Former student Almeida pleads guilty to Bluffton High weapons charges

rlurye@islandpacket.comFebruary 26, 2014 

An 18-year-old former Bluffton High School student pleaded guilty to three weapons charges Wednesday after bringing a loaded handgun, knives and explosives to the school in May.

In court for the first time since he was denied bond in May, Austen Almeida, who was 17 and a Bluffton High student at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty to carrying a weapon onto school property, unlawfully carrying a firearm, possession of an explosive or destructive device, and disturbing schools.

Almeida is no longer a student at the school, according to school district spokesman Jim Foster.

Almeida brought a Glock 22 handgun, 12 knives, a hatchet, lighter fluid, two magazines, ammunition, four firecrackers, a lighter and a magnesium fire starter to school May 1. According to school officials, a teacher noticed that he was acting strangely and started a conversation. Almeida then said he was having thoughts of harming people, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said.

The teacher reportedly led Almeida away from other students, alerted law enforcement and helped take some of the weapons from him, Stone said.

The school was placed on lockdown for five hours.

Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper accepted the teenager's plea, adding there was "obviously a substantial factual basis" for it.

The judge also approved Stone's request for a state psychiatrist to review a mental evaluation that Cooper ordered for Almeida in May. A state expert will examine the documents and possibly conduct another evaluation.

Stone would not comment further on the results of the initial evaluation, which was not read in court Wednesday.

Almeida's attorneys, Sam Bauer of Hilton Head Island and Jim Bannon of Bluffton, did not object to the review.

Following the hearing, they and several of Almeida's relatives declined to comment.

The 18-year-old's sentencing will take place the fourth week of April. The most serious charge, possession of an explosive or destructive device, carries a penalty of two to 15 years in prison.

Stone said it was too early to say how Almeida's mental-health evaluations will affect his sentencing.

"Every case is different, and everything is relevant," he said.

The day after the incident, many students at Bluffton High said that before May 1, Almeida was quirky but not dangerous. Some said they thought he had been bullied, but principal Mark Dievendorf said at the time he had heard no such reports.

Dievendorf also said Almeida posed no significant disciplinary problems before May 1. Nothing in his school file from Hilton Head Christian or Calvert Hall College High School in Baltimore, Md., which he also attended, indicated he had problems elsewhere, Dievendorf has said.

The principal described Almeida as an "animated young man," who enjoys theater and "has a gift for acting." He had won an award in a Shakespeare recitation contest and was on track to graduate.

"His involvement in something such as this was unexpected," Dievendorf said the day after the incident, "and appears to be a reaching out for help."

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