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Punk-Kid Terrorists

My blog posts are inspired by my husband Attorney Ryan Ulrich’s work in criminal defense. Any casework I write about is from public record, but I have changed the names of his clients to protect their privacy.

Columbine and Sandy Hook are lodged smack-dab in the bull's-eye of our collective memory, but is anybody adding up the scattershot of threats that characterize 21st century parenting? From Voice Over IP “robocalls” to punk kids endeavoring “to sound freaky” on their obsolete flip phones, are we supposed to be keeping track, perhaps with little tally marks or a column of frightened face emojis?

Oakwood Elementary School was the target of nation-wide “swatting” on May 23, 2016 – my oldest daughter’s birthday – among dozens of schools in all directions: Minnesota, Massachusetts, Florida, and California, to rattle off a geographic sampler. Irie and I had just settled into a lunch at SAP Brunch, Brown Bag & Bakery to celebrate, an extended meal far away from the school “cafetorium,” her annual gift. The inundation of automated calls from Oshkosh Area School District, ironically triggered by a threatening robocall, alerted and then updated us every five minutes that Leo, Fern, and 471 other elementary students were being evacuated to the YMCA. Happy birthday, dear daughter; happy birthday to you.

Only five days ago today, Oshkosh West High School students were evacuated to the football field, then sent home early for a bomb threat. Reports on Facebook suggest there may, or may not, have been a fake device in a bathroom stall, but officially, “a search was completed and no bomb was found” by the Brown-Outagamie County Bomb Squad.

And in January 2017, between these two memorable events, which burn through the haze of all other threats, Ryan accepted the task of defending a punk kid named Jonathon Grable charged with two counts of being party to the crime of making terrorist threats against Oshkosh North and West High Schools.

Grable was one of three adolescent stooges and the owner of two defunct cell phones stowed away in a junk drawer. Emergency calling was the only service that remained. So, his buddy, Xavier, wanted an excuse to skip school? Easy as 9-1-1. They walked a couple of blocks from his house – to disguise their whereabouts presumably – and dialed.

It would be a real gag, the stuff of folk heroes, a hoax for the new year. In fact, when Ryan discussed the case, he would refer to his client as “Terrorist Bomber,” an ode to a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry humorously called in a bomb threat to Yankee Stadium in order to liberate George Costanza from his office.

“We're going to shoot up Oshkosh North and West tomorrow,” their no. 3 said to the 9-1-1 dispatcher. They called ahead like they were ordering pizza.

Immediately after their short phone call, Grable grabbed the phone and chucked it into a nearby lake. The phone was never traced to a specific location, authorities didn’t find the threat credible, school wasn’t cancelled, and Xavier felt shortchanged. Why hadn’t the Oshkosh Area School District dispensed with instructional hours? Where was the warning for kids to stay home?

So Grable dared Xavier to call in again, and Xavier accepted, two days later. He practiced his deep throaty voice, eager to be taken seriously in a world of men. The stooges used their smart phones to video-record Xavier’s efforts. He was auditioning for the role of Terrorist Bomber.

'You guys think we’re fucking stupid, but I've been watching,” he said in their second call to the 9-1-1 dispatcher. “Tomorrow is when North and West are going to get shot up.” Pleased with his performance, Xavier snapped the phone in half and shoved it into a snow bank, but apparently not deep enough, as Waupaca County police traced the phone back to Grable and ultimately arrested all three stooges.

Ryan attempted to mitigate the punishment Grable would face for his 21st-century hooliganism. However, the district attorney and judge agreed that a substantial amount of jail-time was necessary for sending a clear message to other community punks. Seinfeld may be a classic, but real terrorist bombers can’t be placated by fitted ball caps with a Yankee logo.

Ryan’s client was sentenced to six months in the Winnebago County Jail with an additional two years of probation.

Even when we try not to wax nostalgic about our ‘80s and ‘90s childhoods, doing so helps us come to grips. I wondered this morning, did angry, disgruntled, or deranged gunmen shoot up schools when I was a kid, or did my school secretary, teased hair plaited with Aqua Net, ever find herself on the receiving end of a menacing phone call?

Wikipedia, that gift of modern nutshells, provides “A List of School Shootings in America.” You can chart the violence as far back as 1764. In 1840, in Charlottesville, VA, a student shot his law professor, and from there, the list ticks forward in bloody chronological order like a long receipt unfurling from history's register. The year I was born, 1978, a grandmother shot a school custodian in retribution for having spanked her grandson. That’s a story I’d like to learn more about.

Setting aside the Internet and social media, cell phones, and every other advent in technology, one of the biggest differences today is that kids can’t afford to be punks. We urge our children to go outside and play more, as we did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but we also tell them, every antic will land them in real trouble.

Ruffians and terrorists are the same thing in 2017, having merged inside nearly every frame of reference. We’re afraid all the time – for our children, our schools, their safe return at the end of the day. We punish everything that frightens us.

When I grew up, in the same neighborhood where I live now, a group of boys were always playing pranks. They would appear in masks at my window, late at night, wielding flashlights and pocket knives – just to see the freaked-out expression on my face. I was scared in the moment, but exhilarated afterward, because back then – when we were all young (wax nostalgic, ad infinitum) – fear was something we still believed we might contain.

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