The mother of accused Michigan high school shooter Ethan Crumbley texted an acquaintance that she was having a “shit day” and that her son could not “be left alone” just hours before four teens were fatally shot and seven others were injured late last year. But defense attorneys countered that school officials gave the teen’s parents the “option” of leaving him in school before the deadly shooting he’s accused of perpetrating.
James Crumbley, 45, and Jennifer Crumbley, 43, are each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the deadly Nov. 30, 2021 incident at Oxford High School in Oxford Township. Prosecutors have alleged that the parents acted in a grossly negligent manner and played a criminally redressable role in causing the deaths of the four teens Ethan Crumbley is directly accused of murdering. The two parents were arrested in a downtown Detroit building after authorities suggested they were attempting to flee; an attorney for one of the parents said they were scared and were planning to turn themselves in.
The parents appeared together in court for a lengthy preliminary examination on Tuesday. Under Michigan law, the purpose of such a hearing is to determine whether “it appears that a felony has been committed and that there is probable cause to believe that the accused is guilty thereof.” If a judge agrees with that statutorily defined threshold question, the case proceeds to trial. Though many defendants in serious cases waive preliminary examinations, some choose to move forward with the proceedings for several reasons. First, they allow defense attorneys a first shot at cross-examining some witnesses under oath long before a jury is present. Second, they force prosecutors to shoulder an additional burden. Third — and perhaps most relevantly here — they force a judge to ascertain whether the charges fit the alleged facts of the case. The Crumbley parents have asserted that they should not be held criminally responsible for what they believe are the superseding acts of their son — namely, their son’s independent decision to allegedly pull the trigger.
Prosecutors attempted to use Jennifer Crumbley’s text messages with acquaintances and colleagues to prove the parents knew or should have known their son was unstable, prone to violence, and that deadly consequences were reasonably foreseeable.
In a chain of messages with Kira Pennock, the owner of a farm where the Crumbleys kept their horse, the Jennifer Crumbley said she was having a “shit day” after having gone to meet with her son’s school counselor. That message, which bore a 10:58 a.m. timestamp, came slightly less than two hours before the first 911 call reported that shots had been fired. That call came in at 12:51 a.m.
The messages were part of a discussion about the care of the defendants’ horse. Jennifer Crumbley texted Pennock that she was still planning to attend a horseback riding lesson later that day — but she then admitted that her son was “having a hard time” after the death of a pet and a “friend going away to a treatment facility” — “and who knows what else.”
The accused murderer’s mother then texted the horse farm owner a copy of the homicidal drawing Ethan Crumbley allegedly made on a school worksheet.
Pennock said she was “alarmed” by the messages.
What followed was a text chain which suggested Ethan Crumbley would be joining his mother at the equine facility that evening.
“Does he want to ride?” Pennock asked.
“I don’t know?” Jennifer responded. “Maybe brush a small horse so he’s not with me tonight, James is working he can’t be left alone.”
Pennock testified that she discussed preparing a separate horse for Ethan to ride so that Jennifer could ride her own horse; she also testified that the “he” in “he can’t be left alone” was a reference to Ethan.
Pennock said Jennifer Crumbley later told her she was “bawling right now.”
“My son ruined so many lives today,” Jennifer Crumbley texted Pennock.
Co-worker Andrew Smith, an attorney and chief operations officer for a company that employed Jennifer Crumbley, said the defendant texted him that she needed to go to the school to meet with Ethan’s counselor.
“I have to go to my kids school,” Jennifer Crumbley texted Smith. “Counselor just called and this is what I’m dealing with. I’ll be back by 11:30-12 at the latest.”
What followed was yet another photo of Ethan’s homicidal drawings on his mathematics worksheet.
When the defendant returned to work, Smith testified that he eventually heard “screaming” from Jennifer’s office — just feet away from his own.
The defendant left again.
“The gun is gone and so are the bullets,” Jennifer Crumbley texted Smith at around 1:23 p.m.
Smith said he was shocked and stunned as he began to understand what occurred.
“I’m praying everything is ok!” Smith texted back.
“Omg Andy he’s going to kill himself he must be the shooter,” Jennifer Crumbley responded.
Several telephone calls were part of the communication; Smith said he put Crumbley on the speakerphone with a human resources representative present. Some of those calls involved access to pay stub information for the purposes of obtaining money to hire a lawyer, Smith said. Some requested help finding a competent criminal lawyer; Smith said he passed that request along to corporate counsel for the company and that he was generally too shocked to be able to render any meaningful recommendations.
“I need a lawyer at substation with police,” Jennifer Crumbley texted. “Ethan did it.”
After a pause, at 3:39 p.m., she wrote again.
“I need my job,” Jennifer Crumbley texted. “Please don’t judge me for what my son did.”
“I can’t even begin to understand what you’re going thru,” Smith replied at 5:47 p.m. “I’m praying for you. I asked Carolyn to txt you some attorney recommendations.”
“They are taking my cell phone,” Jennifer Crumbley replied.
Prosecutors attempted to characterize the evidence as proof that Jennifer Crumbley knew her son was capable of nefarious actions and, later, was more worried about herself than about her son.
Both Smith and a human resources representative testified that Jennifer Crumbley would have been afforded time to remain with her son had she asked to do so. The HR rep said that when she eventually cleaned out Crumbley’s desk, she found a picture of James Crumbley face-down in a desk drawer. A small picture of Ethan and a picture of the family’s horse were visible on a bulletin board.
Amanda Holland, an administrative assistant, testified that she overheard the defendant’s “loud” phone calls at work — some of which were so loud that colleagues could hear them through closed doors. The calls and other conversations indicated that Jennifer and James Crumbley were seeing other people, had separated for a time in 2021, and that Jennifer grew increasingly comfortable seeing other people, Holland testified. At one point, Holland said Jennifer Crumbley even admitted to seeing another man who would sometimes pick her up at work. Holland said she believed Ethan Crumbley overheard fights between James and Jennifer Crumbley, citing conversations she had with Jennifer.
Defense attorneys objected to the relevance of the status of the Crumbley marriage.
“The defendants owed a duty to the community to prevent their son — who they had every reason to believe — and saw — was a danger — what they did and didn’t do, what they spent their time doing, what they exposed their son to, is absolutely material and probative,” prosecutor Karen McDonald argued. “The duty owed here is to protect the community from intentionally — their son intentionally harming somebody when they knew he was preoccupied with violent material, that he had access to a gun, he could use it when he wanted to, and he was disturbed. It’s a parental duty; it goes far beyond careless; it’s gross negligence; there’s absolutely a duty.”
The defense fought with the state’s characterization of any duty owed to the broader “community.”
As to the more narrow evidence issue at play, the judge overruled the objection; the testimony continued.
Holland continued by saying Jennifer was concerned about Ethan given the other issues he was facing. Still, Jennifer would go to a bar “almost daily” after work, Holland testified.
The morning of the school shooting, Jennifer received a phone call from Ethan’s school. Holland said the call indicated that there was an “issue” at school, but she couldn’t hear more. Jennifer Crumbley then called James Crumbley to see if he could deal with the situation.
“It sounded like she wanted James to go,” Holland said.
After another call, Jennifer appeared to want to go to the school herself. Jennifer then returned to work, Holland said.
“She came over to my desk,” Holland said. “She said that she felt like a failure as a parent, and she showed me a photo of what Ethan had drawn at school.”
The general thrust of the testimony suggested that Jennifer Crumbley liberally shared the image Ethan drew on his math worksheet. Holland said Jennifer Crumbley’s tone was “sarcastic” — not remorseful.
“I told her I thought it was scary that he would draw that,” Holland said. “She agreed.”
Holland said Jennifer Crumbley recounted that school wanted Ethan to receive counseling. Holland said she suggested to Jennifer that she should have brought Ethan home immediately and needed to spend time with him — perhaps going to lunch and/or to a movie.
“She told me that she would just take him to the barn that night,” Holland responded. Holland said she agreed that Jennifer Crumbley needed to spend time with Ethan. Holland also said that Crumbley told her that Ethan didn’t like going to the barn but that she thought it would be good for him that night.
Both women went back to work. Then came another phone call. James called Jennifer and said he received an alert about an active shooter. Panic set in at the office. Jennifer Crumbley “ran out quickly.”
On cross-examination, the defense asserted that the school told Jennifer Crumbley that Ethan was “not a threat to anyone.” Holland said she wasn’t aware of that assertion. Holland also said she was unaware of any “option” to either keep Ethan Crumbley in school or leave with him that day.
The defendants have indirectly challenged the assertion that school staffers told the Crumbleys to take Ethan home right before the shooting by shaking their heads at the assertion in previous hearings. The preliminary examination hearing appears to be the first time defense attorneys directly claimed the school presented the Crumbleys with an option to leave Ethan in school before the shooting occurred.
The defense further challenged Holland’s assertions that she was concerned and scared by the photo Ethan drew in class. Holland admitted she never called the police or the school or had reason to believe Jennifer Crumbley was deliberately leaving Ethan in school against the assertions or wishes of school officials.
Holland admitted that her concerns about the drawing she saw before the shooting were colored by “hindsight.” Holland also agreed that Jennifer Crumbley was planning to spend time with her son that evening — but the shooting intervened.
Defense attorney Shannon Smith railed on prosecutors for suggesting that Ethan Crumbley spent “hours” alone at home and had either fully unfettered or nearly unfettered access to the gun the authorities claim Ethan used in the shootings.
“It’s not true,” Smith said with reference to the alleged gun access. “The prosecutor repeatedly keeps asking questions that are designed to inflame the public and make everyone believe there was access to the gun. That has not been testified to.”
“These questions are, by design, to try to have these people convicted in the media,” Smith continued, this time referencing the defendants. “That question is improper. It’s also assuming facts not in evidence and facts that will never be in evidence.”
The judge sustained the defense objection as to the question about alleged access to the weapon.
At the commencement of the hearing, Judge Julie A. Nicholson granted over defense objections a prosecution motion to ban the two parents from attempting to communicate with one another during court proceedings. Nicholson agreed that the duo’s documented hand signals and mouthed words were “disruptive” and “disrespectful.”
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