Bluffton High student who brought gun, knives to school sentenced to up to 5 years in prison

rlurye@islandpacket.comApril 25, 2014 

A former Bluffton High School student who brought a gun and 12 knives to school in May will serve a prison sentence not to exceed five years, a judge decided Friday.

Austen Almeida, 18, was also sentenced to five years of probation, and must receive treatment and counseling for an autism spectrum disorder, anxiety and depression -- conditions that went undiagnosed until after his arrest May 1, two forensic psychiatrists said in court. If he fails to follow his probation conditions, he must serve a 10-year sentence.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper read the sentence in the Beaufort County Courthouse after more than two hours of proceedings that included video of Almeida's initial interview with Bluffton police. In those clips, he told officers he brought a Glock 22 pistol, knives and lighter fluid to school so he could "chop people into little bits and light them on fire."

Also armed with a hatchet, ammunition, four firecrackers, a lighter and a magnesium fire starter, Almeida planned to hold his class hostage and disable students with nonfatal gunshots so he could improvise the rest of his attack, he told police.

Instead, he approached teacher Maggie Williams and said he was afraid he was going to do something he did not want to do, she testified Friday. Williams led Almeida outside, the school began a five-hour lockdown, and Almeida was arrested without incident.

In court Friday, Almeida stood to address the courtroom. Defense attorney Sam Bauer asked Cooper not to judge the teenager on his delivery, which lacked emotion due to Asperger's.

"I would like to apologize for what I've done and for scaring people," Almeida said. "This entire situation has been a long list of mistakes on my part. ... I believe that in the end, I didn't hurt anyone because I wanted help."

The chilling plan was the result of anger at his inability to connect with peers, bouts of anxiety and an error in thinking, which are common symptoms of Asperger's syndrome, said Donna Schwartz-Watt, a psychiatric expert who testified for the defense,

Though Almeida had been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, he had been off his medication since January 2013, Schwartz-Watt said. With treatment and education about Asperger's, as well as access to online classes, Almeida could reach his full potential, she said.

After showing the video clips, however, deputy solicitor Sean Thornton said it would be a mischaracterization to say the teenager changed his mind about an attack. His trigger simply did not go off, Thornton said.

"Mr. Almeida, frankly, terrifies me," he said.

Brad Clayton, a forensic psychiatrist who evaluated Almeida for the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office, testified there was a moderate to serious risk he could turn violent again. Based on that risk and the severity of Almeida's intended crime, the prosecution asked for a 20-year sentence.

Before reading his decision Friday, Cooper explained his reservations about a long prison term.

"Without treatment, there is no hope, and one thing we can agree on is, in prison, there is no treatment," he said. "Who do we turn loose on society then? Who do we have to deal with then?"

He later said he could not base a sentence on what Almeida might do in the future.

"I'm hopeful I've found a way not to throw him away in the warehouse of the Department of Corrections because he might do something," Cooper said. "Today, let's deal with what he has done."

Almeida was sentenced to less than five years in prison under the Youthful Offender Act for the charge of carrying a weapon onto school property. On the charge of possession of an explosive or destructive device, he was sentenced to 10 years, suspended to five years of probation. He also received credit for time served in the county jail on charges of disturbing schools and unlawfully carrying a firearm.

The teenager, who pleaded guilty to the charges in February, has remained in the Beaufort County Detention Center since his arrest. Almeida, who has an IQ of 136, also became the first detention center inmate to graduate with a high school diploma while in jail, rather than a GED, lead instructor Emanuel Dore testified.

Almeida's parents sat among two rows of family, friends, neighbors and other supporters who pledged to help Almeida through his treatment, which will include counseling by a Hilton Head Island autism specialist.

Among the group was the teacher he had confided in, who said she still remembers her former student as eccentric and colorful, not the 17-year-old who became lost in a "dark, brooding persona."

"I removed Austen from my class May 1 to support the students in my class. Now it's time to support Austen," Williams said. "I only hope the court gives him the help he needs, so one day he can become the bright, young man he was on April 30."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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