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Society

Michigan School Shooter’s Parents Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison for not Stopping a ‘Runaway Train’

PONTIAC, Mich.  — The first parents convicted in a U.S. mass school shooting were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison Tuesday as a Michigan judge lamented missed opportunities that could have prevented their teenage son from possessing a gun and killing four students in 2021.

“These convictions are not about poor parenting,” Oakland County Judge Cheryl Matthews said. “These convictions confirm repeated acts, or lack of acts, that could have halted an oncoming runaway train.”

The hearing in a crowded, tense courtroom was the climax of an extraordinary effort to make others besides the 15-year-old attacker criminally responsible for a school shooting.

Jennifer and James Crumbley did not know Ethan Crumbley had a handgun — he called it his “beauty” — in a backpack when he was dropped off at Oxford High School. But prosecutors convinced jurors the parents still played a disastrous role in the violence.

The Crumbleys were accused of not securing the newly purchased gun at home and acting indifferently to signs of their son’s deteriorating mental health, especially when confronted with a chilling classroom drawing earlier that same day.

The Crumbleys earlier this year were convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

“The blood of our children is on your hands, too,” Craig Shilling told the couple, wearing a hoodie with the image of son Justin Shilling on his chest.

Nicole Beausoleil, the mother of shooting victim Madisyn Baldwin, said the Crumbleys had failed at parenting.

“While you were purchasing a gun for your son and leaving it unlocked,” said Beausoleil, “I was helping her finish her college essays.”

Prosecutor Karen McDonald asked the judge to stretch beyond the sentencing guidelines and order a minimum 10-year prison sentence.

From left, James Crumbley, defense lawyer Mariell Lehman, Jennifer Crumbley, and defense lawyer Shannon Smith await sentencing in Oakland County, Mich., court on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. The Crumbleys were convicted of involuntary manslaughter for a school shooting committed by their son in 2021. (AP Photo/Ed White)

Defense attorneys sought to keep the Crumbleys out of prison, noting they have already spent nearly 2 1/2 years in jail, unable to afford a $500,000 bond after their arrest.

They will get credit for that jail time and become eligible for parole after serving 10 years in custody. If release from prison is denied, they could be held for up to 15 years.

Five deputies in the suburban Detroit courtroom stood closely over the couple and more lined the walls. James Crumbley, 47, had been recorded in jail making threats toward McDonald.

Before being sentenced, he stood and insisted he did not know his son was deeply troubled.

“My heart is really broken for everybody involved. … I have cried for you and the loss of your children more times than I can count,” he said.

The couple had separate trials in Oakland County court, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Detroit. Jurors saw the teen’s violent drawing on his school assignment and heard testimony about the crucial hours before the attack.

Ethan Crumbley sketched images of a gun, a bullet and a wounded man on a math paper, accompanied by despondent phrases: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me. Blood everywhere. My life is useless.”

Ethan Crumbley had told a counselor he was sad — a grandmother had died and his only friend suddenly had moved away — but said the drawing only reflected his interest in creating video games.

His parents were called to a hasty meeting at school that lasted less than 15 minutes. They did not mention that the gun resembled one James Crumbley had purchased just four days earlier, a Sig Sauer 9 mm.

School staff did not demand that the teen go home but were surprised when the Crumbleys did not volunteer it. Instead, they left with a list of mental health providers and said they were returning to work.

Later that day, on Nov. 30, 2021, their son pulled a handgun from his backpack and began shooting, killing Shilling, Baldwin, Tate Myre and Hana St. Juliana, and wounding seven other people. No one had checked the bag.

Ethan Crumbley, now 17, is serving a life sentence for murder and other crimes.

The parents ignored “things that would make a reasonable person feel the hair on the back of their neck stand up,” the judge said. “Opportunity knocked over and over again — louder and louder — and was ignored. No one answered.”

Jennifer Crumbley, 46, began her remarks by expressing “deepest sorrow” about the shooting. She also said her comment at her trial about looking back and not doing anything differently was “completely misunderstood.”

“My son did seem so normal. I didn’t have a reason to do anything different,” Jennifer Crumbley said.

She blamed the school for not giving her the “bigger picture” about Ethan Crumbley: sleeping in class, watching a video of a mass shooting, writing negative thoughts about his family.

“The prosecution has tried to mold us into the type of parents society wants to believe are so horrible only a school or mass shooter could be bred from,” Jennifer Crumbley said. “We were good parents. We were the average family.”

During the trials, there was no testimony from specialists about Ethan Crumbley’s mental health. But the judge, over defense objections, allowed the jury to see excerpts from his journal.

“I have zero help for my mental problems and it’s causing me to shoot up the … school,” he wrote. “I want help but my parents don’t listen to me so I can’t get any help.”

Relatives of the victims were not impressed by the Crumbleys’ courtroom comments. Beausoleil said they were portraying themselves as victims.

“The remorse that they were showing has nothing to do with taking accountability for their actions,” Steve St. Juliana, the father of Hana, said outside court. “I’m sure they were sad people lost their lives. I’m sure they’re sad their son is in jail, sad they’re in jail. … What’s important is for them to recognize that they made mistakes.”

The judge will decide later whether the Crumbleys will be allowed to have contact with their son while the three are in separate state prisons, though McDonald, the prosecutor, said the Corrections Department typically prohibits communication between co-defendants.

Defense lawyers said the Crumbleys have a constitutional right to be a family. But McDonald wondered about the parents of the victims.

“The parents in that courtroom have been deprived of their constitutional right to be parents, and that matters,” she told reporters.

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