‘He’s just a little boy’: Mom cries as teens, 13 and 14, arrested for plotting Columbine-style school attack

Two young Florida teens have been arrested after a fellow student tipped off teachers and school staff that they were plotting a massacre similar to those committed at Columbine High School in a suburb of Denver two decades ago.

Deputies from Lee County arrested Connor Pruett, 13, and Phillip Byrd, 14, both of whom are eighth-grade students at Harns Marsh Middle School in Lehigh Acres, which is located near Fort Myers along Florida’s Gulf Coast. On Sunday, both boys appeared before a judge who ordered them held in juvenile detention for at least 21 days, according to local news station WINK.

According to reports on Monday, administrators and deputies found Pruett and Byrd with a detailed map of the school that also showed the location of all of its security cameras.

Police found that the two eighth-graders were also trying to learn how to construct a pipe bomb, conducting research into the purchase of firearms on the black market, and had been studying the Columbine shooting which, at the time of the incident in April 1999, became the deadliest school shooting in the country until a similar mass murder took place Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018.


(Video: WINK)

A search of the students’ homes also turned up firearms and ammunition as well as an assortment of knives.

“To the heroes @HarnsMarshMS, THANK YOU! Your actions saved lives and for that @LeeSchools are forever grateful. All honor to @SheriffLeeFL and staff-students that intervened,” wrote Lee County Superintendent Kenneth Savage on Twitter after the students’ arrest.

According to WINK, both students were detained on Thursday and ordered to undergo a mental evaluation; they were later taken into custody on Saturday and were each charged with conspiracy to commit a mass shooting. The court also ordered them to not have any contact with students or school staff and they cannot go onto school grounds. They were also remanded to juvenile detention ahead of their next court date Sept. 27.

Byrd’s mother, Carrie Tuller, shed tears during Sunday’s court appearance and defended her son: “He’s just a little boy. He didn’t think this was really serious. He didn’t think they were serious.”

After a teacher was told by another student that one of the boys may be armed, the teacher then alerted the school resource officer and administrators, which led to a quick investigation by Lee County deputies on Wednesday. While no weapons were found, that’s when police and school staff found the detailed map.

According to Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, additional “disturbing evidence” was later found by deputies that included the discovery of the weapons and ammunition.

“Detectives learned the students took an interest in the Columbine High School shooting,” Marceno said at a news conference over the weekend. “They were extensively studying to learn more about the incident and the shooters.

“Detectives also learned the students were attempting to learn how to construct pipe bombs and how to purchase firearms on the black market,” Marceno added.

At Columbine, high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, 18 and 17 respectively, used a TEC-9 semi-automatic pistol and a shotgun to murder 12 students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves. At Parkland, shooter Nikolas Cruz, a former student, used an AR-15 style rifle to kill 17 students and staff and wound 17 others. He was arrested sometime later and is expected to finally go on trial this month.

Marceno said that he is positive school staff and his investigators prevented another “Columbine.”

“This could have turned disastrous. We were one second away from a Columbine here,” he said. “I’m certain that my team of dedicated deputies and detectives acted promptly, investigated thoroughly and prevented a very violent and dangerous act from being carried out.

“This could have been the next Parkland massacre, but we stopped them in the planning stages,” he said, adding that the two suspects are very well known to his department, as deputies have responded to both of their homes a collective 80 times.

Jon Dougherty

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