The suspect in last week’s shooting at Taft Union High School entered a not guilty plea at an arraignment Monday in Kern County Superior Court, where he is being tried as an adult.
Suspect Bryan Oliver, 16, is charged with two counts of attempted murder and two counts of assault with a firearm in the wounding of one student and the targeting of another, and one count of assault with a firearm in the wounding of teacher Ryan Heber, District Attorney Lisa Green said. Heber suffered a superficial wound to the head after he was grazed by a pellet.
Oliver, a stocky, short boy with a mop of red hair, was handcuffed with his wrists in front of him during his appearance in court. He shuffled to his seat and said nothing other than to respond to Judge Michael Lewis’ inquiry whether he was, in fact, Mr. Oliver.
“Yes sir, your honor,” Oliver said, looking directly at the judge.
Other than that, the teenager looked down the whole time defense attorney David Torres informed the court that his client was pleading not guilty “at this time,” but did not waive his right to change his plea in the future.
The proceedings opened with Torres filing a motion to bar media from the courtroom in order to assure a fair trial. Lewis denied the motion, saying that in a tense environment in which safety in schools is top of mind across the nation, the public’s right to follow the legal process had greater weight. Still, the judge indicated he might be willing to reconsider another request later in the proceedings.
Oliver will remain in custody in juvenile hall, where he is being held on $1.5 million bail. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Feb. 21. The courtroom was packed with media, but only one member of the public watched the proceedings, a man who left hastily afterward without speaking to reporters. Prosecutor Mark Pafford also didn’t speak with the media.
Outside court, Torres said he had not yet had a chance to review all the discovery in the case and didn’t want to comment until he’d had time to go over the facts. Asked if he planned to move for a change of venue, Torres said it was too early to know whether that would be appropriate.
At a Monday morning news conference, Green declined to provide any details about the day of the shooting, saying she didn’t want to hurt the case against Oliver, nor risk an order for a change of venue. An afternoon news conference that was to have included staff and faculty from the high school was canceled for that reason.
Green said she and her staff were professionals and would not allow emotion or the international attention the case has garnered to get in the way of doing their jobs.
“Every shooting at a school is difficult,” she said, but added that the case was approached like any other high-profile case, and she was comfortable with the decision to charge Oliver as an adult.
The Taft Union High School District referred questions about the case to the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, and has asked employees not to grant media interviews because the criminal case is still under active investigation. Although sheriff’s deputies are still gathering evidence, Green said, “We feel we have been given a very thorough briefing.”
By law, a case had to be filed by 9 a.m. Monday.
The suspect has been in custody since authorities said he showed up late to his first-period science class Thursday and opened fire with a shotgun, critically wounding Bowe Cleveland, 16. Cleveland was airlifted to Kern Medical Center and underwent surgery last week for wounds to his abdomen and chest.
A KMC surgeon said he remained in critical condition Monday, but had shown improvement over the weekend. Cleveland is slowly being awakened from an induced coma he was placed in after surgery, Dr. Ruby Skinner said.
Authorities said the second attempted murder count was related to classmate Jacob Nichols. Witnesses told police and reporters after the shooting Thursday that Oliver asked about Nichols’ whereabouts as he waved his shotgun in the classroom.
Green also confirmed that the gun used in the shooting belongs to the defendant’s brother. It’s not yet known if he will face any charges, Green said, as deputies continue to investigate that aspect of the case.
Green would not confirm or deny reports that Oliver had drawn up a hit list of intended targets last year, but cited premeditation as one of the factors in the decision to charge Oliver as an adult, as well as Oliver’s age and the extent of Cleveland’s injuries.
The probable cause declaration filed in court says Oliver admitted firing at both Cleveland and Nichols. He said he shot at them because they “annoyed” and “bullied” him, according to court documents.
The Oliver family couldn’t be reached for comment. No one answered the door at the teen’s home, which is within walking distance of the school.
Classes remained canceled Monday as the community of Taft took advantage of counseling that has been available on campus since last week. Students also have been allowed on campus to collect belongings that may have been left behind in Thursday’s hasty evacuation.
Taft senior Mitchell Emberson, 17, said outside school Monday that he was glad Oliver was being tried as an adult.
“I feel the actions he took were adult enough to be treated like an adult in court,” he said.
But his friend, senior Sione Tuuamalemalo Jr., had mixed feelings about it.
“I guess, on the one hand, he did hurt people so that’s understandable,” he said. “But then, he’s only 16 years old, only a junior, and did say he was bullied. It’s kind of sad, if that’s true. I guess we’ll never really know. But anyway, I can see both sides of the story.”
At a news conference Thursday, Sheriff Donny Youngblood said Oliver’s “perception” was that he had been bullied for more than a year, but he stopped short of saying whether or not that perception was accurate.
The community is still trying to make sense of the violence.
There were tears, hugs and prayers at a vigil Friday at A Street Park. Students and teachers repeatedly said the tragedy had brought the community closer, and vowed not to be cowed by fear.
Media from all over the world have been following the case, and the small city of about 9,464 is finding the international spotlight unnerving but doing its best to return to a normal routine.
Narinder Singh is manager of Outpost Food Store, a grocery market and gas station about a block east of Taft Union.
He said he knows all the reporters who have descended on the city are just doing their job, but he’s looking forward to things settling down.
“School is starting again (Tuesday),” he said. “That will be good.”
Security is likely to be tight when students return.
Campuses throughout Kern County had already been reviewing safety policies in the wake of December’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed.
That incident has renewed a national debate about gun control, and Congress is sorting through various proposals ranging from banning assault rifles to regulating the sale of ammunition. Gun ownership groups oppose those efforts and are calling for armed guards on school campuses and better mental health screening.
— Californian staff writer Jason Kotowski contributed to this report.