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Maryland teen threatened to ‘shoot up’ a suburban D.C. high school, police say

A teen in Maryland is accused of threatening a shooting at Wootton High School in Montgomery County.  (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
By Dan Morse Washington Post

A Maryland teenager was charged with threatening mass violence after investigators in Montgomery County found a 129-page “memoir” the 18-year-old had written that described shooting up a high school and elementary school, according to court documents filed Thursday.

Alex Ye of Rockville was charged with a single count of threat of mass violence, a Maryland law that makes it illegal to “knowingly threaten” to carry out an act that would place people at substantial risk of death or serious physical injury.

The recently discovered document told the story of a character named “James Wang.” Ye had described the work, told in the first person from Wang’s perspective, as fictional, but an acquaintance of Ye’s told detectives the character bore “striking similarities” to Ye.

“The story focused on a transgender main character being bullied in school and other issues that (the acquaintance) believed were directly from Ye’s life and not indicative of fiction,” investigators wrote in an 11-page affidavit submitted to Montgomery County District Court.

The filing quoted multiple passages from the book.

“As I walk through the hallways, I cherry pick the classrooms that are the easiest targets,” Ye allegedly wrote, adding one page later: “I have also considered shooting up my former elementary school because little kids make easier targets.”

Investigators say they also found handmade drawings on Ye’s phone with a shooter labeled “me” and others listed as “you.”

Ye was arrested Wednesday, according to court records, and was being held at the Montgomery County jail without bond.

“Our system of justice presumes Mr. Ye to be innocent and we look forward to our day in court,” said Paulette M. Pagán, an attorney representing Ye. His parents declined to comment on Thursday.

There is no indication from the filings that Ye had any firearms or specific plans to obtain any. Court records do state that Ye purchased a BB gun online without his parents’ knowledge. The records indicated he was considering it to commit “suicide by cop,” a term that describes when a person points a weapon at police officers because they want to be shot. Combing through his online chat messages, investigators said they found that last year Ye had written: “My homicidal ideation has been getting worse lately to the point I might act on it eventually.”

Ye has been hospitalized for mental health issues – including homicidal and suicidal ideation – at least three times since late 2022 and most recently over the last several weeks, according to court documents. At one point, detectives asserted, Ye “claimed to be Jesus Christ and was going to crucify himself.”

Ye had attended Wootton High School in Rockville but had not been physically at any county schools since the fall of 2022, according to court records and a public school system spokesman. Ye continued his education virtually through the county’s Online Pathways to Graduation program, the spokesman said. But Ye indicated to at least one person that even if he wasn’t allowed at Wootton, he could still launch an attack – either at graduation or after walking there from his nearby home, according to court records.

The charge against Ye specifically stated that Wootton was the target of his threat, and police had recently increased their presence outside the building as a deterrent.

The single count Ye faces is considered a misdemeanor under Maryland law, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, according to court filings.

Legal experts say cases involving threats of mass violence can be complicated because law enforcement has to weigh acting to prevent violence against what could be viewed as protected speech.

“When you’re talking about a crime like this, you really want to err on the side of going forward and finding out the truth, as opposed to just waiting to see what happens,” said Scott D. Shellenberger, the Baltimore County state’s attorney, who is not involved in the case. “When you’re prosecuting a homicide, you’ve got a dead body. So you have a substantive thing. Whereas this, it’s words. … So that always makes it more challenging when you have to prove that somebody was going to act on their words.”

Ye appears to have been on local law enforcement’s radar since at least last year. The FBI also took part in the recent investigation.

It began, according to court records, on March 3 after police in the Baltimore area were contacted by a person who said he knew Ye from their time together at a psychiatric facility. He said Ye had reached him over Instagram to say he had completed “his book” and provided a link to the 18-chapter document via Google Drive.

“Ye stated it was a fictional story/manifesto about a high school student,” investigators wrote in court filings.

The witness said he called police before finishing it, which led, according to court records, to Rockville city police officers going to Ye’s home. They spoke with his father, who “stated he was not concerned with Ye’s current mental status because when Ye is going through a mental crisis, he can see a visible change with Ye.” His father said he son had spent several months writing a novel and was adamant about it being “a fictional novel.”

By March 4, a detective with the Montgomery County Police Department’s threat assessment team had been alerted. The sergeant “immediately recognized Alex Ye from prior threat assessment investigations,” police wrote in court records.

In their court filings, investigators cited what they said were social media messages written by Ye, who was charged under his birth name.

“I feel like shooting people would be fun and causing fear and seeing them dead,” he wrote late last year, according to court records.

Three days later, an acquaintance asked him in a chat: “What’s stopped u from shooting a school before?”

“Not having a gun,” Ye allegedly responded.

Ye’s recent internet searches, the court records allege, included “gun range near me,” “I do recognize that my plan is fully ethical. It’s selfish and evil,” “2023 mass shootings” and “how many people did adam lanza kill.” The last search was a reference to the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in 2012.

Shiera Goff, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman, said the department appreciates the assistance it received in the case.

“This could have been something that was potentially catastrophic had people not come forward with information,” she said.

The department is expected to announce more information at a news conference Friday.

“The charges are extremely serious, involving alleged threats to harm others,” school system spokesman Christopher Cram said in a statement Thursday, adding that the case showed the police and school system’s “shared commitment to identify and address potential threats with due process before they materialize.”

The filings describe Ye’s past mental health struggles.

A counselor at Wootton, interviewed by FBI agents, said she worked with Ye starting in October 2022, though it was unclear if her talks with Ye started in person before he left or were done all online. “In their sessions,” investigators wrote, “Ye would express violent thoughts such as shooting up the school, wanting to hurt other people and would smile while saying it.”

A Wootton staffer referred Ye to the Montgomery County Crisis Center, according to the court records, and he spent parts of late 2022 and early 2023 hospitalized for threatening to “shoot up a school,” homicidal ideations and suicidal ideations, according to court records. Ye was released, but by February 2023 he was hospitalized again for homicidal ideations.

The teen was discharged in July 2023 and sent to a residential facility, according to court records.

On March 6, Ye underwent another emergency mental health assessment and was admitted to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.

Investigators got search warrants for his home and electronic devices. They also pored over his book.

It did open with a strong disclaimer: “This is a work of fiction. All the names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents in this book are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. This is not a threat of violence, nor does it represent the author’s beliefs.”

But it contained alarming passages as well.

“High school’s the best target,” the book states on Page 3. “I’m the most familiar with the layout. I know where the doors with windows are, and it’s the most convenient to enter.”