in prison for his whole life."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mikal Hanson agreed Rooks' "terrible" childhood was largely to blame for his situation. But he said Rooks - whom he referred to as a sexual predator - was clearly not interested in trying to get well.
Rooks attended about a dozen treatment programs over the years but successfully completed only one, he said. A case manager from Our Home in Huron said Rooks was eventually terminated from the program because of safety concerns.
"I don't think Mr. Rooks can be fixed," Hanson said. "He is a huge danger to society. Nothing says that with age that will change."
Schreier agreed, saying she was concerned that doctors believe Rooks has a high risk of reoffending and molesting other children.
"At some point, the need to protect society becomes paramount, and that's where I believe we are today," she said.
Schreier said she issued the life sentence "with a very heavy heart."
Schreier said she would ask that Rooks be placed in a facility where he can receive psychiatric care.
Wenona Rooks is in custody and is scheduled for trial in July on three counts of child abuse.
Contact Heidi Bell Gease at 394-8419 or firstname.lastname@example.org