Parents knew Oxford High suspect was troubled, charged with manslaughter, officials say
Pontiac — Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald revealed Friday that the parents of the suspected Oxford High School shooter were aware their son had access to an unsecured weapon in their home, knew he'd been caught searching the internet for ammunition and that, the morning of the shooting, a teacher found a graphic picture the student had drawn of what he was about to do.
McDonald detailed these allegations as she filed involuntary manslaughter charges against Jennifer and James Crumbley — the parents of 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley — a rare move that the county prosecutor deemed warranted due to the "egregious" facts in the case.
Jennifer and James Crumbley were each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; and Justin Shilling, 17. Ethan also is charged in their homicides.
“I expect parents and everyone to have humanity and to step in and stop a potential tragedy,” McDonald said.
Jennifer and James Crumbley were still missing Friday night, but their lawyers said the couple were returning to the region to face the charges after leaving after the shooting for their own safety. An Oakland County fugitive task force was still trying to locate them Friday for arrest and was joined by the U.S. marshals.
Attorneys Shannon Smith and Mariell Lehman didn't provide any statement about McDonald's allegations at the Friday press conference. Smith didn't immediately answer a request for comment on the charges.
McDonald, meanwhile, on Friday laid out new allegations about the parents' actions in the days before the shooting, including their buying the weapon for Ethan as a Christmas gift and storing it in an unlocked drawer, despite troubling signs in Ethan flagged by school officials.
"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. When they fail to uphold that responsibility, there are serious and criminal consequences," McDonald said at a press conference.
"We need to do better in this country. We need to say enough is enough. For our kids, our teachers, our parent, for all of us in this community and communities across this nation.”
Both parents were called to Oxford High School hours before the Tuesday shooting and shown a classroom drawing by their son of a semiautomatic handgun pointing at the words "The thoughts won't stop, help me," and a bullet with the words, "Blood everywhere."
There was also depicted a person who appeared to have been shot twice and bleeding, McDonald said, and the words, "My life is useless" and "The world is dead."
But the Crumbleys — advised to get their son urgent counseling — resisted taking him home from school, and he was returned to the classroom to tragic consequences, McDonald said. The prosecutor noted that Ethan should never have been returned to the classroom.
“I’m not going to give you a political answer, and I’m not going to cover for anybody,” McDonald said. “But, of course, he should not have been allowed to go back to that class. I believe that is a universal position. I’m not going to chastise or attack.”
Asked if the school officials could potentially face charges in the case, McDonald said the investigation is ongoing.
The parents, she said, never asked Ethan if he had his gun with him at school or checked his backpack, where investigators believe the gun was stashed.
Hours later, when the news of an "active shooter" at the high school became public, Jennifer Crumbly texted her son: "Ethan, don't do it."
James Crumbley then rushed home to check on the gun and called 911 to report it missing from his house, and that he believed his son may be the Oxford shooter, McDonald said.
Mom: Don't get caught
Experts told The Detroit News this week it's rare for adult gun owners to be charged in relation to school shootings. McDonald defended the decision Friday, saying "there was absolute reason to believe this individual was dangerous and disturbed."
"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,'" McDonald said.
"This doesn't just have impact on me as a prosecutor and a lawyer. It impacts me as a mother. 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."
Ethan Crumley was arraigned Wednesday on 24 criminal charges, including terrorism causing death, first-degree murder, assault with intent to murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
A judge ordered the teen to be held without bond. If convicted, he is facing life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ethan Crumbley had accompanied father James when the father bought the Sig Sauer Model SP 2022 9 mm semi-automatic pistol at Acme Shooting Goods in Oxford on Nov. 26, McDonald said. "A store employee confirms that Ethan Crumbley was present with James at the time of the purchase," Lt. Tim Willis of Oakland County Sheriff’s Office told 52nd District Court Judge Julie Nicholson during a Friday noon warrant hearing where the judge approved the warrants.
His mother took him to practice with the weapon, McDonald said.
The day before the shooting, a teacher at Oxford High reported that Ethan was searching for ammunition on his phone, the prosecutor said. The school reached out to Jennifer Crumbley but never heard back, McDonald said.
Jennifer later texted Ethan about the episode: “LOL, I’m not gonna get mad at you, you have to learn to not get caught.”
Proving manslaughter charges
Each involuntary manslaughter charge against the Crumbleys carries the penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Involuntary manslaughter is predicated on the idea of gross negligence, which is a high degree of culpability where you are aware of the risks but indifferent to the results, said Eve Primus, a former public defender in Maryland.
To prove gross negligence, prosecutors will have to show the parents knew of a situation that required the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avoid injuring someone else; that the parents had the ability to avoid that injury by exercising ordinary care and diligence; and they failed to do so to avert the danger, Primus said.
Prosecutors also have to prove two elements of causation. The easier one is factual causation — but for the actions of the parents in failing to safeguard this gun, their son could not get the gun and commit the shootings, she said.
"That seems pretty clear here," said Primus, a professor who teaches criminal law at the University of Michigan Law School.
Primus said the second and harder component to prove is proximate causation, which asks whether it was reasonably foreseeable to the parents that, if they did not store this gun, their son would take it and do something like this and cause these results.
Basically, prosecutors will have to prove the Crumbleys recklessly ignored warning signs in their son, said Fred Lauck, a former Wayne County assistant prosecutor and longtime defense attorney.
“Prosecutors have to prove the danger was foreseeable, and they didn’t care. That’s recklessness," Lauck said.
"Given the facts the prosecutor laid out, which was a kid crying out for help ... and the fact that they were concerned at the school with this mental health, I think the state has a case," Lauck added.
But Lauck said the Crumbleys do have a defense.
“As a defense attorney, I’d defend the case by stating that the parents have a right to own a pistol and, apparently, so does the 15-year-old in Michigan," Lauck said. "There’s no law against it.”
Michigan does not have laws requiring gun owners to secure their weapons when children are present in a home. However, there are previous cases in Michigan in which adults were charged in similar circumstances involving minors getting a hold of unsecured weapons and causing harm.
In a case dating to 2000, Jamelle James was sentenced to two to 15 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter after a 6-year-old boy took a handgun that James had stored in a shoebox at the boy's home and took it to his school near Flint, fatally shooting 6-year-old Kayla Rolland of Mount Morris Township.
Primus pointed to a Michigan Court of Appeals case, People v. Head, out of Wayne County, where a parent was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of his 9-year-old son by his 10-year-old daughter in 2015.
The charge was based on the father storing a loaded, short-barreled shotgun in an accessible location in his home where he let his kids play unsupervised, according to the court.
Part of the argument in that case was there was insufficient evidence the father could foresee such a problem, but the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and said there was enough evidence, Primus said.
"A lot of the language in the court case was like along the lines of, look, if you leave a loaded weapon in a room where two young children are playing, it's really foreseeable that an accidental discharge could happen," she said.
The Oxford shooting doesn't involve an accidental discharge, and Ethan Crumbly is a teenager.
Primus noted another legal issue that could arise is a superseding event that comes in and "breaks" the causal chain to find the parents might not be responsible.
Much of the case could come down to what other information the Crumbleys had at the time, what was told to them and how reasonable was it for them to think that their kid was going to do this, Primus said. Was the drawer left completely unlocked? Did the gun have bullets in it?
"It's quite rare to charge the parents of an individual who engages in these kinds of shootings if you look nationally," she said. "And you can see why, given all those elements, that it's challenging. It's a harder case to make."
Staff Writer Oralandar Brand Williams contributed.