NEWS- Explosive: Details sketchy in school plot
Details remain sparse about the actual threat Albemarle police feared when they announced February 3 the arrest of three county students for allegedly planning "violent acts" at Western Albemarle and Albemarle high schools.
And while police did not release the names because the suspects are juveniles, the identities of the boys– who police said had plans to damage the schools before the end of the year– have not remained a secret in the community.
Each of the teens– a 16-year-old from Western Albemarle, a 15-year-old from Albemarle High, and a 13-year-old from Jouett– is charged with two felonies and is being held without bond at Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention.
Parents of two of the boys contacted by the Hook expressed shock but declined to comment. The father of the Albemarle High student told the Richmond Times-Dispatch his son is a good kid with a large heart.
"I firmly believe he never has and never would hurt anybody," says the stunned parent. "We have no idea what evidence they have against my son."
Chief John Miller reported that three computers and two shotguns were seized with search warrants, but he declined to comment when asked if explosives were found.
The alleged plot was reported by a "confidential source" January 30, according to Miller, and had been discussed in an Internet chat room. Miller refused to say whether the source was a parent or another student. He urged members of the community to report people they know who want to hurt themselves or others.
Authorities also decline to say whether the phenomenally popular Myspace.com was the scene of the alleged threats. MySpace.com, which boasts nearly 43 million members, is blocked at Albemarle schools, and has been banned from school systems across the country because of its potential for inappropriate behavior.
Most recently, Connecticut police believe at least seven teens who were sexually assaulted met their attackers on MySpace.com.
"It's very important for parents to get involved with their children and what they're doing on the computer," advised Chief Miller at the press conference. And Western Albemarle High plans a program titled "Internet uses and abuses" for February 23.
On the MySpace.com profile of one of the suspects, friends posted their reactions to his arrest. Writes one, "You're one of the most awesome people I ever met. I miss you! I'm praying for you! Everything will be okay."
The Western Albemarle student was arrested January 31 and charged with communicating a threat to kill or do bodily harm to another and persuading another to commit a felony.
The two other students are charged with conspiring to commit murder and to use an explosive device to destroy a schoolhouse. The 15-year-old was arrested February 1 and the 13-year-old the next day. Two of the students live in the same neighborhood, according to police.
Details of the nature of the threats were not released, but the threats did not entail a hit-list of names, according to police. One source says simultaneous attacks on Western and Albemarle high were planned.
School officials announced the arrests to students and the media February 3 and mailed letters home to parents.
"Everyone was a little shaken up," says Western sophomore Sarah Teplitzky. "I haven't seen anyone going to guidance or crying. I don't think anybody's freaked out."
As for a potential Columbine scenario here, "A lot of people doubted it could happen," Teplitzky says. "Then we read in the news they found guns and plans."
Jouett Middle School principal Dave Rogers reports that students were "a bit subdued" returning to school February 6. "We've had– not a lot, but a little bit of parents' questions coming in," says Rogers. "Attendance was good."
Two of the youths attended a detention hearing February 3, and all three remain in state custody. They'll appear in court again February 22, and the prosecution has not decided whether they'll be charged as adults, according to Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos. "The Commonwealth would oppose any bond," says Camblos. "These are very serious charges."
If convicted as juveniles, all three could face incarceration until age 21.
Camblos commends the rapid response by the police department.
And Albemarle schools Superintendent Pam Moran said, "We believe cooperation with police helped us preempt a very violent act inside the school."
However, with authorities releasing so few details, some citizens wonder whether the youths were serious.
Waldo Jaquith, a former student at Western Albemarle, says he's followed preemptive arrests since Columbine. "Usually kids are making idle threats– almost always," he says.
"I sympathize with law enforcement and school officials," he adds. "I appreciate their caution."
But he recalls wanting to blow up his school with a rocket when he was in the sixth grade– and drawing up plans to do so. "It was an idle threat," he says. "I was mad."
Part of Jaquith's skepticism about the threats comes from the lack of information. He cites the example of frequent news reports of "a mysterious white powder" being found in courthouses that "inevitably turns out to be cleaning powder."
And he'd like to know more about the two shotguns. Did they belong to the parents, or did the kids have them without the parents' knowledge?
If explosive materials were found, Jaquith sees a big difference between a bottle rocket or a can of gasoline for the lawnmower– and C4, a plastic explosive.
"I would feel more confident with more information," he says.
"We believe it's a viable threat," says Miller.
Jaquith summarizes the dilemma of living in a zero-tolerance, post-9/11 world: "It's just been criminalized to be a stupid kid. But if they were doing something wrong, I'm glad they caught 'em."
Authorities say the threat to Albemarle High, above, and Western Albemarle has been averted by the arrests of three students.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO