After 15 months in jail, the York teen who plotted to join ISIS so he could kill American soldiers could be freed May 2.
And police are planning to speak out again to keep the teen in jail.
“We still believe that this young man should stay in juvenile detention,” York Police Chief Andy Robinson said. “Nothing has changed – there is still concern for the safety of the community and the country.”
In April 2015, the teen, now 17, was sentenced to prison until he turned 21. But state sentencing guidelines could prompt his release this summer, even if he is again denied freedom in a May parole hearing.
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The teen was first denied parole Feb. 1 after he was convicted last April of gun possession – the strictest charge state prosecutors could bring against him following an FBI investigation. York police and York County sheriff’s deputies again plan to oppose parole at the hearing in front of South Carolina’s juvenile parole board.
The parole case and the teen’s plot to join ISIS and pull off a robbery and killing spree brings close to home the international fight against ISIS. The hearing comes just weeks after radical Muslims connected to ISIS killed more innocent people in Belgium and vow to continue to kill and maim.
The teen, whose identity has not been released because of his age, has not been charged with terrorism and is not a threat to the public, his lawyers say.
But police maintain he is a threat. The teen told Lt. Rich Caddell of the York Police Department he was prepared to kill him if police intervened in the plot. Bob Hamilton, the York County deputy who works with federal agents on terrorism, told the parole board in February the teen is “a threat to national security” and should not be released.
The teen remains in the custody of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice. He is entitled to a new parole hearing every three months, and officials have set the next hearing for May 2, said Toni Vanlue, director of the juvenile parole board.
The teen, an American-born citizen of Syrian heritage, pleaded guilty to possession of a gun and was sentenced to juvenile prison up to age 21. The teen said when he was sentenced that his life had spiraled “out of control” after his father died, and he had “no intention” of really joining ISIS or killing soldiers. The teen claimed at age 16 that he needed a gun for protection in York.
“I was not thinking the right way,” he said in the Feb. 1 parole hearing. “I learned from my mistakes.”
If he is released, the teen plans to move to the Charleston area.
The teen’s lawyer in the criminal case, 16th Circuit Deputy Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough, said the teen was crushed by his father’s death, which led to the conversations about ISIS and the plot to rob the store. But the teen was angry about killings in Syria, in which his family was targeted, and he wrongly looked toward ISIS for guidance, Barrowclough said.
The term “ISIS” has clouded the case from the beginning, Barrowclough said, but he believes the teen had no intention of carrying out any part of the plot.
“These are stereotypical fears,” Barrowclough said.
In early 2015, York police were alerted when others heard the teen talking in school about joining ISIS and radical leanings. That’s when they arrested him for illegal possession of a pistol. The investigation involved the FBI at its highest levels, police have said, because the teen had communicated with an unnamed radical Muslim from North Carolina about a plot to rob a gun store and use the weapons to kill soldiers near Raleigh, N.C.
The teen was not charged by the FBI with any federal crime. It remains unclear if the second man was charged, because federal officials have refused to say anything about him or the plan, to which the teen was recruited through social media.
Efforts to reach Tom Elliott, the court-appointed Columbia lawyer now representing the teen, were unsuccessful Monday. But Elliott argued at February’s hearing that his client has fulfilled his obligations and was never charged with terrorism.
Police found an ISIS flag in the teen’s room, along with the gun and social media communication about ISIS and the plot. They made the arrest just a day before the teen was set to travel. Another parent in York told The Herald the teen was bragging about guns and even brought bullets to a football game.
The teen was seduced by ISIS and embraced its violent ideology, prosecutors have said.