Five teens who allegedly took part in alarming discussions on Facebook about shooting up Hutchinson High School on the final day of school will remain in custody.
Reno County Chief Judge Patricia Macke Dick ruled Friday that the nature of the allegations and potential for danger were enough to deny one of the teens, a 16-year-old, release from the juvenile detention center where he and four friends have been housed since their arrests Wednesday on felony charges of solicitation to commit first-degree murder and criminal threat.
The others accused of partaking in the discussions also will remain in custody after waiving their rights to have their defense attorneys argue for their freedom Friday.
The boys, all ages 16 to 17, have said it was nothing but a joke.
Each of the teens was charged Thursday with encouraging one another “to commit, attempt to commit, or aid and abet in the commission of” first-degree murder between Jan. 1 and April 29 and of intending to cause fear or with reckless “disregard of the risk of causing such fear.” They were arrested after someone saw some of the threats on Facebook and notified the school district. School officials, in turn, called police, Reno County District Attorney Keith Schroeder said.
The teens’ intended target, prosecutors and court documents say, was the high school’s student body and staff members. Court documents indicate the threats were not made against any specific person.
The Eagle is not naming the boys because they are juveniles and are not facing charges as adults at this time.
Two of the teens are current Hutchinson High School students and two are former students who had been expelled – one in October and one in January – officials told The Eagle on Thursday. The fifth attended another Reno County high school, which officials refused to name. Court documents list a Yoder address for one of the boys and Hutchinson addresses for the others.
Two of the teens have other criminal cases, according to Reno County District Court records. One pleaded no contest in March in a criminal threat case and was placed on probation for misdemeanor assault. The other has a burglary and theft case pending.
Defense attorney Ben Fisher said during the 16-year-old’s hearing that the state provided “very, very limited and little information” in its justification to charge and hold his client. The teen has no prior criminal history, is not a flight risk, because both of his parents live in Kansas, and poses no danger to the community, he said, arguing for his release.
Stanley Juhnke, defense attorney for another boy, denied the accusations against his client Friday in a court filing.
None of the boys’ defense attorneys could be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Four of the boys are due back in court May 19 for a pretrial conference, a meeting typically used by attorneys to update a judge on progress in a case. The fifth boy is scheduled for his pretrial conference on May 26.
A few details of the boys’ conversation and alleged plans emerged during the 16-year-old’s detention hearing Friday morning.
Reno County Assistant District Attorney Cheryl Allen said in court Friday during the first boy’s detention hearing that the teens belonged to a group called “Kill Yourself or Die” and that they referred to themselves as “a bunch of Klebolds” at least once on social media, a reference to one of two teens who carried out a deadly school shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado.
At some point, talks started about carrying out a similar-style shooting at Hutchinson High School on the last day of the school year, she said. The discussions included the cafeteria’s capacity and how to secure classrooms, she said.
Allen pointed out that in a police interview, the teen admitted to “making comments about participating in a school shooting or mass murder at Hutchinson High School” during a group conversation with the others.
She said the teen had access to firearms; a police search of his mother’s home where electronics were seized also turned up two pistols and three antique rifles locked in a gun safe and a shotgun that was not locked up.
“I don’t know that we can, at this point in the investigation when there are so many things to learn, so many more things that they (authorities) are going to be looking at ... to take a chance that it is a joke,” Allen said. Right now, his release “is just too early and too premature,” she said.
“We still have the last day of school to go, and I don’t want to take that risk.”
Fisher, the teen’s defense attorney, said the reasons for his client’s alleged participation in the conversations were unclear. He said he was aware of two messages from the teen but called them “random” and “a lot of gibberish.”
“His participation we don’t know at this point in time,” Fisher said. “Was it ‘yes, I will go along with you’ or ‘hey, guys, maybe you shouldn’t talk about this’? Or ‘hey, guys this is a bad idea.’ Maybe he was responding to someone trying to coerce him into something by cyberbullying.”
Later he said the state’s evidence at this point has “nothing that shows my client was involved except one innocuous statement.”
Macke Dick, after reviewing a police affidavit used to justify the teen’s arrest and charges, seemed hesitant to order his continued incarceration, saying the document didn’t indicate the threats were communicated directly to the student body.
“On the other hand,” she said, “it’s serious business when people start saying things like ‘I’m a Klebold, let’s hold up Columbine’ as some sort of example within this group.
“I think that there are consequences for every decision that we make,” Macke Dick said. “And in this case, I’m going to find that it is not a high threshold for me to find probable cause” to deny the teen’s continued incarceration.
The extent to which the other teens were involved in the conversations – and who initiated the shooting talk – remains unknown, in part because they waived their detention hearings. Schroeder on Thursday would not offer specifics about the case but did say it “progressed beyond just a concern or a suspicion.” The police affidavit used to justify the teens’ arrests and charges remained under seal Friday.
Parents of two of the teens were unwilling to talk when approached by The Eagle on Friday morning. But a few dozen high-school-aged boys and girls gathered inside and outside the courtroom to show their support for their jailed peers.
Many wore T-shirts with “Free KYOD” scrawled on the front in black ink.
The message references the group to which the teens charged with discussing the school shooting belonged. Its Facebook page – mostly a collection of posts about skateboarding, drug use and sex – features at least two posts that reference the Columbine High School shooting.
One is a school security image of the gunman. The other says, “We are a bunch of klebolds.”
The most recent message on the page references the Hutchinson teens’ arrests. It was posted at 4:19 p.m. Tuesday.
“We probably going to jail guys,” the post reads. “Lol we had a good run but we joke to hard.”
Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle