Suspect Charged With Murder; Students Return to School
Head bowed, eyes puffy, 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams was formally charged with murder and attempted murder Wednesday, hours after shaken students began returning to the suburban high school that he allegedly turned into a bloody shooting gallery two days before.
Dozens of Santana High School students appeared at the San Diego County Superior Court in El Cajon for Williams’ arraignment. However, after a brief hearing, Judge Herbert Exharos postponed the proceeding until March 26 at the request of defense attorneys, who said they might ask to move the case to Juvenile Court.
“It just makes me sick to see him,” said a weeping Sarah Strompolos, an 18-year-old who remembered Williams as a quiet boy who sat in the corner by himself during detention classes they shared. “I think he should say something right now about why he did this.”
But Williams said nothing, did not make eye contact with anyone, and looked up only briefly to glance at the judge. No family members were evident in the courtroom.
He stands accused of killing two classmates and wounding 13 other people Monday in a shooting rampage at the high school in Santee, an inland suburb of San Diego. Friends--a few of whom turned out to support him Wednesday--said he was tired of being picked on.
Proposition 21, approved by California voters last March, gave prosecutors the power to send some serious cases against juveniles to adult court.
An appeals court last month struck down a portion of the law. But the provision calling for juveniles charged with murder to go straight to adult court was not challenged in the case the justices heard and is still in effect.
Williams’ lawyers would have to challenge the law to get the case moved to Juvenile Court. Deputy Public Defender Steve Carroll said he wasn’t sure if he would do so. But, he added, “he is a juvenile. He just turned 15 this past month. He is a very young man--young child.”
Nothing in Williams’ appearance suggested otherwise. His small frame was swallowed up by an adult’s orange jail jumpsuit, the short sleeves reaching nearly to his elbows. He looked stiff, his shoulders narrow, his dark brown hair tousled. At one point, he bit his lip.
A 23-page criminal complaint contained no new information about the crime, merely a catalog, in numbing, repetitive prose, of each of the 28 charges against him. In addition to the two charges of murder and 13 of attempted murder, Williams is accused of 13 counts of assault with a firearm.
The murder charges carry a “special circumstance” enhancement, accusing him of lying in wait to kill 14-year-old Brian Zuckor and 17-year-old Randy Gordon. Though they have ruled out seeking the death penalty, prosecutors have said Williams could be sentenced to hundreds of years in prison.
Deputy Public Defender Randy Mize, after the hearing, said other members of the Williams family have arrived from out of town but avoided the hearing because of media attention.
The suspect’s father, who has spent about 30 minutes with the teenager in juvenile hall, “is tremendously distraught,” he said.
Friends of the victims were among about two dozen Santana High students who turned out for the hearing. Many were ushered into a jury room that had been set up as a remote viewing site for those unable to get into the tiny courtroom. The dominant mood was one of anger and bitterness as they watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television.
William Jones, a 17-year-old senior, said he had known Gordon and came to court “to make sure [Williams] gets what he deserves: the death penalty, dude. It was wrong what he did. I don’t think he should ever come out of prison. It was just wrong.”
“I just want to see his face,” said Kurt Williams, an 18-year-old senior.
Fifteen-year-old Ashley Norton said she came to court “to see if he realizes what he did. Everybody at school is bawling. I don’t see any closure. He didn’t have to bring it to this.”
Since the shooting, Norton said, she has had nightmares and has felt guilty that she survived unscathed--at least physically--while friends were hurt.
“It’s just such a terrible thing,” she said. “I can hear the shouting; I can hear the screaming. I feel so guilty.”
Some came to show their support for Williams.
Candi Marquette, 20, said, “I don’t think jail is the right place for him. I think he needs [psychiatric] help. I hope this is a wake-up call for bullies. Their bullying hurts people.”
Akilah White, 18, of El Cajon, wearing a red tank top and silver glitter eye shadow, also was sympathetic. “You can tell . . . he’s been through some hard times. It sounds weird, but I came here to support him.”
Chandra Alduenda of El Cajon, mother of a 14-year-old Santana student, said she also felt sympathy for the teenager.
“There is a child here still crying out for help,” she said. “People need to stop making fun of other people just because they’re different. Just because he did something wrong, he’s still a human being.”
Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Kris Anton declined to discuss whether Williams had confessed. He said that there was no evidence of any other people involved in planning or carrying out the crime and that the county had no plans to charge the boy’s father, Charles Jeffrey Williams.
Anton also said there is no evidence that the father had been negligent in his storage of the gun used in the crime, and that the evidence supports the elder Williams’ contention that it had been kept in a locked gun cabinet.
The father, who moved to Santee with his son last year, worked as a park fee collector at Joshua Tree National Park from February to May, a temporary seasonal position.
It was apparently in nearby Twentynine Palms that the son shot a homemade video aired by the television newsmagazine “Inside Edition” on Wednesday. In it, the boy expresses anger at having to move from Maryland and shows images of his father’s locked, glass-fronted gun cabinet, with several weapons inside. The youth refers to it as the “no-trespassing cabinet.”
Also Wednesday evening, students, parents, teachers and others gathered at a pair of memorial services, including one at a church in nearby La Mesa that drew about 300.
“This has been a wake-up call for a lot of parents,” Caryn Christiansen, whose 15-year-old daughter, Kelli, was on campus when the shooting occurred, told the gathering. “I am so glad that my daughter is alive today,” she said, breaking into tears.
Earlier Wednesday in Sacramento, a San Diego legislator who attended Santana called for California to establish a hotline for students who fear violent outbreaks on school campuses.
Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), who graduated from Santana in 1979, said such a hotline is needed in light of reports that many students at the school had heard Williams voice threats of violence but failed to notify authorities.
Vargas’ plan would create a statewide 24-hour hotline to assist law enforcement in receiving tips about potential school violence. Callers would have the option to remain anonymous. Four states already have similar hotlines, Vargas said.
Also in Sacramento, politicians and Hollywood celebrity Rob Reiner joined Wednesday to promote public health programs that target the causes of violence in children’s earliest stages of mental development.
“Recognizing violence as a public health phenomenon is important,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Grantland Johnson. “The San Diego events dramatize the problem, but this is an epidemic.”
Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Elaine Gale and Miguel Bustillo contributed to this story.