In small York, South Carolina, a city of about 5,000 people, nobody ever expected the FBI to swoop in last year with some of the top anti-terrorism agents in the country. But that’s what happened when police say a 16-year-old kid from Syria, raised in York, bought two guns and wanted to join ISIS in Syria, then threatened to massacre American soldiers after robbing a gun store.
Or if that didn’t work, police said the teen was prepared to take the guns and go into the nearest police station and kill cops.
York police swooped in and arrested the teen the day before the plot was supposed to happen in February 2015. The teen pleaded guilty and was sentenced in April 2015 to juvenile jail up to age 21.
Then the teen recanted his confession, claiming to the parole board there was no plot, no plan – despite a confession to police.
Yet that teen, now 17, walks free a year and a half later. He was never charged with any federal crime and was paroled on a simple gun possession charge May 4, then released from jail May 6. He was released despite refusing to tell police where he got the guns that started the nationwide investigation that landed him in jail.
Police and prosecutors said that because of the teen’s age, and because terrorism falls under federal jurisdiction, the teen was charged and prosecuted to the fullest extent of South Carolina law.
The teen told South Carolina’s juvenile parole board he was going to live near Charleston with his mother and sisters.
South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman Patrick Montgomery declined comment on the specifics of the teen’s release or where he is living because of his age and status as a juvenile. However, Montgomery said a juvenile who is paroled is released to the custody of a parent or guardian. More, a paroled teen teen is assigned to a parole agent called an Intensive Supervisory Officer, who either talks to the teen or sees the teen in person up to five times each week.
“That’s a good thing, because it keeps the person on their toes to be responsible,” Montgomery said.
The teen, before his arrest in February 2015, was communicating with a radical Muslim adult from North Carolina via social media and electronic communication, police and prosecutors have said in court and to the parole board. That second person has never been named in court or to the parole board, and federal officials have declined to say if there was even an investigation into the second man, let alone an arrest.
The teen’s lawyer said after the teen was granted parole earlier this month that he expected the teen would have electronic monitoring and be barred from having Internet access.
Montgomery, the DJJ spokesman, said it is also common for juvenile parolees to have an electronic ankle bracelet so that state agents can monitor their location at all times. More, some parolees are required to have a curfew – although Montgomery declined to say specifically if the York teen was given a curfew.
The teen from York received his General Equivalency Diploma while in juvenile jail and told the parole board he wanted to start a career as a mechanic. Montgomery, the juvenile justice spokesman, said released parolees must look for employment after release.
The Herald has not named the teen because of his age, and the fact that he was convicted in juvenile court and has never been charged with a federal crime or any crime as an adult. The teen’s lawyers have said the death of his father caused the teen to reach out toward radicals to begin with because of atrocities against family members in Syria.
However, police have called the teen a threat to national security and asked the state parole board not to let him out. York Police Department Chief Andy Robinson this week said that two weeks after the teen was released from S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice custody, he and his officers who investigated and charged the teen have been told nothing about the release.
“No one from DJJ has told us anything,” Robinson said. “We don’t know where he is, who is supervising him, what he is required to do. Nothing.”
The Herald was the only media at the May 2 parole hearing where the teen claimed he was not a threat to anyone, and contradicted police by saying he was never in any plot. The teen told the parole board he “changed.” The teen claimed he would “never kill any innocent people.”
Yet Lt. Rich Caddell of the York Police Department told the parole board that the teen looked right at Caddell and admitted that he would shoot any cops who got in his way.
Bob Hamilton, the York County Sheriff’s Office Deputy and former FBI agent assigned to a task force of local and federal police, bluntly told the parole board the teen was a threat to national security and like York police, asked that parole be denied. Then before the May 2 parole hearing - after the teen was first denied parole in February - Hamilton met with the teen and again asked for the teen to give police the source of the rifle and handgun the teen bought while just 15 years old.
The teen refused, yet still walked out of jail 18 months after going inside.
Robinson, the police chief, and Caddell, the lieutenant, both told the parole board they hope the teen has changed. They want him to have good life.
But their job is protect the public safety of the people of York and are frustrated and disappointed in the way the system has handled the parole and release.
“We did our best in this investigation and in trying to tell the parole board our concerns,” said Caddell. “For the people of this community, we did all that we could to investigate this and keep them safe, and then be advocates for their continued safety.”
Yet the safety of people in York, or Charleston, or wherever that teen goes now, is now up to one person: That teen. 17 years old, who confessed to a plot to become a radical killer then denied it.
Paroled, yet still, a free man.