HAMILTON, Ohio (AP) — A 15-year-old boy pleaded guilty Thursday to charges expected to keep him locked up at least until he’s 21 for opening fire on fellow students in a school cafeteria for reasons that remain unclear.
James Austin Hancock, replying “Yes sir” and “No sir” as Butler County Juvenile Court Judge Ronald Craft questioned him, pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder and one count of inducing panic. Prosecutors dropped four felonious assault counts. Craft ordered a pre-sentencing investigation and agreed to a defense request for a psychological evaluation of Hancock before he sentences him June 6.
Before he was led away, ankles shackled, the youth hugged his parents and other relatives, some sobbing and assuring him: “We love you, Austin.”
Hancock was charged in the Feb. 29 shooting at Madison Local Schools near Middletown, north of Cincinnati. Authorities said Hancock, who was 14 at the time, took a relative’s loaded gun to school and opened fire in the cafeteria, hitting two students. Two other students were injured by shrapnel or while running away.
“There really isn’t a good motive for what he did,” defense attorney Charles Rittgers said. “You’re dealing with the mind of a 14-year-old. And as most people know, especially at that age, they’re immature and they act sometimes impulsively.”
He said Hancock’s actions “came totally out of the blue” and that he didn’t have a history of causing trouble. He said the youth is sorry for what he did and is relieved no one was hurt more seriously than they were. Authorities have said all four recovered.
The Associated Press generally does not identify juveniles charged with crimes, but Hancock’s name was widely reported.
Brant Murray, a 13-year-old student hit in the legs by shrapnel in the shootings, was at the court with his mother, Ginger Weaver. She said “physically, he’s fine,” but he doesn’t talk much about that day. She added that he didn’t even know Hancock.
She thought Hancock should have been charged as an adult.
“At 15 years old, he knows better. Period,” she said. “I wanted more. … This is my child.”
Hancock was indicted in March as a juvenile under a serious youthful offender classification. Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said the grand jury had the option of indicting Hancock as an adult but chose to charge him under the juvenile classification.
The serious juvenile offender status results in a rare blended sentence with both juvenile and adult penalties.
Rittgers said Hancock will be in a juvenile detention center until he turns 21, and if he stays out of trouble in the meantime, the threat of the adult sentence would go away at 21.
If not, a prosecutor can request he be moved into the adult system. There, he could face dozens of years in prison, depending upon Craft’s sentencing decision in June. A single attempted murder charge carries a possible 11-year sentence with extra years because the case involved use of a firearm and was in a school zone.
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