The case against the parents of Oxford shooting suspect: Gun was Xmas present
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LANSING — The parents of a 15-year-old accused of killing four classmates at Oxford High School bought the gun for him days earlier and failed to keep it secure despite alarming behavior by their son, according to Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald.
McDonald on Friday charged James and Jennifer Crumbley with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, accusing the parents of “egregious” behavior of their own.
Their son, Ethan Crumbley, already faces terrorism, murder and assault charges that, if he is convicted, could put him in prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole. McDonald charged the teen as an adult given the severity of his crime.
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"Gun ownership is a right and with that right comes great responsibility," McDonald said in announcing charges against the suspected shooter's parents, who allegedly kept the gun in an unlocked drawer in their bedroom.
The couple was supposed to be arraigned on the charges at 4 p.m., but police confirmed they are missing. Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard told CNN that authorities had an agreement with the couple's lawyer that they would turn themselves in when they were charged.
"If they think they are going to get away, they are not," Bouchard said.
Authorities on Friday revealed chilling new details in the case, including a text message they claim Jennifer Crumbley sent her son a day before the shooting when a teacher had discovered him using his phone to look up ammunition on the internet.
"Lol. I'm not mad. You have to learn not to get caught," she texted Ethan Crumbley on Monday, according to Lt. Tim Willis.
A day later, she struck a more serious tone after she and her husband were called to the school for a morning meeting because their son was caught drawing a picture with blood and a bullet, McDonald said.
"Ethan, don't do it," Jennifer Crumbley allegedly wrote on Tuesday afternoon.
The message allegedly came too late. Authorities say Ethan Crumbley had already opened fire, killing fellow students Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; and Justin Shilling, 17, and wounding several others, including a teacher.
Authorities say James Crumbley purchased the 9mm Sig Sauer SP2022 pistol last Friday, four days before the school shooting. A gun store employee confirmed that Ethan was with him for the purchase, Willis testified in 52nd District Court.
Later that day, according to Willis, Ethan Crumbley posted photos of the gun on social media, along with the caption "Just got my new beauty today."
On Saturday, Jennifer Crumbley allegedly wrote on her own social media account that she and Ethan were testing out "his new xmas present."
On Tuesday, the morning of the shooting, a teacher found a note in Ethan's desk "that alarmed her to the point that she took a picture of it on her phone," Willis said.
One on the side of the note: a handgun pointing to the words, “The thoughts won't stop. Help me," according to Willis. On the other side: "blood everywhere" written above a drawing of a bullet. In between: a drawing of a person "who appears to have been shot twice and bleeding" above a "laughing emoji." And below that: “My life is useless.”
The disturbing picture was written on a school worksheet, prosecutors told MSNBC. After it was found by a teacher, the school summoned James and Jennifer Crumbley for an in-person meeting that occurred just hours before the shooting. By that point, Ethan had already altered the drawing, Willis said.
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School personnel told his parents to get him into counseling within 48 hours, but the parents "resisted the idea of "Ethan leaving the school at that time," Willis said.
Ethan Crumbley on Wednesday pleaded not guilty to accused crimes but prosecutors say there is a “mountain” of evidence against him, including a video he allegedly recorded the night before the attack, a journal entry describing plans to “shoot up” the school and surveillance footage from inside.
Superintendent Tim Throne on Thursday acknowledged that school personnel had met with Crumbley and his parents before the shooting. But, in a video statement, Throne said that “no discipline was warranted at the time.”
Authorities believe Ethan Crumbley had the gun with him, in his backpack, during the Tuesday morning meeting with his parents and school personnel.
"He should not have been allowed to go back to that class," McDonald said. "And I believe that is a universal position."
Asked if school officials were negligent, McDonald said the investigation is ongoing.
"I have tremendous compassion and empathy for parents who have children who are struggling and at risk for whatever reason," she told reporters. "And I am by no means saying that an active shooter situation should always result in a criminal prosecution against parents, but the facts of this case are so egregious."
Parental prosecution rare
Experts say it is rare but not unheard of for parents to face criminal charges when their children or other minors gain access to adult weapons to commit crimes.
In 2000, a Flint man pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter after a 6-year-old boy he lived with used a handgun to kill a classmate at school. In more recent years, some metro Detroit parents have faced child abuse charges after non-fatal shootings by their kids.
It's important to hold parents accountable in such cases, "because allowing a gun to be accessible... is endangering the health and safety of a minor," said Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center, a California-based public interest group that works to enact gun control.
"There's plenty of documented studies about the much higher incidence of suicide and shootings, whether unintentional or intentional, by minors who got guns from their homes or the homes of a family member of friend,” Anderman said.
A 1994 Michigan law established criminal liability for a parent who knowingly allows their child to commit a gun crime at school. It is a misdemeanor, punishable by probation, community services or a fine of up to $2,000.
Sen. Rosemary Bayer, a Beverly Hills Democrat who represents Oxford, this year proposed legislation that would establish criminal penalties for parents who fail to lock or secure a gun that is used by a child to injure or kill a person, including themselves.
The legislation, which would create a tax break for gun safety devices, is among more than 50 firearm bills that have already stalled this year in Lansing, where the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic governor are at odds over firearm regulations.
About 30 states already have some form of child access prevention laws, including five with statutes specifically requiring guns to be stored in a way that is inaccessible to minors, according to Anderman of the Giffords Law Center.
Studies show such laws can "reduce suicide, unintentional gun deaths and injuries among children and teens," she said. “Michigan’s laws are particularly weak in this regard.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, this week cautioned against an expected push for new firearm regulations, saying sound policy requires a careful “balance” of rights.
“If we get obsessed with eliminating all risks, we will then develop and evolve into a country we won’t recognize, because we'll also have no freedoms,” Shirkey said. “It's a very narrow road, and it's hard.”
Cleaning up a ‘war zone’
The Oxford shooting has sparked a “tidal wave” of copycat threats across the state, terrifying students and prompting numerous districts to close, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said Thursday.
On Friday, dozens of schools remain closed.
As of Thursday, none of the threats appeared to be real, Bouchard said. Some may have been jokes, while others turned out to be "circular" claims already debunked but continuing to spread online.
Nonetheless, authorities have a responsibility to take every threat seriously and doing so has taken up a "great deal of resources" in agencies still trying to investigate the shooting, he said.
"If you're making threats, we're going to find you," Bouchard warned. "It is ridiculous you're inflaming the fears and passion of parents, teachers and the community in the midst of a real tragedy."
In Flint on Friday, a 17-year-old student at Southwestern Classical Academy was charged with threatening to shoot up the school in what prosecutors described as a “rap-style” video message on her phone while on the bus to school.
An assistant principal at the school alerted police.
She is charged as a juvenile with one count of false threat of terrorism and one count of using a computer to commit a crime, both of which are 20-year felonies.
“I’m not going to try to figure out whether this incident … was intended to be a joke or whether it was a credible threat. The bottom line is that it’s a crime,” said Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton.
In Oakland County, McDonald said Thursday her office will also pursue charges against anyone making false threats. Violators could be charged with making a false threat of terrorism, a 20-year felony, or malicious use of a telecommunications device, a misdemeanor, she said.
Days after the deadly shooting that saw teachers barricade classroom doors and students hide behind desks, Oxford High School still looks like a “war zone,” Throne, the superintendent, said Thursday in his video statement.
He described backpacks, phones, coats and other items that remain “all over the place,” which he said staff will begin to collect to eventually return to students.
“I'm not sure how long, but it will be weeks, probably, before this building is ready” to re-open, Throne said, noting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has promised to try and help open up supply chains to “get us the resources we need to be able to put this building back in order.”
Students and staff had trained for a potential school shooting and “executed the game plan perfectly,” the superintendent said.
“We had administrators performing CPR,” he said. “Our students did exactly as they had trained. While we had hoped that never in a million years would we ever have to pull this game plan out, we did. And I couldn’t be more proud.”
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