Mother of teen set afire speaks about 2009 attack

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By SUZETTE LABOY, Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Michael Brewer still suffers vivid nightmares from the attack by former middle school classmates who doused him with alcohol and set him on fire in 2009, his mother said in an interview Wednesday.

"He wakes up screaming, thinking that he is still on fire. And it takes a long time to get him calmed down and get him back to sleep," Valerie Brewer told The Associated Press.

Brewer, now 17, suffered severe burns over 65 percent of his body but survived after leaping into an apartment complex swimming pool. He spent months in the hospital, undergoing seven skin graft operations, followed by months of rehabilitation and physical therapy.

On Tuesday, jurors convicted 17-year-old Matthew "Zeke" Bent of aggravated battery for the attack that claimed national headlines. Bent is to be sentenced July 23. Conviction on the charge carries a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Valerie Brewer told The AP that her family had sought justice and felt that had been achieved.

"We were looking for justice for Michael and we got that," she said. But she added that her son will deal with the physical and mental scars for the rest of his life.

"He knows that this is what he's going to have to live with," Valerie Brewer said. "It's going to be an ongoing thing for him. He's not very comfortable looking in the mirror. The mental part of this, the mental scars that he has, are going to be the most difficult. That's never going to go away."

Michael Brewer testified at Bent's trial that he still feels pain in his back and legs but remembers little after diving into the pool to put out the flames.

"I started getting really cold, and then I started seeing blur," Michael Brewer had said at trial.

The alleged ringleader of the attack, Bent was convicted on a lesser charge of aggravated battery. He had originally been charged with attempted second-degree murder.

Brewer and his family had been in court for much of the trial, but weren't present as the jury verdict was read Tuesday.

"The stress of the previous week, we needed some family time because he hadn't been sleeping, I hadn't been sleeping," Brewer's mother said. "And we were just emotionally and physically exhausted."

Valerie Brewer said the family obtained closure after Bent was convicted, stating: "Without the closure, Michael would not be able to move forward in his healing process."

She also said she believes the conviction sends a strong message that bullying won't be tolerated. "I hope this sends a message to everyone that if you bully someone or hurt someone, directly or indirectly, they will be held responsible," she said.

At Bent's sentencing, prosecutors said they will seek the maximum penalty of 15 years, about half the time he could have faced when he was initially charged with attempted second-degree murder. Bent's lawyers said they plan to file an appeal, noting he already spent three years in jail awaiting trial.

"He thought that three years for his involvement was quite substantial," said defense attorney Perry Thurston Jr., speaking shortly after the verdict.

The other teens in the case had already been sentenced previously. Denver "D.C." Jarvis, 17, and Jesus Mendez, 18, pleaded no contest and were sentenced to eight and 11 years behind bars, respectively.

Thurston said the attack has changed all those involved.

"You're talking about 14- and 15-year-old boys. This is something that was horrific and went terribly wrong," Thurston said. "But this is just a back story of what goes horribly wrong with kids walking home from school. Ten minutes' time in the lives of all of these kids has changed their lives totally."

But a Brewer family attorney, Jeanne Brady, said the burned teen is mapping out his future and looking beyond the attack.

"Michael is such an inspirational young man. He has a resilience the likes of which I've really never seen in such a trauma victim," Brady told AP.

The teen is looking forward to attending college and graduating with a business degree. He later plans to move to California and open a skate shop. His mother said it has been a passion for him since before the attack and "that's what he wants to do."

"He's a handsome boy," Valerie Brewer said followed by a proud, motherly giggle as she talked about pictures of her son who recently attended his high school senior prom.

She added, "I am very blessed."

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