Defense’s witness says autism, bullying played part in bomb scare case

5th District Juvenile Court Judge Paul E. Dame during a preliminary hearing for a teen suspect who is accused of attempting to detonate a bomb inside Pine View High School, St. George, Utah, June 20, 2018 | Photo by Chris Caldwell via Utah court pool, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – The Hurricane teen who brought a homemade explosive to school doesn’t understand the magnitude of the incident he created due to his having autism spectrum disorder, a psychologist testified Wednesday in 5th District Juvenile Court.

Dr. Tim Kockler, a St. George-based clinical and forensic psychologist, testified on behalf of the defense for the 16-year-old boy accused of causing the Pine View High bomb scare in early March.

Read more: Charges filed in Pine View bomb scare; more possible in relation to ISIS flag incident

Clinical psychologist Tim Kockler gives testimony during a preliminary hearing for a teen suspect who is accused of attempting to detonate a bomb inside Pine View High School, St. George, Utah, June 20, 2018 | Photo by Chris Caldwell via Utah court pool, St. George News

Kockler testified following the prosecution’s resting its case against the teen, concluding a nine-witness marathon of testimony that started Monday and carried over to that morning.

The state has charged the boy with two first-degree felonies in relation to the March 5 bomb scare. One felony is for attempted murder and the other is for possessing a weapon of mass destruction.

The teen took a homemade bomb to school and left it in the cafeteria before lighting the fuse and walking away. The fuse fizzled out and created a noticeable amount of smoke instead, ultimately leading to the bomb scare.

The state has argued that if the bomb had detonated, it could have killed others in the cafeteria at the time, something which the teen has stated wouldn’t have bothered him and for which he showed an apparent lack of emotion.

“That’s what the state’s charges are based on – that he seemed not to have a concern whether or not people got hurt,” Deputy Washington County Attorney Angela Adams said Monday.

Deputy Washington County Attorney Angela Adams during a preliminary hearing for a teen suspect who is accused of attempting to detonate a bomb inside Pine View High School, St. George, Utah, June 20, 2018 | Photo by Chris Caldwell via Utah court pool, St. George News

The apparent lack of emotion stems from a lack of understanding and introspection caused by the boy’s having a form of autism and cognitive impairment that makes it hard for him to understand and relate to others, Kockler said.

Kockler evaluated the boy through a serious of interviews and tests administered by his office and the Southwest Behavioral Health Center. The results were compiled in a report Kockler wrote and referenced numerous time during his testimony.

In the report, the boy is diagnosed as having high-functioning autism and being borderline intellectual functioning with a below average IQ. However, an actual diagnosis of his condition “fell through the cracks” until Kockler was able to evaluate him.

During his time interviewing the boy, reviewing the video of the police interview and psychological tests, Kockler came to the opinion that the boy “didn’t seem the grasp the severity of the situation.”

“There was a disconnect between what he was being charged with and his emotional activity,” he said.

While the boy wasn’t unaware of the charges, he just didn’t seem to care and showed an apparent emotional disconnect that Kockler said he found “most striking.”

“What was striking in my interactions with him is that, despite having been charged with some rather serious crimes, he didn’t seem to have a care in the world, and I find that very concerning,” Kockler said, adding that most people he has interviewed forensically have shown some sort of emotional response.

This kind of behavior can be normal for autistic individuals, Kockler said. They can come off as cold and unfeeling when that really is not the case.

Defense attorney Stephen Harris asked the psychologist if the teen’s possible autism influenced how he responded to questions from police about how he would feel if the homemade bomb he brought to the school had hurt or killed anyone.

“Autistic individuals have a hard time understanding their emotions and others’ emotions,” Kockler said. “They can’t anticipate the consequences of what they might say or what they might do. … Compared to their same-age peers, the emotionality center is underperforming. It’s lacking.”

Read more: ‘If someone got hurt, I probably wouldn’t care’; Teen charged with attempted murder in Pine View High bomb scare

As for how animated the boy became when he was talking to the police, Kockler said it was indicative of “someone who’s finally got some attention.”

L-R: Defense attorneys Matthew and Stephen Harris during a preliminary hearing for a teen suspect who is accused of attempting to detonate a bomb inside Pine View High School, St. George, Utah, June 20, 2018 | Photo by Chris Caldwell via Utah court pool, St. George News

Noting that the boy hadn’t been diagnosed with any delusional behaviors or related mental disorders, Adams asked if it was reasonable to assume the boy had a “grasp on reality” despite his emotional and intellectual impairments.

“In an autistic sort of way, yes,” Kockler said.

Adams also noted that in Kockler’s report, no sign of psychopathy were found in the boy. Kockler explained that psychopathy is a term used to describe a collection of negative characteristics that are often displayed by “hardened criminals – the worst of the worst.”

This category includes people who are very callous, narcissistic, aggressive, have multiple run-ins with authority and kill without remorse.

With the exception of crafting and using the so-called bomb, the boy had no history of violence, according the report.

“There’s nothing in there that marks (the teen) as a troubled child,” Kockler said. Quite the contrary, the psychologist said the boy appeared to have grown up in a busy yet loving home.

As a part of their original interview with the teen, police investigators asked the teen about his family life. As the video of the interview played in the courtroom, the teen said he came from a large, three-generation family that lived in the same home in Hurricane.

The investigators asked if the boy had considered how his parents may react to what he had done.

“They’re going to be upset and sorrowful,” the boy said.

The boy said he had talked to his parents about some of the bullying he experienced at school, and they tried to help where they could.

The boy was also put through counseling at one point, though it was short-lived.

The boy’s mother took the witness stand briefly Wednesday and told the court she has visited her son in juvenile detention every day, with the exception of two days when she had a baby.

L-R Defense attorneys Matthew and Stephen Harris and Deputy Washington County Attorney Angela Adams address an evidence admittance issue at the judge’s bench, St. George, Utah, June 20, 2018 | Photo by Chris Caldwell via Utah court pool, St. George News

As a part of Kockler’s overall psychological assessment, the parents and the teen were asked to complete an evaluation concerning how they viewed the teen’s emotional health.

The boy’s parents believed their son had emotional problems such as anger control, aggression, conduct problems, lack of emotional self-control and other issues. They also listed their son as being kind and compassionate.

The boy’s evaluation of himself “minimized his symptoms” and under-reported them, Kockler said. It was a trait that was consistent with the outcome of other tests conducted as a part of the overall assessment, he said.

The teen’s parents also said their son had a tendency to hyperfocus on something, another trait common to autistic individuals, Kockler said.

“When there is something he wants to accomplish, he can do that, and you see that quite nicely with autistic people,” he said.

That hyperfocus played a part in the bomb scare as well, Kockler said. However, that wasn’t the only issue at play.

One of the most salient issues in this case is that (the teen) reported and suffered from a lifetime of bullying,” Kockler said.

Parents tried to help, but attempts to help their son seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The bullying at Hurricane led to the teen’s being transferred to Pine View High. He also attended Success Academy.

Autistic children are “easy prey” for bullies, Kockler said, with between 25-50 percent becoming targets due to their lacking the social skills or the ability to thwart attacks as others do. Autistic individuals who are bullied tend to either internalize the issue or externalize it, Kockler said.

“In my interview with him, (the teen) was quite adamant about being angry with all the kids that had bullied him,” Kockler said, adding that it was an issue the teen had become hyperfocused on.

The teen allegedly knew his homemade explosive device wouldn’t work but went ahead with his plan in order to “cause fear.”

Read more: Teen in Pine View High School bomb scare wanted to ’cause fear,’ prosecution witnesses say

St. George Police officer Derek Lewis gives testimony during a preliminary hearing for a teen suspect who is accused of attempting to detonate a bomb inside Pine View High School, St. George, Utah, June 20, 2018 | Photo by Chris Caldwell via Utah court pool, St. George News

“That seemed to be his mission,” Kockler said.

The teen became so obsessed on “instilling fear” in those who had bullied him, he was unable to turn away from it, Kockler said.

“It’s something that consumed him.”

Despite the course that the teen’s reported autism is said to have taken him, Kockler said he believes his condition can be treated.

Harris said they were pleased to be able to finally present their side of the story.

“Its unfortunate that this young man has been put in this situation that certainly has some mitigating factors that haven’t been heard out before,” he said. “We hope the court sees our side of the story and would rule in our favor.”

The hearing continues Monday as the defense argues for the admission of a letter into evidence reportedly written by the teen as a part of an assignment given while in juvenile detention.

The letter, titled “My Thoughts,” is a confession in written form they believe contains exculpatory statements, the defense stated.

The hearing will also determine whether the teen will remain in juvenile court or be charged as an adult with a move to the district court. The judge has yet to rule on whether the case will move forward or be dropped due to a lack of probable cause.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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17 Comments

  • Mean Momma June 21, 2018 at 7:34 am

    A very sad situation. No one should have to endure the bullying it seems this young man was forced to endure.
    However, while many young people are bullied throughout their young lives, most do not resort to this type of retaliation. This is scary stuff! This young man has crossed a line that I don’t think will be easy to come back from. Very disturbing to say the least, and since he seems to not “have a care in the world” concerning his actions or the possible consequences of his action, I would feel safer if he spent a good many years sitting in prison without a care in the world…

  • Lastdays June 21, 2018 at 7:34 am

    So being bullied is now a defense for someone to commit a crime ? As if that gives them permission to retaliate ?
    Reminds of the teen in Texas where they used the “ Affluenza “ defense. He initially got a slap on the wrist because he came from a family that was so rich he didn’t know it was illegal to drive drunk and kill people. Yea right.
    Upon reaching High School age, all kids know what is a crime and what isn’t. There are no excuses not to be accountable and responsible for crimes committed.

  • asianspa June 21, 2018 at 11:59 am

    Please print the names of the parents of the bullies. These bullies learn their hateful behavior somewhere… maybe it is time we look at their homelives. I am also curious as to how many of the bullies come from very “happy” LDS families that enamor themselves with the illusions of their own facade. Hate is a learned behavior that acts out in many ways and nothing breeds hatred like hypocrisy. As soon as your child is bullied you got to get to the school and MAKE the teachers and admin care before it spirals out of control into this type of scary revenge situation. If you can’t get them to take it seriously YANK your child out of school ASAP.

    • Brian June 21, 2018 at 12:45 pm

      When you say hypocrisy, do you mean like speaking against hate at the same time you’re calling for parents to be doxed and bagging on and generalizing a particular group?

      • comments June 21, 2018 at 4:48 pm

        IDK brian, sometimes I feel like our LDS church is the most hypocritical organization and group of people in the entire world. There’s no escaping it, really. 😉

        • mesaman June 21, 2018 at 8:51 pm

          The usual rhetoric, common. YAWN!

          • comments June 21, 2018 at 11:40 pm

            If you want to yawn A LOT my dear little m&m by yourself some tickets to general conference. I’d even bring along a pillow or two 😉

    • Ladyk June 21, 2018 at 3:51 pm

      Wow, looks like your hatred and bully views are pretty deep. What do you call it when you generalize a negative statement that about an entire group of which you know little to nothing about. We’re you a bully of your school and now raise chden that you yank out of school at the slightest issue? Way to be a positive member of society.

    • IPFreely June 21, 2018 at 7:37 pm

      Holy crap asian.. what are you smoking. You are way off in left field and need to sit down shut up and let the adults have a conversation.

  • PatriotLiberal June 21, 2018 at 12:53 pm

    Please know that in my following comment, I am not defending bullies. Bullying is a terrible thing that no one should ever have to go through.

    That said, I was severely bullied all through school and I never even considered doing anything like this. Instead I worked my butt off, graduated early and got top marks in college. I excel in life, despite the bullying. The only kids I ever knew who did this are the kids who showed “wayward” tendencies in school. THEY were the bullies. These kids fought others, did drugs, damaged property, threw tantrums, etc when life didn’t go their way.

    At 16 years old, this guy is old enough to know right from wrong and he knows that what he did was wrong. He doesn’t care. As far as I’m concerned, He needs prison.

    • IPFreely June 21, 2018 at 7:27 pm

      Finally someone with a brain makes a comment… if he had enough brains to make a bomb he knew what he was doing

    • jaltair June 21, 2018 at 9:37 pm

      PatriotLiberal, I agree with all you say. What matters is that the person causing a crime knows the difference between right and wrong, and if they do they take the consequences for their actions. Good comment!

  • comments June 21, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    another autistic lunatic. Something in their brains doesn’t work right. And why are their so many nowadays? Something in the water? Millennials and post-millennials have rates of autism that are just ludicrous. And I KNOW FOR DAMN SURE it isn’t this BS of “oh it just because they are diagnosing it more now”. Total BS. There’ve always been those with mental retardation but this autism thing is a new animal. We simply didn’t have it when I was growing up. I’d like to know what’s causing it. I suspect it’s caused in part by a chemically toxified world–and resulting in forms of brain damage called “autism”. IT’S RIDICULOUS, the whole thing.

  • Close The Borders June 21, 2018 at 8:59 pm

    Let’s face it…. too much inbreeding in this state. The LDS think of themselves as perfect and incapable of doing anything wrong. This whole state is delusional.

    • comments June 21, 2018 at 11:41 pm

      well it is. what can ya do?

  • bikeandfish June 22, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    Several commentors are assuming everyone knows right from wrong by the time they are this kids age. The science and experience with individuals on the spectrum proves otherwise. We know they are able to have immense intelligence in one area, say technology needed to make a homemade bomb, yet lack any if not all emotional intelligence to understand the consequences of their actions. Trust the psychologist on this one, they are the experts.

    Does that mean he shouldn’t experience legal consequences? No. Even a sentence that takes into account his mental health issues will result in incarceration and involuntary commitment. Given his condition and actions I would be shocked if he doesn’t become a ward of the state in some fashion.

    I will say, incarceration of a young man clearly on the spectrum with no mental health care is likely to cause more harm to him and society. He is likely to experience years of trauma from the experience and other inmates that are not good for his health nor helpful when he is eventually released. He needs directed, intentional care and rehabilitation. He needs occupational therapy and traditional therapy to help him cope with the “real world”.

  • Eric August 26, 2018 at 8:35 am

    I am a high functioning autistic and have been bullied a lot. Does that mean I would go and do crimes or give me a license to…no. I know a lot of other autistics that have been bullied and know right from wrong and would never do this. Just another dumb liberal psycologist blaming autism. Thanks to him autistic people will get a bad name.

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