Uniontown Area student, 14, arrested; police seize 5 guns, machetes, crossbow after alleged threat
Harry Strauser noticed several police cars at Uniontown Area High School when he dropped off his daughter Friday morning, but he only learned later that a potential tragedy had just been averted.
Investigators believe they foiled a planned shooting at the high school by arresting a 14-year-old boy Thursday who they say threatened to kill four classmates and had at least five guns and other weapons in his bedroom.
Another student overheard talk of the planned shooting on a school bus and told a parent, authorities said.
State police seized a cache of weapons from the teen’s bedroom Thursday night and “were able to avert a catastrophe,” according to Fayette County District Attorney Rich Bower.
“The Pennsylvania State Police found in the juvenile’s bedroom: one semi-automatic rifle, one shotgun, two machetes, throwing knives, two lever-action rifles, a revolver, a crossbow with arrows and bulk ammunition,” he said. Cellphones at the home also were confiscated.
“I’m definitely glad they were able to thwart it, and the response that was there,” said Strauser, whose son and daughter attend the school of about 800 students. “But I wish we would have been notified before (Friday) morning.”
Within two hours of police getting involved, the families of the four students who investigators said were targets were notified of the alleged plan, Bower said. It was unclear if a relative who was also threatened had any connection to the school.
“He just didn’t like them,” Bower said. “That’s what we were dealing with.”
The suspect — a freshman — is being charged as a juvenile with terroristic threats, unlawful possession of a firearm and attempting to cause a catastrophe. Officials did not identify him.
Bower declined to say whether the weapons were loaded or how the teen obtained them.
“They were his guns; they were found in his bedroom,” Bower said, adding that the boy’s parents are cooperating with authorities.
The investigation began Thursday evening after a tip from a student who overheard — and recorded on a cellphone — the suspect making threats toward four classmates and a relative on an afternoon school bus ride. The student’s parent called school district police, Bower said.
State police were notified at 8:10 p.m., and seven troopers went to the teen’s Henry Clay Township home.
“We can only thank God the parent and the child called, or probably something would’ve happened here,” Bower said. “Quite frankly, the parent and the child who reported this, they are the real heroes here.”
Parent Russ Rhodes commended the student who took the threat seriously and reported it. “My hat goes off to him and his parents to realize how credible that was,” he said.
Rhodes and Strauser said they learned about the threat after their children arrived at the school.
After a phone call from his son, Rhodes got reassurance from an employee at the school who explained the heightened security, he said.
An increased police presence was in place at all of the district’s schools and on the suspect’s bus Friday, according to Trooper Robert Broadwater. Students were scanned with handheld metal detectors as they entered school buildings, Broadwater said.
“I’m just absolutely thrilled beyond words” with the response, Rhodes said.
School Director Susan Clay praised the response — from the student who overheard the conversation to the police and district officials.
“I”m very proud of the way our school district handled the situation,” Clay said. “You think about it, but you don’t ever think it’ll happen to you.”
The suspect claimed it would be easy to sneak guns into the high school and that he could use a sniper rifle from a distance, he said in the recorded school bus conversation, according to Bower.
“That’s the interesting thing about this nowadays — these kids see way too much video games and stuff on TV,” Bower said. “ ‘Just didn’t like them,’ that’s what he said. He just didn’t like them. What a reason to do something.”
Assistant Superintendent Dan Bosnic noted the school has metal detectors at the entrance doors.
“I don’t believe that to be the case for him being able to sneak in weapons,” Bosnic said, adding that student safety is a top priority in the district.
Bower said the investigation is ongoing.
In the five years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, the United States has had 283 school shootings — 11 since just the beginning of this year — by gun control advocates’ count. That includes the shooting Tuesday at a high school in Kentucky that left two students dead and 18 wounded.
Renatta Signorini and Paul Peirce are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Signorini at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter @byrenatta. Reach Peirce at 724-850-2860, [email protected] or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.