Sizzling evidence: Parent says guns, firecrackers his
From the start of the explosive allegations against four Albemarle teens, authorities have remained tight-lipped about their physical evidence other than to say they seized three computers, two shotguns, and "other evidence."
Now, one parent says that what was taken from his home is no evidence of a terror conspiracy. The haul: two shotguns, some firecrackers, a smoke bomb, and a box of kitchen matches.
The information could re-ignite the debate over what evidence– beyond incendiary language on a chat room– led to the arrests. All four teens charged with plotting to blow up Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools have been incarcerated since the charges were filed in early and mid-February.
The parent speaking to the Hook was present during the search of his home. He says that police asked to see his firearms, which he keeps in a locked gun safe in the master bedroom.
"They noticed I had a couple of packs of firecrackers from our vacation in South Carolina a few years ago," says the parent, who is not being identified to protect the identity of his juvenile son, "and a box of kitchen matches and one smoke bomb. I'd put them in there because I didn't want [my] boys to play with them."
The explosive devices, says the parent, "were mine."
When Albemarle police announced the arrests of three teenagers in a February 3 press conference, Chief John Miller said a confidential source had reported that the alleged plot was being discussed in an Internet chat room.
Police charged a 16-year-old from Western Albemarle, a 15-year-old Albemarle High student, and a 13-year-old from Jack Jouett Middle School with two felony counts each. A second 13-year-old was arrested at Jouett February 15– nearly two weeks later– just before the end of the school day and also charged with conspiring to commit murder and to use an explosive device to destroy a schoolhouse. And the 16-year-old garnered a third felony charge.
Miller said three computers and two shotguns had been taken from the youths' homes, but he declined to comment when asked if explosives were found. The Commonwealth's Attorney has refused to describe the "other evidence" against the teens, and did not return phone calls by press time.
At a closed hearing March 8 in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, the 16-year-old, represented by the Llezelle Dugger in the Public Defender's office, pleaded guilty to two felony counts– a third was dropped– and will be sentenced April 5 after further evaluation. He could remain in detention until he is 21.
The parents of the boy have retained their own lawyer, Greene County attorney Waverly Parker.
Public Defender Jim Hingeley declines to comment on the 16-year-old's case, but responded to concerns about a family living in an affluent section of the county qualifying for his office's free legal services.
"I think people who can afford to hire a lawyer sometimes use the Public Defender's office in juvenile cases," says Hingeley, stressing that he's not speaking of any specific case. "They recognize we do outstanding work. As a general rule, a child's status as indigent is determined regardless of parental resources. We represent UVA students if they don't have any money."
The other three teens will be back in court March 17.
"I would like people to know that not all four of these boys are equally involved," says one of the parents. "There was one boy who posted some very misguided things on the Internet."
This parent wonders if the 16-year-old's guilty plea will affect his child's case. "I'm concerned that it makes it difficult for the full facts of his position to come out," the father says. "I hope the full story is able to come out absent his participation in the trial."
He also mentions that two of the boys were arrested twice. "At a detention hearing, the charges were dropped because of no evidence," says the parent. "An hour later they were charged on new, different charges."
And according to this parent, one of the 13-year-olds did not even know two of his alleged co-conspirators.
Visitation at Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center, where the four youths are being held, is limited to two Sunday sessions lasting two hours each. "I go to one, and my wife goes to the other," says one of the fathers. "It's been 40 days today. It's been very hard to be separated from our child since February 1."
Some days are better than others for his son, he reports. "Forty days of being detained and pretty isolated is pretty hard on him. He's been doing a lot of praying, and he has a strong character."
Friends of the 15-year-old Albemarle High student packed the court for a February 22 hearing. Community support remains strong, says the teen's father, and a prayer rally is planned at the family's church March 16– the evening before the court hearing.
The reaction of friends, he says, remains consistent– "that there's no way he would do anything like that."
The parent says he understands the concern for public safety and the authorities' aggressive prosecution. "But I hope the truth is the result, and I don't mean to imply they have an interest other than to the truth."
"We believe it's a viable threat," said Albemarle Police Chief John Miller after the arrests of four teenagers.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO