The parents of alleged school shooter Ethan Crumbley pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges on Saturday, shortly after they were nabbed by fugitive teams “hiding” in an industrial building in east Detroit.
James and Jennifer Crumbley appeared emotional throughout the arraignment. Jennifer cried as she said she understood the charges against her. James smiled, laughed, shook his head, and raised his eyebrows at various points. Meanwhile, defense lawyer Shannon Smith and prosecutor Karen McDonald squabbled over whether the pair had planned to turn themselves in at all.
“These are not people that we can be assured are going to return to court on their own,” McDonald told the judge, prompting James Crumbley to laugh.
After McDonald announced on Friday afternoon that she was taking the extremely rare step of charging the parents, they failed to turn themselves in and stopped responding to their lawyer, prompting the U.S. Marshals to launch a massive manhunt.
The couple had last been seen by the public on Thursday when they tuned into their son’s virtual arraignment from a car. McDonald said they withdrew $4,000 from an ATM before vanishing.
But Smith claimed in court that prosecutors failed to inform her of the imminent charges, and the “terrified” parents had always planned to turn themselves in after getting their affairs in order.
“It was just a matter of logistics,” she said. McDonald disagreed. “I can’t imagine why they were surprised,” she said. “The whole country knew that these charges were coming.”
A judge set bond at $500,000 each and said they’ll have to wear a GPS monitor if bond is posted.
The arraignment capped an extraordinary 24 hours that included the release of bombshell new allegations about the Crumbleys alleged involvement in their son’s horrific acts, the unprecedented involuntary manslaughter charges, and then a frenzied search for the couple.
After a Be On the Look (BOLO) alert was issued and the feds sent out fugitive teams, a tipster spotted the couple’s black Kia Seltos parked outside an industrial building, described in ads as an “Albert Kahn gem” that houses businesses like a print shop, coffee shop and auto supplier. Oakland County Undersheriff Mike McCabe said the tipster observed a female near the car who ran off when 911 was called.
Heavily armed police swarmed the building, according to CNN, which was on the scene. “They appeared to be hiding in the building,” Detroit Police Chief James White said, adding that the parents seemed “very distressed” to be found.
“We fully intended to turn them in first thing this morning for arraignment contrary to misinformation that has been rampant in the media,” Smith, who previously represented former Olympic physician Larry Nassar, told The Daily Beast on Saturday morning. “The prosecution has very much cherry-picked and slanted specific facts to further their narrative. We intend to fight this case in the courtroom not in the court of public opinion.”
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard appeared furious that local prosecutors didn’t give a heads up about the charges. When the media started reporting that it was imminent, Bouchard said his office immediately called Smith, who said she would arrange for the couple’s arrest—but she later told him the couple had stopped responding to her calls and texts.
To call it frustrating was “an understatement,” Bouchard told MSNBC.
Earlier on Friday, McDonald held a press conference outlining behavior that she said was “so egregious” it warranted charging James and Jennifer Crumbley with four counts of involuntary manslaughter—a rarity in the U.S. legal system, which seldom holds parents of school shooters accountable for their child’s actions.
It started four days before 15-year-old Ethan allegedly opened fire at Oxford High School in Michigan, when his parents bought him an unusually early Christmas gift: a 9mm Sig Sauer handgun.
The teen accompanied his father, James Crumbley, to buy the gun at Acme Shooting Goods in the small town of Oxford. Ethan referred to it that night on Instagram as his “new beauty.”
The next day, his mom, Jennifer Crumbley, who once posted an open letter thanking President-elect Donald Trump for protecting “my right to bear arms,” penned her own Instagram post. “Mom & son day testing out his new Xmas present,” she wrote, McDonald said on Friday.
By Monday, however, Ethan’s new present, which was kept in an unsecured drawer in his parents’ bedroom, was already causing concern at Oxford High School.
A teacher found Ethan searching for ammunition on his cell phone during class and reported it to higher-ups. Administrators left a voicemail for Jennifer Crumbley and followed up with an email, but received no response.
“Lol, I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught,” Jennifer texted her son.
On the morning of the shooting on Tuesday, a teacher was “alarmed” at a drawing made by Ethan. It included a handgun with the text, “the thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” and a bullet with the words, “blood everywhere.” There were also some laughing emojis, a person who’d been shot, and the words, “my life is useless,” and “the world is dead,” McDonald said.
The drawing prompted staff to remove Ethan from class, and his parents were called into the school. James and Jennifer were shown the drawing and told they had to “get their son into counseling within 48 hours.”
“Both James and Jennifer Crumbley failed to ask their son if he had his gun with him or where his gun was located and failed to inspect his backpack,” McDonald said.
They resisted taking Ethan home with them and left the school soon after, she said. Ethan returned to class with the handgun in his backpack.
“The notion that a parent could read those words [in the drawing] and also know that their son had access to a deadly weapon that they gave him is unconscionable. And I think it’s criminal,” McDonald said.
Just after lunchtime that day, the sophomore student went into a bathroom with his backpack, then came out into a hallway and started shooting students at random, sending terrified teens ducking for cover and into hiding, police said. Sixteen-year-old Tate Myre, 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana, 17-year-old Madisyn Baldwin, and 17-year-old Justin Shilling died. Seven more, including a teacher, were injured.
As news alerts went out about an active shooter at the school, James Crumbley “went straight to his home to look for his gun,” McDonald said. Jennifer Crumbley texted her son, “Ethan, don’t do it.”
James then called 911 to report that his gun was missing and that “his son could be the shooter,” McDonald said.
Acme Shooting Goods declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Friday. Multiple attempts to contact the Crumbleys were unsuccessful.
Involuntary manslaughter was “the strongest possible charge that we could prove and that there’s probable cause to charge,” said McDonald.
“Four kids were murdered and seven more injured. So yes, I think we should all be very angry and we should take a very hard look at what is in place in terms of criminal responsibility and what gun owners are required to do,” she said.
Ethan has been charged as an adult with one count of terrorism, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder, and 12 counts of possession of a firearm.
At his arraignment on Wednesday, Oakland County Sheriff’s Lt. Tim Willis said police found two videos on Ethan’s phone, made by him the night before the incident, “wherein he talked about shooting and killing students the next day at Oxford High School.”
Investigators also found a journal in Ethan’s backpack, “detailing his desire to shoot up the school, to include murdering students.” Social media accounts showed Ethan practicing with a Sig Sauer handgun, Willis told District Court Judge Nancy Carniak.
One Oxford High mother, who did not wish to identify herself out of fear of retribution, told The Daily Beast that the Crumbleys “did not really engage with other parents at the high school.”
“When we found out that Ethan was the shooter, some of us came together and couldn’t even remember too much about his parents. Which is weird because this is such a tight-knit place—and they just weren’t involved,” the parent added.
The day after James Crumbley bought the weapon, a woman in Florida filed a complaint against him for thousands in unpaid child support, according to court records reviewed by The Daily Beast. Money has apparently been an issue in the Crumbley household for several years.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Jennifer Crumbley posted a missive to Donald Trump in which she claimed she was skipping car insurance payments to hire a tutor for Ethan, blaming the “common core” curriculum mandated in schools. She seethed in the letter about schools where the “kids come from illegal immigrant parents” and “don’t care about learning.”
“As a female and a Realtor, thank you for allowing my right to bear arms,” Jennifer Crumbley wrote. “Allowing me to be protected if I show a home to someone with bad intentions. Thank you for respecting that Amendment.”
James Crumbley posted a link on Facebook to his wife’s screed, commenting, “My wife can be spot on. Sometimes.”
Charging the parents of a school shooter is highly unusual. One case involved the mom of an Indiana teen who in 2018 opened fire in his middle school and didn’t kill anyone but fatally shot himself after being cornered by police. His mother pleaded guilty last year to child neglect charges and was sentenced to 2.5 years probation. In Texas, the parents of a 17-year-old student who in 2018 killed eight classmates and two substitute teachers with a shotgun and pistol that reportedly belonged to his father, continue to battle lawsuits by victims’ relatives who allege the parents were aware of their son’s “dangerous propensities” but still allowed him access to guns.
There are no laws in Michigan requiring gun owners to lock up their weapons and keep them away from children.
“We’ve seen far too many times what can happen when they don’t and there needs to be accountability—that includes both informing gun owners of their obligation and responsibility to securely store their guns, as well as passing and enforcing laws that hold gun owners accountable when they fail to do so,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, told The Daily Beast.
At least 100 schools in Michigan were forced to cancel classes on Friday due to a deluge of copycat threats, and the small community of Oxford has been left reeling.
On Friday night, family and friends from the Oxford community trekked 15 miles south to McClaren Hospital to support the family of 17-year-old Justin Shilling, the latest—and fourth —fatality from Tuesday’s shooting at Oxford High School.
The captain of the bowling team, Shilling was also an organ donor. Community members gathered in a show of support for the Shilling family, as the teen’s body was wheeled across the third floor for surgery.
“It means a great deal to them clearly,” Sheriff Bouchard said, addressing the grieving crowd of teens and their parents. “Thank you so much for being here on behalf of the family, they wanted me to pass that on.”
“Take care of each other, talk to each other, support each other,” he continued. “This isn’t supposed to be happening and it’s not supposed to happen.”
The crowd gathered for nearly an hour in almost complete silence. Hugs were exchanged. Sniffles could be heard. But the atmosphere was still and keenly focused on the third floor tunnel of the hospital.
At various points members of the Shilling party would walk to the window and wave. And the crowd, silently, would wave back.
Bouchard stressed earlier Friday that the attack at Oxford High School was felt as an attack on the entire community.
“If you weren’t hit by a bullet, [it] doesn’t mean you weren’t terrorized that day and will have nightmares about it the rest of your life, whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or a student,” he said at a press conference prior to charges being filed against the Crumbleys.
“Going through that building in the wee hours of this morning, looking at disarray in the classrooms and the backpacks strewn across the floor, that had to have been an absolutely terrorizing moment in anyone’s life,” he added. “I don’t care if you’re an adult or child.”
Ethan Crumbley has pleaded not guilty and was transferred from a juvenile lockup to the Oakland County Jail, where authorities say he is under suicide watch. He is due back in court on Dec. 13.