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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Defense expert: Therapist failed to convey Caleb Sharpe threats to shoot up Freeman High School

Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Kelly Fitzgerald questions 
Dr. Richard Adler, a forensic and clinical psychiatrist, shown at right, on Wednesday. The hearing before Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price will determine whether 17-year-old Caleb Sharpe, sitting far left, with his attorney Bevan Maxey, will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult  on a first-degree murder charge. Sharpe is charged with killing 15-year-old Sam Strahan on Sept. 13, 2017, and injuring three girls in a shooting at Freeman High School. (Staff illustration / Molly Quinn)

On Sept. 5, 2017, Freeman High School sophomore Caleb Sharpe gave two girls envelopes and instructions for them not to read the notes they contained until the next day, which is when he planned to shoot up his school, according to court testimony.

But the girls disobeyed.

In those notes, Sharpe warned that he would soon either be dead or in jail. The girls handed them over to school officials who then pulled Sharpe out of school.

That’s when an opportunity presented itself – and was completely missed – that could have stopped the Sept. 13, 2017, shooting that killed 15-year-old Sam Strahan and injured three girls, a defense witness said Wednesday in Spokane County Superior Court.

Dr. Richard Adler, a forensic and clinical psychiatrist from Seattle who was hired by defense attorneys, testified that after school officials pulled Sharpe from school, his parents took him to see a mental health professional.

During that session, Caleb “revealed that he had ‘school destruction’ on his mind,” Adler said. “He had been watching documentaries on Columbine and other mass shootings. He was thinking about harming other people and bombs and whether a normal person could make napalm.”

Sharpe also told the counselor “that he knew the combination to the gun safe at home,” Adler said. “There was no intervention. Although the visit occurred before the subject event … the notes weren’t written until after.”

That means that the concerns Sharpe conveyed during his session with the mental health counselor were never relayed to law enforcement, despite the counselor’s professional duty to do so “if they have reason to believe the person they are meeting with is a danger to themselves or others,” Adler said.

The counselor listened to Sharpe for several minutes but he “spent most of the session with Caleb’s parents,” Adler said. “He suggested they change the combination (on the gun safe) and search his room for anything that shed light on what he might be thinking.”

Instead of contacting authorities, the therapist “scheduled a follow-up appointment. He did not make sure the combinations were changed,” Adler said. “That was well below the standard of care.”

What’s more, Sharpe’s expressed thoughts about school destruction and harming other people were never conveyed to school officials, Adler said. Investigative notes indicate that Sharpe’s father, Benjamin Sharpe, had a meeting with acting principal Harry Amend.

“They didn’t expel him. He just took the days off,” Adler said. “The school didn’t know who was examining him. (Caleb Sharpe) was allowed back to school on the word of his father. He was allowed back into school after authoring two notes that were deemed suicidal in nature.”

The revelations came Wednesday on the second full day of testimony in a hearing in which Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price will determine whether Sharpe, who is now 17, will be tried as an adult or a juvenile. If he remains in juvenile court and is convicted, Sharpe would be released at age 21 without any required supervision.

If Price moves the case to adult court, Sharpe would face potential life in prison on the charges of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder for the three girls who were wounded and 51 counts of second-degree assault for all the students who were in danger of the bullets fired that day.

Sharpe previously has provided a detailed confession to investigators. The shooting itself was captured on video, which so far has not been part of the evidence provided by Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell and Deputy Prosecutor Kelly Fitzgerald.

Abnormal brain activity

Defense attorney Bevan Maxey spent most of the day having Adler explain his exhaustive review of Sharpe’s medical records and psychiatric testing, which Adler said revealed that Sharpe at some point suffered either a low-oxygen or reduced-blood-flow event that resulted in damage to Sharpe’s brain.

Adler said a series of tests, and corresponding school records that document how a younger Sharpe struggled to keep up with other students, show Sharpe’s brain was not developing normally.

Areas of Sharpe’s frontal lobe, which processes thinking, planning and executive function, had both inactivity and hyperactivity worse than 98 percent of all others for his age.

“What you see here is a low level of coordination between areas of the brain,” Adler said, referring to his exhibits. “They are absolutely very, very abnormal.”

Adler then ordered an MRI that found a similar pattern of problems.

“Typically, low values are due to lack of development or an insult to the brain such that there was cell death,” he said. “This is certainly not a normally constituted person for his age.”

However, after Sharpe was arrested, he received some low-level therapy and medications that have vastly improved his testing scores, Adler said.

“Given the nature of his underlying condition, given the progress he has already made under the most rudimentary of therapy,” Adler said. “I have no reason to believe he would need to be in juvenile hall or any correctional setting beyond the age of 21.”

Upon a grilling cross examination by Fitzgerald, Adler often asked for pauses or told the prosecutor that she was bending his words.

“What medical evidence did you rely on to conclude (there was evidence) … of a hypoxic event?” Fitzgerald asked.

Adler replied, “There is nothing in the medical record of a hypoxic event occurring.”

Fitzgerald noted Adler pointed to Sharpe’s possible heart problems at birth. But she also noted he did not contact any of the attending doctors listed in the medical records.

“You never took the time to pick up a phone to check to whether they agree with you?” she asked.

She then attacked Adler for consulting with a different physician, Dr. Bradley Marino, to support Adler’s earlier diagnosis of a brain injury.

“The second that you knew that you were going to be called into question … you went and found someone to back you up,” she said.

“You have embedded all kinds of untrue statements in that,” Adler said. “I was trying to get a consultation that was objective. Period.”

Fitzgerald then challenged an email she found from Adler to his colleagues seeking a consultation of Sharpe’s brain scans he described as “clearly … not abnormal,” despite his findings to the contrary.

“It’s clearly a mistype,” Adler said. “I made a mistake, guilty as charged.”

“But you wrote it,” Fitzgerald continued. “It’s not a mistake you brought up to anyone’s attention until I noted it.”