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Autistic Northern Ireland teen who told teacher at Columbine High School he would finish off killing spree is spared prison sentence

By Michael Donnelly

Published 03/09/2016

Hoax caller Ben Megarry
Hoax caller Ben Megarry
Columbine High School
JFK airport

A Co Antrim teenager who said to the principal of Columbine High School that he was going to die as part of a series of hoax threats in the US has avoided being sent to prison.

Ben Megarry (19), who suffers from autism, was charged with making a total of 23 hoax bomb threats between March and September 2012.

Belfast Crown Court Judge Sandra Crawford told Megarry that his crimes would normally require a deterrent and lengthy custodial sentences, but there were a number of mitigating factors in his case, including his age at the time - 15 - and the connection between his offending and his undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome.

Judge Crawford, who handed Megarry two years' probation and 70 hours' community service, said given these mitigation factors she was prepared to accept this recommendations of the pre-sentence report, which said he did not present a danger of serious harm to the public.

In all, Megarry, from Harmin Park in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, pleaded guilty to a total of 23 charges related to a spate of hoax calls that he made between March and September 2012 to numerous "schools, businesses, public gathering places and airports within the continental United States".

In June the court heard that among his targets was Columbine High School - the scene of a "tragic and infamous gun massacre".

Prosecutor Peter Magill revealed that Megarry phoned Columbine on the 13th anniversary of the April 1999 shooting, telling the school principal he was not only "going to finish" what the two killers had started, but "he would not be so lucky - and that he was going to die".

Judge Crawford said it "was a sad irony" that many of the schools targeted by Megarry had pupils who were disabled or who had been diagnosed with special needs. The judge added that while a top psychiatric expert reported that but for Megarry's autism and Asperger's syndrome his offending may not have occurred, she found this difficult to accept as there were "too many imponderables" to definitively say he would not have committed the crimes. Judge Crawford said, however, that it was agreed that his condition was not uncovered until February 2014 and that at the time of his offending there were no check and balances to tackle many of the feature of his condition which his offending "unfortunately displayed".

Of particular importance, said Judge Crawford, were Megarry's "social naivety, desire to impress acquaintances, susceptibility to suggestion from others, his risk-taking and thrill-seeking behaviour, his inability of separating fact from fiction" and a lack of empathy as to the consequences of his actions.

As one expert put it, Megarry had been operating inside a "closed bubble".

Judge Crawford also commented that while the seriousness of the charges faced by Megarry could not be underestimated, other mitigating factors included the time in bringing his case to trial, his clear record, and that the fact that he had expressed remorse.

When questioned by police, Megarry, she added, readily confessed and also pleaded guilty, allowing him maximum credit for saving court time and the public purse a long and complicated trial.

At the original hearing the court heard that Megarry had not acted alone, but "often in conjunction with others not before the court... some of these other persons live in other countries and none at this time had been made amendable".

Prosecutor Mr Magill said it appeared the purpose behind the group calls was to achieve "some form of status" among these people, while at the same time provoking a response from the US authorities that could then be viewed online or on TV.

Mr Magill told the court that Megarry's guilty pleas, made at the first opportunity, had resulted from what he described as a "lengthy, costly and meticulous investigation" by local and federal enforcement agencies in the US, Interpol and the PSNI.

Defence QC Greg Berry said reports indicated that a remorseful Megarry may not have made the calls had he been diagnosed as autistic when a schoolboy. Mr Berry also said the Asperger's syndrome was only uncovered in February 2014.

Belfast Telegraph

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