Luke "Sasha" Fleischman was taking the AC Transit 57 line bus home from school just like every school day. Fleischman, 18, had fallen asleep in the rear seat. When the bus stopped near Oakland High, Richard Thomas, 16, got on; just two high school kids taking the bus home from school. Then the unimaginable happened. Thomas allegedly took a lighter and set Fleischman's skirt on fire. Thomas fled; two good Samaritans used their coats to put out the fire, but not before Fleischman suffered second- and third-degree burns.

Fleischman, born male, identifies as neither male nor female, and often wears a bowtie, vest and skirt. (Instead of "he" or "she," Fleischman prefers to be referred to as "they.") Police say Thomas said he was motivated to commit the crime by homophobia. Thomas' family denies he is homophobic.

One teen lies in a hospital bed recovering from severe burns and requiring several surgeries. Another is in a jail cell, charged as an adult with felony assault and aggravated mayhem with hate crime enhancements. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Thomas' family members say he is remorseful and told them he thought it was a prank or a joke. They say he is not a vicious person. But how does someone who is not vicious set a sleeping person's clothes on fire? How in the world could he think that putting a lighter to someone's clothes was a prank?


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The crime has horrified the Bay Area and beyond. There has been an outpouring of support for Fleischman; in just 48 hours, people donated more than $20,000 to a fund to help with medical bills. It has increased public awareness of the community of people who are "agender" and don't identify as male or female. Supporters have decorated bus stops with rainbow ribbons, representing gay pride, along MacArthur Boulevard, the route of the 57 bus.

The viciousness and casualness of the crime, however, is haunting.

It brings to mind other random acts of violence committed by teenagers. In a small Oklahoma town this summer, a 15-, 16- and 17-year-old saw a man visiting from Australia jog by, then got in their car, followed him and shot and killed him. One of the teens told police investigators they were bored. They didn't have anything to do so they decided to kill somebody.

In 2009, a 15-year-old girl in Jefferson City, Mo., lured her sister's 9-year-old friend into the woods and stabbed her to death. She told investigators she wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone.

How do people so young develop such a disregard for life? Some point to the extreme violence prevalent in video games. In terms of movies, a just-released report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Ohio State University, "Gun Violence Trends in Movies," found that the amount of gun violence in the top-grossing PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985; in 2012, it surpassed the gun violence in R-rated films.

"We know that movies teach children how adults behave, and they make gun use appear exciting and attractive," said Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Center and a co-author of the report.

Researchers also cite the "weapons effect," which has found that just showing a gun makes people behave more aggressively. They suggest the presence of guns in PG-13 movies may make children more aggressive.

People defending the game and movie industries say the violence is usually cartoonish, not to be confused with real life carnage. Can children and teenagers make that distinction? In fact, could frequent exposure to "cartoonish" violence make the real act seem less real?

Some psychological studies say the home environment far outweighs the media in contributing to youth violence. Children who commit murder are more likely to come from homes with domestic abuse, physical violence, sexual abuse and absent or poor parenting.

We don't know enough about the teens in these disturbing cases to know what warped their sensibilities.

The ongoing carnage in many cities, where young black and Latino men casually kill each other, is characterized by a nihilism that doesn't value life, theirs or anyone else's.

Still, killing someone because you are bored or lighting a sleeping person's clothes on fire as a prank represent a new level of callousness.

The bus attack is particularly uncharacteristic for Oakland and the Bay Area. We are defined by our diversity and the ability of different groups to get along. People of all backgrounds have expressed outrage that someone could be set on fire on a bus because of how he was dressed.

The good news is that Fleischman is expected to make a complete recovery. The bad news is that Fleischman, just taking the bus home from school, has to make a recovery.

Contact Brenda Payton at bpayton77@gmail.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/bpayton77.