It could have been another school bloodbath when two Cherokee County students plotted in the fall of 2017 to plant bombs and shoot up Etowah High School. They wanted to kill a lot of people and become as famous as the Columbine shooters, one of them told police.
But this time, a headline-making catastrophe was averted because a teenager did something high school culture trains teens never to do: snitch.
Yet that’s exactly what school safety experts say is one of the most effective ways to thwart this kind of disaster.
“This was a textbook case,” said Maj. Tommy Pinyan, field operations commander for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department. “The sequence of events unfolded in the right manner that we were able to identify the threat and take the suspects into custody with no loss of life, no injuries, no damage to property and no disruption of school.”
With cases like the Etowah plot in mind, Cherokee County recently expanded it SafeSchools Alert system. Residents can call, text, email or use online messaging to contact law enforcement.
“And they don’t have to wonder which agency to call,” said Capt. Jay Baker, a spokesman for the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office. “We’ll do the sorting. Just make the call.”
The Georgia Bureu of Investigation is trying to encourage such calls, and launched its See Something, Send Something app last year as part of a school safety effort. Although many school districts have their own programs, this is statewide. It allows GBI agents to disseminate threat information to the proper agency, but also to keep a database.
Authorities cite the Etowah High School case as an example of the school district, county and state law enforcement communicating closely and relying on the cooperation of the public.
The case is closed now, with the two troubled teenagers facing the next two decades in prison.
This is how the danger came to light and the response to it quickly unfolded, according to records The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department, Cherokee County Schools and the Blue Ridge Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office.
Alarming journal entries
In later summer of 2017, a girl relative of Alfred Dupree noticed a gasoline smell in the bedroom they shared at his grandmother’s house. He said he’d made napalm but would get rid of it. She wasn’t alarmed at first because he had a quirky personality and was fascinated by things like that.
During the weekend of Oct. 20, they were back at grandma’s house. The relative noticed Dupree’s journal in the room and looked through it. She became concerned and took pictures of the pages with her phone. She told her mother and grandmother about it, but her father decided to alert the police.
He sent an email to the Woodstock police department on Oct. 23 with images of the journal pages attached. They included sketches of nooses, a face with a gun pointed at it, a checklist of supplies needed to carry out a mass assault, a “kill list” with the names of 10 people or groups on it, a recipe for napalm, several writings about committing suicide and killing people, references to the Columbine shooting and a hand-drawn map of the 5000 hall of Etowah High School with “SIV PACEM PARA BELLUM” written on it. The Latin phrase translates to, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
Woodstock police immediately alerted Cherokee County School Police, who called in the sheriff’s office for assistance. Officers from both agencies met with the father and daughter and she told them of her concerns.
The police quickly obtained a search warrant and went to the suspect’s house around 9 p.m. His stepmother let police in and allowed them to go to the basement. They put him in handcuffs and brought him back upstairs. They asked the student if he knew why they were at his house and he nodded yes. The father was summoned and when he arrived at the house, the police explained the perceived threat to the school.
“Dealing with students is tricky,” said Buster Cushing, Chief of Police for the Cherokee County School District. “Both suspects were over 17 so we are allowed to interview them alone. We always try to get their parents involved.”
During the conversation, the student began to talk about the plans in his journal and the police stopped him to read him his Miranda warning. He said he understood what it was and wanted to continue.
He explained that he had been bullied a lot during his freshman and sophomore years of high school. Although much of it had ceased, he was still mad about it. He denied compiling a “kill list” and denied that he would actually harm anyone. Moments later, he admitted to writing the list as a joke. He said the “napalm” wasn’t the real thing — just a starter for his grandmother’s fire pit.
He asked to speak to officers alone. Then he confirmed that all the materials in the journal were his work, but insisted that he wouldn’t carry out an attack. He said he was obsessed with the Columbine shooting. He mentioned that his father had several firearms and he knew of at least one that was unsecured.
Because they believed he was a threat to himself and others, the police took the teen into custody. He wasn’t under arrest at that time. The parents allowed the police to take all the firearms in the house. In all, there were 13 rifles and 3 handguns.
The police searched the suspect’s room and found three journals with similar material written in them, and a book about Charles Manson. Those were also taken as evidence.
“There isn’t a fine line between joking and actually plotting this kind of crime,” said Pinyan. “This student may not have ever carried out his plans, but we can’t take a chance with public safety.”
Handwriting leads to girl
In inspecting the evidence, officers realized there were two different sets of handwriting. Based on the possibility of a second suspect, they went to the school the next day and interviewed the people on the “kill list.” One of those on the list was a close friend named Victoria Gabrielle McCurley. The principal provided a copy of her handwriting and police determined it matched the second style in the journals.
Three officers interviewed her at school.
At first, she feigned ignorance about the journals and Dupree’s obsession with suicide and killing. She was adamant that the two only talked about music, video games, YouTube personalities and forming their own band. As the interview progressed, she contradicted herself and eventually admitted her involvement. She said it was a common joke around school. She said students were always warning each other, “Don’t come to school tomorrow.”
She said she couldn’t recall the last time she wrote in the journal or saw it, but the last entry was dated Oct. 17, 2017. She said she was sure it had been a year since she wrote in the journal and that her friend had copied her handwriting.
Sudden admission, long sentences
She was read the Miranda warning and agreed to write a statement in her own words about her involvement.
A little later, she stopped writing abruptly and told the police about things the two planned but never put on paper: building timed explosives and pipe bombs, planning the attack for the largest lunch period, starting the attack in the library and obtaining a car so it would be easier to carry out their plans.
For the remainder of the interview, the girl said the main motive for the attack was her hatred of the school and the teachers combined with dislike for herself and her desire to commit suicide. She said she had no guilt or remorse for her actions and thought of the planned attack as a way to express herself. She said the pair wanted to make a name for themselves and cause more casualties than the Las Vegas shooting, where a gunman earlier that month had killed 58 people.
She was taken into custody at that point, but not placed under arrest.
On Oct. 25, 2017 both suspects were formally charged with criminal attempt to commit murder, making terroristic threats, criminal attempt to commit arson and possessing and/or transporting a destructive device with the intent to kill, injure or destroy any public building.
They both ended up at the Cherokee County Adult Detention Center where they remained until they were each sentenced on May 14 this year to 40 years, with 20 to be served in prison. A stipulation was that once released, they had to serve the remainder of the sentence under probation. They weren’t eligible for a new program that frees former prisoners from reporting to a probation officer if they consistently follow the rules for two years.
Public’s role is vital
“People always ask us why the process takes so long,” said Shannon Wallace, district attorney for the Blue Ridge Judicial Circuit. “Police are required to prove probable cause when they charge someone with a crime … my office has to prove that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a much heavier burden of proof. Often there’s additional investigation that needs to be done, we need to call in experts for certain aspects of a case — and everything takes time.”
But Wallace applauds everyone involved in bringing the two defendants to justice.
“We can’t stress enough how important it is for EVERYONE to do their part in public safety,” she said. “Thanks to the actions of everyday citizens a dangerous threat has been removed and hopefully those two will receive the help they need.”
Authorities emphasize that no one has an excuse not to report suspicious activity, and that can be done in Georgia using a local school district tip line, the statewide 1-877-SAY-STOP or the See Something, Say Something app for texting and messaging. More than 1,200 tips have been received through the app, with more than 175 referred to local law enforcement agencies for investigation.
“In addition to processing incoming tips, the GBI-GISAC Watchdesk conducts comprehensive analysis of the initial threat to provide the responding agency with as much information to enhance their ability to safety and effectively resolve the matter.,” said Nelly Miles, a GBI spokeswoman. “This is particularly important when the location or subject is not initially known to the tipster, as the Watchdesk has the ability to ensure that this information is quickly vetted and routed to the appropriate jurisdiction using the various analytical and investigative assets of the GBI and GISAC. In turn, GBI Agents, including bomb technicians, offer investigative assistance and specialized services to the local agencies leading these threat investigations upon request.”
The sentences for both Etowah High defendants include mental health treatment, staying away from people on the “kill list,” staying away from all Cherokee County public schools and prohibited from possessing firearms, combustibles or explosive devices.
As a result of that incident, Cherokee County created a safety committee composed of law enforcement, parents and others. Cherokee school Superintendent Brian V. Hightower and Sheriff Frank Reynolds created a video urging the public to work with schools and law enforcement to ensure school safety.
“We’re trained for this,” said Hightower in the video. “Our community’s law enforcement officers are always ready to respond to an emergency. Our school district’s leadership is prepared to manage communications and family reunification. Our staff and students have practiced what to do in an emergency.”
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