Juvenile Jack Staley was convicted as an adult for plotting a mass shooting at Hilliard Davidson High School. But how close were his plans to a reality? And does the punishment fit the crime?
On the surface, it was a Friday like any other.
In late September 2016, Travis Moore, then a senior at Hilliard Davidson High School, parked in the student lot around 7:30 a.m. and made the short hike to the building. Due to a mid-morning academic pride rally, the day's classes were shortened, so Moore breezed through his first two subjects before being dismissed from his third period Spanish class, joining the rest of his schoolmates in the gymnasium for the celebration.
Once in the gym, however, an anxious Moore took care to find a seat toward the front of the rows of bleachers, one that offered easy access to an exit. Though he felt exposed in the open environment, he took comfort in the more noticeable security presence, which included three or four uniformed officials along the edges of the basketball court, he recalled, rather than the single officer who usually kept a low profile at school events.
Earlier that week, on Sept. 22, Hilliard school officials released a vague announcement that a student or students had made a “perceived threat” against the school, setting off whispers within the student body about a potential mass shooting and stoking unease around the rally.
Amid the uncertainty, a number of students skipped school that Friday. Those who did attend, including Moore, remained on edge throughout the day.
“Everybody was talking about [the threat] and nobody wanted to go to that pep rally because we didn't know if something could still happen,” Moore said.
Over the next few weeks, Hilliard Davidson students learned more of the alleged plot, which was first hatched by John “Jack” Staley III, now 17, at the tail end of the 2015-16 schoolyear, leading to his October 2016 arrest on a juvenile count of conspiracy to commit murder.
According to assistant prosecutor Joseph Gibson, Staley had drawn maps of the school diagramming his attack plan; heavily researched weapons, including making a visit to a local gun range; and recruited multiple fellow students who feigned interest in assisting with the plot. Staley had not procured a firearm, but investigators learned Staley's internet searches had gradually shifted from guns to gun parts, and Gibson posited the high schooler could have been considering acquiring the parts needed to assemble a weapon.
Staley also conducted internet searches on significant historical dates, including the birthdates of Timothy McVeigh (who was convicted in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City) and 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden; “easy ways to make” the explosive thermite; and local gun ranges, including L.E.P.D. Firearms and Range on the Northwest Side and Vance Outdoors Shooting Range and Training Center in Obetz, which he researched as recently as Sept. 17, 2016 — five days before authorities uncovered the plot, according to a transcript of the court hearing to which Alive was given access.
Among his bookmarked websites were a page containing a list of ethnic slurs and numerous weapons-related sites. Multiple gas masks and a tactical vest were also uncovered during a search of Staley's home.
In addition, a diagram alleged to be of the school recovered by authorities (Staley produced three diagrams; only one was preserved) had the names of the two teenagers who carried out the April 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School written beneath the drawing, along with the phrase “last week of school assembly.”
“In this case, he didn't have to buy a gun,” Gibson said. “All the other things are substantial steps to further the conspiracy [to commit murder]: drawing the map of the school, approaching other kids.”
Ohio State University professor of communication and psychology Brad Bushman, who authored a 2013 youth violence report, said it's significant that Staley had a plan in place.
“If somebody is contemplating suicide, one of the first things a mental professional will want to know is, ‘Do you have a plan?'” said Bushman, whose report explores some of the factors that could contribute to mass shootings, including exposure to violent media, which can lessen empathy and increase aggressive behavior. “It's a big step between saying, ‘Oh, I think I'm going to do this,' and, ‘Here's what I'm going to do.' Having a plan is an important deal. It doesn't mean you're going to follow through, but it's an important step.”
On Feb. 8, 2018, Staley pleaded no contest to the conspiracy charge and was sentenced as an adult to four years at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Defense attorneys are currently appealing the conviction on the basis that Staley never should have been bound over, or moved, from the juvenile system to adult court (he was 16 at the time of his arrest). The ongoing case raises a series of difficult questions: How close were Staley's plans to becoming reality? Does the punishment fit the crime? And could four years in adult prison hinder Staley's development and chances for rehabilitation?
The Staley case is unfolding amid a national debate centered on gun violence in schools brought about by a Feb. 14 mass shooting that claimed 17 lives at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — less than a week after Staley was sentenced.
Luke Willford, who was also a senior at Hilliard Davidson the year Staley was arrested, said it's been sobering to look back on the Staley case in light of Parkland events. “I'm trying to imagine if it was us, and if things like that had happened at Davidson, and 17 people died, would it have been us trying to advocate for change?” he said.
In the weeks since Parkland, students nationwide have organized school walkouts, lobbied politicians to pass gun-control legislation and stoked a conversation that had long stagnated, with a familiar cycle repeating itself after each mass shooting. Politicians offer up “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families, there's a spike in social media shares of the Onion article headlined “‘No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” and the debate gradually fades with each passing news cycle.
“I think we got tired of seeing that and said, ‘Enough,'” said South High School junior Serina Dweh, joined by classmates Jordan Yeck and Katie Somphanthabasouk for an early April interview. In recent weeks, the three have helped organize local contributions to a pair of national protests: the National School Walkout on March 14 and March for Our Lives on March 24. The trio also created a school organization dubbed JKS Crew (Just Keeping it Safe, and also Jordan, Katie and Serina), which aims to engage classmates and faculty on issues surrounding gun violence, aiming to build a coalition with a loud enough voice to one day affect public policy.
“More voices can speak louder,” Dweh said. “If there's no action, we're going to keep on walking, and keep on protesting.”
The three also talked about growing up in a culture where school shootings are viewed as commonplace; Somphanthabasouk recalled participating in live-shooter drills as early as kindergarten.
Students and faculty are now taught that they serve as the best first defense in reporting unusual behavior to authorities. “If you see something, say something,” said a Columbus police officer during a late February safety meeting at Wedgewood Middle School, making the students who packed the cafeteria repeat the phrase several times during his brief presentation. “You saying something could save somebody's life.”
In Staley's case, he was first reported to Hilliard Davidson's school resource officer by a fellow student, who overheard Staley discussing his plans with another classmate on the bus.
“We are very proud of the students who came forward with this information. They embodied the ‘see something say something' culture we encourage,” Hilliard City Schools director of communications Stacie Raterman wrote in an emailed statement in response to an interview request (school officials declined to discuss the case further).
Following the Sept. 22 threat disclosure by the school, Staley remained under surveillance until Oct. 7, when he was arrested sometime around 6 p.m. near the Ohio State campus, according to Hilliard police, who worked in tandem with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. (Hilliard PD responded to select questions via email, since the ongoing nature of the case prevented more detailed on-record discussion).
After executing a search warrant, authorities learned Staley had used his cellphone, computer and school-issued iPad to research school shootings and various ways to obtain weapons. Gibson said searches of those devices also uncovered neo-Nazi imagery, while recovered chat logs on Kik Messenger, a digital app that allows users to send heavily encrypted messages, revealed Staley regularly employed racist and anti-Semitic language, including dozens of uses of the word “nigger.” He and friends also engaged in discussions about Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.
“They made what they kept saying were ‘jokes' about school shootings. They made horribly racist ‘jokes,'” Gibson said. “They'd send memes back and forth about killing black people, killing Jews. Memes about the Holocaust.”
“Now, one thing that's difficult about this case when it comes to the Nazi ideology part of it is that [Staley] never said, ‘I'm doing this because I believe these things,'” Gibson continued. “In the diagrams he drew of the attack he never wrote, ‘Let's kill all the black people.'”
For this reason, defense attorney Stephen Palmer questions why these revelations have become a repeated talking point for the prosecution.
“It was a part of this case, but not really a relevant part of this case,” Palmer said during a March interview in his Brewery District offices. “Whether it was thousands [of racist messages] or one, it really doesn't go to the elements of what he was accused of doing. So why is it getting thrown around the courtroom all the time? … If you ask any of the kids involved in the case, they all use the term ‘joking.' The term ‘joke' and how it was defined became very relevant in this case. Look, it's never great to joke about [school shootings], at all. But whether they were joking or not — and this is the position I had to take on the case — let's assume for a second it was all true. OK, now what do we do with it?”
In conversation, Palmer is careful to refer to Staley as “the boy,” or, “the kid” — a pointed reminder that Staley was only 16-years-old at the time of his arrest. Palmer has been practicing law for more than two decades, but he said there's something about this particular case that has gotten under his skin. In March, Palmer even recorded a 75-minute-plus podcast alongside Erin Davies, the executive director of the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Coalition, focused on the decision to charge Staley as an adult, which Palmer has termed excessive.
“We're taking kids who are developing their identities and giving them role models who are in the adult prison system,” Davies said in warning on the podcast, which is available online at ohiolegaldefense.com.
The bind-over hearing, which took place on Aug. 30, 2017, has become a focal point for the defense team, which believes that Staley would have been better served by the juvenile justice system than the adult courts.
According to Christopher Sullivan, associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, a consensus among academics has developed that juveniles should rarely be bound over to the adult system, except in the most extreme cases.
“Normally in life, those adolescent years are a transition period where individuals are completing education, developing vocational skills, perhaps polishing off some social skills that are still developing,” he said. “Having the adolescent in that [adult prison] environment … there are some concerns about long-term developmental implications.”
A 2012 report issued by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, supports this statement, positing that “adolescents in the adult system may be at risk for disruptions in their personal development, identity formation … and positive movement into adult status.”
Additionally, the defense expressed concern that the very issue that the prosecution raised — Staley's history of sharing racist messages — could be exacerbated in an adult prison system where these white nationalist and neo-Nazi interests could harden, progressing from a curiosity to a necessary means of survival.
“If you want to turn a kid who's impressionable into a racist, send him to prison … where racism exists in a way that it could shelter him from other dangers,” Palmer said.
Even Bushman, who termed Staley's school diagrams and peer outreach “significant” steps in terms of shifting a planned attack from the theoretical realm toward reality, expressed reservations about the punishment. “Learning theorists know that if you want someone to behave in a good way that you have to teach them new ways of behaving,” he said. “My personal philosophy is that we should be helping people to reintegrate as a more productive member of society, teaching them conflict resolution, teaching them empathy and compassion.”
One counter-argument, according to Sullivan, is a desire to ensure that the punishment fits the offense — a byproduct of the tough-on-crime policies pushed by politicians through the years. “Some of this desire to try youth as adults reflects an equity model, fitting the sanction to the behavior,” he said. “And there's a presumption that the adult sanction is going to be more severe than what you'd see in the juvenile system.”
Gibson said that while rehabilitation of the defendant is a factor in determining punishment, the prosecution also has to weigh public safety.
“In virtually every lone-wolf attack across the world, usually the person has a grander plan to do one thing or another and ends up jumping in a car and mowing down a crowd of people, or they plan to arm themselves with grenades and machine guns and they end up getting a knife and walking into a restaurant or a bar or a school,” Gibson said. “In this case, we already saw evidence of [Staley] switching from looking at automatic weapons on the internet to looking for parts to assemble a gun.”
“Listen, at some point … [Staley's] rehabilitation is going to be up to him,” Gibson continued. “This is a guy who had all this ideology he at least appeared to adhere to at the time, and he wanted to [carry out an attack]. At some point the factor of keeping us safe outweighs his personal growth.”
Palmer, for his part, believes this final point is shortsighted, arguing that by confronting any issues Staley might have now, and by focusing on rehabilitation, the public would be better protected in the long run.
“You can give [Staley] 10 years. He's getting out. You can give him one year. He's getting out,” Palmer said. “That then begs the question: What responsibility do we have to protect society? You have a 15-year-old, at the time, who's developing and can be helped, but you're going to send him off to prison to punish him. Well, he's getting out. And now what have you created?”
There are essentially two components to a bind-over hearing. In the first, which the defense chose not to argue, a judge weighs whether there is enough probable cause to believe a crime has been committed — a much lower bar to clear than proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial.
The second asks whether the adolescent is amenable to rehabilitation in the juvenile system. Here, a number of factors are weighed, including expert testimony. In Staley's case, the defense contracted Dr. Daniel Davis to conduct an evaluation of Staley, which was then presented to the judge, along with the findings of a court-appointed psychologist. Both resolved that Staley was amenable to rehabilitation in the juvenile system.
“It's very concerning that here he is with a number of advantages that most of the kids that we see in juvenile court don't have and he continues on to nearly do something like this,” Davis said in his testimony, according to the transcript. “On the other hand, your honor, he has certain … advantages which assist a person … when they get the proper intervention because they have something to build on.”
The defense also argued that Staley had already proven his amenability, since he followed the court-ordered program in the four months he lived with an electronic monitoring device under the custody of his mother after being released on bond in April 2017. (The Staley family declined comment via Palmer.)
“There is bunch of criteria that gets factored into the assessment, but this big picture is, can we help the kid in juvenile court?” Palmer said. “Punishment shouldn't matter. The cry of the media and the public shouldn't matter. The nature of the offense, while it might be a factor, is sort of secondary to … [the question], ‘Can we help him?' If the answer is yes, you keep him in juvenile court where we can take a youth and get him back.”
Regardless, Juvenile Court Judge Terri Jamison sided with the prosecution in favor of binding the case over to adult court, noting that case law allows judges to disagree with expert opinions, including those of the psychologists who found Staley amenable to juvenile rehabilitation, as well as probation and juvenile officials who testified on Staley's behalf.
“The victims in this case may not have suffered physical harm, but they indeed suffered psychological harm,” Jamison said, according to a report in the Columbus Dispatch.
The judge's reasoning mirrored Gibson's closing argument from the bind-over hearing, in which he strongly disagreed with testimony from probation officials who assessed that there were no victims in this case. “There were indeed thousands of victims in this case because the defendant plotted to shoot up Hilliard Davidson High School,” he said.
During sentencing, Staley, who turns 18 on Aug. 3, at which point he'll be moved from a transitional facility to adult prison, asked the court for mercy, saying, “I never meant for it to go this far.”