Defense attorneys say Lee Boyd Malvo was desperate for a father figure.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. – Throughout testimony this week in the trial of sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenager’s early life has been portrayed as one of constant uprooting.

The emotional toll of moving and a possible abandonment is an essential aspect of Malvo’s insanity defense. His lawyers have said Malvo was so vulnerable and in search of a father figure, convicted sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad was able to indoctrinate the teen and mold him into a deadly urban terrorist who killed 10 people last fall.

Leaving a child with friends or strangers might seem negligent in some cultures, but it’s common in the Caribbean, scholars say. It’s often necessary because of poverty and lack of government support.

“To some degree, it travels through all social classes,” said Elizabeth Nunez, an author from Trinidad who’s written extensively about Caribbean life.

Malvo’s mother, Una James, repeatedly moved her son among friends, relatives and strangers in Jamaica as she took jobs here and there. Malvo, now 18, moved a dozen times in nine years.

Experts say the way that Malvo grew up might be unusual but not unheard of.

Nunez said moving children to a relative, friend or someone who took in boarders was more widespread among the poor. The practice might allow children to attend a decent school in one part of an island, while a parent lives and works elsewhere, she said.

“When a child is ready for high school, if a child is from the country, the child may live with a relative from the city,” Nunez said.

But she said the reason for moving children away from their immediate families was often much more basic.

“It is as plain as putting food in your child’s mouth,” she said. “How do you feed your child and clothe your child when you have absolutely no revenue?”

Harvard University sociologist Orlando Patterson, a Jamaican native, agreed with Nunez.

“It’s a way of having child care which is more convenient,” Patterson said. “Many West Indians think it’s safer and a better environment to grow in the island than in the ghetto communities they’re living in.”

Patterson, who’s written about Caribbean culture and history, said it was also not unusual for a single mother to move repeatedly for better jobs, given the poverty and high unemployment.

“You have to move, or you end up a pauper,” Patterson said. “You have to go where the jobs are. Those relatives or friends who do not have jobs will help those who have work.”

But Patterson thinks that the repeated disruptions and decision to place Malvo with people who weren’t relatives or very close friends was at the “extreme end of the cultural pattern.”

Defense attorney Craig Cooley characterized James as a mother who required Malvo to be studious. At one point, she placed him with a teacher in Jamaica, then moved him from the teacher’s home, saying she wanted him in a better school. She placed him with elderly people, an uncle and some that boarded children.

James worked as a seamstress but didn’t always pay the fee agreed upon for Malvo’s stay, Cooley said.

James left Malvo in Antigua for a couple of months at 15 to work in St. Martin. She left him again when she moved to the United States.

Leaving a teenage boy in a home alone for months is less common than moving a child to various homes, but it does happen, Nunez said.

“If you’re talking about a 15-year-old young man, that person is an adult,” she said. “If you’re in the lower end of the social-economic class, you’ve been taking on adult responsibilities for a very long time.”

Patterson said leaving a 15-year-old alone for months would be seen as irresponsible, even in the Caribbean, “but you do see it in the slum areas.”

James moved to Florida illegally after buying fake travel documents from Muhammad in 2000. Muhammad brought Malvo to Florida in 2001.

In fall 2001, Malvo took a bus to Washington state to live with Muhammad, who had stayed in telephone contact with the boy.

Cooley has said that in James’ mind, she was always trying to improve their lives.

And she thought that “if she did right by him, he would do right by her.” James also thought that a solid education would lead her son to economic success.

Children who have been left behind with a friend or relative when a parent goes abroad to work might resent the parent, Nunez said.

Cooley talked about a period in Malvo’s life when he became extremely frustrated about living apart from his mother. When his mother came to visit him in one home that he stayed in, he tied a bedsheet to a tree and threatened to kill himself.

He had complained to the woman he was living with, “I have no one. Nothing. Not a mother, not a father, not a sister, not a brother, not a bird or a dog.”

Patterson said it made sense that Malvo wanted a male figure in his life.

“Ironically, he was seeking some kind of security in this male figure,” Patterson said. “It ended up being that he chose the wrong person.”

(c) 2003, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-28-03 0618EST

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