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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Those connected to Freeman school shooter paint conflicting picture of his family life

Defendant Caleb Sharpe, left, sits at the defense table and listens to the Spokane County Jail chaplain Bob Smith speak about Sharpe at his sentencing Tuesday at the Spokane County Courthouse. On Tuesday, statements from Sharpe’s family and friends were read aloud in court.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Laura Franz is in the middle of a “Grand Canyon-size” divide between her Freeman community friends and her children’s half-brother, Caleb Sharpe.

“All I can offer you is my, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Franz wrote in an impact statement read during Sharpe’s sentencing hearing Tuesday.

Franz was once married to Ben Sharpe, Caleb’s father. The two share older children.

In her statement, read by public defender Michelle Hess, Franz said she knew from her children the environment in the Sharpe home was “toxic.” Once they moved out, Caleb Sharpe was “really very alone,” she wrote.

Sharpe shot and killed Sam Strahan, injured three girls and terrorized dozens of his classmates when he opened fire in a hallway at Freeman High School on Sept. 13, 2017. He pleaded guilty earlier this year. Sentencing hearings began Monday, with Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price expected to hand down his ruling Friday.

The shooting was a product of numerous factors, Franz wrote, including Sharpe’s home environment.

“I am here in no way trying to defend his actions,” Franz wrote. “There is no defense.”

She went on to apologize at length to the victims, their families, school personnel and all Freeman students for not doing more to help Sharpe.

Franz wishes she could have “run interference” or done anything to prevent what happened, she wrote.

As Franz’s apology to Ami Strahan, Sam’s mother, was read, Strahan choked back tears.

Sharpe’s parents, Ben and Ericka Sharpe, were present in the courtroom Tuesday but did not give statements in support of their son. No one from Sharpe’s immediate family gave a statement.

Art Sharpe, Caleb’s uncle and Ben’s brother, said his nephew’s actions were out of character. He had been acting normal just the weekend before the shooting at a family garage sale, the uncle said.

“Something happened with or to Caleb,” Art Sharpe said. “Some outside force, spiritual or psychological.”

He went on to say that his nephew wouldn’t have acted this way without that outside force.

“I ask the court to have mercy on Caleb,” Art Sharpe said. “Caleb Sharpe is not a murderous monster. He was a misguided teenager.”

Now his nephew is a young adult who has taken responsibility for his actions and is ready to serve his sentence, Art Sharpe added.

Bob Smith, a pastor with Spokane County Jail Ministries, has met with Caleb Sharpe and the entire Sharpe family frequently since his arrest, Smith told the court.

Smith has seen “dramatic changes over the years,” in Sharpe, he said.

Sharpe has found God and become “a serious student of the Bible,” Smith said. He leads weekly Bible studies in jail, Smith added.

The Sharpes are “people of faith” and also are victims of Caleb Sharpe’s actions, Smith said.

“Their lives, too, have been changed forever,” Smith said.

On behalf of the Sharpes, Smith expressed sorrow for the victims.

There’s no way to understand the workings of evil that surfaced that day, Smith said.

Caleb Sharpe’s cousin, Alicia West, wrote in her statement that she also was the youngest sibling left alone much of the time, which made her depressed, like her cousin.

West felt she had done something to push her family away, a feeling she grew out of as an adult.

While Sharpe’s actions were wrong, West said she understood his feelings and sees the lack of help from those around him as a failure of society.

“There is blame to go around,” West wrote. “Society has failed.”

She sees Sharpe as a human being who made an evil choice with his childhood pain, West wrote.

Sharpe’s grandmother, Sally Sharpe, shared fond memories of her grandson before the shooting and her shock at his actions, before sending her thoughts and prayers to all affected.

Under prior approval from Price, about 10 anonymous statements were read into the court record by Dennis McConkey, a pastor at the Sharpe family’s church.

When asked about the unusual arrangement, Price noted through his assistant that impact statements given by victims or loved ones of the defendant are not sworn testimony, nor given under oath. Price also allowed Sharpe’s victims to give statements anonymously during weeks of hearings this spring.

On Tuesday, most people who gave statements on behalf of Sharpe were identified by their initials or, in some cases, first names, along with vague descriptions of how they knew the Sharpe family. Due to the lack of information, the public was unable Tuesday to verify who spoke in support of Sharpe. The full names of the letter writers, however, were admitted as an exhibit in the case and will be filed into the public record after Price sentences Sharpe.

Local and regional attorneys said Price has a great deal of discretion when it comes to impact statements, and while it’s rare for names to be withheld in these situations, it does happen.

Phillip Wetzel, criminal defense attorney in Spokane, said he’s never experienced a judge’s decision like this, but situations arise that are not in the manual, and judges have to make reasonable choices and accommodations for all parties.

“The judge has a lot of discretion to try to implement procedures that are practical and that work for everybody, and it sounds like Judge Price is trying to thread that needle,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel said he would not have an issue with the withheld names as long as their identities are made public at some point, which is expected to happen in this case.

“Their discretion is pretty unlimited in how they conduct these, so yeah, I think it’s within his power to do that,” said Dave Stevens, senior felony prosecutor in Mason County and former deputy prosecutor in Spokane County. “It’s unusual, but it’s not unheard of.”

Stevens said he argued in front of Price in many trials and has high esteem for him.

“Without knowing more, I would be inclined to think Judge Price is probably doing the right thing because I have such a high opinion of him,” he said.

One letter writer, identified only as “Jeff,” wrote that the Sharpes are a “postcard of an all-American family.”

He blamed Caleb Sharpe’s actions on liberal and progressive policies in schools, including critical race theory, discussion of gender dysphoria and schools failing to control bullying.

He noted Sharpe was a “confused” kid who should pay a steep price for his actions, but not the same price as an adult.

Other letter writers, largely family friends, said Ben and Ericka Sharpe were great parents, in contrast to testimony given by a psychologist Monday.

Craig Beaver told the court Monday that Jaymi Sharpe, Caleb Sharpe’s older sister, said their dad was “verbally abusive” and “belligerent,” especially toward her little brother.

After the impact statements, Foley rested her case and the prosecution, led by Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sharon Hedlund, began calling witnesses.

Hedlund’s first witness was Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Detective Scott Bonney, who interviewed Sharpe the day of the shooting. Bonney reiterated Sharpe’s lack of remorse or explicit reason for the shooting.

He mentioned that Sharpe denied bullying or abuse as the underlying reason and showed no care to the trauma he had just caused.

Foley questioned Bonney on why Sharpe was interviewed without his parents being contacted first. Bonney said he was unaware of how Sharpe’s parents were contacted, but once they were, they invoked his right to an attorney and the interview ended.

There was extensive testimony about Sharpe’s confession in the interview with Bonney during a hearing in 2019.

The prosecution plans to call their own psychologist to testify Wednesday with sentencing hearings scheduled to continue through Friday.

Reporter Garrett Cabeza contributed to this story.