Teen drama: Parents speak in 'bomb' case

How does a family nightmare begin? For the parents of an Albemarle 13-year-old, it started February 1 with a phone call from police that interrupted dinner. "Your son's not in any kind of trouble," an officer said, "but he may have some information that can help someone out. Please bring him here as fast as you can without breaking the speed limit."

The youngster's mom says she immediately called her husband, who was on his way home to Earlysville from his work as a financial planner, and asked him to pull over and wait for her so the two could drive the boy to the police. In an interview last week, the parents said the family rode together to the County's new Fifth Street police station without a second thought, without complaints, and– as they now deeply regret– without a lawyer.

"We pictured someone in shackles whose freedom depended on information our son could provide," explains the mom. However, they say they now realize they were duped, and they speak ruefully of their own role in naively introducing their son to a justice system that wound up putting him behind bars for two months.

And now– aware that a prosecutor's statements about a gag order were false– they have agreed to speak with a reporter. But to shield their son at least a little while longer, they've asked not to be named.

Their son is one of four boys who were convicted in March of conspiring to murder and conspiring to blow up schools. The eldest boy in the alleged plot pleaded guilty and the Hook was unable to learn whether he has been released. The other three were convicted after a three-day trial in juvenile court and have since been released. But what they haven't been released from, these parents say, is the suspicion that they– two pairs of whom may not even have known each other– actually harbored notions of killing.

According to their statements at the February 3 press conference, the threat seemed real enough to Albemarle Police Chief John Miller and Superintendent of Schools Pam Moran. But not everyone is convinced.

"When I saw this story come out, I said, 'Oh, no, another overreaction by the police,'" says Constitutional lawyer John Whitehead. "You'd think you're dealing with Osama bin Laden, but you're dealing with kids."

Whitehead, who is not involved in this case, says his nonprofit civil liberties organization, the Rutherford Institute, has defended scores of youngsters, including kindergartners who were suspended from school for playing cops and robbers. Such childish antics have collided with post-Columbine jitters and zero-tolerance policies that have become the Red Scare of 21st Century.

"I shot spitwads, and I talked about shooting my teachers," says Whitehead, "but they took me aside and said, 'You little idiot.' Now they call the cops."

The Albemarle eighth grader's troubles began at a school dance in January, when he got an embarrassing kick from another eighth grader. The boy vented his anger via instant messaging (IM), an email-like communication system. According to a transcript of the juvenile court trial, the boy wrote to a girl– who was "IM'ing"with two other girls– not to go to school on April 23 or April 20 (the girls weren't sure of the date). The 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School happened on April 20. And the boy allegedly claimed via IM he knew how to make explosives from reading the novel Fight Club.

Two other students also testified that the boy made similar statements verbally, including describing "in a stare" an attack planned for March 2008. The boy disputes both of these claims, but doesn't dispute his angry IM'ing.

The trial transcript indicates that he may have attempted to apologize to one of the girls at school the following week by pointing a finger at his own head like a gun. However, prosecutor Darby Lowe mentioned the action in her closing argument, apparently considering the gesture further evidence of a propensity to violence. (The mother of one of the girls eventually wrote a letter to the judge endorsing the boy's character.)

A video recording of the February 1 police station interview consists mostly of long stretches of the bored or nervous teen waiting alone while his parents are off in another room. He's told at the outset by Sergeant Linda Jenkins: "I want you to understand that you're not under arrest, okay? You're not in trouble. We're kinda looking at you as maybe a witness– helping us out on a case we're working."

The questioning lasts for half an hour, during which the middle-schooler is repeatedly asked if he was aware of a 16-year-old's boasts about blowing up high schools.

"So far as I know," the 13-year-old answers, "the whole thing was a joke." He maintains in the video (and still maintains today) that he heard some chatter from the other 13-year old– and that he didn't know either the 15-year old or the 16-year-old (aside from once IM'ing the oldest boy in a discussion about cars and concluding the high-schooler was a braggart).

The interview ends, and he's left alone for another 20 minutes, having at that point been separated from his parents and without a lawyer for an hour and a half. Then Sergeant Jenkins returns. "You ready to go to jail?" she asks. When the boy appears stunned, she chirps, "I'm kidding! I'm kidding!"

It was two days later, February 3, in a room packed with television crews and other journalists from as far away as Richmond, that Police Chief Miller, accompanied by Superintendent Moran, announced the first three arrests in what they described as a plot to blow up Albemarle and Western Albemarle High Schools.

The 13-year-old Earlysville boy would not be arrested until Wednesday, February 17. It was shortly after 4pm when the mother got a call from a police officer. "He's in transit," she recalls telling the officer, thinking that her son was on the school bus heading home.

He was in transit, but it was in police custody. The boy had been arrested near the end of the school day at Jack Jouett Middle School. Authorities have never explained why such a public spot was chosen.

The mom says she raced out of the house with the boy's backpack and trumpet, only to be told that she was not allowed to see her son. Even though not charged as an adult, he went through his intake hearing without his parents or a lawyer. "What kind of nightmare are you running here?" the mom recalls thinking.

The only time they saw their son after his arrest was on a grainy video image of the boy shuffling into a detention hearing, where Judge Dwight Johnson– apparently believing that a relatively new hard-drive in the boy's laptop computer meant that his parents had tampered with it– ordered the boy held without bond. It was four days before the parents (who say they had swapped out the hard drive over a year earlier) were allowed to see their son.

Two weeks earlier, at the press conference, authorities tallied the confiscated physical evidence: two shotguns, three computers, and "other evidence." The public clamored for information, and bloggers speculated about maps, bomb recipes, and hit lists.

As it turned out, the guns had been handed over by their owner, the father of another of the arrested children who voluntarily unlocked his gun case for investigators. The "other evidence" also came from that parent's gun case, but it never made it to court– perhaps, the parent says, because it consisted of a box of kitchen matches, some firecrackers, and a single Fourth-of-July-style smoke bomb. Three seized computers gave the prosecution some fodder for trial.

The 16-year-old, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bomb a school and commit murder, described his loves and hates online: "I like death and killing and executions. I don't like most people, but if you're okay you're okay." And he bragged about anticipating April 20 like a child anticipates Christmas.

The 15-year old's MySpace page says, "I love going to the shooting range since my dad is the vice-president of the gun club." He had 108 MySpace friends.

Trial evidence also included the other 13-year-old whining on a MySpace blog that he wanted a girl transferring to the Covenant School to die. "Shoot me," he allegedly writes a few days later. "I have no will to live." On the other hand, he posts a photo a few days later with this comment: "Check out this pic of me with a new squirt gun. Hell, yeah!"

If the digital evidence raised eyebrows, there was nothing digital introduced in court about a local plot. And if the physical evidence fizzled, the zeal for secrecy sizzled.

At the conclusion of the three-day trial on March 28, Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney James Camblos, whose assistant Darby Lowe actually prosecuted the cases, threatened to track down anyone who leaked information– and even referred to a "court order" requiring secrecy. In fact, no such order existed; Camblos now defends his statements by focusing on the fact that juvenile trials are held behind closed doors and pointing out that he did not use the term "gag order."

That kind of word-parsing can apparently strike fear into the hearts of the families, at least three of whom are now reunited with their once-incarcerated children and don't want to do anything to rile officials who made all three boys sit in handcuffs, chains, and leg-irons throughout the trial. For instance, the once-talkative gun-case owner, who had publicly denounced the lawyerless interview that led to his son's conviction, won't even explain how his son was eventually released.

"You can sympathize with them," Whitehead says, "because they've been through a trauma."

Still, the mere suggestion of such official intimidation angers Whitehead– who has a message for authorities: "Your job is to protect the Constitution– not get around it." Barring an explicit court order signed by a judge, the idea that a parent or anyone with an opinion of a trial would be prohibited from speaking out infuriates Whitehead, who notes, "Free speech is at the core of it. As long as your facts are straight, you can say whatever you want in America."

But American schools are another matter. Although this 13-year-old's conviction in juvenile court has been nullified by his appeal to circuit court, his expulsion by the Albemarle County School Board still stands. While board attorney Mark Trank originally characterized it as a permanent expulsion, state law actually limits public school expulsions to a year at a time.

Not expecting any favors from the public schools, the family is now knocking on private school doors, but is finding nervous administrators reluctant to open them to this particular rising ninth-grader. One headmaster allegedly called the situation "too hot." Another, the boy's dad reports, said, "We have to think of the other families."

The mom leaves the kitchen table interview to answer a telephone call. Shielding the mouthpiece with her hand, she shouts to her husband across the room: "The [name deleted] School would like to meet with us. That's as far as they can go right now." The parents tick off a list of other schools that refused to even entertain a meeting, even though the boy is a strong student who earned a position on a district-wide band.

Like a man without a country, the boy finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to convince schools that four kids without drivers' licenses– some of whom had never met– weren't really going to get together and create murderous mayhem.  After all, if the kids are so dangerous, what are they– at least three of them–- doing out of jail?

Chief Miller, along with school superintendent Pam Moran, believed the threats were real.

"When I saw this story come out, I said, 'Oh, no, another overreaction by the police,'" says Constitutional lawyer John Whitehead. "You'd think you're dealing with Osama bin Laden, but you're dealing with kids."