Teens sentenced in brutal beating of homeless man in Olney

     Diane Barnes hopes her brother Robert will recover from injuries sustained during a brutal group assault in April. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

    Diane Barnes hopes her brother Robert will recover from injuries sustained during a brutal group assault in April. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

    As Robert Barnes lay comatose in a Willow Grove extended-care facility, three teenagers involved in the brutal attack that landed him there were sentenced Tuesday to yet-determined amounts of time in juvenile detention centers.

    If the 51-year-old homeless man dies from extensive injuries sustained outside an Olney gas station in April, the charges will be upgraded to homicide, something that his sister Diane told NewsWorks she fears will happen since Barnes’ condition has worsened in recent weeks.

    According to the Inquirer, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert J. Rebstock ordered a 14-year-old boy to a secured juvenile facility in western Pennsylvania after a Family Court hearing on Tuesday morning.

    Two other youths charged in connection with the assault — a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy — are awaiting psychiatric assessments before learning where they’ll be sent.

    A trio of adult women also charged in connection with the case — Aleathea Gillard, the 34-year-old mother of the two youngest defendants; Shareena Joachim, 23; and Kaisha Duggins, 24 —were also in court for pretrial hearings or, in Duggins’ case, an arraignment.

    The back story

    All six stand accused of brutally beating Barnes, a Roxborough native, outside a Sunoco gas station at 5th St. and Somerville Ave. on April 7. Surveillance footage shows the group beating Barnes with feet, fists, a hammer, a piece of wood and pepper spray.

    The assault was allegedly precipitated by Gillard’s 10-year-old son claiming Barnes hit him during an argument about who would pump gas for customers, an allegation that investigators later dismissed. (The youth allegedly fell off his bicycle on the way home but later told relatives that he’d gotten into a fight to escape trouble for being late.)

    In a cruel irony, Robert Barnes is the nephew of William Barnes, aka the “East Germantown Cowboy” who served 16 years after shooting a police officer in 1966 but was controversially re-arrested on homicide charges when the officer died in 2007. Years of legal wrangling ended when William Barnes, 75, was granted parole in 2012.

    Now, a family that fought against upgraded homicide charges — they claimed a direct connection between the shooting and death four decades later could not be proven — finds itself in a position where they’d support upgraded charges in an unrelated case with stronger chronological ties.

    A sister reacts

    Diane Barnes said she couldn’t offer any direct reaction to Tuesday’s news. This, because she still hasn’t gotten word about how long the juveniles will remain in custody.

    However, she spoke in-depth with NewsWorks last week about the pain the incident has caused her family.

    Barnes said her brother, an alcoholic, had been homeless in Olney off and on for the past two decades. His behavior while drinking drove a wedge between the family and Robert, who recovered from head injuries after falling in the street last August.

    “I remember he said to me, and I’ll never forget this, ‘Diane, I hope I’m never like that,'” she said of her brother’s reaction to patients at the nursing home where he recovered from those injuries. “He said, ‘I am so grateful that I can walk around and these people are so bad off.’ How ironic that, a year later, he’s in the same situation, or even worse?”

    Barnes didn’t learn of the attack until three days later when her stepbrother, a police officer, called to say he’d seen a news report about the attack, and that the victim (then publicly identified without name) looked like Robert.

    She watched the video and recognized work boots she’d given her brother and called Albert Einstein Medical Center, where Robert’s identity was now confirmed. He was conscious when he arrived but, due to brain swelling and other injuries, soon lapsed into the coma from which he hasn’t since emerged.

    “Four weeks at Einstein, and there was never any change,” Barnes said, noting that Robert’s transfer to Garden Spring Center in Willow Grove has brought some good and some bad. “A day or two later, he opened his eyes, but they never moved around.

    “Here we are now, four weeks after that, he still opens his eyes, the breathing tube was removed last week. No voluntary movement. When they call his name, he sometimes opens his eyes.”

    Her weekly visits don’t give her much hope for her brother’s recovery.

    “He just got over a staph infection. He now has a bacterial infection and he also has pneumonia,” Barnes said. “I often wonder where he is. Is he dreaming in there? Where is he?”

    There’s talk of a civil suit filing against the gas station for allowing the victim and the 10-year-old boy to pump gas on their premises while employees stayed “behind bulletproof glass.”

    For now, though, Diane Barnes and family will keep praying for Robert’s longshot recovery while the criminal cases make their way through the judicial system.

    She takes solace in the fact that a lot of people, total strangers, turned out when she held a vigil for him at the site last month.

    “My sister has a lot more hope than I do. She says, ‘Diane, this kid’s a fighter. He’ll come out of this,'” Diane said. “They told us the longer he stays in [the coma], the harder it’s going to be for recovery. Three months is a long time. The chances of him living past a year are slim. “I’m praying for a miracle at this point. I feel so terrible about what happened to him.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.