NEWS- Bomb net widens: Father faces contempt charge

Just when it seemed that the dust was finally settling on the case of the four teens charged with plotting to blow up two local high schools, another court appearance looms. The father of the former Albemarle High student has been charged with contempt of court.

In a May 19 plea agreement, Judge Paul Peatross prohibited all parties from talking about the case, and the court records were sealed. It wasn't until the Daily Progress filed a motion to open the records (the Hook made a similar motion, but the judge was unmoved by the weekly's arguments) that the terms of the agreement– and the contempt charge– were revealed August 28.

The teen's father ran afoul of the judge by writing a letter to the School Board about his son, who was 15 years old when he was permanently expelled from Albemarle County schools after a March 28 conviction in juvenile court for conspiring to commit murder and blow up a school. The two conspiracy charges were dropped in the plea agreement, in which the juvenile offered an Alford plea to a lesser felony of communicating a threat electronically. The court deferred disposition of that until the teen is 18.

(Ironically, communicating a threat is the very first charge levied against this boy. He was arrested February 1, held overnight, and freed the next day when Judge Dwight Johnson dismissed the charge– only to be jailed again February 2 and then hit with the conspiracy charges the following day by Judge Susan Whitlock.)

The teen's juvenile convictions were "wiped off the table completely" when the boy appealed to Circuit Court, according to his attorney, David Bruns, and Bruns is convinced that with good behavior, the electronic threat charge will be dismissed and expunged. "Right now," he stresses, "there is no finding of guilt."

On August 16, a 13-year-old alleged co-conspirator appealed, and a jury found him not guilty. And on August 31, the former Western Albemarle student authorities call the "ringleader"– the one who spent seven months in isolation in juvenile detention– offered a plea that calls for him to receive treatment in a residential facility in Tennessee.

"I think it's safe to say the [prosecution] is seeing these kids in a different light," Bruns says of the softened sentences. 

"Our position has not changed," says Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Darby Lowe. "Treatment and rehabilitation have been one of our primary concerns since the outset."

The Albemarle student now receives his education at home. And while his father is impressed with the quality of home-schooling materials, his son misses extracurriculars such as football and friends. "For junior and senior year," says the dad, "textbooks are not what it's all about.

"The school issue is the only issue left after having his name splashed all over the Daily Progress and his school transcript saying he was expelled," says the boy's father.

With the expulsion on his record and his parents unable to say anything about the case, even private schools wouldn't consider his application. Thus the dad's letter to the Albemarle County School Board to set the record straight. (The father, fearing another contempt charge, refused to allow the Hook to see the letter.)

"Our position is, [my client] has done nothing wrong, and we hope that at the end of the hearing, the judge will agree," says Richmond attorney Ed Riley, who is handling the father's September 19 contempt case, which could bring the dad a fine, jail time, or both.

"Any communication that comes from parents to the school system regarding their children is considered a school record and confidential as authorized by law," says Albemarle deputy attorney Mark Trank, who declines to comment on who turned the father's supposedly confidential letter over to the court. 

Speaking generally, however, Trank says that records may be disclosed to law enforcement or the court in situations of criminal investigations or prosecutions. "Those are the only situations I can see," says Trank, "where school records could be released."

The father and his son were involved in a high-profile lawsuit against Albemarle schools a few years ago, and there has been some speculation that turning the father's letter over to the courts may be payback. Trank declines comment on those theories. Nor can Trank comment on the boy's chances of being readmitted to Albemarle High now that he faces only a deferred disposition on a threat charge.

"In general, that decision would be up to the School Board," Trank says. "A felony conviction, depending on the nature of the facts, could constitute grounds for disciplinary action, including expulsion."

Civil rights attorney John Whitehead, who heads a human rights legal clinic called the Rutherford Institute, calls the whole situation a mess. 

"You've got decent people in the courtroom for contempt," says Whitehead. "Their main concern is their children. This is a road that could have been avoided if police and the school system hadn't overreacted. In my opinion, this never should have been in the judicial system."

The father says his son initially planned to appeal the juvenile court conviction and secure a jury trial. But after the boy spent 110 days in juvenile detention, his family was more willing to compromise with the plea.

"As good as we felt about the jury trial we were lining up," says the father, "this was a sure thing. We were so happy when they offered it to us."

Among the terms of the plea agreement, the defendant can't access the Internet without supervision, can't own a MySpace account, and can't have access to firearms or explosives.

That last measure means the father, a gun collector, had to clear out his volumnious gun safe. Early on, police seized from his house two shotguns, some fireworks, and a smoke bomb they suggested were integral to the alleged plot. None of the materials was ever admitted as evidence in court.

The formerly outspoken father has found himself gagged and unable to bear arms. "As far as I can tell," he says, "the only right from the Bill of Rights we still enjoy is we don't have soldiers quartered in our home."

 
An Albemarle High School parent is slapped with a contempt of court charge for trying to clear his son's name


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FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO 

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