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James Crumbley told son there were ‘people you can talk to’ in meeting hours before school shooting, counselor testifies

During a pivotal meeting with school employees hours before the mass shooting at a Michigan high school, James Crumbley told his son there were “people you can talk to,” a school counselor testified Monday in the father’s manslaughter trial.

“(James) was talking to his son and mentioned that, you know, you have people you can talk to – you have your counselor, you have your journal, we talk,” Oxford High School counselor Shawn Hopkins said.

Hopkins testified “on the surface level” it appeared James Crumbley was showing the appropriate level of care for his then-15-year-old son, Ethan Crumbley.

The testimony came just a few days into James Crumbley’s fast-moving trial, which Judge Cheryl Matthews said could head to the jury by Wednesday. Three witnesses testified on Monday, including two school employees and an ATF special agent who spoke about the family’s firearms.

James Crumbley faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the November 30, 2021, shooting at Oxford High School, in which Ethan killed four students and wounded six students and a teacher.

James’ wife, Jennifer Crumbley, was convicted of the same charges last month.

Ethan was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to terrorism causing death, four counts of murder and 19 other related charges. He did not testify in his mother’s trial, as his attorneys had said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence if called.

The case against James Crumbley, like the one against his wife, is set to test the limits of who is responsible for a mass shooting. Prosecutors aiming to expand the scope of blame in mass shootings have used an unusual and novel legal strategy by arguing the shooter’s parents are responsible for the deaths because they got him a gun and disregarded signs of his mental health issues.

Parents have previously faced liability for their child’s actions, such as with neglect or firearms charges. Yet Jennifer Crumbley’s case was the first time a parent of a school shooter was held directly responsible for the killings.

School employees testify about meeting

The school employees’ testimony on Monday, which mirrored their testimony in Jennifer’s case, focused on a key meeting on the morning of the shooting.

Ethan Crumbley had been called into the meeting with Hopkins, former Oxford High School dean Nicholas Ejak, and Jennifer and James Crumbley to discuss Ethan’s disturbing writings on a math worksheet, including the phrases “blood everywhere” and “my life is useless” and drawings of a gun and bullet.

Hopkins testified he recommended Ethan Crumbley get mental health treatment that day, but Jennifer Crumbley said they wouldn’t be able to do so that day because they had work. James Crumbley did not protest, according to the counselor. Hopkins testified neither parent provided any additional information about their concerns or about firearm access.

On cross-examination, Hopkins said he had not notified the Crumbleys about three other instances of Ethan’s concerning behavior flagged by his teachers.

In addition, Ejak took the stand Monday and testified the parents’ decision not to take Ethan out of class was atypical for the situation.

“My understanding and expectation was that based on the recommendation from the counselor that the student would be leaving that day,” Ejak said. “Based on prior experiences at schools where parents are called in to talk about student mental health, typically they leave when it’s suggested that they leave.”

Ejak also testified he brought Ethan’s backpack to him after the meeting – and even made a joke about its heft – without realizing the gun was inside. There was no reasonable suspicion to search the bag, he testified.

“You have to remember, I knew very little of what we all know today,” Ejak said. “So, when we’re looking at the big picture of today, I knew a fraction of what we all know now.”

After the meeting, the parents left for work and their son was sent back to class. About two hours later, the teen took the gun out of his backpack and opened fire at the school.

Also on Monday, ATF special agent Brett Brandon testified James and Ethan visited the gun range six times together in the months before the attack.

The evidence so far

Clockwise from top left: Hana St. Juliana, Justin Shilling, Madisyn Baldwin and Tate Myre were killed in the attack. - Obtained by CNN
Clockwise from top left: Hana St. Juliana, Justin Shilling, Madisyn Baldwin and Tate Myre were killed in the attack. - Obtained by CNN

The case against James Crumbley has been similar to the one against his wife, featuring testimony from the same shooting survivors, police investigators and school employees.

But there are some key differences between the two cases, particularly in each parent’s firearm expertise and knowledge about Ethan’s mental health problems. Plus, this is a wholly separate trial with a different jury, evidentiary rulings and defense strategy.

In opening statements, Oakland County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Marc Keast said James Crumbley was “grossly negligent” because he purchased the murder weapon for his son four days before the attack and failed to secure it even though he knew his son was in a downward spiral.

“That nightmare was preventable and it was foreseeable,” Keast said.

However, defense attorney Mariell Lehman pleaded ignorance on her client’s behalf, saying James did not know his son had gained access to the weapon and did not believe there was an imminent, immediate threat of danger.

“You will not hear that James Crumbley knew what his son was going to do,” she said. “You will not hear that James Crumbley even suspected that his son was a danger.”

Prosecutors have focused on how Ethan obtained the SIG Sauer 9 mm weapon used in the shooting. According to testimony, James purchased the weapon for his son on Black Friday in 2021, and he later told investigators he hid it in a case in his armoire, with the bullets hidden in a different spot under some jeans.

Further, in August 2021, Ethan sent a video to his friend of him handling and loading a gun. “My dad left it out so I thought. ‘Why not’ lol,” he wrote, according to messages shown in court. Both of his parents were at home around that time, forensic analyst Edward Wagrowski testified.

Prosecutors have also tried to prove James was aware of his son’s mental health issues. For example, in April 2021, Ethan texted his only friend to say he was hearing people talking to him and seeing someone in the distance, according to the messages. “I actually asked my dad to take (me) to the Doctor yesterday but he just gave me some pills and told me to ‘Suck it up,’” Ethan said in one message.

However, under cross-examination, Wagrowski acknowledged the video of the gun doesn’t offer context about James Crumbley’s whereabouts or if he was assisting his son. Wagrowski also said there’s no evidence James knew about his son’s texts and no evidence as to whether Ethan was telling the truth about his father’s dismissive response.

CNN’s Lauren del Valle and Nic F. Anderson contributed to this report.

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