A district judge on Monday dismissed the most serious charges against John LaDue, the Waseca teenager accused of secretly plotting a school massacre this spring, saying prosecutors hadn’t shown that the boy’s actions went beyond “mere preparation.’’
Judge Gerald Wolf dismissed all four charges of attempted premeditated murder against LaDue, as well as two charges of attempted first-degree damage to property, noting that the state “failed to show that [LaDue] made a substantial step … toward the commission” of the crimes.
Wolf let stand six charges that LaDue was in possession of explosive devices.
The decision means a drastically different case for LaDue, who, if certified as an adult, faced up to 18 years in prison if convicted of one count of first-degree attempted murder. The remaining charges — possessing an incendiary device — carry much lesser sentences, his defense attorney said.
“We’re pleased that Judge Wolf utilized his 30-plus years of experience to render the legally correct decision in a controversial case,” defense attorney Dawn Johnson said.
The ruling, released Monday afternoon, brought relief to the LaDue family, which has maintained that John LaDue, 17, needs help for mental illness, not an extended prison sentence.
Reached Monday evening, his father said the family was still trying to understand what the dismissals will mean for the next steps in the case.
“I very much want him to find a way to continue on with his life when this is over with, and it looks like chances are better now for that,” David LaDue said.
LaDue cannot be charged with the exact same counts again, his attorney added, although prosecutors could appeal the judge’s ruling.
Prosecutor Brenda Miller could not be reached Monday evening.
The case left the city of Waseca reeling and breathing a sigh of relief that LaDue never had the chance to carry out his plans.
LaDue, in police interviews, calmly and precisely described plans to “dispose of” his father, mother and sister by shooting them, then set a fire in the country for a diversion, carrying out a massacre at the junior and senior high schools in town, including targeting school liaison officer Jared Chrz. He told police that he wanted as many victims as possible, because he thought it would be “fun” and he would be following his idol, Columbine gunman Eric Harris.
His plan was thwarted when a local woman became suspicious when she saw him fumble with a lock at a storage facility and shut the door behind him, and she called 911. When police arrived, they found bomb-making materials, and LaDue, over the next several hours, told them of his plans. He directed police to a journal that he kept in his bedroom that also detailed his plot.
He told police that he thought that he was mentally ill and that no one had noticed because he’d been trying to hide it.
In the order issued Monday, the judge found that “There is no doubt [LaDue] was preparing for the commission of some of the charged crimes. He wrote about his plan in his journal, thought about it, gathered material to execute the plan and later confessed his plan to law enforcement.”
“However,” the judge wrote, “at no point did [LaDue] verbally or physically threaten his family or Officer Chrz, brandish or shoot a firearm toward [them], transport the necessary materials to the locations established in his plan or injure or maim any individual.”
In his order, Wolf noted that LaDue had intended to act on his plan on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting, but changed that plan because it was Easter Sunday.
“After abandoning his initial plan, there has been no showing that he had rescheduled his plans for any specific day or time,” Wolf wrote.
He added: “It would be pure speculation for this court to assume that [LaDue] would have followed through with the thoughts contained in his journal.”
Prosecutors can still seek to certify LaDue as an adult, according to the ruling. He was scheduled to appear at an adult certification hearing Wednesday.
His attorney, Johnson, said she’s unsure what will happen at the hearing now. Because the attempted murder charges were dismissed, the state has the burden of proof in certification, Johnson said.
David LaDue said his family has stood behind John LaDue since his arrest, thankful that he never hurt anyone and believing that he never would have carried out his horrible plot.
He said he and his wife had no idea that their son was having such dark thoughts.
The family has lived through a nightmare, David LaDue said, feeling as though the case had been overstated in the murder charges, news conferences announcing the plot and the release of audio files of their son’s interviews.
“For me, it more seems like vindication than relief,” David LaDue said of the judge’s ruling. “I kind of thought he was overcharged.”
Reached Monday night, Waseca Mayor Roy Srp said he wasn’t totally surprised by the judge’s decision.
“These days we try to regard mental health issues very openly, and when someone is suffering from mental health issues, they’re suffering, and humans care about those who are suffering,” Srp said. “Mr. LaDue will get the help that he needs.”
David LaDue added that he wouldn’t be defending his son throughout the case if his son had hurt someone.
“The backlash could have been largely avoided if they hadn’t … made it sound like they caught the Unabomber or something,” David LaDue added.
The family has also been concerned about their own safety as the case moved through the courts.
As news of the ruling spread Monday afternoon, David LaDue was driving back from visiting his son in the Red Wing juvenile facility where he is being held. He said his 18-year-old daughter called and said that a man came to their house, pounded on the door and yelled, “Not in my … neighborhood.” He told her to call police. They found a printout of a Facebook page with a post about the dismissed charges stuffed in the door, David LaDue said.