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Archive for Thursday, August 10, 2006

Pleas entered in foiled plot at Riverton High

Two admit guilt, three maintain their innocence

August 10, 2006

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— Two teens entered guilty pleas and three pleaded not guilty Wednesday to misdemeanor charges stemming from an alleged plot to attack their southeast Kansas high school.

James Tillman and Robert Hunt, both 17, pleaded guilty in Cherokee County Court to one count of conspiracy to riot. The judge sentenced both to probation for the school year and released them from house arrest. He also ordered they perform two hours per week of community service during their probation.

Also Wednesday, Charles "Coy" New, 18; Caleb Byrd, 16; and Andrew Jaeger, 15, pleaded not guilty to the same charge. The judge set a Nov. 27 trial date for New. No trial date was given for the juveniles. All three also were taken off house arrest.

The students were arrested April 20 - the seventh anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado - after a message about an alleged plot for shootings at Riverton High School appeared on the Web site Myspace.com.

Authorities said the discussion included the location of video cameras in the school and how to disable them, and the strength of the school's windows.

Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Norman has said the teens planned to disable the school's camera system before starting the attack. Sheriff's deputies found guns, ammunition, knives and coded messages in the bedroom of one suspect.

District Judge Robert Fleming told the youths that when he read the original charges, he found them frightening and disturbing. He said the amended complaint does not give him too much comfort, either.

"Perhaps it wasn't as serious as it appeared a few months ago when it first surfaced," the judge said.

Fleming told Tillman and Hunt that they needed to understand that many people in the courtroom and in southeast Kansas thought they had gotten a bad deal and had been unjustly accused. He said probably an equal number think they have gotten off too easy - and that without intervention, they would have done some terrible things.

"It is up to you to prove to the latter group that they are wrong," Fleming told the youths, adding they should use this as a positive experience in their lives.

After the hearing, Cherokee County Atty. Michael Goodrich declined to discuss the evidence or his decision to reduce the charges from felonies to misdemeanors, citing the pending juvenile cases.

"The sooner that this community can begin to heal, I believe it is the better," Goodrich said.

The students initially were charged with one felony count each of incitement to riot and making a criminal threat.

Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline then charged Tillman with felony solicitation to commit first-degree murder. But Kline's office withdrew that charge last week and turned the entire case over to Goodrich.

Defense attorney Edward Battitori, who represents Byrd, said Goodrich is in a "precarious position" given that the case was dumped on him. But he did not fault Kline's office for its handling of the case, given the way law enforcement first presented it to the public.

"Local law enforcement blew this thing up at the very beginning of the case and Mike is doing the best he can to sweep up the debris," Battitori said.

He called the government's evidence "underwhelming."

"Where the case started and where it is today speaks volumes," Battitori said.

He maintained his client is innocent, and wants a jury to decide his case.

"Regardless of the outcome of the case, these kids are impugned for life," he said, adding they would always be known as the kids who planned an attack on the school.

Tillman's attorney, Sam Marsh, said outside the courtroom that his client decided to plead guilty after weighing all his options. He said that up until last week, Tillman had been the only youth charged with solicitation to commit first-degree murder.

From the outset it appeared prosecutors were making Tillman out to be "the ringleader, the puppet master who was going to take the fall for this," Marsh said.

Marsh told The Associated Press that Tillman has assured him he was not going to bring guns to school that day, and had not even planned to be in school because of all the rumors about the alleged plot.

The boy and his family believe it is in his best interest to get the case behind him, Marsh said.

"His case is done and over with and he can start to repair his reputation in the community," Marsh said.

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