Ashley Benton, Houston’s most famous teenage killer, asks that we not take her photograph. It is February, and since her trial ended last summer, she has let her hair grow longer, and she has lost some weight. In a few weeks, her braces will come off. “I want people to forget the old Ashley,” she tells me, and then she sighs. “Maybe I’ll be able to walk down the street again and not have to worry about someone realizing who I am.”
Maybe, but it’s not likely. On a sunny afternoon in June 2006, twenty to thirty teenagers from two of the city’s Hispanic street gangs—MS-13 and Crazy Crew—confronted one another in Ervan Chew Park, in the Montrose area of Houston. Some of them were carrying bats, golf clubs, and tire irons. One reportedly had a machete. When the melee was over, a fifteen-year-old member of MS-13, Gabriel Granillo, lay near a basketball court, dead from a stab wound. The next day, police detectives announced that they had arrested his killer. It was Ashley, who was then sixteen. She had come to the fight, said the detectives, carrying a double-bladed knife with serrated edges, which she had plunged straight into Granillo’s heart.
That year, there had been several stories in the media about Houston’s growing gang problems, but this one sent shock waves through the city. In part, what surprised residents was that the fight had taken place not in the gang-ridden apartment complexes of southwest Houston but in the city’s center, midway between the Galleria and downtown. Yet what was really startling was that Ashley was a beautiful Anglo girl, with thick brown hair, full lips, and glowing amber eyes; newspaper accounts described her as an Angelina Jolie look-alike. She lived with her mother, a talented jazz singer who performed at local nightclubs and at society parties, in a fourplex not far from Ervan Chew Park. Until the confrontation, she had never had a serious brush with the law. Why, just about everyone wanted to know, would such a girl be involved with a gang?
I happened to be in Houston the week of the fight—I was working, ironically enough, on a story about the city’s gangs (“ You Don’t Want to Know What We Do After Dark ,” December 2006)—and I listened to dozens of outraged citizens on local radio talk shows demand that Ashley be put away for a long time. “We need to send a message to these gang kids that they are going to be punished, no matter who they are,” one man said, nearly shouting. “Throw her in death row and let’s go down the road,” someone else later wrote in to the Houston Chronicle Web site. “Just because she’s a young girl doesn’t make her special.”
Prosecutors with the district attorney’s office clearly got the message. Calling Ashley a cold-blooded gangbanger, they successfully petitioned a judge to have her tried on murder charges as an adult—which meant she could be sentenced to life in prison. “They’ve made her out to be public enemy number one,” her attorney Rick DeToto told me right after the judge’s ruling. “But they’ve never taken the time to find out who Ashley really is or what really happened out there that day.”
I first met Ashley when I went to cover her trial in downtown Houston in the summer of 2007. She was sitting in an office around the corner from the courtroom, flipping through a magazine she’d brought to read during breaks called Simple and Delicious. “I was just looking at a recipe for Rice Krispies peanut butter chocolate pie,” she said with a shy smile. I hardly knew what to say. I wondered if this was a setup staged by her defense team. (Besides DeToto, Ashley was represented by two other prominent Houston attorneys, Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice.) “It’s no joke,” said her mother, an attractive brunette who was also in the room, holding a copy of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. (Her mother asked not to be identified by name.) “Ashley is not some wild-child gang girl. She made one mistake—one mistake.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Is it worth throwing her life away for one mistake?”
Ashley’s mother told me that she and Ashley’s father had divorced when their daughter was two years old. She had done her best to give Ashley a normal life, but she acknowledged that as a single mother working two jobs—answering phones in a real estate office during the day and singing at night—she hadn’t been able to supervise Ashley as closely as she’d wished. By her freshman year in high school, Ashley was making poor grades and becoming rebellious, experimenting with alcohol and Xanax. She was breaking curfew, staying out late into the night. Hoping to give Ashley what she called “a fresh start,” Ashley’s mother sent her to live with her parents, both devout Pentecostals, in north Houston. But in the spring of 2006, unable to fit in, Ashley returned to live with her mother and enrolled at Lamar High School. There, she began to socialize with some Lamar boys who were members of a small, all-male neighborhood gang called Crazy Crew.
Compared with the city’s more established street gangs, Crazy Crew wasn’t much of a gang. According to the police, its members committed a few thefts, engaged in minor drug dealing, and did some spray paint tagging. Mostly, the Crazy Crew boys hung out at Ervan Chew Park or drove around the neighborhood, listening to rap and text-messaging their friends. “I had known some of those guys since I was a little girl,” Ashley told me. “And they made me feel safe. You have to understand—I didn’t have any older brothers or a father around, and in that neighborhood, you need someone to watch after you, to give you rides home at night and make sure you are okay.” She added that she had bought a double-bladed knife for $8 at a convenience store to