ST. GEORGE – The Hurricane teen who brought a homemade explosive to school doesn’t understand the magnitude of the incident he created due to his having autism spectrum disorder, a psychologist testified Wednesday in 5th District Juvenile Court.
Dr. Tim Kockler, a St. George-based clinical and forensic psychologist, testified on behalf of the defense for the 16-year-old boy accused of causing the Pine View High bomb scare in early March.
Kockler testified following the prosecution’s resting its case against the teen, concluding a nine-witness marathon of testimony that started Monday and carried over to that morning.
The state has charged the boy with two first-degree felonies in relation to the March 5 bomb scare. One felony is for attempted murder and the other is for possessing a weapon of mass destruction.
The teen took a homemade bomb to school and left it in the cafeteria before lighting the fuse and walking away. The fuse fizzled out and created a noticeable amount of smoke instead, ultimately leading to the bomb scare.
The state has argued that if the bomb had detonated, it could have killed others in the cafeteria at the time, something which the teen has stated wouldn’t have bothered him and for which he showed an apparent lack of emotion.
“That’s what the state’s charges are based on – that he seemed not to have a concern whether or not people got hurt,” Deputy Washington County Attorney Angela Adams said Monday.
The apparent lack of emotion stems from a lack of understanding and introspection caused by the boy’s having a form of autism and cognitive impairment that makes it hard for him to understand and relate to others, Kockler said.
Kockler evaluated the boy through a serious of interviews and tests administered by his office and the Southwest Behavioral Health Center. The results were compiled in a report Kockler wrote and referenced numerous time during his testimony.
In the report, the boy is diagnosed as having high-functioning autism and being borderline intellectual functioning with a below average IQ. However, an actual diagnosis of his condition “fell through the cracks” until Kockler was able to evaluate him.
During his time interviewing the boy, reviewing the video of the police interview and psychological tests, Kockler came to the opinion that the boy “didn’t seem the grasp the severity of the situation.”
“There was a disconnect between what he was being charged with and his emotional activity,” he said.
While the boy wasn’t unaware of the charges, he just didn’t seem to care and showed an apparent emotional disconnect that Kockler said he found “most striking.”
“What was striking in my interactions with him is that, despite having been charged with some rather serious crimes, he didn’t seem to have a care in the world, and I find that very concerning,” Kockler said, adding that most people he has interviewed forensically have shown some sort of emotional response.
This kind of behavior can be normal for autistic individuals, Kockler said. They can come off as cold and unfeeling when that really is not the case.
Defense attorney Stephen Harris asked the psychologist if the teen’s possible autism influenced how he responded to questions from police about how he would feel if the homemade bomb he brought to the school had hurt or killed anyone.
“Autistic individuals have a hard time understanding their emotions and others’ emotions,” Kockler said. “They can’t anticipate the consequences of what they might say or what they might do. … Compared to their same-age peers, the emotionality center is underperforming. It’s lacking.”
As for how animated the boy became when he was talking to the police, Kockler said it was indicative of “someone who’s finally got some attention.”
Noting that the boy hadn’t been diagnosed with any delusional behaviors or related mental disorders, Adams asked if it was reasonable to assume the boy had a “grasp on reality” despite his emotional and intellectual impairments.
“In an autistic sort of way, yes,” Kockler said.
Adams also noted that in Kockler’s report, no sign of psychopathy were found in the boy. Kockler explained that psychopathy is a term used to describe a collection of negative characteristics that are often displayed by “hardened criminals – the worst of the worst.”
This category includes people who are very callous, narcissistic, aggressive, have multiple run-ins with authority and kill without remorse.
With the exception of crafting and using the so-called bomb, the boy had no history of violence, according the report.
“There’s nothing in there that marks (the teen) as a troubled child,” Kockler said. Quite the contrary, the psychologist said the boy appeared to have grown up in a busy yet loving home.
As a part of their original interview with the teen, police investigators asked the teen about his family life. As the video of the interview played in the courtroom, the teen said he came from a large, three-generation family that lived in the same home in Hurricane.
The investigators asked if the boy had considered how his parents may react to what he had done.
“They’re going to be upset and sorrowful,” the boy said.
The boy said he had talked to his parents about some of the bullying he experienced at school, and they tried to help where they could.
The boy was also put through counseling at one point, though it was short-lived.
The boy’s mother took the witness stand briefly Wednesday and told the court she has visited her son in juvenile detention every day, with the exception of two days when she had a baby.
As a part of Kockler’s overall psychological assessment, the parents and the teen were asked to complete an evaluation concerning how they viewed the teen’s emotional health.
The boy’s parents believed their son had emotional problems such as anger control, aggression, conduct problems, lack of emotional self-control and other issues. They also listed their son as being kind and compassionate.
The boy’s evaluation of himself “minimized his symptoms” and under-reported them, Kockler said. It was a trait that was consistent with the outcome of other tests conducted as a part of the overall assessment, he said.
The teen’s parents also said their son had a tendency to hyperfocus on something, another trait common to autistic individuals, Kockler said.
“When there is something he wants to accomplish, he can do that, and you see that quite nicely with autistic people,” he said.
That hyperfocus played a part in the bomb scare as well, Kockler said. However, that wasn’t the only issue at play.
“One of the most salient issues in this case is that (the teen) reported and suffered from a lifetime of bullying,” Kockler said.
Parents tried to help, but attempts to help their son seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The bullying at Hurricane led to the teen’s being transferred to Pine View High. He also attended Success Academy.
Autistic children are “easy prey” for bullies, Kockler said, with between 25-50 percent becoming targets due to their lacking the social skills or the ability to thwart attacks as others do. Autistic individuals who are bullied tend to either internalize the issue or externalize it, Kockler said.
“In my interview with him, (the teen) was quite adamant about being angry with all the kids that had bullied him,” Kockler said, adding that it was an issue the teen had become hyperfocused on.
The teen allegedly knew his homemade explosive device wouldn’t work but went ahead with his plan in order to “cause fear.”
“That seemed to be his mission,” Kockler said.
The teen became so obsessed on “instilling fear” in those who had bullied him, he was unable to turn away from it, Kockler said.
“It’s something that consumed him.”
Despite the course that the teen’s reported autism is said to have taken him, Kockler said he believes his condition can be treated.
Harris said they were pleased to be able to finally present their side of the story.
“Its unfortunate that this young man has been put in this situation that certainly has some mitigating factors that haven’t been heard out before,” he said. “We hope the court sees our side of the story and would rule in our favor.”
The hearing continues Monday as the defense argues for the admission of a letter into evidence reportedly written by the teen as a part of an assignment given while in juvenile detention.
The letter, titled “My Thoughts,” is a confession in written form they believe contains exculpatory statements, the defense stated.
The hearing will also determine whether the teen will remain in juvenile court or be charged as an adult with a move to the district court. The judge has yet to rule on whether the case will move forward or be dropped due to a lack of probable cause.
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