VT fallout? One broken B.B. gun = four arrests

Not since a class full of architecture mystery writing students allegedly trespassed at an abandoned hospital has a UVA class assignment resulted in as much trouble as this one. On Monday night, April 23, at just after 11pm, police responded to reports of a gunman outside an engineering building.

Coming exactly a week after the Virginia Tech massacre, terrified students barricaded themselves in rooms; several had panic attacks so severe they required hospitalization. More than two dozen police responded with guns drawn, only to discover four serious students filming a skit for their Japanese 102 class.

The weapon? A broken plastic b.b. gun used for a scene in which one character mugs another on the streets of Tokyo. The supposed gunman, 19-year-old Christopher Allen Smith, was arrested on the scene, charged with misdemeanor brandishing a firearm and spent the next two nights in jail before being released on $10,000 bond Wednesday morning. Three other students, seen in this photo, Caroline Y. Choe, Jerry N. Hsieh, and Eric Chau. were arrested last night and face the same charges. They were booked and released the same evening on their own recognizance.

Civil rights activists are calling the arrests an overreaction.

"It was stupid, no doubt," says Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead of the students decision to film such a scene so soon after Virginia Tech. "But we don't put people in jail for being stupid." Whitehead believes the issue could have been handled by the school instead of being turned over to law enforcement. UVA spokesperson Carol Wood did not immediately return the Hook's calls.

"If it wasn't a real threat," Whitehead says, "I don't understand why we're doing this." North Carolina-based Mikael Gross, a lawyer and former police officer who helped apprehend the shooter at Appalachian Law School in 2002, agrees. "How can you brandish a weapon if it's not a real weapon?" he asks. "I know it's a short period of time after Virginia Tech, but people have got to remember the Constitution is still the Constitution."

UVA police spokesperson Captain Michael Coleman declines comment on his department's response, but Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos, who brought the charges against all four students, says the egregiousness of their offense can not be underestimated.

"There's a horrific set of facts involved with this case," he says. "It put a lot of police to a lot of work and scared a number of university students to the point that several had to go to the hospital."

The students involved say they understand why people were terrified, and in hindsight they wish they could go back and undo it.

"It was a grievous lack of judgment," says Choe, who along with Chau and Hsieh met a Hook reporter hours after their court appearance on today. Smith could not attend the interview, but told a Hook reporter by telephone he deeply regrets the incident and that "there was no intent to cause fear."

Choe says she, Smith, and Hsieh had teamed up to complete their final project for a Japanese class– a film the three had written and were acting in Japanese. Eric Chau is not in the class, but agreed to help the other three film a scene in which all of them needed to be in front of the camera.

During the filming, Choe says that several people walked by and understood the group was not a threat. But after they completed filming and Smith began walking back toward the group, she says he saw someone look frightened inside an academic building called Wilsdorf Hall. Realizing how the woman inside Wilsdorf might perceive him, Choe says Smith asked another student nearby to go inside and tell other students there was no danger.

Smith then left the film scene and went to change out of his costume– all black with a black ski cap– and back into his regular clothes. He placed the plastic b.b. gun that belonged to Choe in a bag with the other props and returned to find chaos. In Smith's absence, says Choe, she, Hsieh and Chau looked up to see "eight or 10" police pointing guns and yelling for them to get out of the way.

Choe tried to explain to officers that there had been a misunderstanding. When Smith returned, she continued to tell them that he was part of the class project. Police initially didn't arrest Smith, but instead secured the building and made sure students inside were taken care of.

Only after the scene was secure did they take Smith into custody. Choe says officers told her, Hsieh, and Chau that they too might face charges once the Commonwealth's Attorney considered the evidence. Still, she says, "I didn't ever think I'd be led out of my dorm in handcuffs."

That's just what happened at 10:20pm on Thursday, when Choe and Hsieh were taken into police custody at Bice Hall. Forty-five minutes earlier, a similar scene unfoled at Lambeth Field apartments, where Chau lives and was arrested. Choe, an Echols scholar, and Hsieh, who's been accepted to medical school for the fall, say they don't believe police overreacted.

"They were concerned for our safety," says Choe, reflecting on the recent massacre at Virginia Tech. Still, she hopes their mistake won't permanently affect their chances for success in the future. "We're not bad people, and we don't have any history of getting into trouble."

Smith's attorney Charles Sipe, admits his clients' skit showed "poor judgment." But, he says, "This is a kid who has never been in trouble a second of his life, probably doesn't have a malicious bone in his body."

All the students have written letters of apology to the other students in Wilsdorf Hall who were so terrified by the skit. "Even though the alleged threat wasn't real," says Choe, "all the distress and emotional trauma that ensued was real and is just as much of a reason to feel horrible about this incident."

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11 comments

This is absolutely ridiculous. $10,000 bond for a piece of plastic? Forget the students who claim to have mental trauma, what about the true victims of the story which are the students who potentially have ruined futures for doing an assignment. How dare you ruin these students lives and try to make an example out of them. Absurd. Why don't you just arrest everyone that holds an object the wrong way. You better round up the jail bus because you're going to have so many arrests when kids in the summer play with squirt guns. The only difference is that those kids were actually shooting at someone with something. Note to traumatized victims: why didn't you notice the video cameras, if you didn't notice the cameras then you do belong in the hospitals for illness but not for trauma, for mental retardation.

I can see how the students inside the building didn't realize it was a class film project, especially if they saw a kid dressed in all black by himself holding a prop that looked like a gun. The whole bit about how several students were hospitalized for panic attacks was mildy surprising, but then again... I imagine that the prospect of death would incite very strong reactions in many individuals. I don't think that the reaction that night was excessive... but I think that what's happening to these kids now is overdone. Yes, this is the perfect opportunity to make an example of out of someone... but hasn't that example already been made? The first student spent over two days in jail. One other kid was just holding the damn camera. They were all equally arrested with an initial felony charge. The repercussions of this incident are not something that are going to blow over in a week... and that's something the police should take into consideration. How much do these studious, probably overachieving, well-meaning students need to be punished for a lapse in their judgment?

On another note, is "bad timing" really substantial enough to justify how these students are being treated? I'm sure that various universities across the nation have, at one point or another, held club activities including water guns or other toys that bear resemblance to authentic firearms. If a student passing by happened to see a fraternity in the midst of a watergun fight and mistook it to be a wild shootout of some sort, would those alleged offenders face the same charges?

Finally, as the official in the report above said, how can these students be charged with brandishing a firearm when half of that charge is utterly illegitimate? A dismantled plastic b.b gun that no longer functions as a weapon essentially bears the same "weapon status" as a black water pistol or anything vaguely shaped like a gun. On second thought, I retract my initial statement. As the other half of the charge is also invalid, the entire charge is illegitimate. "Brandishing" is defined as "pointing, shaking, waving, flourishing, or displaying menacingly". To my knowledge, quietly shuffling along to your next scene with a prop in hand does not satisfy the definition of "brandishing".

I think I've made my point. Well, several of them. If any of the arrested students happen to read this report or comment, I hope you know that most of the public is on your side and wish you luck with these difficult proceedings.

I completely agree. Arresting those students is absurd. The police department should go find some officers with some common sense about when an arrest is appropriate and when its not. If the prosecutor has any sense at all, he'll use his prosecutorial discretion to drop this case like a hot potato. Maybe more than a protruding forehead, big hunched shoulders, and dragging knuckles should be required to become a police officer in Virginia.

I really wish all the kids running around with squirt guns would be arrested.

The reactionary fear by people in this country somewhat amazes me. If you lived in Iraq would you run every time you saw a car in the road?

These three students were just doing their Japanese class 102 assignment by filming a scene, and the fourth student was being kind to help out. They had no intention of hurting or threatening other people. Moreover, there was no weapon. If they had filmed the scene before Virginia Tech incident, I believe there would have been no problem. Just because of the timing, they were treated as criminals? It does not make sense to me at all. Please drop the case and let the students get back to their normal life. They need to study for the finals. Please don't ruin their life.

One person's imagination can make another person in jail. This is amazing. By common sense, when the police found out that there had been a misunderstanding - the students were just filming for their assignment - they should let the students go. I think our law enforcement has more important things to do.

Here are some quotes from the prosecutor, Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos, that I would like to comment on...

ââ?¬Å?We want to make sure what happened at Tech doesn't
happen again,?he said. ââ?¬Å?Nobody would think about
getting on an airplane anymore and using the word
ââ?¬Ë?hijack?or ââ?¬Ë?bomb.'”

"I don't want to talk about the facts of it but who was holding what isn't as
important as what the four of them were doing," he
said. "You have to look at it with the perspective of
the person who is put in the sheer panic of the
moment."

Can the prosecutor guarantee that what happened at
Tech does not happen again by charging someone who has
poor judgment as criminals?

So, what were four of them doing? They were filming a
school project previously approved by the professor.

Who cause more panic? The kids filming a robbery
school assignment , or when a big crew of polices showing up with
big machine guns, or when the prosecutor's
over-reaction causing all the teachers and students
nationwide to worry about their previous/future
creative writing is now considered criminals, and their civil
rights”Š..

It might be all timing. There will be no problem if
this happened before VT instance. You have to admit
the kids do have poor judgment in filming such a school project
just one week after the VT instance.

Don't we make some bad judgment in the past? Are we
supposed to charge people with bad judgment as
criminals even without any crimes been committed? How
about the professor who promoted creative writing,
approved the scripts, and did NOT stop them from
completing the assignment after VT instance?

If the prosecutor or school has good judgment, why
didn't they provide guidance for the students. Since
the VT instance, are there rules and regulation from
school to the students about not doing any projects
involving plastic weapon? Do they advise the students
that creative writing could now be considered
criminal?

Can you justify this? If both the adults and the kids
have poor judgment, the kids' life should be ruined to
pay for it.

Those four kids have gone through a lot. They have
apology many times for the chaos and panics they have
caused, and that they have no intention to scare any
one. They have always tried to do their best at
school, volunteered a lot of community work, and be
good citizens. Because of this time-sensitive
instance, one of the kid was jailed for two days, the
others were handcuffed out of their dorms, and
appeared on the TV News as criminals. Can you image what
they are going through? If they knew they will be
going through this, I think, they will rather get an
ââ?¬Ë?F'on their school project instead. Don't you think they
have learned their lesson already?

It is time for more healing, consulting, and
guidelines for the students whom were scared by the
poor judgments and who had the poor judgments. Please
drop the case, and give everyone a chance to fix the
damage that was caused unintentionally.

This case illustrates perfectly why Camblos is not a judge now, and how the community is better off because of it. Intent is EVERYTHING, and to argue that it doesn't matter is, well, pretty stupid. Those kids did absolutely nothing wrong.

I completely agree. Intent does make a huge difference. This is honestly a case of students doing the wrong thing, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. I mean sure... they did show poor judgment, but one foolish action does not make them foolish people. After all, haven't we all made a mistake or bad decision at some point or another?

If you look at it from their point of view.. it's a monday night, their school week has just started and they're probably tired... they're doing a final project and they want to do a good job on it. Part of doing a good job on a film project is making it seem real... some kid had a broken down b.b. gun that probably looked more real than a pink watergun or something. They probably did consider that using it was risky... but they figure, hey, as long as they're careful... what's the worst that could happen? Well, unfortunately... now they know.

They also KNOW that they made a bad decision, and have apologized and taken responsibility without being asked to... and I'm pretty sure that they have paid for their mistake many times over.

i think this is totally rediculous! it is hard for me not to think there is racial profile behind the arrest. this is a project approved by the professor. the police should made the investigation. after they find out the fact, then they should drop the charges. why they did not do it. it is very hard for me not think that this is a racial profiling arrest. i think the police chief and school chief should come out to clarify the issue, including an apology.

These students gave a clear explanation of what they were doing and stood up to take responsiblity for it. The cops in the heat of the moment seem to have overreacted, but they were in an ongoing situation. What is our prosecuting attorney really after? Justice, or some high-profile way of getting his name in the media? He should quit wasting taxpayers money.