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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Psychologist: Depression and unnoticed red flags led to Freeman school shooting

Caleb Sharpe, masked in background, sits at the defense table during a sentencing hearing at Spokane County Superior Court Thursday while his lawyer, Brooke Foley, right, describes his life in the days and months before he shot classmates at Freeman High School.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Psychologists say depression, immaturity, and numerous missed red flags led to Caleb Sharpe opening fire at Freeman High School nearly five years ago, killing one classmate and injured several others.

Sharpe was 15 on Sept. 13, 2017, when he brought multiple weapons to school and opened fire on his classmates.

Sharpe pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, three counts of attempted murder and one count of assault earlier this year. Now 20 years old, Sharpe will be sentenced following court hearings unfolding in Spokane County Superior Court.

His public defender, Brooke Foley, has argued that Sharpe can be rehabilitated and deserves the chance to live a meaningful life after prison. Due to his age and immaturity, Foley argued Sharpe should be considered a youthful offender, giving Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price the discretion to sentence him to 20 years in prison, which is below the standard range.

Prosecutors agree that Sharpe is a youthful offender and should receive a sentence below the standard range. However, prosecutor Sharon Hedlund is recommending a 35-year sentence with the requirement that a sentencing review board look at whether Sharpe is likely to reoffend and has been rehabilitated before he can be released.

Dr. Richard Adler testified on Thursday that Sharpe’s brain was immature for his age but has since improved, showing potential to be rehabilitated.

On Monday, psychologist Craig Beaver testified that Sharpe was isolated and depressed for months before the shooting.

Beaver, a defense witness who has interviewed Sharpe numerous times in the years since the shooting, agreed with Adler that Sharpe was abnormally immature for his age.

Sharpe had always had trouble in school, which Beaver attributes to a gap between his level of linguistic comprehension and other skills, along with untreated ADHD. Sharpe was diagnosed with ADHD before the shooting but it was only treated naturopathically.

Sharpe was very imaginative and obsessive, leading him to continue to engage in role-play beyond what was normal for a 15-year-old, Beaver said. He would take on personas of characters that interested him, Beaver said.

It was “a consuming” thing for him and “an important part of his world,” Beaver said.

Sharpe had many stressors and not very many positive aspects to his life shortly before the shooting, Beaver said.

He had bad grades and struggled at school, the family dog had recently died, his family made several moves, his older step-siblings had moved out of the family home, his mom had gone back to work, and his dad continued to work long hours, Beaver said.

That led to Sharpe being isolated and “housebound” much of the time.

The defense contended that Sharpe’s father, Ben Sharpe, was critical of the boy, which among other things made Caleb feel like he was outside of his body and watching his life, Beaver said. Such episodes were an inappropriate coping mechanism, Beaver said.

Sharpe’s older sister, Jaymi Sharpe, told Beaver their dad was “emotionally abusive” and “belligerent,” especially to her brother.

As Caleb Sharpe became more isolated he also became more depressed, obsessively watching videos on school shootings and psychopaths, Beaver said.

Before the shooting he wrote notes to two girls, who reported them as suicidal. He was pulled from school to see a counselor. Beaver said he believes the notes and comments made to friends were cries for help as Sharpe’s thoughts grew darker.

Sharpe told the counselor he wasn’t homicidal or suicidal but said he had the code to the family’s gun safe and was watching videos on the Columbine shooting, Beaver said.

Those statements should have been a red flag to both the counselor and Sharpe’s parents, Beaver said.

But Sharpe’s parents didn’t search their son’s room nor secure their guns. And Sharpe was let back into school, Beaver said, without completing a full re-entry plan.

“I think that he was lost in his head and that he was depersonalizing,” Beaver said.

Beaver said Sharpe’s depression along with systemic failures in recognizing the many red flags led to the shooting.

Hedlund asked Beaver if Sharpe could revert to depersonalizing once out of prison when faced with stressful situations. Beaver said he hopes not because Sharpe will have been through therapy and his brain will have fully matured.

Sharpe has the tendency to be obsessive, Beaver said. While in jail awaiting the outcome of his murder case, Sharpe has become obsessed with learning Russian, religion, and writing books.

Beaver said he’s not currently concerned with Sharpe obsessive tendencies but that can change depending on the interest.

There’s “some benefit” to the public being assured Sharpe has received mental health treatment, Beaver said, adding that Sharpe needs a transition plan once released from prison.

Beaver said he has seen improvement in Sharpe’s mental health and maturity and thinks he has the potential to continue improving. Right now, Sharpe doesn’t have major mental health issues and is at a low risk to reoffend, Beaver said.

Members of Sharpe’s family, including his parents, are expected to read written statements Tuesday as the sentencing hearing continues. The prosecution will then make their case with a psychologist, detective and the family of Sam Strahan, who died in the shooting, expected to speak later in the week.

Price is expected to sentence Sharpe as early as Friday.