Bomb trial: Teen's appeal lifts secrecy veil
Evidence in a highly publicized alleged plot to blow up two high schools was heard for the first time in a courtroom open to the public. A former Jack Jouett middle schooler appealed his conviction in Albemarle Circuit Court August 15 with the defense contending the boy didn't even know two of the three other teens arrested for allegedly plotting to blow up Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools and that he thought the plan was a joke.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Darby Lowe produced an array of ponytailed rising ninth graders to testify they'd heard the 13-year-old talk about the alleged plot before the police's February 3 announcement that three teens had been arrested.
Publicity was clearly on Lowe's mind, and when she asked the jury pool if they'd read about the case, 10 of 36 potential jurors raised their hands. In particular, Lowe asked if they'd listened to Coy Barefoot's "Charlottesville... Right Now" radio show on WINA, or had read the Hook's July 20 article about the case. Lowe also subpoenaed most media organizations in town, including the Hook, the Daily Progress, WINA, NBC29 and the Newsplex.
Lowe's first witness was Albemarle police Sergeant Linda Jenkins who interviewed the 13-year-old boy on February 1. On a video recording, the teen told Jenkins that another 13-year-old, who was arrested that same day, was his best friend.
"You're not under arrest," jurors heard Jenkins telling the boy on the recording. "You're not in any trouble. You may be a witness." She also assured the boy that his friend was not in trouble.
In the video, the boy says he didn't really know the 16-year-old Western Albemarle student the prosecution called the "head planner" of the plot, although he'd once instant-messaged the older boy, whom he described as "show offy," about cars.
When Jenkins asked if he knew of plans to hurt anyone at school and if he liked "preps," it took a minute before the boy replied, "Oh, I know what you're talking about. [My friend] thought that was a joke." He said the Western student claimed he had bombs and eight people to help him blow up the high schools.
The teen told Jenkins half a dozen times he thought his friend "was kidding" about the plot and that he didn't take it seriously.
At the end of the interview, which took place without the boy's parents in the room, Jenkins asks the boy, "You ready? Ready to go to jail? I'm kidding. I'm kidding."
Upon cross examination, defense attorney David Heilberg asked Jenkins if it was okay to deceive someone she was interviewing, rephrasing the question when Lowe objected to ask if that was a "questioning technique."
Jenkins said the boy was not a suspect until his parents brought his computer in, and it appeared to have been tampered with. (The boy's parents have previously told the Hook that they replaced the hard drive long before voluntarily handing the laptop over to investigators.) The boy was arrested at Jouett Middle School February 15, two weeks after the arrests of the other three suspects.
The police officer also described evidence taken from the home of the 16-year-old WAHS student: M-80 firecrackers, ball bearings, and two small photos of the teen holding shotguns taken from his MySpace.com site.
The prosecution submitted photos taken of the Western student's bedroom showing the first names of two of the other alleged conspirators.
"How is a name on a wall connected to a conspiracy?" asked Judge Paul Peatross. "I'm going to strike that."
Lowe also submitted a drawing made by the Western teen on notebook paper at the request of the police that she called his "plan to plant propane bombs around the school."
Jenkins listed the evidence found at the home of the then 15-year-old Albemarle High student: a bag of firecrackers, the shotgun shown in the Western student's picture, one smoke bomb, and a Smith & Wesson pump shotgun.
Six former Jouett students testified that the 13-year-old had spoken about a plot to blow up the high schools. One boy said the defendant told him on the bus the day before police announced the arrests that two kids were going to "shoot up" the schools. The boy also said he'd had a fight with the defendant, and admitted he was still angry with him.
Five girls told the jury they'd heard the defendant mention a bomb plot in gym class and at a dance. None of the girls reported the plot to police, and most said they didn't take it seriously, although one, who seemed a little upset on the stand, said, "I was scared. I thought it was weird,"as the defendant blushed.
Three of the girls said the boy had warned them not to go to school on April 20, the date of the 1999 Columbine massacre. Upon cross examination, one said the boy's talk about explosives was a description of what he'd read in the book Fight Club. "Would [the defendant] know how to make a bomb?" queried Heilberg. "No," answered the teen.
The final prosecution witness was 19-year-old Matt Smith, who is a friend of the Western student's sister. The 16-year old had allegedly IM'd Smith to ask him to join in the plot. "He told me he wanted to recreate the Columbine incident at Albemarle and Western Albemarle, and that he had at least two other people involved," one of whom had "over 30 guns in his house."
Smith told the boy's sister, and he said she told her parents.
"Disturbed" and "an angry kid" are how Smith described the Western student. "I had no problem believing he would do something like this," said Smith.
The trial continued August 16, after the Hook's press time. The jury of 12– four women and eight men– may have rendered a verdict by Wednesday afternoon.
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The first appeal by a teenager accused of plotting to bomb two high schools began Tuesday in Albemarle Circuit Court.
FILE PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER