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Columbine II? Behind the Alleged Plot

Pair admitted a plan to attack Quartz Hill High. But a lawyer says the confession was coerced.

May 20, 2006|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

Two Quartz Hill teenagers planned a Columbine-style attack on their old high school in February in meticulous detail, sheriff's deputies allege.

Johnny Alvarez Casas, then 17, and his friend, then 15, stockpiled ammunition and bomb-making supplies in their homes, then practiced detonating improvised explosives in the Antelope Valley desert, deputies said. The younger suspect's name is being withheld because of his age.

The two were looking for an adult to buy them guns so they could shoot other students and ultimately kill themselves, but the plot unraveled, deputies said. A 16-year-old sophomore heard that the boys were planning to cut off her arms and legs during the attack and alerted an assistant principal, according to deputies. The boys were arrested Dec. 15.

"This was the first time I saw so much evidence and planning that led me to believe that something would actually happen," said Sgt. Darrell Brown of the Lancaster sheriff's station. "Combine everything together, and this was the real thing."

A judge recently ruled that Casas was unfit for rehabilitation in a juvenile setting and should be tried as an adult. Deputies said the boys confessed that they wanted to retaliate for ridicule they endured over their goth attire and lifestyle.

James A. Stevens, Casas' defense attorney, said authorities wrung a false confession out of the boys with a "good cop, bad cop" routine. The two, who are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, have pleaded not guilty.

Stevens called the case the result of a massive overreaction by jittery school officials to fears of a possible rerun of the 1999 attack in which two teenage boys killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., before turning their guns on themselves.

"Johnny is a good kid, plain and simple," Stevens said. "The only thing they haven't done to him is send him to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba."

Casas, now 18, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole. His alleged accomplice, now 16, could be held in juvenile custody until he turns 25.

Quartz Hill, an unincorporated community of about 10,000 residents 60 miles north of Los Angeles, is a town in transition from its agricultural roots. On one side of the 80-acre high school sit modern two-story stucco homes, and on the other, cows graze in a pasture.

Parents in the Antelope Valley Union High School District clamor for transfers to Quartz Hill High because of its strong academic and sports rankings.

Casas and the 16-year-old were part of a group of about two dozen Quartz Hill students branded as social misfits because of their black clothing, lipstick and nail polish, Brown said. Students said certain youths call the goths names, tell them they don't belong and throw their folders in the trash.

"These guys qualify as the outcasts, and they didn't want to be an invisible clique," Det. Steve Owen said.

On his profile on MySpace .com, the online networking site, Casas is pictured dressed as musician Marilyn Manson, the self-proclaimed "Antichrist Superstar." Under heroes, Casas lists serial killer Charles Manson and Columbine assailants Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

A videotape about the Columbine killings was found in Casas' home, deputies said.

The 16-year-old's profile lists massacres, shootings and bombings as his "interests" and serial killer as his "occupation."

The pair chose Valentine's Day for their alleged attack as a tribute to Marilyn Manson, who wrote a song with that name with such lyrics as, "Some of us are really born to die," deputies said.

Stevens said Casas was harmless, a mixed-up kid of below-average intelligence shaken by his parents' divorce. But Casas and his alleged accomplice were placed on probation for allegedly sodomizing a 14-year-old boy with a crowbar three years ago, Stevens acknowledged. Deputies confirmed the charge.

Stevens said Casas was clean-cut until he spent four months in a Lancaster juvenile probation camp as part of the case.

"By dressing the part and adopting a goth culture, it was enough to protect himself," Stevens said.

Since the Columbine attack, American schoolyards have seen a series of massacre scares. But the alleged plot by Casas and his accomplice took on an especially sinister cast when a third student was arrested in early February, two months after the other arrests. The student, a friend of Casas and his co-defendant, was arraigned on five counts of making criminal threats against his parents and students.

The rest of the case is sealed, but the student was sentenced to house arrest, said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.

The arrests have made for some unsettling days on the 3,400-student Quartz Hill campus.

Hundreds of students missed school Friday Jan. 13 as rumors circulated around campus that Casas and the other boy had been released and would carry out their alleged plot.

Nearly a third of the school's students stayed away on Valentine's Day.

"There was low attendance on those days, but since that time things have been nice on campus," said Principal Mark Bryant.

A new rumor is swirling of a "day of reckoning" in June, authorities said. The rumor is pegged to June 6, 2006, or "6-6-6," the "number of the beast" cited in Revelation 13:18.

Authorities said they aren't dismissing any rumors out of hand.

"We've remained diligent," Bryant said.

"If someone can plan to attack the school and come that close to getting away with it, it's not a stretch to say someone else can do the same thing, but actually pull it off," said 16-year-old student Lacey Sanders.

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