The teenage student wore tactical military clothing to pose with a shotgun in 'confrontational' social media posts. Illustration: Andrew Louis.

Police thwart armed teen’s plan to shoot up local school

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Jared Savage of NZ Herald


For nearly two years, blanket suppression orders prevented reporting the troubling case of a teenager who planned to shoot teachers and fellow Tasman area high school students.

The teen – armed with a pistol grip shotgun and AR-15 semiautomatic rifle – described themselves as a “terrorist” and a judge believed the police may have prevented a tragedy similar to the Christchurch mosque shootings.

When police raided the teen’s home, they found a hand-drawn diagram of a school building with “prime targets” marked with an X, including staff offices, and arrows to show planned movements along corridors.

Detectives were tipped off to the teen’s “confrontational” posts on social media and searched their home, where they found documents the student had written including one titled “Note to investigator”.

It was a letter in which the student described themself as a “terrorist”, explained their actions and outlined the steps taken to prepare for the shooting, such as the collection of ammunition.

“Of concern to the police is that the equipment necessary to carry out [the] plans had been obtained by the defendant and located at the address,” the police wrote in a summary of facts, noting the firearms, ammunition, explosives, clothing, knives and sketches of the school.

The purported “terrorist attack” plan was discovered only after members of the public tipped off the police about the social media posts.

These comments referred to blowing up a school and executing a shooting, as well as posting increasingly “inflammatory and extreme views”.

Following the arrest last year, the student’s peers told police the 17-year-old made comments about “blowing up” the school stage and shooting people in assembly.

The police also seized electronic devices in the student’s home such as a laptop, iPad and gaming devices.

They found hundreds of images of female children wearing bikinis, or in sexual poses, or being sexually abused.

The pupil was charged with unlawful possession of the Mossberg shotgun and unlawful possession of an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

The home-made bombs were powerful enough to blow off someone’s hand, according to a Defence Force bomb disposal expert.

The student admitted making them, and setting one off in an abandoned building.

A charge of unlawful possession of explosives was also laid, as well as 19 counts of possession of objectionable material, in relation to images of young girls found on the computer.

Now 18-years-old, the young person pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced last December in the Nelson District Court to six months’ community detention and two years of intensive supervision, with 15 strict conditions.

The former student’s movements are monitored by GPS, they cannot use internet-capable devices, and must attend counselling and therapy sessions with clinical professionals.

“I have done, and others who are trying to help you have done, what they can. It is now over to you. I wish you good luck,” Judge David Ruth said in his closing remarks at the sentencing hearing in December.

In later seeking an order for permanent name suppression, the pupil’s defence lawyer, Robert Lithgow, QC, said the progress his client had made during rehabilitation would unravel if their identity was made public.

If that happened, Lithgow said the case would attract “unwanted notoriety” and “misguided excitement” from radical extremists which would be a “nightmare” for the family, and New Zealand society if it encouraged copy-cat behaviour.

The teen’s family also believed they would have to leave their hometown if their name was made public, said Lithgow, as they feared being blamed for the student’s behaviour and driven out of the community.

His arguments convinced Judge Ruth to permanently suppress the name of the former student, as well as the school, at a hearing in July this year.

It can be reported the school is in the “Tasman area”.

NZME, the publisher of the New Zealand Herald, and the Stuff website appealed this ruling in a hearing at the High Court last month to argue that the full circumstances of the case should be reported.

However, Justice Francis Cooke dismissed the appeal except to make some minor changes to the agreed summary of facts in a judgment released yesterday.

All other evidence and facts in the case are suppressed, ruled Justice Cooke in a decision which lifted the shroud of total secrecy imposed on the case for the past 22 months.

But at an earlier court hearing, Judge Ruth dismissed any attempt to downplay the student’s behaviour as “mere musings of a disaffected teenage malcontent”, as the student’s preparation went “way beyond any suggestion of that nature”.