NEWS- Bomb plotters?: Suspects to be tried as juveniles

Three of the four teens facing felony charges for an alleged plan to blow up Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools appeared in court February 22.

Judge Susan Whitlock ordered more psychological assessments and set a trial date of March 8 for all four teens. And the prosecution announced that the 16-, 15-, and two 13-year-old teens would not be tried as adults.

More than a dozen supporters of the 15-year-old Albemarle High student crowded the courtroom benches. One young man sobbed when his shackled and handcuffed friend appeared. The AHS student, who stood facing the judge with his parents and attorney, repeatedly turned around for glimpses of his friends.

Fairfax attorney Bill Hick moved for a separate trial for the 15-year-old, who faces felony charges of conspiring to use explosives to blow up a schoolhouse and conspiring to commit murder.

The youth went back to Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center, where he has been held since February 1.

The courtroom cleared out, and only reporters remained when the 16-year-old from Western Albemarle student appeared and stood before the bench with his mother, stepfather, his attorney from the Public Defender's office, Llezelle Dugger, and Greene County attorney Waverly Parker, who is representing the teen's parents. A deputy edged the mother a few inches farther away from her son when they appeared to stand too close.

That youth was arrested January 31 and charged with communicating a threat in writing to kill or do bodily harm, and for persuading another to commit a felony. He picked up a third felony charge February 15 for conspiring to use explosives to blow up a schoolhouse.

The 13-year-old from Jack Jouett Middle School arrested February 2 appeared before the judge behind closed doors.

The second Jouett teen, who was arrested at school February 15, did not appear in court, but will stand trial with the other three March 8, according to the prosecution.

Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos refused to say whether the fourth teen's house had been searched, allowing only, "Several search warrants have been executed."

Camblos was equally close-mouthed when asked what sort of evidence would be presented at the trial.

At a February 3 press conference, police said they executed three search warrants and confiscated three computers, two shotguns, and other items not identified. Chief John Miller declined to say whether any explosives were found.

Earlier, Camblos had considered trying the teens as adults, but settled on juvenile court.

"We think this is the proper forum," said Camblos. "We want all of them to get services. We have the same goals as the defense attorneys– to get them to be productive citizens."

Camblos said his office looked at the defendants' ages and prior records in determining where to try them. "None of these juveniles ever had use of the juvenile system," he said.

If convicted as juveniles, the accused could be held until their 21st birthdays.

Police say the teens plotted in an online chat room to blow up Albemarle and Western high schools before the end of the school term.

The night after their court appearance, more than 80 people turned out for a previously scheduled program at Western Albemarle High School on "Internet Uses and Abuses: How the Internet Can Hurt Teens and How It Can Help Them."

Assistant Attorney General Gene Fishel did not comment about the alleged online bomb plot, but he did describe how teenagers feel safe sitting at home behind the keyboard. "The perception is, this isn't real, that the cyber world is a fantasy."

Martha Redinger was one of the parents in attendance.

"I just have tremendous faith in the people who run Western Albemarle, where my son is," she says. "They have a very close relationship with the student body. I think that's reflected in the kids' attitude. I don't think they're worried, and they're confident it will be addressed by competent people."

Redinger says some students are concerned about the way the suspects may have been treated. "I think they should look into how those students were part of the community– or not– at Jack Jouett, Albemarle, and at Western," she suggests.

One thing that has bugged Redinger: the media coverage. "I didn't like that it was on the front page five days in a row," she says.

"It could happen at any private school," she says. "It could happen anywhere."

Last May, two students at the private Covenant School–- a 16-year-old boy and 15-year-old girl– were arrested and charged with felony counts for holding an alleged hit list and threatening "to Columbine" fellow students. After a couple of newspaper articles, the story pretty much disappeared.

Those two students were convicted, according to Camblos. He says the boy was committed to juvenile detention, and the 15-year-old girl released on probation.

Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos: The handling of this case was "absolutely colored by Columbine. We should be very thankful to the people who came forward with this."