Ricky Whistnant died at the scene Saturday. He fell and hit his head on a radiator after three teens pelted him with bottles of soda he had just bought, authorities who viewed a security video of the attack said. Even after Whistnant collapsed, police said, the boys continued kicking and pouring soda on him.
The attackers fled after tenants called 911, but several hours later police arrested two 14-year-old boys and one 13-year-old.
Neighbors said they had wondered for months why social workers would have placed a mentally retarded man alone in the city's most crime-ridden neighborhood. "I don't know why he was here," said Hugo Nunez, who lives across the hall. "This could have been avoided."
Whistnant, who weighed 300 pounds, occasionally dressed in a homemade "Batman" costume and shouted at drug dealers from the sidewalk outside his cinderblock apartment building.
"He'd stand right out front and scream, 'You're gonna stop all this drug dealing!'" Nunez said. "He was wise enough to know what was going on."
But living by himself posed problems. Sam Nieves, who lives down the hall, said he used to find Whistnant slumped in the hallway, sobbing because he had been picked on by passers-by.
"He might have been 39 years old, but his mind was like a 10-year-old," Nieves said.
State mental health officials have asked Northampton, Mass.-based Community Enterprises, the social services agency that placed Whistnant in the building, to review the decision. Officials at Community Enterprises did not respond to repeated telephone messages Tuesday.
Property manager Michael Grant said social workers were with Whistnant when he signed the lease.
Family members said they also want to know why Whistnant was placed in the building, located in the middle of a neighborhood that led the city last year in overall crime. They said they would press for answers after his funeral, which has not been scheduled.
State Sen. Catherine Cook, an advocate for the mentally retarded, said Community Enterprises has a solid track record.
"It was not the (state) Department of Mental Retardation who killed this man," she said. "It was three punks."
The teen suspects were charged with assault on a mentally retarded person but could face more serious charges depending on the outcome of an autopsy.
Two of the boys, Jermaine Lee and Joseph Bonner, both 14, will be tried as adults as allowed by state law for youths 14 or older accused of serious crimes. The 13-year-old will be treated as a juvenile.