Doubt at South

The "ringleader"'s mother says her son was no mastermind.

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Downward spiral: The crudely drawn notebook map of the students' plans.
Downward spiral: The crudely drawn notebook map of the students' plans.
On the Thursday before South High School's homecoming, Gwen Dean was feeling proud of her 15-year-old son, Andy Napier. He had passed one of his proficiency tests and, as a reward, was told by the school he could report to class late that morning. So when the assistant principal called Dean at 9:30 a.m. and asked her to bring Napier to school immediately, she was perplexed.

"I asked what this is in reference to, and she said, "I'm not sure, Ms. Dean, but everything's fine if you could just bring Andy in early,'" Dean recalls. She did as she was asked and soon regretted it.

"Forty-five minutes later, I got another call telling me I needed to come back to the school," she says. "It was an emergency. When I got there, they had my son in a room interrogating him. They had already searched him, and they had him writing a statement."

That statement, later dubbed a "confession" by prosecutors, outlined a plan that landed Napier in his current predicament -- facing a minimum of one year in a juvenile correctional facility for spearheading the plot to unleash an alleged Columbine-style shooting rampage on South High. In late December, he and one other boy pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and two others to inducing panic. Their admissions seemed to affirm what Mayor Michael White had publicly asserted two months earlier: Authorities had successfully halted a school massacre.

But no one, except the four boys behind bars, knows to what extent that is true. Sources close to the case contend that excessive publicity compromised both the investigation and the students' chances for a fair trial. Despite the confessions, doubt remains that the plot would have developed into anything more than a shared fantasy that temporarily lifted a few social outcasts out of their teenage turmoil.

On close inspection, little about the South High plot resembles the elaborate planning process undertaken by Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, from the South High students' crude maps, scribbled in a childish hand on notebook paper, to their limited access to weaponry. Two guns -- a .25-caliber semi-automatic pistol and a .22-caliber rifle -- were found in Napier's basement, but no ammunition.

The shotgun-wielding Harris and Klebold worked for months on their plan in secrecy, making bombs and obtaining weapons and ammunition. The four South High students talked openly about their scheme, trying to recruit an absurdly long list of potential squealers. Harris and Klebold quoted Shakespeare in their videotaped confessions: "Good wombs hath borne bad sons." The South High students' statements were rife with simple spelling and grammatical errors. One student referred to the Littleton, Colorado school as "Colombien."

"I love my son to death," Dean says. "But he don't have it in him to be that kind of mastermind, let alone to hurt anybody."

Prosecutors believe he did. Had Napier and the other three students not confessed, prosecutors say they had a thick binder full of evidence that would have proved it, including statements from 83 witnesses who claim the students talked about the plot on a daily basis for at least two and a half weeks.

"This wasn't a case of overactive imagination or hysteria," insists Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Blaise Thomas. "The intent was real."

Still, establishing conspiracy on spoken word, written documentation, and access to firearms isn't an easy task, he acknowledges. No weapons or ammunition were found on the boys. Thomas believes more evidence would have been found if the students hadn't been sent home from school that Thursday. It's likely the students had some inkling of how much trouble they faced after the mayor's televised press conference that night announcing the shooting plot, hours before they were arrested.

Mark Marein, Napier's attorney, says the prosecutors failed to prove the so-called plot was anything more than "a bunch of kids talking a bunch of shit.

"I don't think the kids had for one second the intent or the wherewithal to do this," he says.

His client decided to plead guilty, Marein says, because the students did have a discussion about doing harm to their classmates. Given the Columbine-spawned hysteria and invasive media coverage of the case, the boy's mother didn't want to take her chances in front of a judge. Prosecutors had even talked about binding him over to adult court, where Marein believes his client would have had a good chance of being exonerated by a jury. But neither he nor Dean wanted to risk subjecting Napier to an adult penalty -- from 3 to 10 years in prison -- if he lost. They were also determined to spare the boy any more adult publicity.

Less than 48 hours after Napier wrote his statement, his name appeared in The Plain Dealer. (The newspaper abandoned the standard journalistic practice of keeping names and pictures of accused juveniles out of print, deciding in this case it was important to get as much information to the public as possible.) The spotlight on Napier intensified after the pleas were entered and he was branded the "ringleader." Because of a quibble with a Plain Dealer story, White released a statement made by another student who said that Napier had threatened violence against blacks.

The boy's mother says the media have mischaracterized her son, a junior member of the Masons and an active member of their church.

"He's a 15-year-old boy with a balding disease since he was seven, who's dealt with a lot of crap," Dean says. "He knows he's going to be punished. He's going to make sure he lets other kids know you have to talk to somebody before something gets too bad."

Dean realizes now that "too bad," for her son, involved getting called "freak" every day at school and other students spitting in his lunch tray. Napier, the youngest of Dean's three sons, didn't want to burden her with his problems, she says. Dean is a single mother who has faced a number of trials over the past year, including the death of her father, with whom Napier was very close, and becoming the sole caretaker of her sick mother.

"I think he was more worried about me and hiding some of the signs," she says.

Lawyer Anne Veneziano, a therapist who also represented Napier, characterizes the South High "plot" as a cry for help. Napier has no prior record of violence, though according to Veneziano, he has been afflicted with depression for many years. In addition, he suffers from the balding disease alopecia, about which other students have repeatedly taunted him. It was this taunting that sparked another student to say to Napier, on the day the plan was devised, "something like he wished he had a gun -- he would befriend Andy because he felt bad," Veneziano says. "And then the kids just started talking. It was adolescent talk and adolescent fantasy that got carried away."

She attributes the fantasy, along with the resulting maps, to bad judgment -- something Napier's mother says her son now recognizes. "Andy told me how sorry he was, that there was never no intentions of hurting anyone," Dean says.

She remains stunned by how quickly the story exploded in the media. Dean says she was promised by both a South High administrator and a juvenile court representative that "this would never go out of the school."

"That night there were 20 cops at my door, wanting to search my house," she recalls. "I'm horrified by the fact that the mayor got on TV with a press conference . . . I'm watching them arrest my son, and I've got people calling me, saying they're seeing this on the news. This has torn my family apart."

Both of her other sons -- one at South High and one at East Tech -- have been harassed at school since Napier's arrest, she says. The son at East Tech became involved in a racial incident that she believes stems from the mayor's assertion that the South High plot was racially motivated. (While early evidence suggested it, prosecutors said later the claim could not be supported.)

On January 25, Judge Janet E. Burney will sentence Napier and the other three defendants. Napier and Ben Balducci, 16, face a minimum of one year each. John Borowski, 15, and Adam Gruber, 14, will be incarcerated for at least six months. All four could be held until they're 21.

Dean says the incarceration has been harder on her than on her son. She says she can't sleep at night knowing he's not home. Ironically, though, she is pleased with the schooling he's receiving in the detention center.

"Andy told me, "I'm learning so much more in here, Mom,'" she says. ""They're talking to me here and listening to what I'm saying.'"

She only wishes that it hadn't taken rumors of a Columbine conspiracy for someone at South High to do the same.

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