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After Michigan shooting suspect’s parents are arrested, town grapples with an awful new reality: ‘Everyone’s on edge’

Acting on a tip, police found James and Jennifer Crumbley hiding in a commercial building, authorities said

James and Jennifer Crumbley during the video arraignment of their son, Ethan Crumbley, in Rochester Hills, Mich., on Dec. 1. (District Court/AP)
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OXFORD, Mich. — This small town awoke Saturday to sunny skies, a chilly breeze and one tiny stitch of closure in the gaping chasm of grief ripped opened here days before: The parents of Ethan Crumbley, the 15-year-old accused of fatally shooting four students at the local high school Tuesday, had been taken into custody overnight in nearby Detroit.

But Oxford was also adjusting to the awful new reality that it had become the latest host of an American school shooting, the deadliest since the spring of 2018. The deep sense of peace and safety in this close-knit village has been at least temporarily shattered, residents said, while anger at the accused and questions about how the school handled Crumbley’s behavior ripples through the community.

The nerves were vivid Friday night in downtown Oxford, where hundreds of people held candles and exchanged embraces at a vigil in honor of the deceased students and seven others injured in the shooting. The county executive was speaking from a stage about the other victims of the tragedy — the 1,700 students and staff who were forced to flee and take shelter — when shouts emerged from one section of the gathering. Suddenly, fear gripped the crowd. Everyone began to run.

It was a false alarm, caused by someone fainting in the crowd, and the panic subsided within minutes. But the incident left many trembling and in tears, and reflected a town still shaken by the violent tragedy that had befallen it.

“Everyone’s on edge,” said Casey Smith 43, a father of five whose 14-year-old daughter was in class at Oxford High School when the shooting broke out. He and two of his children were nearly trampled at the vigil, where even before the scare, he said, the shooting had made him feel the need to be more vigilant. “We no longer have the benefit of saying that doesn’t happen here, that won’t happen here.”

Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of the alleged Michigan high school shooter, were held on $500,000 bond each on Dec. 4. (Video: The Washington Post)

Smith said his family and friends felt deeply relieved by the news early Saturday of the arrests of James and Jennifer Crumbley, who prosecutors charged the day before with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in a rare effort to hold parents accountable for violence attributed to their child. Prosecutors say the Crumbleys provided the Sig Sauer handgun Ethan Crumbley allegedly used to kill classmates and ignored warning signs about their son’s potential for violence.

Hours after the charges were announced, police officials said the couple had gone missing, triggering an extensive search involving police dogs, local law enforcement, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, authorities said.

A 911 call from a business owner who spotted the couple’s car in his parking lot led police to a commercial building, home to several art studios on Detroit’s east side. Police located video of one of the “two fugitives” entering the building, Detroit Police Chief James White said, and police quickly established a perimeter at the site. White said the couple “did not break in,” but rather “were aided.” Police are investigating one other person who may have helped the Crumbleys hide, he said.

Jennifer and James Crumbley each pleaded not guilty to four counts of involuntary manslaughter, appearing separately at a virtual arraignment during which the prosecution and defense clashed over whether the parents should be eligible for release. Jennifer Crumbley fought back tears as she acknowledged she understood the charges she faces. Her husband vigorously shook his head as McDonald recounted some accusations, including that the parents had provided “total access” to the weapon.

“This is a serious, horrible, terrible shooting, and this has affected the entire community,” McDonald said at the hearing. “And these two individuals could have stopped it.”

Defense attorney Shannon Smith denied that and said the couple “were absolutely going to turn themselves in.” Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald said they posed a flight risk. The judge agreed with the prosecution, ordering each to be held on $500,000 bond.

At a news conference on Saturday, Sheriff Michael Bouchard (R) also expressed doubts about the Crumbleys’ willingness to turn themselves in.

“Given that they were hiding in a warehouse in Detroit, it certainly raises my eyebrows,” he said.

In Oxford, some details revealed in the charges against the Crumbleys — which described the couple as having purchased the gun for Ethan Crumbley and boasting about letting him use it on social media — led many to agree with McDonald.

In a place where people speak proudly of treating neighbors like family, but where gun ownership is not uncommon, residents expressed bewilderment that any among them could be so reckless with a deadly weapon.

“I’m absolutely appalled,” said Denise Donaldson, an office manager who was at the vigil with her 21-year-old daughter, Lauren Donaldson, an Oxford High graduate who, like many at the event, wore her blue-and-gold varsity jacket. “They had to know what their son was capable of. It’s completely irresponsible.”

But blame is also being directed at school administrators. While there has been broad praise here for the response of law enforcement officers and first responders on the day of the shooting, details about how school officials handled teacher concerns about Ethan Crumbley’s behavior have not sat well.

On Monday, according to McDonald, a teacher caught the boy searching online for ammunition. On Tuesday, the morning of the shooting, a teacher found him making a violent drawing with the words, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” The Crumbleys came to school but “resisted the idea” of taking Ethan Crumbley home and did not ask if he had the gun with him, McDonald said. Soon after they left, the shooting began.

“I don’t think it was right that he went back to class with his peers if it was so concerning,” said Lauren Donaldson, now a senior at a nearby university.

Prosecutor Karen McDonald charged the parents of high school shooting suspect Ethan Crumbley with involuntary manslaughter on Dec. 3. (Video: The Washington Post)

In his first public comments about the shooting, Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne said in a video statement Thursday that Ethan Crumbley had no disciplinary record and that “no discipline was warranted.”

In a letter to families on Saturday, Throne said parent questions about the school’s version of events had led him to request a third-party investigation. He also offered more detail about what occurred Monday and Tuesday.

In the presence of the Crumbleys on Tuesday, Throne said, guidance counselors “asked specific probing questions” of the boy that led them to believe he was not a danger to himself or others. The incidents, he said, were never elevated to the principal or assistant principal. The parents, he said, “flatly refused” to take Ethan Crumbley home, so counselors let him return to class.

“While we understand this decision has caused anger, confusion and prompted understandable questioning, the counselors made a judgment based on their professional training and clinical experience and did not have all the facts we now know,” Throne wrote.

When asked whether school officials could face charges, McDonald has said only that the investigation is ongoing.

Smith, a quality-control manager at a mining company, was at work near Detroit when he heard there was an active shooter at the high school. The race north to Oxford, about 45 miles away, was “one of the most frantic, desperate experiences” he had ever had, he said. Smith found his daughter and her friend huddled in the woods across the street from the school, sobbing and shaking.

Days later, Smith said, his daughter and her friends remain easily startled and unsure how they will return to the scene of such a traumatic experience. And Smith, while devastated for the families who lost their children, said he feels mad — at James and Jennifer Crumbley, but also at school officials and about Michigan gun laws he says are too lax.

“So many missed opportunities — that’s as parents where we feel the most anger, is the fact that it could have been prevented,” said Smith, who added that he is a gun owner. “It’s such a letdown. It’s unforgivable. I know it wasn’t malice … but incompetence is not an excuse when it comes to something like that.”

At the vigil on Friday, Oxford resident Dylan Hency, 28, wore the varsity jacket he earned as a swimmer at Oxford High School and held a large sign that bore a variation of a phrase that has become ubiquitous in towns victimized by mass shootings: “Oxford Strong.”

“It’s kind of surreal, because you see this stuff on TV, unfortunately, from time to time, but you don’t think it’ll be in your hometown,” said Hency’s friend, Keegan Kuypers, 29.

Why is it rare for parents of school shooting suspects to face charges? It’s ‘really hard,’ experts say.

Hency, now a social studies teacher at a high school in a nearby town, said the shooting had both brought home the reality of the active shooter drills he’s done with students, and made him deeply concerned for the teachers and students at the high school from which he graduated.

“Hopefully they find strength in the community, because they need it,” he said. The Crumbleys, he said, were not a concern of his. “Those parents, their justice will come.”

Sheryl Denzer, 67, said she has spent the week feeling headachy and heartbroken. She worked for years at a nearby Taco Bell frequented by Oxford High students. This week, she bought “Oxford Strong” T-shirts, stickers and yard signs, and has been heartened to see them all around town.

More than 278,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine

But she said she’s worried the sense of security she’s always felt in Oxford has vanished. People in her neighborhood often didn’t lock their doors, she said. Now a neighbor, one 10th-grade girl, has decided never to return to Oxford High, preferring instead to home-school. And Denzer said she sees fewer kids playing outside.

“People will jump for a long time, I’m sure. And the kids, they’re the ones I feel most sorry for, how it’s affected them. I don’t know if I could get over that,” she said. “It seems like the nights are darker over the last few days.”

Brulliard reported from Oxford; Hassan reported from London; Paul and Bella reported from D.C. Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

Read more:

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Copycat threats after Oxford High shooting cause dozens of Michigan schools to close

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