An autistic man’s emailed warning was mistaken for a school shooting threat

Outside a Long Beach courtroom last month, Nicole Thibeau hugged one of her former students, a 20-year-old man with autism still trying to make sense of why he’d spent a night in jail.

“It’s over,” she told him and his mother.

The man, whom the Post is identifying only as Thomas, had been accused of threatening to shoot former classmates and teachers at Cabrillo High School in Long Beach. But on Sept. 19, prosecutors dropped the case.

Thibeau, who works at Cabrillo as a resource specialist, was relieved but still angry. She said Thomas, a disabled man with challenges communicating, had been arrested and charged with a felony because of an email that all sides now agree was never meant as a threat.

“Really dissecting the email—what he was really trying to be was a hero,” Thibeau said.

Thomas ended up in a situation that could be increasingly more common, according to one expert.

His case highlights the challenge authorities face gauging the seriousness of possible threats when repeated mass shootings have sparked a heightened awareness and calls for vigilance, said Greg Shaffer, a retired FBI agent turned private security consultant specializing in active shooters and terrorism.

“Things like this are going to happen unfortunately in this day and age,” Shaffer said.

The ‘threat’

Thomas’ path to a jail cell started with another threat, one that had nothing to do with him, according to his attorney, Tuan Anh Nguyen.

Thomas started attending Long Beach City College after graduating Cabrillo in 2018, but on May 9, he was hanging out with a friend who goes to Cal State Long Beach.

The two talked about what had been in the headlines that day: someone writing “School shooter tm Be WARNED 5-9” in a bathroom stall at the CSULB campus, Nguyen explained.

Nothing came of the vague, scrawled statement, but Thomas took the warning to heart, Thibeau said. Despite the threat being written at a university across the city, Thibeau believes Thomas’ concern for his former teachers at Cabrillo and a girl there he had a crush on drove him to type a convoluted email to three staffers at the high school.

It read in part: “This is a bad news here so listen up and don’t worry about me. And don’t do anything, but keep on teaching your class safely. So, something going to this day forward. There is a gun fire that is about to happen. And I have something businesses to take care of over there … As this day forward, this is a war to revolutionize to save people and survive. Although if this is a lie to you, than good luck, I would be in jail for people get their ideas wrong.”

Thomas communicates best through writing, but his disability and the fact that English is his second language mean his emails often turn out like “word soup” that needs deciphering, Thibeau said.

In addition to that, she said he has a tendency to use the most extreme language for minor things, like earnestly saying, “It’s the end of the world,” for getting a bad grade.

“He’s a kid that suffers because he has all these feelings like you and I do, but he doesn’t know how to express them,” Thibeau said.

She thinks Thomas meant the email as a warning about a school shooting he thought was imminent, but a math teacher—who wasn’t aware of the extent of Thomas’ disability—didn’t know what to make of it, according to a statement he sent to Nguyen, and the mention of guns made him “instantly concerned.”

He reported it to school administrators—something that’s required of teachers—who then reported it to police.

When officers arrived at Thomas’ family home on May 9, his father allowed them to search Thomas’ room, where they seized his phone and laptop but didn’t find any weapons, according to police reports of the encounter provided by Nguyen.

When Thomas came home with his friend at about 4:45 p.m., officers explained the situation to him. Thomas, one officer wrote, was “extremely cooperative” as police handcuffed him.

The charges

Thomas spent the night in jail, where he was questioned, according to the reports.

When police asked if he understood his rights, Thomas said, “Yes, but I do not communicate well,” one report said.

He was held until the next morning when his parents posted $50,000 bail to get him released.

When asked about his case, police said they have to take every possible threat of violence seriously and thoroughly investigate each one.

“Especially in today’s environment, with threats of violence and mass shootings occurring throughout the nation, it is important for these threats to be reported so that our department can ensure the safety of our community,” spokeswoman Shaunna Dandoy said. “In this case, the responding officer gathered extensive information on the reported incident, including witness statements and additional information on the suspect, which was thoroughly reviewed by the handling detective.”

Part of that evidence included Cabrillo staff who’d worked with Thomas trying to explain how his communication challenges may have made his email seem more threatening than it was, according to Thibeau.

They even showed the officers a video of Thomas trying to speak, telling them, “this is what you’re dealing with,” she said. They liked Thomas, who’d never caused any trouble while he attended Cabrillo, according to Thibeau.

“I tried my best to explain to everybody that Thomas is not a threat, this is not what he was trying to convey,” she said.

Thibeau said she got involved in his case partly because Thomas’ family isn’t well-positioned to advocate for him. The family declined to be interviewed but permitted Nguyen to speak on their behalf.

Regardless of Thibeau’s opinion about Thomas, the ultimate decision whether to prosecute him rested with the District Attorney’s office. On May 13, they charged him with one count of making a criminal threat, a felony that can carry prison time.

The dismissal

After the charge was filed, the prosecutor on the case offered Thomas a deal: He could plead guilty and go into a mental diversion program, avoiding time behind bars, according to Nguyen, the attorney.

“I thought, this isn’t right, he didn’t do it, he doesn’t have the capacity to carry out something like this,” Nguyen said. “… Most would be happy with even mental diversion, but justice needs to be done.”

Nguyen got statements from Thomas’ teachers and counselors about the email, his character and his behavior and contacted the deputy district attorney on the case. With that information in hand, Nguyen asked that the charges be dismissed. The deputy district attorney agreed.

“The decision on the case was made when it became clear from evidence and witness accounts, received after the case was filed, that the defendant did not intend to threaten anyone,” a spokesman for the D.A.’s office said. They declined to make any further comment.

On Sept. 19, the third time Thomas had appeared in court, the case was dismissed.

Nguyen proudly shook Thomas’ hand and smiled as he reassured the 20-year-old he would not have to go to trial for what amounted to a “huge misunderstanding.”

Thomas wasn’t completely certain the whole thing was over, even emailing Thibeau that evening indicating that he was worried, she said.

Thibeau said she’s still frustrated, arguing Thomas never should have been arrested and dragged through the system, which came with a financial and emotional price. In one of his recent emails to her, Thomas mentioned that the ordeal had cost his family a lot, she said.

“If we had not advocated for him, who knows what it would’ve ended up like,” she said.

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Valerie Osier is a breaking news and crime reporter for the Long Beach Post. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from Cal State University, Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband, Steven, and her cat/child, Jones.
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