Criminal proceedings in one of the most high-profile cases of the last decade in Kern County came to an end Thursday as school shooter Bryan Oliver was sentenced to 27 years and four months in prison.
Oliver will be eligible for parole in less than 13 years under January’s plea deal in which he pleaded no contest to two counts of unpremeditated attempted murder in Kern’s first and only school shooting.
Judge John W. Lua also ordered Oliver to pay $857,859.73 in restitution to the family of the teen shot.
Oliver was 16 when he entered a Taft Union High science classroom the morning of Jan. 10, 2013, armed with a shotgun. He shot and seriously injured student Bowe Cleveland, and fired at but missed another student, Jacob Nichols.
Cleveland survived but his injuries will impact him the rest of his life. The case received international attention as it followed closely after the Sandy Hook massacre.
Cleveland’s father, Robert Cleveland, told the court this “nightmare” has taken up his family’s life for more than two years and drained them physically and emotionally. He said it’s been almost unbearable to witness his son change from a fun-loving, sociable boy to a guarded, quiet young man.
“This has left this family feeling helpless and vulnerable,” he said.
Oliver looked on intently as Cleveland read his victim impact statement and those of other family members. The defendant’s mother, Sheri Oliver, cried as Cleveland described what the shooting had done to his family.
Sheri Oliver declined to comment afterward.
Evidence presented at trial indicated Oliver had been a frequent target of bullies. Lua said Thursday bullying does not excuse Oliver’s actions, but it’s an issue society must address, beginning in the home.
Oliver’s actions are his alone and he will be held responsible, Lua said just before imposing sentence. He said the case has been “extremely emotional” for all parties involved and the surrounding communities.
Oliver’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Paul Cadman, said afterward Robert Cleveland’s comments were “totally appropriate and obviously spoken from the heart.” He said Oliver had considered making a statement but chose not to because he didn’t want to dilute Cleveland’s comments about the horror his family experienced.
Cadman added Oliver said everything he wanted to when he “courageously” took the stand as a shy teenager with no prior courtroom experience. He said it was a difficult trial.
“This was the hardest case of my 30 years as an attorney, but I am so proud to be part of a Public Defender’s office that both supports me and surrounds me with some of the best legal minds I have ever seen,” Cadman said.
Cadman argued at trial that “incessant bullying” at Taft Union High caused Oliver to "snap" and enter a blackout state the morning of the shooting. He said the teen wasn't in control of himself and has no memory of his actions from the time he removed a DVD at his home until just after firing the first shot.
A mistrial was declared Dec. 16 after the jury was unable to reach a verdict following several votes and more than 20 hours of deliberation.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Pafford said at a press conference held at the D.A.’s office afterward that he wouldn’t change anything he did at trial. Pafford, who prosecuted the case with Deputy District Attorney Marcus Cuper, has said Oliver planned the shooting and carried it out while fully aware of what he was doing.
He said after speaking with jurors he realized there were some problems he just hadn’t expected.
“The sympathy Mr. Oliver had with some of the jurors was a difficulty we didn’t really anticipate,” he said.
Much was made by the defense, and some jurors, of the amount of money the D.A.’s office paid Dr. Kris Mohandie. The psychologist charged the county $450 an hour and ultimately cost about $50,000 for his work on the case.
Pafford said the D.A.’s office didn’t retain Mohandie until learning the defense’s strategy was to argue Oliver was in a blackout state at the time of the shooting. He said it hired Mohandie because he’s nationally renowned as an expert on school violence and it wanted the best possible witness.
At trial, Pafford repeatedly characterized what Oliver underwent at Taft Union High as “teasing” that Oliver perceived as bullying. He said Thursday he believes Oliver was in fact bullied several times at school.
Oliver was originally charged with attempted murder with premeditation, which would have landed him a life sentence if convicted. He is instead eligible for parole in 12 years and 10 months because he pleaded to unpremeditated attempted murder.
Cadman said he’s confident Oliver will be a model inmate and will be released at that time.
As for Mohandie, Cadman said he believes the psychologist is the reason only three of the 12 jurors voted guilty on the attempted murder count filed in connection with the shot fired at Cleveland, and seven voted guilty for the count involving Nichols. Both counts were far from the unanimous decision needed to find Oliver guilty.
“Nothing speaks louder to the complete rejection of Dr. Mohandie’s reality show-based presentation,” Cadman said of the jury’s votes. “He sounded like the actor that he is.”
Cadman is currently in trial representing accused serial rapist Billy Ray Johnson. Pafford said he is looking for his next case.
“Like my colleague Mr. Pafford, I wouldn’t have done anything different either,” Cadman said.
Oliver's family has filed a $5.5 million claim against the Taft Union High School District for what it calls the district's failure to follow its own rules and regulations, and state laws, regarding bullying and sexual harassment.
The family’s attorney, Thomas Anton, said he thinks Lua’s comments Thursday pointed to the root cause of the tragedy: bullying.
He said the school district’s inattention to a situation that had been building for three years and which they were aware of failed Oliver, Cleveland and the other students impacted by the shooting.
The Cleveland family has sued the district saying district officials knew, or reasonably should have known, that Oliver was dangerous, threatening and likely to commit a violent act. The next hearing is scheduled for March 3.
Daniel Rodriguez, the attorney representing the family, said the end of the criminal proceedings provides some relief but in no way ends the Cleveland family’s ordeal.
“This incident will haunt (Bowe) and his family for the rest of their lives,” he said.