A former Hilliard Davidson High School student accused of plotting a mass shooting at the school entered a no-contest plea of conspiracy to commit murder, a first-degree felony, according to proceedings Jan. 9 in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.
Judge David Cain pronounced John Leonard Staley III guilty.
Cain asked Staley, 17, a series of questions, including whether his plea was voluntary and if he understood the terms of a no-contest plea, to which he replied, “Yes, your honor,” each time.
In a no-contest plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but does not contest the charges. It allows a defendant to retain some appeal rights.
Cain ordered a pre-sentencing investigation, and a sentencing hearing is expected Feb. 8.
Staley, a northwest Columbus resident, was arrested in October 2016 and charged with a delinquency count of conspiracy to commit murder after another Davidson student told a school resource officer Staley was discussing the plot while on a school bus, according to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.
He was indicted Sept. 28 for conspiracy to commit murder and entered a not-guilty plea Oct. 2, according to court records.
“Apart from talking about a school shooting, Staley took substantial steps to carry out a conspiracy to commit a mass shooting in the cafeteria at Hilliard Davidson last fall (and) he will now be tried as an adult,” O’Brien said at the time.
Joe Gibson, a Franklin County special assistant prosecutor, told Cain on Jan. 9 that beginning in the 2015-16 school year, Staley had attempted to recruit other students in the plot in person and through an instant-messaging app.
He said at least one other student had agreed to participate.
The grand-jury indictment referred to the other students by using initials.
Staley created a diagram to illustrate the positions of co-conspirators and listed the necessary firearms and ammunition required to carry out the shooting, he said.
On Sept. 22, 2016, another student reported he had witnessed Staley showing the diagram, after which a search warrant was used to examine Staley’s Hilliard City Schools-issued iPad, Gibson said.
“This investigation began with a student confiding in a school resource officer and illustrates the valuable role those officers play in the schools,” said Andrea Litchfield, a Hilliard Division of Police spokeswoman. “We are grateful to our law enforcement partners at the FBI’s joint terrorism task force and the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office for their assistance.”
Investigators discovered Staley’s internet searches included Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; the Irish Republican Army; and a gun shop in Columbus, Gibson said.
Staley also searched “easy ways to make thermite,” an explosive, Gibson said, and his mobile devices contained “neo-Nazi” images.
A warrant was obtained to search the residence of Staley’s parents, where officers found gas masks and a tactical vest, he said.
“Your honor, the object of this conspiracy was to carry out a mass shooting at Hilliard Davidson High School,” Gibson said.
Hilliard Superintendent John Marschhausen said the district is “proud of our partnership with Hilliard police (and) confident in the-criminal justice system.”
“We are glad to hear this case is one step closer to being resolved,” he said.
The charge of conspiracy to commit murder carries a maximum sentence of 11 years, according to the court proceedings. Prison or probation are possible outcomes, Gibson said.
Palmer said he plans to appeal after the sentencing on grounds that the case never should have been transferred to common-pleas court from juvenile court.
On Sept. 6, juvenile court Judge Terri Jamison ordered Staley to be tried as an adult and the case was assigned to Cain.
The pre-sentencing investigation Cain ordered is expected to include much of the same information, such as psychology evaluations of Staley, that were part of the proceedings in juvenile court, Palmer said.
“The PSI and the report that follows provides the court a basis to make the most informed decision about what the proper sentence ought to be,” Palmer said after adjournment Jan. 9.
Palmer he said he hopes the report would be a mitigating factor but regardless of the sentence, he will appeal it.
“We would have disputed the facts in a significant fashion had the case gone to trial but, still, this is a 17-year-old boy and putting him through more (in court) wasn’t worth the risk,” he said.
Staley’s parents were in the courtroom Jan. 9.
“They are all struggling,” Palmer said.
Palmer previously said psychologists and other experts concluded Staley should not be tried as an adult but “the judge thought otherwise.”
“We will take a step back and appeal the juvenile court’s decision to bind him over in the first place,” he said.
That appeal would be filed with the 10th District Court of Appeals, Palmer said.
“Once the case is resolved (in common-pleas court) we can file a notice of appeal and we intend to do that,” he said.
Keep checking ThisWeekNEWS.com/Hilliard for updates.