The following is part of a weekly series on unsolved homicides and suspected homicide cases in Fayette County and the surrounding area.
A teen murdered in 1977 may have experienced a different era as it involved juveniles that were part of a system that has made many advances since then.
Eric Steven “James” Doratio, 15, of McKeesport had run away from a teen shelter in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving Day, three days before hunters found his body ablaze Nov. 29 on a snow-covered road in Washington County. His killer has never been found.
State police Trooper Joseph Timms said Doratio was staying at the shelter because of truancy issues, although he noted that investigators also believed Doratio was involved in illegal drugs.
Heath Randolph, chief juvenile probation officer in Fayette County, said the juvenile system was different decades ago because treatment options and other rehabilitative services were either non-existent or not as readily available as they are today.
Randolph said, years ago, juveniles were often placed in shelters or detention centers and said, generally, the type of person staying in a shelter would not necessarily be considered at risk to society. Randolph said high-risk offenders would be incarcerated in more secure facilities, the same policy that is in effect today.
Deputy Juvenile Probation officer Cale White added, “I think we’ve learned a lot more about rehabilitation and feel that it has improved over the years, including the accountability, and making sure juveniles are safe in placement is a major priority at this point.”
Randolph said juveniles shouldn’t be placed in adult prisons and jails because they could potentially be at risk when serving in proximity to dangerous criminals.
“You don’t want to combine someone that may have sexual offenses or extreme violent behavior with juveniles,” Randolph said.
Randolph said because there are now more options available for juvenile offenders, there is a thorough vetting interview procedure to determine the best treatment, rehabilitation and more.
“When they come in, each individual is different,” he said. “You don’t merely look at the offense. That’s part of it, but there is a long, involved process that we take to get them into our system. We do an assessment. We talk to the family. We do a lot of interviews. We talk to the juvenile. Any agencies they may be involved in — we talk to them. We try to make a determination based off all that information.”
Randolph said depending on the assessment of the juvenile and the offense, a balanced approach is taken regarding juvenile care.
“When we decide a juvenile needs rehabilitation or treatment, and a judge agrees with that assessment, we always start with the least restrictive option that will meet their rehabilitative needs,” he said. “If you start with the most restrictive — and it doesn’t work out — you have no place to go beyond that.”
White said reality dictates that in a lot of juvenile cases, probation officers tend to focus on the behavior more so than the crime that put them in the care of the probation office. He said many offenders turn to drugs or alcohol because of child and parent conflicts, abuse, neglect or abandonment.
Timms mentioned that it was believed that Doratio was involved in illegal drugs.
White said that today, based on that type of offense, a juvenile would be placed where treatment would be most effective, perhaps in an alcohol and drug program. He said compared to years ago, this approach seeks to rehabilitate more than penalize someone for drug or alcohol use.
“With drug offenses, there is always an underlying issue as well,” he said. “What’s making them go to drugs? Theft and all that goes to support the drug habit, but where we are finding is that there is some underlying issue.”
Randolph said there is an emphasis on community-based programming more so than long-term and secured detention.
“A lot of our programs are community based, because it keeps the juvenile rooted in the community and keeps their family involved,” he said.”You want them to increase their competency levels. And you want them to get the counseling — not that they can’t get that in secured care — but secured is a very rigid and structured environment. If you keep them in community-based programs, then they still interact within the community, gather those skills and work on those things.”
Another aim of the juvenile system is to prevent recidivism.
“The more kids are exposed to the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to have recidivism,” Randolph said. “There’s no guarantee if you are returning juveniles back into the environment they were in prior to placement. In many cases, despite the efforts that we’ve made, they may revert back to what they knew.”
White added, “We do not see many juveniles who do not have the potential for success. It is just a matter (of) if their environment is conducive to change.”
And there are successes in the juvenile justice system.
White and Randolph said though many juveniles processed through the criminal justice system may not necessarily be aiming for college, success is gauged more by staying out of jail and a being productive citizen.
“A lot of times, we may not see immediate success,” White said.
Randolph added, “But its hard to gauge. We’ve had kids that have learned or changed their operating mentality.”
Doratio never got that chance. His murder remains unsolved, with police seeking leads on anything that will solve this case.
Anyone with information regarding Doratio’s death is asked to call police at 724-439-7111.
Additionally, Fayette County Crime Stoppers is offering up to a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.