Dramatic day reveals details about the parents of a school shooting suspect

In a tense arraignment Saturday morning, James and Jennifer Crumbley listened by videoconference from separate jail cells as they were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shootings of four Oxford High School students, who, police say, were gunned down by the couple’s 15-year-old son, Ethan.

>> Sophie Kasakove and Susan Cooper EastmanThe New York Times
Published : 6 Dec 2021, 03:29 AM
Updated : 6 Dec 2021, 03:29 AM

As the judge read each of the charges, one for each of the four students, she asked Jennifer Crumbley if she understood.

“I understand,” Crumbley said tearfully.

The arraignment, at which the couple entered pleas of not guilty, capped an extraordinary day and a half during which the Crumbleys, considered fugitives by authorities, were captured in Detroit after an intense manhunt and then placed in the same jail facility in Oakland County, Michigan, that held their son, with each of the three in isolation.

The arrest and the arraignment, along with other information that emerged Saturday, only began to answer some of the questions about who the Crumbleys are, how they got to this moment and what could have prevented the tragedy at Oxford High.

SUSPECT’S PARENTS ARE ARRESTED AFTER MANHUNT

Suspicions of the Crumbleys’ culpability in the shootings intensified Saturday as details about their apparent attempts to evade law enforcement were revealed. The manhunt ended with their arrests around 1:30 am Saturday, after authorities received a tip on the couple’s location. The Crumbleys were found inside an art studio in a warehouse in Detroit, according to Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County. They were not armed, he said.

Lawyers for the couple maintained at the arraignment Saturday morning that the Crumbleys were not fleeing police and said that a miscommunication with the prosecutor’s office was the reason the couple did not turn themselves in earlier. But that characterization was disputed by Bouchard during a news conference Saturday afternoon.

“I’m not going to get into the specifics, but I think where they were and how they were seems to support the position they were hiding and they weren’t looking for surrendering at that point,” he said.

Bouchard added that authorities believed that someone helped the couple gain access to the building and suggested that another person could be charged with aiding and abetting or with obstruction. He also said that it was not clear whether Ethan Crumbley was aware that his parents had been charged. (On Sunday, Andrzej Sikora, a 65-year-old resident of Oakland County, was said by his lawyer to be the person of interest. In a statement, the lawyer said Sikora has not been charged with a crime and is cooperating with authorities.)

During the arraignment, Karen D McDonald, the Oakland County prosecutor, said that there was overwhelming evidence that would show that the Crumbleys should have known that their son was a danger to his school.

But Shannon Smith, one of the couple’s lawyers, told the judge that a fuller picture would come to light. “There is far more going on than what this court has been made aware of,” she said.

WHO ARE JAMES AND JENNIFER CRUMBLEY?

During the proceeding, the defence team revealed a few details of the couple’s lives.

Jennifer Crumbley, 43, grew up in Clarkston, a Detroit suburb about 20 minutes from Oxford, her lawyer said. Her lawyer added that Crumbley was recently working as a marketing director. An undated profile, recently removed, on the website of a Michigan real estate company had listed her as an employee.

Crumbley was charged with driving under the influence years ago, according to her lawyer, and court records show a few other misdemeanour charges.

James Crumbley, 45, also had a conviction for a DUI, but no more serious charges, his lawyer said.

In his Facebook profile, which has since been deleted, Crumbley listed a job history at a handful of small software and technology companies. Most recently, from February to July, he worked as an independent contractor for a San Francisco-based technology company called Monarch, according to the firm.

“He was terminated for reasons unrelated to this incident,” said Chase Gonzales, the company’s chief executive, who declined to offer additional details.

The couple once lived in Florida but returned to Michigan several years ago, their lawyers said. They bought their home near downtown Oxford in 2015.

A former girlfriend of James Crumbley’s, Michelle Cobb, 39, struggled Saturday to reconcile the current news with the man she said she once fell in love with. Cobb, who has a son, Elijah, 18, with Crumbley, spoke about their relationship in an interview outside her home in Jacksonville, Florida.

While being inundated with calls, texts and Facebook messages from reporters, she said she has tried to help Elijah, who lives with her, come to terms with what has happened with that part of his family. Elijah declined to be interviewed.

Cobb met Crumbley when she was 18, she said. She worked as a waitress, and he lived in the apartment below hers. He worked in several different jobs in sales and marketing, she said.

“I loved him to death,” she said. “He was fun, loving, caring. We had a wonderful relationship.” It was Cobb’s first serious relationship, she said, and it lasted until she was 25.

Three months after they broke up, James and Jennifer Crumbley married, according to Cobb. After that, she said, her relationship with James Crumbley deteriorated and ultimately grew bitter.

WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE THE SHOOTING

New details also emerged Saturday from the school district, Oxford Community Schools, about its version of the meeting involving the Crumbleys and school officials before the shootings. In a letter to parents and staff members, Tim Throne, the district superintendent, said that there had been two incidents that involved the shooting suspect, the Crumbleys’ son.

“The student’s parents never advised the school district that he had direct access to a firearm or that they had recently purchased a firearm for him,” Throne wrote.

On Nov 29, Throne wrote, a teacher saw Ethan Crumbley viewing images of bullets on his cellphone during class. A counsellor and a staff member met with him, and he indicated that shooting sports were a family hobby, the letter said. The school tried to contact Jennifer Crumbley but did not hear back right away. The next day, the parents confirmed their son’s account, the letter said.

On Nov 30, the morning of the shootings, a teacher observed drawings by Ethan Crumbley that raised concern. The county prosecutor, McDonald, has said that the drawing featured images of a gun, a person who had been shot, a laughing emoji and the words, “Blood everywhere,” and, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”

The teacher, Throne said, notified school counsellors and the dean of students. The student was immediately removed from the classroom and taken to the guidance counsellor’s office, where he claimed the drawing was part of a video game he was designing, Throne said.

After the student’s parents arrived, school officials asked “specific probing questions” regarding the student’s potential to harm others or himself, Throne said. His answers, which were confirmed by his parents, led counsellors to conclude that he did not intend to hurt anyone, the superintendent said.

“At no time did counsellors believe the student might harm others based on his behaviour, responses and demeanour, which appeared calm,” wrote Throne, referring to both meetings.

Counselling was recommended for him, and the parents were told they had 48 hours to seek counselling for their child or the school would contact Children’s Protective Services, Throne wrote.

“When the parents were asked to take their son home for the day,” he wrote, “they flatly refused and left without their son, apparently to return to work.”

Because their son had no previous disciplinary infractions, “the decision was made he would be returned to the classroom rather than sent home to an empty house.”

Both incidents, the letter said, stayed at the guidance counsellor level and were never elevated to the principal’s or assistant principal’s offices.

The counsellors made a judgment based on their training and clinical experience, Throne said, “and did not have all the facts we now know.”

In the letter, he also said that the district would enlist an outside party to conduct an investigation of the incident. The investigation would include examining “any and all interaction the student had with staff and students,” the letter said.

Throne added that the district also plans to ask an independent security consultant to review the district’s safety practices and procedures.

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