By Laila Kearney and Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A 12-year-old boy accused of stabbing his younger sister to death in a crime that traumatized their Northern California town is due to appear in court on Wednesday where his attorney said he would likely deny charges of second-degree murder.
The case has drawn widespread attention because of the young age of the suspect, who has not been publicly named because he is a juvenile, charged with the rare crime of killing a sister.
He is scheduled to appear in Calaveras County juvenile court in San Andreas.
The boy, who if convicted may be incarcerated only until his 23rd birthday, was once disciplined for bringing a pocket knife to school but lived an otherwise normal life in a large blended family, his attorney has said.
Court records show the siblings lived in a crowded household where money was tight and the family was embroiled in custody and child-support disputes including one involving the slain 8-year-old, Leila Fowler, and the brother accused of her killing.
The two siblings lived with their father and his longtime fiancée in a household that included five other children ranging in age from 1 to 19, court documents and police reports show.
The records show that the father, Barney Fowler, a boat mechanic, was embroiled in child-support disputes with three different women, including the mother of Leila and his 12-year-old son, the boy charged in the case.
Following the April 27 killing, police initially launched a manhunt for an intruder who the brother said he saw before finding his sister near death. The two were home alone.
'VERY NORMAL BOY'
News of what was thought to be a homicidal home invasion sent a shudder of fear through Valley Springs, southeast of Sacramento, where many residents routinely left their doors unlocked. Residents were advised to remain inside the next day with doors and windows latched shut.
But two weeks later, authorities arrested the brother, and he was charged with second-degree murder on May 15.
One of the boy's lawyers, Mark Reichel, said his client maintained his innocence. He confirmed the seventh-grader was suspended for five days in January for bringing a "tiny little Swiss Army knife" to school.
The brother was otherwise "a very normal boy in a very normal setting with normal siblings," Reichel said. "He got along with other kids in the neighborhood very well."
Family court records show the children's mother, Priscilla Rodriguez, was largely cut off from the pair. She could not immediately be reached for comment.
Whether Rodriguez chose to keep her distance, as Fowler said in court papers seeking child-support payments, or was essentially denied access to her children by their father, as she suggests, remains unclear. She claimed in a court declaration last year to be indigent.
"I am homeless now," she wrote. "When I was giving him money last year, I was going without food myself. I am not trying to avoid helping my children financially, but at this point I am unable to give him anything. I am constantly looking for work to help. I only wish to be able to speak with and see my children."
Fowler wrote to the court a month earlier that Rodriguez had "made no attempt to spend time or visit the children. In three years there has been one 10-minute supervised visit."
Fowler also characterized himself as struggling financially in a declaration this year in a separate support case against the mother of his 15-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son.
Asked if he could verify Fowler's claims of money woes, Reichel said: "He is broke and penniless, that's for sure."
(Reporting by Laila Kearney and Ronnie Cohen; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)