The South Carolina juvenile parole board, in a decision that outraged local law enforcement, granted parole Wednesday to a York teen who investigators say wanted to join ISIS and plotted to kill American soldiers.
Police hope the FBI keeps tabs on the 17-year-old when he is released as early as Friday into the custody of state parole officials. The teen likely will have GPS monitoring and other parole conditions to include no Internet access.
York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said he is “absolutely devastated” that the parole board would release the teen.
“This is a person who has threatened law enforcement, threatened military personnel,” Bryant said.
York Police Chief Andy Robinson twice has told the parole board the teen’s actions jeopardized the safety of not just York, but the state and nation. Robinson was “shocked” by the “surprising and disheartening” decision after parole board members had told the teen Monday that cooperating with police would be in his favor.
Robinson said he “still has serious concerns” for public safety.
“The juvenile justice system has failed us,” he said.
The juvenile parole board issued its ruling Wednesday after a parole hearing Monday. Following the teen’s first parole hearing in February, the board denied the teen’s release. He had been in jail since February 2015 and in prison since pleading guilty in April 2015.
Officers from the York Police Department and York County Sheriff’s Office had lobbied the parole board to keep the teen in custody until he cooperates with authorities and explains more fully his purported rejection of radicalism. Although the teen claims he has changed and has an exemplary prison record, he also has refused to tell police where he got the two guns he had when arrested in 2015.
The teen told the parole board he plans to live in the Charleston area with his mother and two sisters.
“We have been told he is not going to live in this area,” Robinson said. “I don’t believe that his ideals have changed. ... We are going to ask that the FBI keep tabs on him, because we don’t have the manpower ... or the capability.”
York Mayor Eddie Lee said he stands with his police department and shares the outrage that a teen with potential terrorist ties who did not cooperate with police about where the weapons came from would be released.
“We are all outraged,” Lee said. “We are at war, and we have been at war with terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”
It is unclear how soon the teen will be released, but Tom Elliott, the teen’s court-appointed lawyer, said it is customary that release comes the Friday after the hearing. Toni Vanlue, director of the S.C. Juvenile Parole Board, said she would not disclose when the teen would be released or any other information about the vote of the seven-member board, including what the vote was.
Elliott said it is customary for the parole board not to release its vote or any other information except whether the teen is released or not.
The teen has the best disciplinary record the board has ever seen, Elliott said; he received a GED diploma and did all that was asked of him. No court official ever required the teen to cooperate with law enforcement about the guns, Elliott said.
“Just the word ISIS – I equate this to the Red Scare of the Cold War,” Elliott said. “This young man has done all that has been required of him.”
The teen’s lawyer for the criminal charges, 16th Circuit Deputy Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough, said the parole board made the right decision and that the connection to ISIS had clouded the case from the beginning when the teen had no real intent of terrorism.
When the teen pleaded guilty, Barrowclough said, he stated there was no real intent to join ISIS and that the death of the teen’s father and mistreatment of family members in Syria led the teen down the wrong path. He said the teen was not then and is not now a threat to the public.
South Carolina has different divisions of parole agents for adults and youth offenders, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. It remains unclear if the teen’s agent will be in Charleston or York.
The teen faced prison up to age 21 when he pleaded guilty to gun charges in April 2015. State sentencing guidelines allow for early release for good behavior, and sentences are generally less for crimes in which no one is hurt. The teen did not plead guilty to anything connected to terrorism.
Police and prosecutors said the teen was involved in a plot that would have included robbing a gun store, then killing American soldiers in response to U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
In a joint federal, state and local police probe, investigators found an ISIS flag and evidence of social media and Internet contact with radicals, including the alleged plan with an unnamed Islamic radical from North Carolina to rob a gun store near Raleigh, N.C., then massacre soldiers.
Again Monday, the teen refused to divulge to the parole board where he got the guns and also denied being part of any plot. He also claimed he would not kill innocent people.
Police say there was a plot – and that the teen was arrested just a day before the plan was set to start.
Because of his age and jurisdictional challenges between South Carolina and North Carolina, state prosecutors could charge the teen only for the weapons crime, and no federal charges have been sought. York County police say the investigation remains active. The FBI has not made any statements about the possibility of other federal charges.