• The billboard stands rather unremarkably in a field of tall grass, a few hundred yards beyond the high barbed-wire fence, past the NO TRESPASSING signs and across some towering cranes and rusted tracks. It reads: WELCOME TO FLINT, PLEASE BE CAREFUL. It is an uninspired sign featuring a cartoon CSX conductor--one of those corporate image-enhancing niceties that until a few weeks ago blurred into the desolate industrial landscape like so many slabs of sheet metal. For whom the sign's message is intended has always been unclear; CSX trains only carry freight, and it's too far away for motorists traveling the nearby interstate to view it. In hindsight, though, one can only wonder whether the sign is intended for that small population of train jumpers who somehow make Flint a destination.

    Just a few communities south of Flint, in the rural lakefront enclave of Highland Township, train jumping has been elevated to the status of an art form. For generations, on any given weekend during summer, as many as three dozen kids might jump a train, eventually reminiscing the joy rides into tall tales. To be sure, getting onboard isn't that tough. The trains routinely stop at the Hop-In Grocery for a coffee break. But when the train gets going, it really gets going. The wheels clank heavily against the tracks and the cars rattle and shake fiercely. The fainthearted are left wishing they had never hopped on. The real pros, though, ride that baby confidently and wait for just the right moment to jump off and roll, stunt-man style, upon the grassy bend in the neighboring town of Holly.

    The Highland Township teenagers who hopped the CSX train on June 18 were far from pros. Afraid to jump off at Holly, they froze and wound up 25 miles north in a rough section of Flint. One of the boys, Michael Carter, 14, ended up dead. Another, Dustin Kaiser, 15, was beaten brutally before taking a bullet in the head. And the third, Nicole, 14, whose family asked that only her first name be used in this story, was pistol-whipped and shot in the face after being forced to perform oral sex. A few days later, six suspects, four of them teenagers, were arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping, armed robbery and several counts of physical and sexual assault. If Flint has struggled to shed its reputation as the town that General Motors abandoned, it is now burdened by the added distinction as the place where three white teenagers were attacked by a group of young black hoodlums.

    As crimes go, this one could have simply been folded into the sordid caseload of juvenile violence in America. Youth are killed on urban streets every day. Yet this crime, cloaked sensationally in black-on-white, is quickly escalating into a small-town version of the O.J. Simpson case. During a preliminary hearing last week, as Nicole testified against a row of handcuffed suspects, one of her supporters yelled, "Hang 'em!" Meanwhile, the defendants' families are murmuring about conspiracies against their boys. Flint Mayor Woodrow Stanley is struggling to manage a crisis that threatens to further damage the city's image. "This incident is holding the entire city up to national ridicule," laments Stanley, who is black. "All of the positive crime-fighting things I've done have been blotted out in one senseless moment."

    It all seems to have begun with boredom on a desperately muggy afternoon a few days after school let out for the summer. Nicole wanted to get out of the house and did so by lying to her father, telling him she had a baby-sitting job. Instead, she met up with her boyfriend Michael Carter and their close friends Dustin Kaiser and Mike Tester. For Nicole and Carter, it was a reunion of sorts. For two weeks, Carter had been holed up in a juvenile-detention center for taking the truck of his mother's live-in boyfriend, among other things. Nicole had written him every day and filled the void of his absence by spending days with his mother. Carter upped the ante by escaping the juvenile center and hiding out at friends' homes to be with Nicole. "I was excited because Mike was out and I wanted to help him," she says.

    After a few hours of hanging out and listening to music, the four teenagers decided to take a walk. They wound up near the tracks, but the thought of hopping the train didn't dawn on them until it began pulling away from the Hop-In Grocery and picking up speed. It was only then that a sweeping glance at one another affirmed a quorum for mischief. As they sprinted toward the train, Tester tripped, finally climbing aboard some 20 cars behind the group. Discouraged, he jumped off a few miles later while his friends, riding atop the boxcars, thundered ahead past the bend in Holly, ducking through tunnels and quivering as towns and pastures blurred past them. "We were scared," says Nicole. "We were laying on the train waiting for it to stop."

    Eventually it did--in a hardscrabble section in northern Flint. And this is where events become murky. From the start, Nicole and Kaiser have insisted that, while they weren't particularly distressed about being alone in the city, they had but one real goal: getting to a phone to call their parents. But this conflicts starkly with the spirit that had them freewheeling across the neighborhood. "There are just too many pay phones between where they got off the train and where they were attacked," says Flint police sergeant Thomas Korabik. "They are trying to make themselves look better."

    Indeed, after kicking around the tracks for awhile, Nicole and Kaiser say the three headed into the neighborhood, where they happened upon a couple of young white guys chilling out on a front porch. They were greeted curiously by the two locals. "We don't see too many white kids on Beecher Street," Nicole says one of them commented. The two boys guided them to a store where Nicole bought a pack of Newports and a Coke. The three wandered over to a school, climbed up piping to the roof and sat talking and smoking until the sun set. Resuming their search for a restaurant and phone, they came across two black kids who told them a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant was two blocks away. They never found the KFC. Instead they happened upon "a big crowd of guys" walking on the opposite side of the street.

    By now, Nicole says, her feet were sore and she was walking several yards behind Carter and Kaiser. The group of black guys, she says, cut across the street behind her and she turned around to ask directions to a gas station or restaurant. The trio followed the local group to what they were told was a short cut to a McDonald's and a gas station. "We trusted them," Nicole says.

    Instead, they wound up in an unlit section of Ophelia Bonner Park. The park was once a well-kept, bustling playground before Jefferson Elementary School was closed a few years back. The city stopped maintaining the park, and it became a jungle of trees and debris. "You could lay down in the weeds and nobody would ever have seen you, the grass was so high," says Kenneth Hairston, 38, who lives next to the park. "It's a shame somebody had to die there before the city thought about cleaning it up."

    According to interviews with investigators and victims, the incident unfolded like this: Carter and Kaiser walked with a few of the strangers to a pavilion where they were suddenly thrown to the ground, kicked and punched. Nicole was stopped by two of the guys who asked her if she liked to "freak." They began beating her in the face while other members of the group began stripping off her clothes. They forced her to perform oral sex on one of the attackers while another tried to rape her from behind. She tried to escape but was pistol-whipped.

    She was then dragged over to the pavilion where Kaiser and Carter were being held facedown on the concrete with a sawed-off shotgun. "Do it!" one of the assailants commanded. And Carter was shot in the back of the head with a .22-cal. handgun at point-blank range. The attacker with the sawed-off shotgun took aim at Nicole's face. The trigger jammed, so the guy with the .22 fired two shots, one into Kaiser's head and another in Nicole's face.

    Nicole says she feigned being dead until she was certain the group had left. She crawled over to Dustin Kaiser. "Wake up," she said, nudging him. Mike Carter would not awaken. He was dead. "Dustin had to drag me [away from Mike]," Nicole says. With her clothes lost in the woods, Kaiser removed his T shirt for Nicole to wear. As they walked out of the woods to search for help, Kaiser managed to coax a laugh from his friend. "Look, Nicole," he said, pointing to his bloodied scalp. "My head is splitting."

    On Saturday night, June 21, at around 7 p.m., an anonymous caller offered Flint police the name Christopher Darling, 18, in connection with the attack. Darling, arrested the following afternoon at home, gave a statement that implicated himself and five others, including two pairs of brothers, Korabik says. Over the next 36 hours, a battery of police officers, uniformed and plainclothes, combed northern Flint. When the sweep ended, police had also arrested Anthony Hollis, 23; Adrian Hollis, 20; Terrance Reyes, 18; and Tyrone Reyes and Shannon Gould, both 16.

    Since the arrests, the editorial page of the daily Flint Journal has sizzled with emotionally charged editorials, some bemoaning violence, others railing against coverage that liberally gives ink to white victims while overlooking black ones. Neighborhood groups have hit the streets to raise money for the victims, while politicians are using the incident to push their pet social agendas, from tougher police enforcement to more funding for youth programs. Even ministers have found themselves in the dustup, grappling for gospel truths to soothe confused, outraged flocks. On the Sunday morning following the arrests, the Rev. Denzil Green, the 69-year-old white pastor of Flint's Galileeon Baptist Church, declared to his predominantly black congregation, "The name of the game is sin, not skin!"

    For the families of both Michael Carter and his suspected assailants, there are only long days and nights trying to cope under the deepest pain, a pain made deeper by gazing through, say, the Hollis family photo album, or peering into Carter's empty bedroom, or awakening to hear Tyrone Reyes sobbing on the phone from prison asking his mother Marjorie Toins, "So how long you think this is gonna take?" Toins worries that neither Tyrone nor Terrance, her only children, understands the seriousness of what he is up against. "I don't think that it has sunk in that they may never get out in their lifetime," says Toins, 34. "It hasn't hit them that life means life."

    Family and friends are suspicious of the discrepancy between the number arrested and the victims' memory of more attackers. "If the girl said there are 12 or 13 of them, where are the other seven?" asks Idella Hollis, 70, grandmother of the Hollis brothers. "I just don't trust them. There are too many black people down in jail for nothin'."

    Relatives say the suspects, like a lot of young men, spent their weekdays working or looking for jobs, their nights chasing girls, drinking beer and raiding the fridge before bed. Weekends were reserved mostly for playing hoops. The Hollis brothers, whose father is a disabled Air Force veteran, moved to Flint from Alabama two years ago. "They aren't angels, but they are good kids," says John Hollis, 45, uncle to Adrian and Anthony. "Those other kids weren't angels either or they wouldn't have been here in Flint."

    But the penalty should not have been death. Joan Boyce is left without her son Michael forever. As the FBI investigates the attack as a potential hate crime, Boyce points out an irony: her two other children were born to black fathers. "Michael never had that kind of hatred in his heart," she says. "I want this to be about all our kids dying in the streets. It's not just black."

    Meanwhile, Dustin Kaiser is trying to navigate his way through the death of his best friend, the thicket of rage surrounding him and his own confused thoughts on race. "My cousins and uncles wanted to go there and kill them all," he says. One relative phoned to say he had 2,000 rounds left over from the military. His mom said she wanted to "flatten Flint." Kaiser himself tries to express yet contain his anger, using the only words he has at his reach. "Not all black people are niggers. And there are some white people who are niggers. Those black people who messed with us are niggers."

    The grass at Ophelia Bonner Park is cut low now. The city crews came out and manicured it earlier this month, just in time for a vigil held there for Michael Carter. And Mayor Stanley is forging ahead on an aggressive community-policing initiative that includes more neighborhood mini-stations, mounted officers and bike patrols. He expects that the changes could significantly reduce citywide murders. But it's doubtful that by the time Stanley seeks re-election in two years, anyone will have forgotten what happened to the kids who crossed his tracks.