JEFFERSON — Saying he didn’t believe Andrew Criswell intended to hurt anyone when he brought a homemade bomb fashioned from black powder and wires into Jackson County Comprehensive High School, a judge sentenced the emotionally troubled teen to three years in prison Thursday.
Criswell, 16, was sentenced by Piedmont Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Joseph Booth to 15 years, with three years in confinement and the remainder of the sentence on probation.
Booth also said he believed Criswell’s actions on April 11, 2007, were "not intended to intimidate fellow students."
"I do believe it was in large part an attempt to escape and a cry for help, largely due to a complete collapse of coping skills," Booth said before pronouncing his sentence.
Criswell was also banished from Jackson, Barrow and Banks counties and barred from the campuses of all primary and secondary public schools in Georgia for the length of his sentence.
Criswell was a 15-year-old sophomore when he walked into the main office of the high school with a glass jar filled with black powder and attached to wires hanging from his neck. His actions prompted the evacuation of the school’s 1,600 students. Authorities later determined the battery-powered bomb could have seriously injured or possibly killed the teen and those around him if it had been detonated.
Jackson County Sheriff Stan Evans and Arcade Police Chief Dennis Bell arrived at the school soon after Criswell walked into the office and spent about an hour in face-to-face negotiations him. Criswell, who allegedly gripped a "dead man’s switch" detonator, demanded an airplane flight to Panama, where he believed he could not be extradited back to the United States.
Evans told Criswell the demands were out of the question. The teen eventually surrendered, disarming the device and putting it on the floor, when the sheriff promised to try to get help for Criswell’s sick relatives.On Thursday, an Athens psychologist who evaluated the teen after his arrest said that at the time of the bomb plot, Criswell was mired in a poor home environment, saddled with caring for his four younger siblings, and worried over the grave illnesses of two relatives, one an aunt he considered his hero.
"Multiple stressors were indicated, and he was pretty fragile to begin with," psychologist Harvey Gayer testified.
Gayer said other students picked on Criswell at school.
"He was somewhat of a social outcast," Gayer said.
Criswell told the psychologist his reasoning behind the plot was "wanting to leave."
"Those were his exact words," Gayer said. "He did this to leave. He didn’t intend to commit suicide. He concocted this way of escaping an overwhelming amount of stress."
Booth also heard from Criswell’s grandmother, who said the teen was "a victim of circumstances."
"I think he reached the point where he felt he had to do something, because no one would listen," Sandra Snow told the judge.
District Attorney Rick Bridgeman asked Booth to give Criswell a sentence of 15 years, with seven to serve in prison.
"If not for the skillful negotiations of Sheriff Evans, this case could have turned out tragically," Bridgeman said. "Clearly Mr. Criswell had problems in his background. But 99 percent of the people who have troubled backgrounds do not come before the court on such serious offenses."
Criswell pleaded guilty Feb. 1 to possession of a destructive device, false imprisonment and three counts of terroristic threats.
His case was transferred from juvenile court at the district attorney’s request when Judge Kevin Guidry decided Criswell could not get the mental health treatment he needed in that court. Evans, the sheriff, had urged the judge to keep the case in juvenile court.
Criswell will serve his sentence at Gainesville’s Regional Youth Detention Center, where he has been held since his arrest, until he turns 17. He will serve out the remainder of the prison sentence in an adult facility. He was given credit for the 10 months already served in confinement.
Part of Criswell’s sentence requires him to undergo a mental health evaluation and undergo any treatment that is recommended.
Criswell, who spent most of the hearing staring down at the defense table, rose to address the judge when asked if he had anything to say, but then hesitated. Criswell only stammered the words, "I wish" in a whisper before stopping and sitting down.
His attorney, public defender Barry King, said Criswell was "intimidated by the trappings of the courtroom."
Booth cited the earlier testimony of Jackson County Schools Superintendent Shanon Adams, who said that parents and students "need to feel that their school is a safe place."
"Nothing is truer than that," Booth said. "When parents heard of this instance, they were justifiably very scared."