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Police on Campus Helped Stop Bomb Plot, Officials Say

Crime: Three teens remain in custody. Authorities detail tips from a student and threats found in a letter.

November 26, 2001|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — Community police officers assigned to New Bedford High School only in September were key in averting a potential Columbine-like school massacre in the colonial seaport town, police said Sunday.

"The system worked, thank God," said Sgt. Rita Ribeiro, who supervises the New Bedford Police Department's 10 school resource officers.

Troubled by rumors that Eric McKeehan, 17, and two 15-year-old fellow students planned to detonate explosives at the school and shoot students as they fled, an unidentified student last month confided in a teacher, Ribeiro said.

In turn, the teacher told Officer Stephen Taylor, who maintains an office at the school with fellow Officer Willie Coats.

An investigation already was in place when a high school janitor last week found a letter describing a plot with chilling similarities to the deadly April 20, 1999, rampage in Littleton, Colo.

Police then moved swiftly to arrest McKeehan and the two alleged accomplices, whose names were withheld because they are juveniles.

Ribeiro said Sunday that her department installed police officers in New Bedford schools for the first time this fall after the city's widespread success with community policing. The move followed recommendations by federal officials who studied the shootings at Columbine and other high schools.

Ribeiro said the school-based officers function "just like neighborhood policing." She said the officers help build a bridge of trust between high school students and police authority figures.

Taylor is a graduate of New Bedford High School, which made his presence all the more comfortable to students and faculty alike, Ribeiro said. "The relationship was there, and it continued," she said.

Criminology professor James Alan Fox of Boston's Northeastern University hailed the officers' role in apparently avoiding a tragedy in New Bedford. But Fox, who has written extensively about serial killings, said Sunday that the chain of disclosure in this case began with the student informant.

With school violence an undeniable reality in students' lives, "snitching is no longer seen as a disgrace," Fox said. "It is now the right thing to do. It can make you a hero."

Lt. Kenneth Gifford said Sunday that a search was continuing for guns and explosives at the 3,300-student high school in the coastal city about 50 miles south of Boston.

Police said the three youths boasted that they were members of the Trench Coat Mafia--the same name adopted by Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, who killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School before taking their own lives.

A search of the suspects' homes over the weekend turned up bomb-making instructions, knives and shotgun shells. Parts of a bomb were found near the school several weeks ago, police said.

McKeehan remained in custody Sunday, with bail set at $10,000. The two juveniles also remained in custody, on $5,000 bail.

The three will be arraigned today in New Bedford on several conspiracy charges.

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