Student who allegedly threatened to ‘blow this place to pieces’ on Columbine anniversary appears in court

• Hearing set for May 25

• Whereabouts of 16-year-old alleged accomplice not known

Rappahannock News file photo
The Rappahannock County High School just outside the town of Washington, Va.

By John McCaslin and Patty Hardee
Rappahannock News staff

Under tight security and a blanket of privacy, a 17-year-old former student of Rappahannock County High School — charged with conspiracy to possess a firearm on the property of the high school on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre — appeared in Rappahannock County Juvenile Court yesterday (Thursday, April 27) and had his hearing date set for May 25.

The suspect, who cannot be identified due to his age, was arrested about two weeks ago by the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office, although no date of the arrest was ever provided by authorities.

During an initial detention hearing in Fauquier district court, the 17-year-old was appointed counsel from the Virginia Public Defenders Office. The public defender’s  identity similarly “cannot be disclosed,” a spokeswoman in the Fairfax office said yesterday. Juvenile cases are normally closed to the public.

Reportedly prosecuting the case  is Rappahannock County Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff. Reached Friday afternoon, Goff said he cannot discuss the case, nor would he confirm that he is the prosecuting attorney.

According to a court affidavit obtained by the Rappahannock News, both the suspect, who will remain in custody until the May 25 court date, and an alleged 16-year-old accomplice, also a student at the high school, reportedly counted down the days until they would “make Columbine look like a joke” and “blow this place to pieces.”

It was a fellow student of the two juvenile suspects who sounded the alarm to authorities, according to the affidavit, possibly averting a major tragedy.

The whereabouts of the 16-year-old cannot be determined, but school officials say he is no longer attending the high school. The sheriff’s office has declined to comment on the additional suspect, or even if they know of his whereabouts. It is rumored that he has “gone missing,” but that information cannot be substantiated.

That said, security at the high school of fewer than 400 students, located on Lee Highway between the Piedmont towns of Washington and Sperryville, has been beefed up since the threats were first disclosed publicly two weeks ago. Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie Compton said the investigation is “ongoing.”

What had already been a stressful period for anybody associated with the high school — students, parents and teachers — has now grown even more anxious since the contents of the court affidavit were first reported by this newspaper.

Adding to the restive undercurrent, law enforcement officials have remained virtually silent in their investigation, even as the chilling new details of the threat — reported by this newspaper last Sunday — spread to media outlets across the country, from NBC in San Diego to the New York Times, to as far away as Europe.

“Scary stuff,” former Rappahannock County Administrator John W. McCarthy posted above an online Rappahannock News story, “so glad people alerted others before a tragedy struck.”

Some concerned parents have called for metal detectors in the schools, others for people to remain calm; some blame the schools for lax security, others the parents for lax discipline. But a main theme is the desire for more information. So far, any dialogue outside of the high school from school officials has consisted of one letter sent home and two “robocalls” to parents.

Reached Wednesday, Rappahannock County School Board member Lucy Ann Maeyer praised the response of interim school Superintendent Gary Blair throughout the ordeal, saying he’s “done a very good job particularly when the sheriff can’t release a lot of information. It makes it hard to be fair if you don’t have all the facts.”

Photo by John McCaslin
Acting Superintendent Gary Blair.

This morning (Friday, April 28), it so happened that Blair was having breakfast at the Sperryville Trading Cafe and Market while this newspaper was holding its monthly Fourth Estate Friday meeting with readers. Given much of the discussion centered around the threat to the high school, the interim superintendent introduced himself to those in attendance and explained that additional security precautions, beyond those already made in recent days, are forthcoming “but nothing can happen overnight.”

He added that some of the security measures will never be disclosed to the public.

Meanwhile, in a recorded phone message delivered to parents this past Tuesday, high school principal Mike Tupper said class assemblies, with counselors in attendance — as was confirmed by Blair today — were held this week to discuss the incident. Tupper  reportedly also urged parents to talk to their children.

Blair also said today that the school would be open to participating in a public forum attended by parents and other concerned citizens, many of whom have written to this newspaper expressing their dissatisfaction with a lack of information from both the school system and Rappahannock County law enforcement officers. It was suggested that a representative of the sheriff’s office also attend.

The affidavit

“Over the course of several conversations,” according to the affidavit for a search warrant served by Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Major J.D. Arstino Jr., “beginning in approximately December 2016 and possibly as early as November 2016, [Suspect No. 1, the 17-year-old] continued statements about Columbine began leading to his revealing an intent to commit an act of violence at Rappahannock County High School.”

The list of items removed after the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office served a search warrant at the home of the juvenile suspect.

Furthermore, the document states, Suspect 1 “would discuss the actions of the two (2) mass murderers from the Columbine incident in detail referring to them by name — Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.”

Then this chilling revelation: “On April 5, 2017, while at Rappahannock County High School, [Suspect 1] was overheard speaking with at least one other student where he gave a ‘countdown’ stating ‘fifteen more days,’ indicating the number of days left until the date of April 20, 2017” — the 18th anniversary of the Columbine massacre in Colorado.

During the same exchange, Suspect 1 was seen showing a photograph on a cellular device to one if not more students: “The photograph depicted [Suspects 1 and 2] dressed all in black clothing, black hats and wearing sunglasses and [Suspect 2] commented while showing the photograph, ‘I can’t wait for four twenty.”

“[Suspect 1] was quoted during that time frame as making statements such as, ‘I can’t wait to make Columbine look like a joke’ and in another conversation, ‘I’m going to blow this place to pieces.’”

Suspect 1 also reportedly “disclosed having ‘ordered’ an amount of explosives to be used during the school incident as well. [Suspect 1] showed a photograph on a cellular device to at least one other person and stating, ‘This is what I’ve got, are you ready for this?’”

As for additional weapons, the affidavit states that Suspect 1 “referred to pulling a pistol out of a backpack. [Suspect 1] is described as very guarded with his backpack in school and will not allow anyone to touch it and makes statements implying it contains something of value. [Suspect 1] has also made the statement, ‘I’ll save that for another day’ when referring to what the backpack contains.

“When referencing firearms, [Suspect 1] has specifically referenced bringing a ‘Tech 9’ [assault pistol] and ‘M-4’ [assault rifle] to school and has discussed using a twelve (12) gauge shotgun to discharge ‘birdshot’ ammunition down a hallway of the school,” the document states.

Suspect 1, it continues, “has also made statements of ‘blowing his brains out’ with a 12 gauge shotgun.”

“In conversations during this time frame, [Suspect 2] has discussed his role as a coconspirator with [Suspect 1]. [Suspect 2] would make references of black bags containing ammunition, and backpacks containing pistols and rifles. [Suspect 2] further stated in conversation ‘I can’t forget the black bag under the lunch table.’

“When discussing their movements inside of the school while possessing the firearms, [Suspect 1] has stated ‘I will be the head guy and you just come up behind me’ and [Suspect 2’s] response was ‘Oh, sounds like a plan boss.’”

During their search of Suspect 1’s residence, which is within walking distance of the Rappahannock County Courthouse just outside Washington town limits, authorities seized as evidence a handwritten document, hockey mask, two Hewlett-Packard computers (one from the suspect’s bedroom, the other from the main living area), and an Xbox.

Sheriff Compton would not comment as to whether a subsequent search has taken place of Suspect 2’s residence

Back to school

Meanwhile, classes resumed at the high school last Tuesday following spring break, although interim superintendent Blair acknowledged to this newspaper that he thought long and hard about keeping the school closed.

As late as Easter Sunday night, he said, “I wasn’t about to open the school.”

But last Monday Sheriff Compton convinced the superintendent that the threat to the high school was removed, while assuring him that enhanced security measures were in place to keep students safe.

Nevertheless, Blair admitted, “I didn’t sleep Monday night.”

Just before 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, Virginia State Police K-9 units wrapped up a sweep of the entire school. Blair was also on hand to greet returning teachers, who arrived early for a hastily called faculty meeting during which they were first told of the threats against the school.

At the same time, the teachers were told to keep their classroom doors locked at all times; require students leaving class for any reason to “sign out” by name, including the time and destination; and to even keep an eye out for backpacks left unattended on the floor.

Said one school official: teachers must be “extremely vigilant for the rest of the year.”

What’s next

As for the 17-year-old’s May 25 court date, one legal expert not connected to the case and who requested anonymity described the usual process for handling a juvenile charged with a crime.

Juveniles, he said, are sent to youth detention centers rather than adult jails. According to Virginia’s criminal code, juveniles must receive a preliminary hearing, called a “detention hearing,” no later than 72 hours after being detained. Parents or guardians must also be present.

A juvenile has all the rights of an adult, including the right to remain silent and the right to counsel.

 

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