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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Signs and warnings failed to prevent Freeman school shooting

Freeman High School assistant football coach Tim Smetana shows his grief, Sept. 14, 2017, after he placed roses at a memorial to the shooting victims at the school. "This is home" said Smetana. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Thomas Clouse Chad Sokol and Eli Francovich The Spokesman-Review

He bragged to several friends when he figured out the combination to his father’s gun safe, and again when he learned how to make bombs out of household materials.

Caleb Sharpe acted out violent scenarios on his YouTube channel and spoke openly about his fascination with school shootings and notorious killers like Ted Bundy.

Court records indicate that Sharpe had recently been meeting with a school counselor for “suicidal ideations.”

And a couple of weeks ago, around the time classes started at Freeman High School, the 15-year-old sophomore gave notes to several friends indicating plans to do “something stupid” that might leave him dead or in jail. One of those notes was reportedly passed on to a school counselor.

Signs that Sharpe intended to hurt himself and others emerged months ago, if not earlier, several of his friends said in interviews.

And the suspicious behavior continued until Wednesday morning, when investigators say he opened fire in a school hallway, killing one classmate and injuring three others.

His parents, Benjamin and Ericka Sharpe, told investigators that he had written a suicide note and left it on a counter in their half-million-dollar home overlooking the Hangman Valley.

And a bus driver wondered why Sharpe carried a duffel bag on the ride to school. She knew he didn’t play sports.

After arriving at Freeman, Sam Strahan approached Sharpe after he pulled an AR-15 rifle out of that duffel bag and struggled to work the action. The semi-automatic rifle jammed as he tried to load it.

Even as it began to unfold, the shooting came as no surprise to the boy it would kill.

“I always knew you were going to shoot up the school,” Strahan told Sharpe, according to court records. “You know that is going to get you in trouble.”

The shooter then pulled a handgun and shot Strahan in the abdomen. When he doubled over, the shooter shot Strahan in the face, killing him. He then walked down the hallway firing shots and hitting three girls who scrambled to get out of the way.

A video shows Sharpe throwing down the gun before janitor Joe Bowen approaches and orders him to the floor.

Sharpe later told sheriff’s detectives that “he’d come to the school to teach everyone a lesson about what happens when you bully others.”

‘Not mind readers’

While some saw warning signs in Sharpe’s behavior, a gruff Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich stood in front of news cameras Thursday, just 26 hours after the school shooting, and said those concerns were never relayed to law enforcement.

“I would have loved to have known. Because maybe we could have done something. We are not mind readers, folks,” Knezovich said. “We have no knowledge of this one.”

Pressed on whether the sheriff’s office or school officials should have known if a note had been passed to a counselor, Knezovich redirected the question to Freeman School District administrators.

“I have nothing to say about the school part of this because I haven’t talked to the school,” he said. “Any question about what the school district did or didn’t know, you will have to ask them.”

During a news conference Thursday afternoon, Freeman School District Superintendent Randy Russell did not directly answer a question regarding what school officials knew before the shooting.

“Obviously, law enforcement officials will do everything they can to get that information,” Russell said. “We will collaborate and cooperate with them any way we can.”

Freeman school board member John Zingg said he was troubled after hearing numerous classmates describe Sharpe’s behavior before the shooting in news accounts.

If school officials ignored prior warnings, “I would be absolutely shocked,” Zingg said. “I mean, let’s put it this way: That’s just unacceptable. We’ll get to the bottom of it, one way or the other.”

Darkest hour

Knezovich said he expects prosecutors to try Sharpe, who turns 16 on Oct. 10, as an adult for first-degree murder.

Detective Mike Drapeau obtained a surveillance video from the high school showing a boy, identified as Sharpe, walking up the stairs into the second-floor hallway. The boy was carrying a long, black athletic bag, which later was found to contain the AR-15 and numerous boxes of .223-caliber ammunition.

In the video, the shooter pulled the rifle from the bag and “walked down the hallway pointing it at students.” He then pulled a pistol from under his coat and twice shot Strahan.

“Sharpe fired into a large crowd of students in the hallway as people began to run away,” Drapeau wrote.

The three wounded students, Jordyn Goldsmith, Emma Nees and Gracie Jensen, remained in satisfactory condition Thursday at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, which released a statement on behalf of their families.

“We wish to express our overwhelming gratitude for the outpouring of support and love you have shown our families in our time of need,” the statement reads.

“In this, our darkest hour, we feel blessed and lucky in so many ways. Our daughters are recovering from their wounds, and we know that your thoughts and prayers are with us,” the statement reads. “Our hearts are breaking for another family in our community who lost their son. We are keeping Strahan’s family in our thoughts and prayers.”

The Sharpe family also released a statement through its attorney, Bevan Maxey, asking the community to join them in praying for the victims.

“The Sharpe family wishes to offer their deepest condolences to the entire Freeman community, especially the families,” Maxey’s statement reads. “We, too, as a family are devastated by the events that transpired on Sept. 13 at Freeman High School.”

Note to counselor

Freeman sophomore Michael Harper, 15, said he knew Sharpe as “funny and weird” and only recently questioned his behavior.

“He messaged me over Facebook asking if I could get him gasoline, tinfoil and fuses,” Harper said. “I said, ‘No,’ and asked him why. He said, ‘For a science experiment.’ I said, ‘Why are you doing a science experiment?’ He said, ‘Never mind.’ ”

Around the time classes started two weeks ago, Harper said Sharpe wrote notes to his friends.

“I didn’t get mine, but my friends got theirs. I read one of my friend’s and it said he was going to do something stupid,” Harper said of Sharpe. The friend “took it to a school counselor.”

Jaron Cantrell, who graduated from Freeman High School this year, said he used to hang out with Sharpe during lunch and once worked with Sharpe’s older brother, Ben. Cantrell remembers when Sharpe told him about opening his dad’s gun safe.

“I told my parents,” Cantrell said. His mother “told me not to hang out with him anymore, so I didn’t. She told me to talk to someone, but I never got the chance.

“Now, thinking back on it, I wish I would have done that,” he said. “If that happened, maybe they could have talked to him about the things he was going through.”

Iverson Miller, 15, transferred this year to Central Valley High School from Freeman. But he said he knew Sharpe well. They played video games, including “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty.”

“Caleb seemed like a normal kid. He was always really quiet. He kept to himself unless you were one of his good friends.” Miller said. “He was a great kid, honestly. Never harmed anybody.”

However, Miller said Sharpe recently had become obsessed with past school shooters and other killers, including serial killer Ted Bundy.

Sharpe also told him that he had learned how to circumvent the home security system and sneak out at night through his bedroom window. Late last year, Miller recalled Sharpe told him he had accessed the gun safe “for safety reasons.”

“Because he moved to the city,” Miller said, “I thought he was worried about the neighborhood where he was at.”

Freeman expulsion

Iverson Miller’s mother, Leighton Mahoney, said she remembers an unrelated incident when her son was in the sixth grade at Freeman Middle School.

In that case, Miller overheard another boy threatening to kill a classmate. Miller told his teacher and principal.

“It was within a day or two that they expelled him,” said Mahoney, who remembers receiving a notice of the boy’s expulsion.

Mahoney said she’s proud of her son for reporting the threat. She hopes that other students would feel comfortable doing the same if they have reason to believe someone might get hurt.

But at a high school like Freeman, which has fewer than 400 students, Mahoney believes the social environment can discourage kids from speaking up.

“I think that students in a tight-knit community are less likely to turn each other in,” she said, “because they all know each other and they’re all friends.”

Knezovich put it more bluntly.

“The minute one of these kids goes in and says something … they get labeled what? A snitch,” he said. “We need to teach these kids, if you see something like this, we need to know. If you see something like this on Facebook, or you see something like this on social media, let us know.”

After Wednesday’s tragedy, the mother was left pondering what might have happened if she hadn’t transferred her son to Central Valley to shorten the family’s commute.

“My son easily could have been the one who said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he could have been the one who got shot,” Mahoney said.

Reporters Nina Culver and Jonathan Glover contributed to this report.