Updated Dec. 4
The parents of the 15-year-old accused of carrying out a deadly shooting at a Michigan high school pleaded not guilty Saturday to involuntary manslaughter, a rare charge the county prosecutor said was warranted because “the facts in this case are so egregious.”
The parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, were the subject of an intense manhunt into the early hours Saturday after being charged Friday with four counts of involuntary manslaughter each in the deaths of Oxford High School students Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; and Justin Shilling, 17. The couple were reported being “unresponsive” by their attorney after the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office moved to arrest them and a statewide “Be on the Lookout” alert was issued for them shortly after 1 p.m. A lawyer for the parents later said the suspects had not fled but rather left town after the shooting due to safety concerns and planned to turn themselves in.
They never did and Detroit police arrested them hiding in a warehouse early Saturday after someone spotted their car and called 911. They pleaded not guilty in a video arraignment Saturday morning and were each held on $500,000 bond in the Oakland County jail.
Just four days before the Oxford High School shooting that killed four and injured seven others, James Crumbley legally bought a 9-millimeter Sig Sauer handgun and gave it to his son as a Christmas gift, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said during a Friday media conference. The boy is accused of carrying out the shooting at his school with the weapon, which officials say had been stored in an unlocked drawer in his parents’ bedroom. Gun ownership is a right, she said, that comes with “a great responsibility.”
“I want to be really clear that these charges are intended to hold the individuals who contributed to this tragedy accountable and also send the message that gun owners have a responsibility,” McDonald said. “When they fail to uphold that responsibility, there are serious and criminal consequences.”
Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, is a close observer of violent campus attacks and has testified as an expert witness following high-profile mass school shootings across the country. He said parents have previously been charged for failing to store their firearms locked and out of reach of their children. But the involuntary manslaughter charges were “perhaps unprecedented,” he said.
“This tells me the prosecutor has some very solid evidence that it was more than negligence,” Trump told The 74.
The parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, were the subject of a manhunt Friday afternoon after being charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter each in the deaths of Oxford High School students Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; and Justin Shilling, 17. The couple were reported being “unresponsive” by their attorney after the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office moved to arrest them and a statewide “Be on the Lookout” alert was issued for them shortly after 1 p.m. A lawyer for the parents later said the suspects had not fled but rather left town after the shooting due to safety concerns and planned to turn themselves in.
The day before the shooting, a teacher observed the suspect using his cell phone during class to search for ammunition and his parents were notified of his behavior, McDonald said, but school officials never received a response. In a text message to her son, the suspect’s mother allegedly said, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”
On the morning of the shooting, a teacher saw the suspect draw a picture of a gun with people bleeding. “My life is useless,” he allegedly wrote on the paper, which also stated that “The world is dead.” The drawing also said “the thoughts won’t stop, help me,” and “blood everywhere.” The suspect and his parents were summoned to the office and the teen was required to undergo counseling within 48 hours. The suspect didn’t face any discipline and was allowed to return to class. Officials believe the Oxford High sophomore was carrying the semi-automatic pistol in his backpack during the meeting with his parents and school officials.
Some three hours later, police say he walked out of a school bathroom and began shooting at students indiscriminately in a hallway. He fired some 30 rounds and had 18 more still in his possession when he surrendered to law enforcement within minutes of their arrival at the suburban Detroit high school. He was arraigned on Wednesday and charged as an adult with terrorism and four counts of first-degree murder, in addition to assault with intent to murder and firearms charges. The teen, who police say was advised by his parents after his arrest not to speak to investigators, pleaded not guilty.
After hearing news of the shooting, Jennifer Crumbley allegedly texted her son “don’t do it,” and James Crumbley drove home to look for the gun. In a call to police, the suspect’s father reported the gun missing and said he believed his son was the perpetrator. James Crumbley has worked as a tech salesman and Jennifer Crumbley as a real estate broker in the Oxford area.
More than 100 Michigan schools cancelled classes Friday following a wave of “copycat” shooting threats. Threats of school shootings have also been reported outside of Michigan. In Florida, a teenager was arrested and accused of threatening an armed attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed in a 2018 shooting.
In a 2019 report on targeted school violence, the Secret Service found that three-quarters of school shooters got their guns from the home of a parent or another close relative and was either “readily accessible” or was “not secured in a meaningful way” in nearly half of incidents. Just 11 states have laws concerning the safe storage of firearms, according to research by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Michigan law does not require firearm owners to keep their weapons locked at home.
It does prohibit minors from owning handguns and states that gun owners have a “duty to ensure you don’t give access to a deadly weapon to someone you have a reason to believe is going to harm someone,” McDonald said. Given the contents of the student’s drawing, she said, it’s “impossible not to conclude” he planned to hurt people.
“I have tremendous compassion and empathy for parents who have children who are struggling and at risk for whatever reason,” she said. “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.”
“The notion that a parent could read those words and also know that their son had access to a deadly weapon that they gave him is unconscionable and I think it’s criminal,” she continued. “It is criminal.”
School district officials have been sharply criticized for their actions leading up to the event and McDonald fielded questions from reporters Friday about whether educators could also face criminal charges. She didn’t rule out the possibility.
In a video message on Thursday, Oxford schools Superintendent Tim Throne said the suspected shooter didn’t have a disciplinary record. He was called to the principal’s office prior to the shooting, Throne acknowledged, but ultimately “no discipline was warranted.” In a rebuttal, McDonald suggested that school officials missed a clear opportunity to prevent the shooting from ever occurring. The perpetrator should have never been allowed to go back to class, she said, and acknowledged an investigation is ongoing about whether school officials were criminally negligent.
Trump, the school safety consultant, commended McDonald for being transparent about her office’s investigation of school leaders.
“They have not made any political commentary to protect the district,” he said. “A lot of times, you’ll see a circling of the wagons of government organizations. You don’t see that here and you can tell the prosecutors and sheriff’s office are moving methodically forward to build their cases.”
Though school shootings are statistically rare and campuses have actually grown safer in recent years, the Oxford shooting has also brought the Second Amendment and gun control laws back to the forefront of the national conversation, a fierce and cyclical debate that often follows mass school shootings. In 2016, Jennifer Crumbley wrote an open letter to then-President Donald Trump thanking him for ensuring “my right to bear arms.”
Unwilling to steer clear of politics, McDonald said her state’s firearm rules are “woefully inadequate.”
“We need to do better in this country,” McDonald said. “We need to say enough is enough. For our kids, our teachers, parents, for all of us in this community and the communities across this nation.”