PONTIAC, Mich. (AP) — A teenager pleaded guilty Monday to terrorism and first-degree murder in a Michigan school shooting that killed four students and placed extraordinary emphasis on the boy’s home life and his parents’ alleged role in the tragedy.
Ethan Crumbley, 16, pleaded guilty to 24 counts, nearly a year after the attack at Oxford High School in southeast Michigan. In the gallery, some relatives of the victims wept as Assistant District Attorney Marc Keast described the crimes.
“Yes,” replied Crumbley, lowering his eyes and nodding in affirmation, when asked if he had “knowingly, willfully and deliberately” chosen to shoot other students.
The prosecutor’s office said no agreement was reached before Monday’s plea. A first-degree murder conviction usually carries an automatic life sentence in Michigan, but teens are right to a hearing where their lawyer can ask for a shorter sentence and the possibility of parole.
The teenager withdrew his intention to pursue an insanity defense and repeatedly acknowledged during questioning by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Kwame Rowe that he understood the potential penalties.
His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, are also jailed on separate charges. Prosecutors accuse the pair of making the gun available to Ethan and ignoring his need for mental health treatment. Crumbley’s lawyer, Paulette Michel Loftin, said it was possible he could be called to give evidence against them.
Ethan Crumbley, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, had no discipline issues at school, about 50 miles north of Detroit, but his behavior earlier in the day raised flags.
A teacher had discovered a drawing with a gun pointed at the words: “Thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” There was a picture of a bullet with the message, “Blood everywhere.”
James and Jennifer Crumbley refused to take their son home on November 30, but were told to get him on counseling within 48 hours, according to investigators.
Ethan Crumbley had brought a 9mm Sig Sauer handgun and 50 rounds to school in his backpack that day. He went into a bathroom, pulled out the gun and started shooting. Within minutes the deputies rushed in and he surrendered without resistance.
A day earlier, a teacher had seen Ethan Crumbley looking for ammunition on his phone. The school contacted Jennifer Crumbley, who told her son in a text: “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” the prosecutor’s office said.
The Elder Crumbleys are facing charges of manslaughter. Parents have rarely been charged in school shootings, although the weapons used usually come from the home of a parent or close relative.
Prosecutors earlier this year revealed that Ethan Crumbley had hallucinations about demons and was fascinated with guns and Nazi propaganda.
“Simply put, they created an environment in which their son’s violent tendencies flourished. They knew their son was troubled, and then they bought him a gun,” prosecutors said in a court filing.
His parents said they were unaware of their son’s plan to carry out a school shooting. They also dispute that the weapon was easy to seize at home.
Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana and Justin Shilling were killed, while six students and a teacher were injured. In addition to counts of first degree murder and terrorism causing death, Ethan Crumbley admitted guilt to seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a crime.
The judge has set February 9 as the start of hearings to determine whether he will be sentenced to life without parole or if he will get a shorter sentence because of his age and a chance of release. His lawyers will be able to argue various mitigating circumstances, including family life and mental health. Prosecutors did not tell the court whether they would plead for a non- parole sentence.
Loftin said the teenager was remorseful: “He takes responsibility for his actions,” she said. As for the victims, she said she couldn’t say anything to comfort them.
“Obviously, it’s an extremely emotional day. I don’t think there are words that could make them feel better,” she said.
Detroit attorney Ven Johnson, who is representing the families of several of the victims in a civil lawsuit against the Oxford School District and the Crumbley family, said Monday’s plea “is a small step forward on a long path to obtaining full justice for our clients”.
“We will continue to fight until the truth is revealed about what went wrong prior to this tragedy, and who, including Crumbley’s parents and several Oxford Community Schools staff, could and would have had to prevent it,” Johnson said.
Williams reported from West Bloomfield, Michigan.