ST. GEORGE — The case involving a 16-year-old boy accused of bringing a homemade bomb to one school and causing ISIS-related vandalism at another will move forward after a judge ruled Wednesday that prosecutors had met their burden of proof.
“The court determined there was probable cause,” Matthew Harris, one of the teen suspect’s attorneys, said. “That standard is so low we anticipated the court probably would, because all the court needed to determine is that there was some evidence to support each element of the crime alleged.”
5th District Juvenile Court Judge Paul E. Dame’s ruling followed closing arguments from the state and the defense.
The teen faces first-degree felony charges for attempted murder and possession of a weapon of mass destruction in connection with the bomb scare that prompted the evacuation of 1,100 students.
The alleged bomb was found in a backpack the accused left in the school’s cafeteria.
The teen also faces lesser charges stemming from when he allegedly replaced an American flag at Hurricane High School with an ISIS flag and spray-painted an ISIS-related message on school property.
Wednesday’s hearing wrapped up the first half of the overall hearing that continues July 5. At that time the judge will hear arguments on whether the boy should stay in the juvenile court system or proceed to district court where he will be tried as an adult.
Intent to kill vs. intent to scare
Deputy Washington County Attorney Angela Adams argued it was the teen’s intent to kill others and that his actions and words were proof of that.
“(The teen) intended to build an explosive device, a ‘bomb’ as he called it, and intended to kill people.”
The defense argued the teen’s intent wasn’t to kill, but to scare.
Police investigators asked the boy what the idea behind the incident was.
“(The teen) said, ‘Fear factor, I guess,’” Harris said. “His intent was not to kill, he was wanting to scare.”
Adams argued the boy wanted to cause death in addition to fear.
“He researched (the bomb), he built it, he placed it, he lit it and he moved out of the way.”
Adams said that when the boy set the backpack on the ground and attempted to light it with a match, it failed. He tried again and when it seemed to work, he jumped back and left the area.
“He acted like a person who expected it to explode,” she said.
Incendiary device vs. explosive device
The defense argued the so-called bomb was more a “backpack with flammable materials” in it than an actual explosive device and cited testimony from an FBI explosives expert.
FBI special agent Michael Truebenbach said it was an incendiary device – a device meant to trigger a fire rather than explode outright, Harris said.
An incendiary device could be a weapon, or a firework or how you start a campfire, he said. “Just because it’s an incendiary device does not prove it’s a weapon and does not prove it’s capable of killing with reasonable certainty.”
Still, that doesn’t change that the teen’s intent was to build an explosive, Adams said, especially given that he had placed bottles of gasoline, shrapnel and other items in the backpack.
St. George Police officer Gage Schimbeck, who responded to Pine View High and who is a member of the Washington County Bomb Squad, testified that inside the backpack was a metal soup can filled with what appeared to be a “significant amount” of gunpowder and BBs that were later identified to be shotgun pellets. Attached to the can was a fuse made of masking tape, a matchbox, three water bottles filled with an amber-colored liquid he believed to be gasoline.
“The court can draw the inference that those items were only in there because (the teen) intended to them to be there as a part of an explosive device,” Adams said.
‘In his own words’
The defense pointed to a letter the boy wrote in which he provided his feelings and motivation behind the Pine View High incident.
The boy wrote that he knew the bomb wasn’t perfect and therefore wouldn’t work, Harris said, adding that it was another sign his client did not intend to kill anyone, only scare them.
“‘It did what I expected it to do – burn out and smoke,’” Harris read from the letter.
As the device wasn’t a bomb, Mathew Harris argued, it really couldn’t qualify as a weapon of mass destruction either.
Adams called the defense’s attempt to downplay the intent a “red herring.”
She referenced a passage in the letter that reads, “‘I began to think of ways I could do it – ways I could kill those that would do wrong.’”
He also wrote that he searched the internet for ways to create bombs and explosives that would cause “great destruction” as well as flammable and explosive items that could be combined, Adams said.
“‘I knew what I needed. I made plans to build it and set it,’” Adams said, reading the boy’s words. “In his own words, your honor, he wanted it to explode and he wanted it to kill.”
The defense afterward
Issues that weren’t brought up during closing arguments were those that arose during the testimony of forensic psychologist Tim Kockler. He said the teen had an undiagnosed case of high-functioning autism and cognitive impairment that makes it hard for him to understand and relate to others, which led to a lifetime of being bullied.
“We’re not claiming it’s an excuse for what happened by any means,” said Stephen Harris, the boy’s other attorney.
“We need to put ourselves in the position of a young man with these difficulties and judge him in that regard rather than (for example) as a gang member member that spends his life committing crime.
“That’s simply not the case here. Did he make an error in judgment and make the wrong choice and cause a lot of people to fear and panic, well, the state alleges that. Might there be some explanation for that that needs to come out? We think there is. This is not a defense, just an explanation of what happened.”
Matthew Harris said this is not the case the state should use to set an example for reacting to school violence.
“I see this as an example of a kid who his whole life was bullied because of mental health issues. Personally, I see it as another example where the state is using him and his oddities as a way of putting forth an agenda which probably isn’t the best case in my opinion to be doing that.”
School violence is an epidemic, but a putting teen with mental health issues into the adult court system and possibly into prison isn’t the answer, he said.
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