Just five days into the new school year, a 17-year-old Michigan resident with a history of soliciting and posting naked photos and videos of Beaufort County teens online threatened to “shoot up” two Bluffton high schools, according to officials.
A student at May River High School discovered the threat on Snapchat, a social media app, some time before classes began Aug. 24 and reported it to the school resource officer soon after, according to Joy Nelson, spokesperson for the Bluffton Police Department.
The threat, believed to be the only one the suspect has made in Beaufort County, prompted the Beaufort County School District to place four Bluffton schools on “modified” lockdown just as students arrived for the day.
Though Bluffton police termed the threat “unsubstantiated” and “noncredible” from the start, the department continued to recommend that the schools remain on lockdown for two and a half hours, according to a department Facebook post.
“In the era of social media, it’s possible for someone to make an unsubstantiated threat at any time, anywhere and anyone can do it,” said Jim Foster, spokesperson for the district. “But we don’t have a luxury of saying ‘This probably is fake.’
“So, we treat every one of those threats seriously.”
The suspect, who lives in Detroit, has been known to Bluffton police since January and has been under investigation by the Michigan Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force since at least June.
The reports say the teen runs a “popular Snapchat account” that shared photos and videos that are “sexual in nature.”
Now he is accused of warning his Snapchat followers, “I’m going to shoot up Bluffton and May River. Wear red so I know you are a real (n-word).”
Suspect’s ties to Bluffton teens
The first time Bluffton police encountered the suspect was this past January.
A student at May River High School told a teacher that naked photos of three students at the school had been posted to a Snapchat account, according to a Bluffton police report.
Over winter break, the Snapchat user had “called for pictures to be sent in,” and several nude photos had been posted in the ensuing weeks, the student told police.
“Some of them had emojis covering parts of the body, but some of them did not,” the report stated.
Investigators spoke to two of the girls whose photos had been posted by the Snapchat user. Both told police they sent the photos to a group of friends last year, but they did not know who had sent them to the Snapchat account.
They told police, “there’s no way to know who has what pictures anymore, because boys will trade for nude pictures,” an investigator wrote in the report.
After talking to the girls, investigators spoke to several male students as well.
One boy told police he believed another May River student “may have been friends with the owner of the account when he lived up north,” the report said.
The parents of the students whose photographs had been posted on the account were notified by school administrators.
Several months later, on April 3, a second police report was filed accusing the same Snapchat user of posting a lewd video of a Jasper County home-schooled student that was circulating around Bluffton High School.
A female Bluffton High student told authorities that a classmate had passed around a video of himself having sex with his girlfriend.
When police asked the male student about the incident, he admitted to posting the video on his own Snapchat account, along with sending the video to a “popular Snapchat account,” the same account that had been reported to Bluffton police in January.
The boy told police “he was upset (his girlfriend) had cheated on him and decided to send the video to other people.”
Investigators told the boy’s mother he would face charges of sexual exploitation of a minor second degree and dissemination of obscene material to a minor under 18, according to the police report. It is unclear from the report whether he was, in fact, charged.
The third time the “popular Snapchat account” was reported to police was April 12.
The 14-year-old victim in this case told police she and her boyfriend had broken up after dating about five months. During their relationship, she had sent nude photos and videos of herself to him.
Some time after their breakup, she received a message from the suspect’s Snapchat account, warning her that he would post her photos and videos to his account if she didn’t send him more naked photos and videos of herself, according to the report.
The victim did not comply.
The next morning she received a message from a second Snapchat user, unknown to her, saying, “He posted it.” A screenshot of a video the girl had sent to her ex-boyfriend was included in the message, the report said.
The girl’s ex-boyfriend denied sharing any photos or videos with the Snapchat account.
Authorities did not disclose the identity of the suspect or the name of his Snapchat account because he is a minor.
Nelson, spokesperson for the Bluffton police, said the suspect’s connection to the Bluffton area is still unknown. School district spokesperson Foster said there is no record of the suspect having attended any district school in the past 10 years.
Evidence collected by Bluffton investigators earlier this year has been sent to the Michigan Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Calls to the task force from an Island Packet reporter were not returned Wednesday. The status of the investigation is unclear.
The threat the Snapchat user is accused of making on Aug. 24 is among many reported at Beaufort County schools since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which heightened national attention on gun laws and school safety.
Because the suspect lives in Detroit, Bluffton Police does not have jurisdiction to file charges, Nelson said. Instead, the evidence collected Friday was sent to the Detroit Police Department.
A spokesperson for the Detroit Police Department said investigators are aware of the threat and are looking into it on their end.
What happened Friday
During the lockdowns on Aug. 24, parents and community members received no updates from the Bluffton Police Department between the initial alert and the announcement the lockdowns had been lifted.
Bluffton Police issued a news release later that afternoon that included inaccurate information about when the school district and investigators first learned of the threat, leading some to wonder why students would be allowed to enter the two schools.
The modified lockdown was announced just after Bluffton High and May River High students started their day at 8:45 a.m. Aug. 24, and an hour and 15 minutes after Bluffton Police said they were first made aware of the threat at 7:30 a.m.
A police report released to The Island Packet on Monday, however, listed 8:15 a.m. as the time the department had initially received notice of the threat.
When asked to explain the discrepancy, police spokesperson Nelson said she had been given incorrect information from investigators.
“You have to understand, Friday was a very fluid day,” she said. “... I don’t think any investigator was focused on looking at their watch.”
The reason the district did not inform parents about the threat right away was because authorities were just beginning to look into the matter right at the time hundreds of students were already at school or on the way to school, Foster said.
“The safest thing to do at that point is get them into school and institute a lockdown,” he said.
At 9 a.m., once all the students were in class, May River and Bluffton high schools, along with Bluffton Elementary School and H.E. McCracken Middle School, were placed on modified lockdowns. Soon after, the district notified parents about the lockdowns via a Facebook post, on the district’s website, as well as through robocalls and emails from each school.
Although no direct threats were made to the elementary or middle school, the modified lockdowns were instituted out of an “abundance of caution” because both buildings share outdoor areas with the high schools, Foster said Friday.
In the case of a modified lockdown, students continue to change classes throughout the day, but “are more closely monitored” and “outdoor activities are suspended,” according to a Friday news release from the school district.
When a school is placed on a full lockdown, students remain in locked classrooms and are not permitted in the hallway for any reason, Foster said.
In announcing the threat Friday, Bluffton police called it “unsubstantiated.”
Asked Monday why there was a need for a lockdown if the department had deemed the threat to be “unsubstantiated” and “noncredible” from the start, Nelson said, “We want to take every precautionary step to make sure our thought process is the correct one.”
Around 11:30 a.m. Friday, Bluffton police recommended that the lockdowns be lifted because the threat had been deemed “noncredible,” according to the department’s release.