County criticized: Teen's parents consider lawsuit
Six months after a handcuffed 13-year-old was frog-marched out of Jack Jouett Middle School and charged in an alleged bomb plot, the boy started the ninth grade August 21 at Albemarle High.
That he was back in a county school at all was thanks to a jury's acquittal on August 16– five days before the start of school– on charges of conspiring to commit murder and blow up Western Albemarle and Albemarle high schools. Otherwise, he faced permanent expulsion– and none of the local private schools would touch him.
His relieved family spent the weekend settling down after the last week's trial, acquittal, and publicity. But it was not all celebration. "We've been laying out what happened to us," says the boy's father (The Hook is not identifying the teen because of his age). Lawsuit? "We have not dismissed the idea," says the dad.
The family's nightmare began February 1 when an Albemarle police officer asked them to bring their son in for questioning as a possible witness to the alleged conspiracy.
"You're not under arrest," Sgt. Linda Jenkins told the boy on the videotape of her interview with him. "You're not in any trouble. You may be a witness."
During last week's trial and after, the family and their lawyer blasted what they call Jenkins' "deceptive approach" to the interview with the boy.
"It really outrages me," says defense attorney David Heilberg. "I don't think police should be lying to anybody, especially a teenager. They flat-out lied to my client. What are we teaching our children about trusting police?"
In the tape of the police interview, the boy repeatedly tells Jenkins the alleged plot was a joke– and that he didn't even know the Western Albemarle teen the prosecution called the "head planner."
Jenkins seemed not to take no for an answer. According to WINA talk-radio host Coy Barefoot, Jenkins asked the boy 29 times if the plot might have been real– that's nearly once a minute during the 34 minutes of the interview.
In court, Jenkins maintained that the 13-year-old was not a suspect until after the family voluntarily brought in its computer and Detective Gary Pistulka told her it had been tampered with.
That's another sore point for the family. "[The boy] was detained for 60 days because Detective Pistulka said the computer was tampered with," says Heilberg. "You didn't hear about that in court."
Pistulka testified that as an investigator he does interviews and executes search warrants. He also takes possession of computers, performs analysis using software in which he's not certified, and writes reports.
"I think it's inexcusable," says the boy's father, "that in the county, one, the only person who does computer forensics is not certified, and two– even more inexcusable– there's no one to check his work."
To the father, that demonstrates "no proper chain of custody with Pistulka handling evidence that will affect the case."
Jenkins and Pistulka did not return phone calls from the Hook by press time.
When police held a press conference February 3 to announce the arrest of three students, electronic communications were identified as the basis for the alleged conspiracy.
Yet during the trial, the prosecution did not introduce any evidence involving computers, instead relying upon six other teens who said the boy had told them "they" were going to blow up school April 20, the anniversary of school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, and the birthday of the Western Albemarle student. Most of the witnesses said they thought it was a joke, and that the boy was upset when he made the statements.
For the jury, which deliberated for four hours, "It didn't seem there was enough concrete evidence of conspiracy," says jury foreman Wesley Lewis. "The prosecution did leave reasonable doubt."
Lewis declined to discuss the factors that led to the jury's decision. "We did not take the case lightly," he says. "If we thought that, we wouldn't have deliberated for four hours."
A father of three children in Albemarle schools, Lewis would like to see more communications between parents and schools in the community. "It boiled down to kids knowing information and not communicating it," he says.
"I would have been in deep shock if [the 13-year-old] had been found guilty," says the mother of the Western Albemarle teen, who is still in juvenile detention. Her son has an appeal date of January 10.
The other 13-year-old Jouett student reportedly did his time in juvenile detention and is not appealing. His parents did not return a reporter's call.
Several of the accused teens' parents report feeling intimidated by the prosecution. Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos told the press after the case was heard in a three-day Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on March 28, "If anybody talks about it, they're in violation of a court order. If you write about it, we'll come after you to ask who talked about it."
The formerly outspoken father of the now 16-year-old former Albemarle High student is hesitant to comment on the acquittal because his own son is facing an appeal. "I don't want to say anything because I feel intimidated," he says.
In an interview outside the Albemarle Circuit Court this week, Camblos maintains that with closed cases in juvenile court, "They're not supposed to talk about it."
"There's a statute in the code if [cases] are closed," adds Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Darby Lowe, who prosecuted the teens and who was awarded a special chief's award from the Albemarle County police May 18.
Both Camblos and Lowe scoff at suggestions of prosecutorial intimidation. She points out that in the appeal of the 16-year-old in circuit court, it was the defense that asked that a hearing be closed.
And Lowe responds to critics questioning whether the case ever should have been brought to trial. "Did they sit in the courtroom and listen to the evidence?" she queries. "There was significant evidence. Is it for Jim or the police to determine, rather than the judicial system? We would have been derelict in our duty if we hadn't prosecuted." And, she wonders, what would citizen response be if there had been another Columbine.
"We were disappointed," says Camblos. "It was a well-presented trial on both sides, and the jury took 4 1/2 hours to make a decision."
Amid community criticism of how the case was handled, Camblos acknowledges that, in such a high-profile case involving safety and children, there would be dissatisfaction no matter what. "The commonwealth's attorney job is a difficult job," he says.
He adds, "The system worked."
The 13-year-old's family is still assessing its recent ordeal. For one, there are legal fees from two court appearances. "Just the two days in court last week was a four-year private college," sighs the father.
He also notes that he and his wife lost work when their son, after 60 days in juvenile detention, served another 60 days of house arrest. Between April 18 and 22, the days surrounding the would-be Columbine-like attack, they were required to be within arm's length of their son, even when he was in the bathroom.
And then there's the mental anguish. "They were so flip about throwing this kid's life away," complains the father. "They were so flip about first-degree murder charges. That part I'll never forgive. The question is, are they looking for truth or looking for arrests or promotions?"
He's also outraged that his son was arrested at school. "It has nothing to do with public safety, nothing to do with the truth. I think that's what they're supposed to do."
Vows the father, "We're not done. I don't want this to happen to other families– or others who couldn't afford attorneys or couldn't spend the five hours a day doing research."
And his lawyer offers some advice for Albemarle parents. "You just don't send your teenager down to the police without a lawyer," counsels Heilberg. "It's more important for a teenager than an adult to have a lawyer. Teenagers are such easy pickings because they'll say anything."
And with zero-tolerance policies, an adolescent could find himself kicked out of school even without being convicted of a crime.
Last week, the newly acquitted 13-year-old appeared on the radio with his father. This week, he's not as eager to talk to the media.
"I think he just wants to be an everyday kid and not make a spectacle of being back at school," says his mom.
The next significant date for the family– August 27– won't be a court date. Says the boy's mother, "He's looking forward to his 14th birthday."
"I don't think police should be lying to anybody, especially a teenager," says defense attorney David Heilberg. "They flat-out lied to my client. What are we teaching our children about trusting police?"
PHOTO BY COURTENEY STUART
Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos is "disappointed" with last week's acquittal of a 13-year-old. He says the case is one of the hardest his office has tried because of its high profile, and because it involved the safety of children.
FILE PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER