A 26-year-old Kent man faces charges of allegedly intimidating a school employee and harassment for an incident last week that caused the lockdown of Meridian Elementary School.
Before those charges move forward, however, the man will undergo a competency evaluation at a local hospital where he is in custody under the watch of designated crisis responders from King County Crisis and Commitment Services, according to Kent Municipal Court documents. A competency hearing is set for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1 at Kent Municipal Court.
The man’s defense attorney requested a competency hearing and a municipal judge agreed. After the hearing, the man could be kept in custody for treatment or on the charges. He also could be released depending on the judge’s ruling.
If a court (judge) believes a mental health issue may prevent a person from aiding in their defense, the court puts the criminal case on hold (per RCW 10.77) while an evaluation is completed to determine that individual’s legal competence to proceed with the criminal court case, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) website.
If the individual is found not competent, DSHS is required to provide them with competency restoration services in a timely fashion, after which point the criminal case may proceed, according to DSHS. The majority of competency restoration services are provided in the forensic units of Western State Hospital, or at facilities in Yakima or Centralia.
The criminal case is in Kent Municipal Court because the charges are misdemeanors. King County Superior Court handles felony cases.
Town hall meeting
Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph and Kent School District Superintendent Israel Vela led a nearly 90-minute community town hall about the Meridian incident on the evening of Nov. 22. An estimated 150 people attended the gathering at Faith Church, which sits across the street from the school.
All of those who attended are closely watching the case and wondering what will happen next, especially if the man is released from custody.
“We all anticipate he will be released at some point,” Padilla said. “That could be weeks from now, months from now, I don’t know, it depends on how the process works out. …The moment he is released I assure you the school district will be notified right away.”
Padilla said if the man returns home and doesn’t violate court orders, he will remain free.
“But I am going to count on everybody in this room to pick up the phone and call 911 the moment they see him too close to the school, acting erractically, driving around or any of the things that cause any of us to be alarmed, call us and we will come,” Padilla said.
Earlier in the meeting, Padilla explained how it took a three-day effort, which spread from Mercer Island to Crystal Mountain, to take the man into custody.
A King County Sheriff’s Office helicopter followed the man as he drove to Crystal Mountain Ski Resort from Kent before police had him in custody for allegedly making a verbal threat to a Meridian Elementary School staff member.
What started out as a typical day on Monday, Nov. 14 at the school, 25621 140th Ave. SE, soon turned into a traumatic day as police surrounded the house near the school for most of the day. The incident led to a school lockdown from 10 a.m. to close.
Kent School District officials also closed the school the next two days until the 26-year-old man was taken into custody Nov. 16. School was closed the rest of the week to help staff, students and parents cope with the event.
“What happened in our community is a lot to process,” Ralph said at the start of the meeting. “I think once you have an opportunity to hear from Chief Padilla about the timelines, what occurred and how we coordinated with Kent School District it will help set your hearts and minds at ease. …that as a community we came together.”
Kent Police initially responded early that Monday morning when a brother of the man called 911 to report his brother, who has had mental health issues, had a rifle inside the home, Padilla said. Officers responded at about 5:29 a.m. but could not get the man to leave the house.
Officers could not go inside the house and arrest the man because he had not threatened his brother but rather aimed the gun, Padilla said. The brother was not in fear for his own life but wanted his brother safe.
At about 9:54 that morning, the same man reportedly drove erratically outside the school and threatened a staff member on Nov. 14, according to the Kent School District and police reports. He reportedly used a megaphone to yell at children at the school.
Officers returned to the scene and the man was back in the house, reportedly with a gun. Valley SWAT and hostage negotiators came to the home. Negotiations lasted over five hours. Approximately 30 officers surrounded the home.
The man’s father, against police orders, went inside the home and took the rifle from his son. Officers were able to take the gun into custody. When asked by a member of the audience, Padilla said officers arrested the father for obstruction because he went inside the house against police orders.
Without an arrest of the man, police used an undercover detective to keep a watch on him, Padilla said.
The man drove the next day to Mercer Island so Kent Police notified the Mercer Island Police Department. Padilla said officers attempted to pull the man over, but he fled. Padilla said officers couldn’t pursue under a state law passed a couple of years ago that bans pursuits except in serious felony cases.
The man returned to Kent, where Kent Police tried to pull him over but he fled again.
“We would have liked nothing more than to pursue him,” Padilla said.
Undercover officers continued to watch the man who eventually drove to the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort, about 70 miles from Kent. Police requested assistance from the King County Sheriff’s Office helicopter to follow the man. At Crystal, he stepped out of his vehicle and police took him into custody on the intimidating a school employee and harassment charges.
Padilla said the man will be banned from school grounds at Meridian Elementary and police will get an extreme risk protection order from a judge that prevents individuals at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms when there is demonstrated evidence that the person poses a significant danger.
Complaints from parents
During the meeting, one parent complained that the district didn’t reveal enough information about the lockdown. She said no specific details about the indicent were needed just that the lockdown was still going. She said she heard students were on the floor for two hours and had to be silent.
“You said they weren’t in immediate danger, then why did we do this to them? You could have protected the kids without traumatizing them and kept them in their class.”
Vela thanked the woman for the feedback and what could be learned for the future, including communicating more frequently. Vela said the district didn’t have a lot of information to work with as the lockdown continued.
“Many times the lockdowns we are not controlling but they are controlled by law enforcement,” Vela said. “We are wanting information so we can make decisions.”
Another parent said parents will come to the school when something like this happens and that his wife showed up during the lockdown.
“In your plan, plan for that,” he said. “Plan to communicate with us. We will be there. …This is America and some of us will be armed. Uvalde changed that. You as our leaders need to be prepared for that, although I don’t want to scare anybody.”
Vela said he understood the concerns.
“It’s important for us to internalize that this is traumatic for our students in different ways and it’s important for us to note that our parents have been traumatized in a way,” Vela said.
The man’s reference to Uvalde, Texas where 19 students and two teachers were fatally shot on May 24, caused Padilla to make another statement.
“In regards to Uvalde, I want to make it really, really clear that will never happen in the city of Kent,” Padilla said. “If there is a threat to the schools, we are coming in force and we will stop the threat. …We train for that and are prepared for that.”
Padilla said the long wait for police action in Uvalde should have never happened.
“We are not going to wait around for 45 minutes to go save our kids,” Padilla said.
Staff member actions
A Meridian Elementary School staff member described that students were the priority of staff throughout the lockdown.
“I want to let you guys know our main priority was your kids,” she said. “I was in a classroom when the kids were in the dark. The teachers were amazing with what they did with the kids. They felt safe.”
She said staff members and officers escorted kids individually from each classroom to parents outside the school when they showed up to pick up the students during the lockdown under special arrangements.
“I don’t know how many kiddos hands I held to bring them out to you guys,” she said. “Our concern, and I know it’s hard to not know what was going on, but our concern at that moment was them and to get them to you guys when the time was right and it was safe.”