Waseca, Minn. – It's likely to be some time before John LaDue is integrated back into society as he serves up to 10 years of probation in connection with his plan to carry out a school massacre in this southern Minnesota town.
Under a sentence issued Monday, LaDue will undergo an unspecified amount of time in treatment at a secure facility near Atlanta that will work with his autism spectrum disorder and fixation on violence. Then he'll spend time in a halfway house before being allowed back into the community under intensive supervision.
If and when LaDue returns to Waseca — a community stung by the revelation that a horrific tragedy was so narrowly diverted — it would be better off embracing LaDue than treating him like a pariah, Judge Joseph Chase told the quiet courtroom.
LaDue, now 18, showed no emotion during the sentencing hearing, declining to make a statement. His parents sat in the gallery, holding hands.
"Call it what you will — grace, providence, fate, good luck, a guardian angel — tragedy was almost miraculously averted in this town," Chase said, praising the alert citizen who called police after seeing LaDue enter a storage locker in late April 2014, leading authorities to discover a cache of bombmaking materials, guns and a 180-page notebook detailing LaDue's plans. "That day, Waseca was spared."
But after going over medical reports and other documents, Chase, reading from a prepared statement, said it is clear that LaDue's "severely distorted thinking" comes from his disorder. Autism spectrum disorder "prevents him … because of the way he is wired … from experiencing true emotional responses to others the way that most of us do," the judge said. LaDue presents an unusual case because his fixation is on violence, he said.
LaDue "did not ask" to have autism spectrum disorder, the judge said, and "he is not at fault for having this condition any more than one can be at fault for having diabetes or asthma."
But, he acknowledged, that doesn't make it less frightening for the community or diminish the need for future supervision.
While it would not surprise anyone if the community tries to push LaDue away if he returns to Waseca, the judge said, that is "exactly what not to do if the goal is reducing any risk of violence," he said, citing the advice of experts, including one who urged that LaDue not be allowed to live a "secret life" under the radar.
While it doesn't sound easy, Chase said as he understands it, the community "likely has an important part to play" in minimizing future danger.
How the law treats a plot
LaDue's sentencing likely brings an end to nearly a year and a half of legal debate over what to do with him.
Under an agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty last month to one count of possessing an explosive device as a minor, referring to what his attorney later described as a small "cricket" explosive. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors agreed to drop five remaining similar counts against him.
The night police found him in the storage locker, LaDue, then 17, told authorities of his detailed plans to shoot his family, then set a fire in the countryside to distract emergency officials, then go to school with pressure-cooker bombs, firearms and ammunition to kill as many people as he could. Authorities, who searched the locker and LaDue's bedroom, had said they confiscated chemicals, several guns, ammunition and a few completed explosives.
While he had already delayed his plans, officers concluded shortly after his arrest that LaDue intended to carry out the massacre within a week or two.
LaDue initially was charged as a juvenile with four counts of attempted murder, two counts of first-degree damage to property and six counts of possession of a bomb by someone under 18. The attempted-murder and property-damage charges were later dismissed.
A state Appeals Court panel said it could not "invite speculation as to whether the acts would be carried out." The court noted that in some states, the act of making preparations can be used to charge someone with attempted crimes, but Minnesota law specifically requires more than that.
A district judge later certified LaDue as an adult, finding that doing so would "serve public safety and meet the needs of the child for treatment and rehabilitation."
'No one's noticed …'
LaDue's parents have stood steadfastly by their son, saying they don't believe he would have carried out the attacks and that he needed mental health help, not punishment. They declined to comment Monday.
LaDue told authorities shortly after he was discovered that, "I think I'm just really mentally ill and no one's noticed, and I've been trying to hide it." He added that he'd never been bullied and has good parents. He wanted to "get out of this place," he said.
He didn't have a list of students he was targeting, he said. "I would have taken anyone out, I didn't care."
Attorneys said during the sentencing hearing that they agreed to send LaDue to Georgia because few places try to treat the rare case of a juvenile or young adult with autism spectrum disorder who is fixated on violence.
Asked afterward how LaDue was faring, defense attorney Dawn Johnson said he "keeps his own counsel, and that's part of his makeup." Asked if he was remorseful, she said he chose not to give a statement in court. "He's a quiet young man, and he doesn't display his emotions," she said.
Johnson said it's "hard to say" whether LaDue will want to return to Waseca at the end of his probation.