Lockdown

Students are escorted on to a bus from the New Castle High School after a credible threat forced a lockdown while the promenade was happening. 

A man is free from jail after a judge dropped his single charge of calling in a threat that locked down New Castle High School's prom grand march last month.

Judge Jennifer L. Nicholson on Thursday dropped the charge that New Castle police filed against Octavius Eugene Clark, 32, of 14 W. Terrace Ave., of terroristic threats and evacuation of a building.

Clark had been identified as the suspect caller to a crisis line who made what police considered a credible gun threat while students and families were gathered inside the school for the pre-prom promenade the evening of May 28. The school was locked down when police received the call, and the parents and students were ushered one by one to their vehicles.

According to a criminal complaint filed by New Castle police, the caller had told the person on the crisis line that he was going to kill as many white people as he could, and that he would shoot up a school or a church. He had not identified himself.

Public defender Larry Keith, who represented the 32-year-old Clark in court Thursday, argued that Clark's call to the crisis line was to seek help and didn't include specific threats against the high school prom.

Nicholson in turn ruled during the hearing that the commonwealth failed to meet its burden. 

Keith said had argued that Clark had called a counseling hotline and that things he said caused concern to the hotline counselors. Keith said that while the police took precautions, they did not shut down the grand march or evacuate the promenade — an officer testified the promenade was over and the police simply helped students and families get safely to their vehicles.

That's important, the public defender explained, because the nature of the terroristic threats charge is to intentionally cause the evacuation of a building. Clark, he said, was simply calling a national hotline and didn't give a specific target, meaning the charge didn't meet the element. He pointed out that the police caught Clark on Monday, but on Sunday they didn't shut down any churches.

Keith said he merely argued that the arguments didn't meet the burden, specifically the intent to shut something down and cause inconvenience and alarm, because technically, nothing did get shut down.  

According to the criminal complaint, the crisis line counselor the night of the call had in turn contacted the Sharon police, and the Mercer County dispatch center determined the phone number was of someone with an address in the 1400 block of Highland Avenue in New Castle. A New Castle officer called the number and spoke with Clark for about five minutes, then Clark hung up, according to the court papers.

The police tried to call the number back again, but he did not answer, they reported. They contacted the 911 center for an emergency ping of the location of the cell phone, and the phone pinged within 700 feet of the high school, the report said. That prompted a callout of response from the county critical incident response team and every officer available to search the area and escort the students and others to safety. The dispatch center continued pinging the phone every 15 to 20 minutes, and it was later detected to have been moving away from the school, the complaint states.

The report states that the phone was pinged on Sunday, when it was determined to have been about 300 feet from the school, where Victory Family Church would be having services that day.

John Owens, the church pastor, said the church service had proceeded that Sunday as usual, without incident, and that the church security staff and the city police provided extra protection and monitoring of the school during the devotions.

The police reported that they arrested Clark the following Monday — May 31 — when they saw him walking in the area of Highland and Park avenues.

Lawrence County Assistant District Attorney Kiley Shevitz prosecuted the case on behalf of the commonwealth.

dwachter@ncnewsonline.com

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Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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