Willits Police Department issued a press release two days ago claiming their investigations had thwarted a threat to the safety of the staff and students of Willits High. They told the public a juvenile had made threats towards the school that WPD deemed credible. After a visit to the child’s residence, investigators believed the child had the ability to carry out the threats resulting in the student’s arrest.
The father of this juvenile has reached out to us and unequivocally stated that these claims are baseless, are the product of a cyber-bullying incident, and went so far as to say that the Willits Police Department failed to gather appropriate evidence and arrested his child to “look like heroes at the expense of a 15-year-old child” rather than conduct an adequate investigation.
After spending two and a half days in Mendocino County’s Juvenile Hall, the high school student has been released after the Mendocino County District Attorney dropped charges of criminal threats determining there was no veracity to the charges, according to the family and their attorney.
Macci Morse, the attorney who assisted the family in advocating for their child’s release from custody, told us “This is a 15-year-old child that has never been in trouble before and has never caused alarm to either his parents, friends, family, or the school he attends.”
Regarding the investigation that led to the juvenile’s arrest, Morse said, “Willits PD simply jumped to conclusions without completing the investigation.”
If WPD had dug deeper, Morse explained they would have found “another juvenile took a screenshot of a picture that my client posted on social media made a meme out of it, as a joke, passed it around on social media and it came to law enforcement’s attention through fearful parents.”
For the privacy of the juvenile, we will withhold the names of both father and the juvenile to prevent any further bullying of the student.
The father of the Willits High School student explained this story began last Saturday, March 12 when the family participated in a recreational shooting outing. At one point, the juvenile had a picture taken of himself firing a gun and posted that image on Snapchat. This was the point when the falsehoods began, the father told us.
Peers saw the picture and manipulated the photograph, imposing the text “Shooting up the school 100%” on the image of the high school student. The image of the child engaged in recreational shooting combined with the inflammatory text went viral in the Willits community eventually ending up in the hands of the Willits Police Department.
The child’s father told us Willits Police Department investigators proceeded to visit the family’s residence attempting to ascertain the actionability of the threat. They determined the Willits High student had the ability to carry out the threat when they found a gun safe in the home, which the father made clear the child did not have access to and did not have the combination to get inside.
The father asserted the discovery of the gun safe was what led the investigators to believe the young man had the means to carry out the threat expressed in the manipulated photograph. Based on the discovery, the father told us his son was arrested for criminal threats.
It was on Tuesday, March 16 that the juvenile was booked into Juvenile Hall and the father said they jumped to action working to right this miscarriage of justice.
Macci Morse, a Ukiah criminal defense attorney, began advocating for a thorough review of the evidence.
In the hours following the publication of the Willits Police Department’s press release, the information contained therein spread far and wide across Northern California. Thousands of people read of the incident in articles posted by The Ukiah Daily Journal, The Press Democrat, and KRCR in Redding.
As word of the juvenile’s incarceration spread in the Willits High School community, the father told us the “real story” began to emerge.
The child’s father told us the principal of Willits High School cooperated with law enforcement but was shocked that this specific juvenile was implicated in the situation.
While their son was locked behind the bars of juvenile hall, Willits High students and community members came forward and began to tell the real story. Yesterday, three juveniles came forward, the father told us, and told the school administration they had directly been involved in the manipulation of the photograph.
Morse told us she worked closely with the Mendocino County deputy district attorney who examined the specific evidence associated with the criminal threat charges and dropped them after determining the accusations had no merit.
The juvenile did not leave police custody until yesterday morning, spending two and a half days in Mendocino County’s Juvenile Hall for charges dropped due to their lack of evidence.
Morse understands the community concerns that emerged upon the initial release of the photograph, but she assured us, “The picture my client posted was taken in the presence of his family and certainly within the bounds of responsible gun ownership.”
The evidence is clear, Morse argued, that her client, “in no way threatened to shoot up the school or anyone for that matter nor did he have the means to carry out such an allegation as alleged in the press release.”
We have reached out to Willits Police Department’s Chief Fabian Lizarraga for a statement regarding the nature of the agency’s investigation and these described shortcomings of that investigation. As of the time of this publication, we have not received a response.
We have also reached out to Mendocino County District Attorney Dave Eyster regarding his determination that the criminal threat charges had no merit. As of the time of this publication, we have yet to hear a response.
Reflecting on the case, Maci Morse, the attorney that advocated for the juvenile said, “The only thing this juvenile is guilty of was posting a picture of himself on social media and we all know that’s not a crime.”
Looking forward, Morse hopes two lessons can be learned from the incident: “1) you cannot believe everything you read on social media and 2) once you post a picture, you lose control over what happens to it.”