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Teen pleads to lesser charge in fake bomb incident

Posted: September 4, 2013 - 5:06pm  |  Updated: September 5, 2013 - 9:16am

A Homer teen pleaded guilty last Wednesday to a reduced charge in a fake bomb incident that happened at Homer High School last May. Zachary Fraley, 18, accepted a plea agreement charging him with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

The Homer High School graduate originally had been charged with first-degree terroristic threatening, a felony, for placing a fake bomb near a stairwell at the school. The incident resulted in an evacuation of the school.

Homer District Court Judge Margaret Murphy accepted the deal between the state and Fraley. He received a suspended imposition of sentence and was placed on probation. As part of probation, Fraley is to complete 80 hours of community work service and not commit any crimes.

He also was to write a letter of apology to the high school and to local papers. If he fulfills the terms of his probation, he can petition to have the conviction set aside and removed from his record.

“Mr. Fraley is very sorry for all the commotion that he caused,” said his lawyer, Kenneth Cole of Kenai.

“Mr. Fraley has learned how his activity could be taken out of context and have a really serious result.”

The Homer News received Fraley’s letter this week.  (Read the letter here.)

“I am deeply sorry about the incident that I inadvertently caused,” Fraley wrote in his letter. 

Fraley wrote that he and a friend were playing a role playing game and that the fake bomb was a prop in the game.

“I now realize that people may misperceive innocent conduct and that those misconceptions could have such serious consequences, especially at a school,” Fraley wrote. “I apologize for any harm that I may have caused to anyone.”

In accepting the plea, assistant district attorney Helen Hickmon said the reduced charge reflects Fraley’s youthfulness. Fraley turned 18 a month before the incident.

“After a review of the police reports and the input from the high school, this seems an appropriate resolution,” Hickmon said.

Homer High School Principal Douglas Waclawski attended the change of plea hearing telephonically as a representative for the victim, that is, the school. In a phone interview later, he said it was an appropriate agreement.

“What they did was a stupid and adolescent game,” Waclawski said of Fraley and his co-defendant, a 16-year-old boy who was referred to the Division of Juvenile Justice.

“The thing we were worried about was that we evacuated the building.”

The incident happened about 9 a.m. May 16 when school officials found a suspicious looking device near the B wing stairwell. Former principal Allan Gee secured the area and, following Kenai Peninsula Borough School District protocol, ordered an evacuation. Gee said he had the school secretary call Homer Police Sgt. Lary Kuhns to say there was a suspected explosive device that was most likely a senior prank. 

At the time, Homer Police Chief Mark Robl criticized Gee for not calling 911 and for not conveying that a possible bomb had been found. Robl said there was no sense of urgency conveyed to police. Police heard about the evacuation from Alaska State Troopers because a trooper lieutenant had been at school district offices in Soldotna and heard of the evacuation. 

Photos of the device showed a can about 6-inches tall with what appears to be a battery taped to it.

In speaking for his client, Kenai attorney Cole spoke of Fraley’s good character. 

“Mr. Fraley is an outstanding student and also an outstanding member of the Homer community,” Cole said. “He’s just an all-around good kid and a child I’d be proud of to have as my kid.”

Waclawski agreed with that.

“I like Zack,” he said in a phone interview later. “He’s a good kid.”

Cole said that Fraley and the other youth had been playing a role-playing game in which they pulled pranks on each other, a take-off on the Mad Magazine “Spy v. Spy” comic strip. Fraley made the device, Cole said.

“Certainly Mr. Fraley had no intention of it being taken out of context or result in what happened because of this,” he said. “We’re very thankful that in a large part cooler heads prevailed when this happened. Initially it was being tagged by the media as a bomb threat, a prank, a hoax, and it ended up being none of these things.”

Cole said Fraley failed to “think outside of the box” and consider what could have resulted from his actions.

“One of the things we try to teach the kids in our schools is that their consequences go beyond their immediate realm,” Cole said. “The things they do can have repercussions beyond their selves.”

Judge Murphy reacted to the idea that the fake bomb was just a game.

“The concern the court has is that somehow you want the court and community to accept that it’s acceptable to run around the high school and pretend to kill each other,” she said. “In this day and age that’s just not appropriate.”

Murphy mentioned the shootings at Columbine and Bethel High School as examples of high school students shooting at other students and teachers. 

“There are young people throughout the country who have participated in shootings in school,” she said. “Pretending to kill people, especially at school — it’s just not appropriate.”

If someone had seen the fake bomb before school officials and panicked, that could have been dangerous, Murphy said.

“Had it come from a student throwing a panic and rushing down the hall screaming ‘There’s a bomb in the school,’ we could have been here in a lot different situation,” she said.

“Somebody could have been very seriously hurt.”

Murphy added, “It was dumb … It was a dumb mistake, it was not something that should have occurred, period.”

The reduced charge and suspended imposition of sentence recognizes Fraley’s age and gives him an opportunity to realize it was a youthful mistake, she said. It gives him an opportunity not to have a criminal conviction.

“I trust you’ve seen enough of this process you don’t want to be back here again,” Murphy said.

Fraley spoke briefly at the hearing, mostly to thank his lawyer. His family and girlfriend attended the hearing. Cole noted that Fraley had worked all summer to pay for his legal defense. Cole said it was possible a grand jury would not have indicted Fraley or that he would have been found not guilty by a jury, but Fraley and his family didn’t want to take the risk and thus accepted the plea agreement.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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