A clinical psychiatrist has testified that the behavior of a teen on trial for vandalizing a school with ISIS-themed graffiti and an attempted bombing is not consistent with his autism diagnosis.
The Vandalism and Attempted Bombing Incidents
On February 15, 2018, a Hurricane High School in St. George, Utah was vandalized with pro-Islamic Style Graffiti reading “ISIS is comi-.” The school’s U.S. flag was replaced with an ISIS flag.
A few weeks later, on March 5, an improvised bomb was left in the lunchroom of the nearby Pine View High School. The principal identified one 16-year-old student as a potential suspect.
Detective Brandon Dunbar, a police officer who responded to the Pine Valley High School, interviewed the suspect. During the interview, the teen admitted that he was responsible for the improvised incendiary device and for the vandalism incident that had occurred at Hurricane High School in February.
The teen told the interviewers that he had brought a backpack to school with matches, a can, canning lids, pellets, bottles of gasoline, and other items. He also admitted to striking the match. The teen said that he had intended “to cause some fear” in people and that he had been planning to bring the backpack to school for several weeks.
The teen said that he thought “it was pretty cool” to see the bomb squad arrive. He said, “I’ve been looking at ISIS stuff, so I wanted to see what would happen and what people would think.” He continued, “I don’t see death as anything bad. I see it as a new way of life… I expected the thing to go off.”
Because the police viewed the backpack as a weapon of mass destruction, the FBI was called in to investigate. Special Agent Chris Anderson said that the teenager’s laptop and cell phone were taken by the FBI for review. The teen’s phone showed that he had searched terms like “bomb,” “fuse,” “ISIS,” and “How do westerners become recruited to ISIS.”
Autism Diagnosis Controversy
The teen has been charged with felony counts of attempted murder and use of a weapon of mass destruction and misdemeanor counts of graffiti and abuse of a flag. he teen is currently in proceedings to determine whether he should be tried as a juvenile or as an adult.
A forensic psychologist who interviewed the teen testified that he had diagnosed him with level 1 autism spectrum disorder and that he had below-average IQ and difficulty associating with others.
The state brought in Gregory Saatoff, a high-profile clinical psychiatrist and a longtime consultant with the FBI to challenge that diagnosis. Saatoff testified that the autism diagnosis and perceived intellectual limitations don’t make sense given the crimes that he had been charged with. Saatoff said that the crimes would require meticulous planning and duplicitous behavior. Saatoff said that he also noted that the boy’s generally good grades, strong family support system, and lack of problems did not fit in with the diagnosis.
Saatoff said that none of the teen’s actions matched the general tendencies of someone with autism spectrum disorder. He noted that the boy’s internet history and responses to interviews suggested that he was very cognizant of the way that the initial incident had been received and that he was trying to “leverage” the attention around the school shooting in Parkland, Florida to create fear in the second incident.
The judge has given no indication of when he will rule on the request to try the student as an adult.