WASECA, Minn. – A string of experts who took the witness stand Tuesday offered varying opinions about how much of a threat John LaDue poses more than a year after he was accused in an unfulfilled plot to kill his family and set off bombs at the local school.
They each agreed on at least one thing: He needs treatment.
A judge will have to weigh treatment options and public safety concerns in deciding whether LaDue is best suited to stay in the juvenile court system or be certified as an adult in the case. That ruling is expected in August.
Three psychologists who testified during a daylong hearing indicated that LaDue needs treatment partly focused on his autism spectrum disorder along with supervision and monitoring before being reintegrated into society. LaDue, who was 17 at the time of his arrest but has since turned 18, sat unemotionally in jeans and a black hoodie listening to psychologists’ analysis of him at the Waseca County Courthouse.
LaDue is being held in a youth facility in Willmar, Minn., where he is receiving some therapy.
Found in April 2014 with bomb-making materials, guns and a detailed notebook that laid out his massacre plans, LaDue at one point faced attempted murder charges, but a lower court dismissed those charges and other serious counts against him, finding that he hadn’t taken substantial enough steps to warrant such charges.
The state Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling, leaving LaDue facing six charges of possessing explosive devices. If convicted as an adult on all six charges, he would face a guideline sentence of 60 months in prison, Waseca County Attorney Brenda Miller said.
Defense attorneys argue LaDue can get appropriate therapy if he remains in the regular juvenile system, where the court would oversee him until he turns 19 in December, or under extended juvenile jurisdiction, where his compliance would mean the court overseeing him until his 21st birthday — approximately 30 months from now. In the juvenile system, he would not have a felony on his record.
“He can get the therapy that he needs in the juvenile system,” defense attorney Stephen Ferrazzano said after the hearing. “There’s plenty of time.”
The prosecution disagreed, arguing via expert testimony that if LaDue is found guilty in adult court he would stay under the thumb of the justice system longer, either in prison or on probation.
Two psychologists testified Tuesday that they believe 30 months would not be long enough to treat LaDue.
Psychologist Katheryn Cranbrook, who was involved in Minnesota school shooting cases in Red Lake and Rocori, took the strongest stance for certifying LaDue as an adult. LaDue poses a “significant risk for future violence,” she said, testifying for the prosecution.
LaDue differs from most other juveniles facing adult certification questions because he didn’t have an escalating trajectory of prior problems with the law, she said. LaDue was not impulsive, but planned violence with specific targets. As part of his “mild to moderate” autism spectrum disorder, he focused on weapons and violence, she said.
Talking about his plan, LaDue didn’t demonstrate any concern or empathy for the impact it would have on others, Cranbrook said.
Cranbrook said she was concerned about the availability of appropriate treatment for LaDue’s unusual case, saying she wasn’t aware of a program that could combine secure placement and autism therapy.
“Public safety requires that his risk be managed,” she said, recommending he be moved to adult court.
LaDue needs an extended period of monitoring and supervision, she said.
Court-appointed psychologist James Gilbertson testified that LaDue had a “moderate degree of risk” associated with his actions.
LaDue had no indication of a major mental illness and scored low on tests for risk of violence and psychopathy, he said.
But his autism spectrum disorder meant he didn’t fit in at school, Gilbertson said, and LaDue quietly started planning to strike back at people he considered dismissive of him or who didn’t appreciate his greatness. He developed a fixation for watching violent videos to reinforce his own violent fantasies, Gilbertson said.
LaDue felt he was quite good at manipulating people and keeping his true intent silent, Gilbertson said, developing detailed plans and not worrying about his own future, figuring he would have been killed in the massacre.
Gilbertson said he believes LaDue hasn’t progressed psychologically since he was arrested, and needs the right kind of treatment imposed on him.
Such treatment could come in either the juvenile or adult courts, Gilbertson said.
“I would see him to be a poor candidate for prison life,” Gilbertson said, explaining that would allow LaDue to retreat to isolation and not improve.
But 30 months is shorter than Gilbertson would recommend, he said, adding that he’d like to see LaDue in therapy until his mid-20s.
In questioning Gilbertson, Miller pointed out that if LaDue were certified as an adult, prison would not be the only option: He could be sentenced to probation for a term significantly longer than in the juvenile court.
A psychologist hired by LaDue’s family to assess and recommend treatment for the teen testified for the defense Tuesday afternoon, saying that she thought a group home focused on autism would be appropriate for LaDue.
Mary Kenning testified that she found LaDue would be highly amenable to treatment — in the top 1 percent of those likely to respond well to it. With weekly therapy, she said, about a year of treatment would help him.
LaDue scored in the high range for overall sophistication and maturity, she testified, adding that people like him are relatively easy to work with because they believe they can control their own destiny. He also has a good family support system, she said.
It’s hard to answer how much of a danger LaDue is to the public right now, Kenning said, adding that if he were to be released he would need supervision.
As LaDue’s parents walked out of the courthouse Tuesday, his father, David LaDue, said they were glad to see progress in the case, but their son is still not getting the specific kind of treatment that he needs.
The process has been filled with delays, and now there are questions about whether there’s enough time to treat him in the juvenile system, David LaDue said.
“Isn’t that the problem we face: Do we worry about what’s left when they come out [of the justice system] or do we just worry about our immediate safety?” he said.
Since his arrest, the teen’s parents have stood by him, saying they believe he never would have carried out the plan.
Prosecutors have until July 24 to submit final written arguments about certification.
Judge Robert Birnbaum indicated he will rule within 30 days after that.