Parents charged in school shooting said 'suck it up' when son asked for help, cops testify
Months before killing six students, a 15-year-old gunman went to his parents for help but was rebuffed, investigators said
By Cole Waterman
ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. — Months before Ethan R. Crumbley allegedly opened fire on his classmates in the hallways of Oxford High School, killing four of them, he told a friend he was in the grips of a mental breakdown and needed help. When he told his parents, they rebuffed him, told him to “suck it up” and laughed at him, Ethan told his friend.
In his journal, near drawings of guns and people being shot, Ethan wrote he had “zero help for my mental problems and it’s causing me to shoot up a (expletive)ing school.” He hoped the massacre would be the biggest in Michigan’s history.
Deputies with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office testified to these details during the Thursday, Feb. 24 continuation of a preliminary examination for Ethan’s parents, James R. and Jennifer L. Crumbley, who were ultimately bound over to Circuit Court. The parents are each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, a 15-year felony, for allegedly being criminally negligent in not preventing the Nov. 30 mass shooting, which police and prosecutors say was carried out by their 15-year-old sophomore son.
The shooting claimed the lives of students Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17. Six more students and a teacher also suffered gunshot wounds.
[EARLIER COVERAGE: Oxford High gunman's parents charged with manslaughter, arrested after fleeing]
The hearing began Feb. 8 before Oakland County District Judge Julie A. Nicholson. On that day, Detective Edward Wagrowski testified he had extracted photos, videos, call logs, and messages from the Crumbleys’ phones, in addition to analyzing social media posts, school surveillance videos, and 911 calls connected to the shooting investigation.
On Thursday, Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor Marc Keast asked Wagrowski if the voluminous text messages between the parents contained any discussions about getting help for Ethan, such as taking him to a therapist or a doctor. Wagrowski said they did not.
On April 5, Ethan messaged a friend that his mom thought he was taking drugs and doesn’t worry about his mental health.
“They make me feel like I’m the problem,” Ethan messaged his friend, according to Wagrowski. “My mom makes everyone feel like a piece of (expletive).”
Ethan also mentioned experiencing hallucinations, Wagrowski sad.
“Like I hear people talking to me and see someone in the distance,” Ethan messaged his friend. “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. Like it’s at the point where I’m asking to go to the doctor. My mom laughed when I told her.”
Ethan told his friend he was experiencing a mental breakdown.
“I HEAR (expletive)ING PEOPLE BECAUSE MY LIFE IS (expletive)ED,” he sent, according to Wagrowski. “I need help. I was thinking about calling 911 so I could go to the hospital, but then my parents would be really pissed.”
Ethan went on to say he had slept 17 hours in five days, with messages indicating he was often up through the night playing video games, Wagrowski said. On Oct. 11, Ethan messaged his friend that his mother missed finding a severed bird’s head he kept in a jar in his bedroom, expressing his surprise and relief that she hadn’t spotted the grisly item.
The bird’s head was found in a restroom in the high school on Nov. 11, Wagrowski said.
Prior to Keast’s questioning Wagrowski on Thursday, defense attorney Shannon Smith cross-examined the detective. She began by asking the detective about a voicemail left on Jennifer Crumbley’s phone on Nov. 29 by a staffer at Ethan’s school, telling her Ethan was caught in class looking up bullets on his cellphone.
“You can call me back. Otherwise, have a great holiday,” the staffer said on the voicemail, according to Smith.
“The exhibit with the voicemail did not require or even ask for a callback from Mrs. Crumbley, correct?” Smith asked.
“Correct,” Wagrowski replied.
After listening to the voicemail, Jennifer Crumbley texted her son, “Seriously, looking up bullets in school??” Her son replied that it was “completely harmless” and that he did not want to get in trouble, Smith said.
Jennifer Crumbley texted her son comments along the lines of, “Are you OK? You know we won’t judge you,” Smith said.
Wagrowski said he also analyzed Ethan’s Instagram accounts, of which he had three. His parents followed one of his accounts, though there was no evidence they knew the other two existed, Wagrowski said.
Ethan posted photos of a target, guns, and a “white-faced, ghost-looking creature,” Smith said, though Wagrowski said there was no indication his parents saw these images.
Jennifer Crumbley also posted photos of guns and a target indicating she had gone to a firing range, though these images bore no comments or likes from her son’s accounts, Wagrowski said.
The morning of the shooting, Jennifer Crumbley was contacted by the school about her son having made disturbing drawings and written troubling phrases on his homework and messaged her husband via Facebook Messenger, “CALL NOW. Emergency,” along with photos of the doodles, Smith said.
“My God. WTF,” James Crumbley responded, Smith said. Jennifer Crumbley then messaged her husband that she was going to the school and was “very concerned,” Smith said.
“And through these text messages, there is absolutely nothing in there to suggest, ‘I think Ethan is going to shoot a gun at the school,’ correct?” Smith asked Wagrowski.
“Correct,” Wagrowski said.
“There is nothing in those texts that says, ‘I believe our son has the gun at school and is going to commit a mass shooting,’ correct?”
Smith asked the detective if it was true that throughout the couple’s messages, there is nothing indicating they believed their son was homicidal or would hurt others. Wagrowski said that was indeed true.
Jennifer Crumbley’s phone records indicate she searched “clinical depression treatment options” on the morning of Nov. 30, though nothing indicated whom she was searching on behalf of, Wagrowski said. There were no searches along the lines of what to do with a dangerous child, he said.
In prior texts from Ethan to his mother, he shared a belief in demons, ghosts, or intruders in the family house, Wagrowski said.
“There really is nothing to corroborate these claims Ethan is making about the house being haunted, correct?” Smith asked.
“Correct,” the detective replied.
In messages to his friend, Ethan did not state a plan or desire to shoot up his school, Wagrowski said. On Aug. 20, though, Ethan sent a message to his friend about his father having left a gun unattended.
“He says, ‘Now it’s time to shoot up the school,’ then, in capital letters, J/K J/K J/K J/K J/K,” Smith said, noting that “J/K” is slang for “just kidding.” Ethan sent no similar messages to his parents, Wagrowski said.
In his thousands of texts to his friend, Ethan discussed various topics, such as the decapitation of the bird and storage of its head, Smith said.
“There certainly is nothing in those texts that show, ‘My mom and dad know I’m cutting off the head of a bird and support me doing this,’ correct?” Smith asked. “In the grand scheme of all the messages between Ethan and (his friend) there is nothing to indicate that Jennifer or James were told or were aware of a plan to commit a school shooting like what happened at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, correct?”
“Correct,” Wagrowski said.
Questioned by defense attorney Mariell R. Lehman, the detective said there were no messages from Ethan to his parents asking for mental help.
After Wagrowski testified, the prosecution called Cammy Back, office manager for a business that sells guns, to the stand. Back said she sold a 9mm Sig Saur SP with a trigger lock to James Crumbley on Nov. 26. Back recognized Crumbley, as he had made several purchases from the business before.
Crumbley was accompanied to the store by a juvenile male, presumably his son, Back said.
Cross-examined by Lehman, Back said Crumbley didn’t make any statements that he intended to buy the gun for his son. Had she suspected the gun was for Ethan, she would not have sold it to his father, she said.
“I can see why this looks bad. I’m not going to do it.”
Later in the hearing, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen D. McDonald questioned Shawn Hopkins, a counselor with Oxford High School since 2015, who said Ethan was among his caseload of 400 students. In early November, Hopkins received an email from Ethan’s Spanish teacher that he seemed sad.
“I had what I would call a check-in,” Hopkins said. “I waited for him outside the classroom and said, ‘Hey, I hear you might be having a tough time. I’m here for you if you want to talk.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘OK,’ and did not follow up with me.”
Hopkins didn’t speak with Ethan again until the morning of Nov. 29, after a teacher reported Ethan had been looking at bullets on his phone during class. Hopkins attended a meeting with Ethan that lasted about five minutes.
McDonald asked Hopkins to describe Ethan’s demeanor.
“Compliant. Calm. Understanding,” Hopkins said, adding Ethan said he understood looking up ammo on his phone during class was not appropriate. “He stated that the previous weekend, Mom and him went to a gun range and went shooting, that it was a hobby that they participated in and he was researching regarding that hobby.”
Ethan had no prior behavioral incidents at the school, nor were there reports that he was a victim of bullying, Hopkins said. When the meeting concluded, Ethan was allowed to return to class and a staffer left a voicemail about the matter on Jennifer Crumbley’s phone, Hopkins said.
The next morning — the day of the shooting — Hopkins received an email from an English teacher saying Ethan was watching a video-game shooting on his phone and had made disturbing drawings on a homework sheet. Hopkins went to the classroom to retrieve Ethan for a meeting with the dean of students.
“I did have concern about the student because it was a couple of messages in a couple of days,” Hopkins said. “The purpose of the meeting was to find out what our next steps would be. My concern was that I wanted to make sure he was OK.”
Ethan said he was watching the video as he wanted to be a video game designer after high school. He said the drawings on his homework were also video game-related, Hopkins said.
Hopkins asked Ethan to explain phrases he had written on the homework, such as “my life is useless,” “the world is dead,” and “the thoughts won’t stop.”
“His demeanor then changed,” Hopkins said. “He became sad. He started pausing more in his speech. He then described some things that had happened recently in his life. He talked about the family dog had died. He talked about he had lost a grandparent. That COVID had been incredibly difficult for him. He talked about a friend who had left and wasn’t able to attend school anymore.”
Ethan had signs of “suicidal ideation” and Hopkins called Jennifer Crumbley to tell her of his concerns and ask her to come to the school. As they waited for the Crumbleys to come by, Hopkins stayed with Ethan and asked him if he was threat to himself or others.
“His statement back to me was, ‘I can see why this looks bad. I’m not going to do it,’” Hopkins said.
When the Crumbleys arrived for the meeting, they acted unusual for parents in such a situation, Hopkins said.
“It was different than other meetings I’ve seen,” he said. “They weren’t friendly or showing care toward the student … their son.”
The parents did not greet, hug, or touch Ethan, the counselor said. Hopkins provided them a list of mental health resources, saying he was concerned for their son’s well-being and that he needed help as early as that day. Jennifer Crumbley replied that day wasn’t an option as she had to return to work, Hopkins said.
“I was a little bit taken aback by that,” the counselor said. “When the parents stated that they could not take their student home that day, my statement was, ‘I want him seen within 48 hours.’ I didn’t have a reason to believe it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t feel 100% confident that it would.”
At that point, Hopkins’ primary concern was for Ethan to not be left alone, he said. Ethan retained a sense of “generalized sadness” throughout the meeting, he said.
Hopkins did not recall Jennifer Crumbley speaking to her son during the meeting, but his father told him he had people to talk to and had a journal to write in.
The meeting ended abruptly, with Jennifer Crumbley asking, “Are we done?” Ethan was then allowed to return to class.
“I told him, ‘I just want you to know I care about you,’” Hopkins said.
Under cross-examination, Smith asked Hopkins if he could have insisted to Ethan’s parents that he be taken home that day. Hopkins replied he could have.
“Ultimately, you did not take a firm position — ‘Ethan needs to go home from school,’” Smith said.
“Correct,” Hopkins agreed.
While Hopkins was with Ethan, classes changed and a staffer brought Ethan’s backpack to him, Hopkins said. At no point did anyone look inside the backpack, he added. Police and prosecutors have previously said they believed the 9mm Sig Saur SP was already in the backpack by this time.
Hopkins said he was not aware James Crumbley had bought a gun for Ethan four days beforehand, that Ethan claimed to have experienced hallucinations, or that he had told a friend he was having a mental breakdown and wanted help.
“Did they ever seem concerned for the safety of their son?” McDonald asked.
“Not in the immediacy, no,” Hopkins answered.
Lehman then asked the counselor if he ever felt Ethan was a threat to anyone other than himself. He said he did not.
“I will cause the biggest school shooting in Michigan history”
Before the hearing concluded, three additional deputies testified to their findings after the shooting ended.
Lt. Timothy Willis testified the shooting began at 12:51 p.m. and lasted until 12:58 p.m. At 1:22 p.m., Jennifer Crumbley texted her son’s phone, “Ethan, don’t do it.” At that time, Ethan’s name had not been released as the shooting suspect.
At 1:34 p.m., James Crumbley called 911 to say he suspected his son was the shooter. Assistant Prosecutor Keast asked the lieutenant how many 911 calls were received in the early afternoon of Nov. 30 regarding the shooting. Willis said there were more than 100 such calls.
“Out of those over 100 calls, how many identified their own son as the possible shooter?” Keast asked.
“Just one: James Crumbley,” Willis said.
During the investigation, Willis read through Ethan’s 21-page handwritten journal, found in his backpack. Keast asked how many of those pages referenced a plan to shoot up Oxford High School.
“Every single page,” Willis said. The last entry, dated Nov. 29, featured in bold letters, “FORGIVE ME.”
Elsewhere, the journal bore the writing, “The shooting is tomorrow, I have access to the gun and ammo,” Willis said.
The journal also featured drawings of guns, ammo, and people being shot. Written near the drawings appeared the following fragments:
- “First victim has to be pretty girl with a future, so she can suffer like me.”
- “I will cause the biggest school shooting in Michigan’s history.”
- “I WILL KILL EVERYONE I (expletive) ING SEE.”
- “I have fully mentally lost it after years of fighting with my dark side. My parents won’t listen to me about help or a therapist. I have zero help for my mental problems and it’s causing me to shoot up a (expletive)ing school.”
Under cross-examination by defense attorneys, Willis said there were no writings in the journal from Ethan’s parents. The journal entries do not state how Ethan acquired the gun or ammo, Willis said.
Detective Adam Stoyek said that after the initial reports of the shooting, he executed a search warrant on the Crumbleys’ residence and found an open handgun case and a box of 9mm ammo on a bed in the master bedroom. James and Jennifer Crumbley were present during the search, with the former providing police with the combination — 0-0-0 — to open a handheld gun safe, Stoyek said.
Inside the safe were .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol and a .22-caliber derringer, Stoyek said.
Detective Matthew Peschke also went to the Crumbleys’ house and found a whiskey bottle, shell casings, folding knives, and a coin bearing a swastika in Ethan’s bedroom, he said. A notebook found in Ethan’s room featured drawings of guns, Peschke said.
The hearing ended with Prosecutor McDonald asking Judge Nicholson to bind the Crumbleys’ cases over to Circuit Court for further proceedings, saying the loss of life on Nov. 30 “was a direct and natural cause of (their) gross negligence.” Defense attorneys Lehman and Smith argued against this, saying the parents could not have known their son was a danger to anyone other than himself.
McDonald countered the law states parents have a duty to safeguard their children and others from them.
“They just didn’t care,” McDonald said. “Just one thing could have prevented this. Just one action.”
Judge Nicholson granted McDonald’s request and bound the Crumbleys over to Circuit Court for trial.
“The court finds that the deaths of the four victims could have been avoided if James and Jennifer Crumbley exercised ordinary care and diligence in the care of their son,” Nicholson said.
Ethan Crumbley remains in custody and is charged with 24 felonies: four counts of first-degree murder, one count of committing a terrorist act causing death, seven counts of assault with intent to murder, and 12 counts of felony firearm.
©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit mlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.