Zombies or No: Why the Poole Case is Still Important

Rumours are flying fast and furious on the William Poole case. You catch a hint of that in the comments to my old post here. Here’s an update of what we know, as best we know.

  1. William Poole, a student of George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, KY was taken into custody by police under terrorism-related charges. His grandparents had found a journal containing “stories” which they found disturbing and turned him in.

  2. Poole’s claim that the writings were parts of a short story about zombies has been discredited. The writings make no mention of zombies. He also changed his story about whether the writings were for an English class at school. As a result, those that rushed to his defence while saying “zombie” with every second breath ended up looking a little silly.

  3. However, the police have not fully discredited the suggestion that Poole’s writings were works of fiction. They say that they suggest an attempt to take over Poole’s school, although Poole’s school isn’t specifically mentioned. They’re told in the third person. They give two dates for the narrator’s supposed death in an attack; the last one being three days before the police took Poole into custody.

  4. While there is suggestion that police have found correspondence between Poole and other possible co-conspirators in Poole’s alleged attempt to take over the school (this article in the Winchester Sun casts some doubt on this), this correspondence has not proven to be the primary evidence to convict Poole for conspiracy. The journals remain centre stage. As Winchester Police detective Steven Caudill says, “Anytime you make any threat or possess matter involving a school or function it’s a felony in the state of Kentucky,” which further suggests that some of the officers don’t care if Poole’s writings were works of fiction or not. “If there’s smoke, there’s fire” appears to be the attitude in some circles.

  5. Poole was held in custody on a $5,000 bond. That bond was paid by a doner with some interest in civil rights cases. Poole is now free until the date of his trial, although he has been warned to stay away from his high school, and his alleged co-conspirators.

(Update: Mar 30, 2005): Zero Intelligence links to an article which says that Poole has been rearrested for violating the terms of his bail (to which we say, what an idiot). Quoted from the article: “A close family friend told LEX 18 that Poole was acting harmlessly when he was seen with another teen at the school, and that the other teen was picking up his sister there. The excuse didn’t fly with the judge, who immediately signed a warrant for Poole’s arrest.”

That’s about all we know for sure. Everything else is rumour, and a lot of it have been flying around, including from students at GRC High School. The school appears to be aflutter about the case, which is perfectly understandable, even though some of the accusations have to be taken with a grain of salt. There was a rumour, for instance, that Poole or one of his conspirators was found in possession of a bomb. I’m pretty sure we can discount that, since Poole would never have been released on bond if this were the case. There were even rumours that Poole had left the State of Kentucky (hardly surprising given that his grandparents apparently won’t have him back and his community seems pretty certain he’s guilty), but the article quoted above scotches that pretty effectively.

Until the trial reconvenes (I’m not sure when), I’m sure the rumours will continue to fly. But although Poole now seems a long way from being a persecuted writer, this case is nowhere near an open-and-shut near-Columbine.

Sometimes, when you stick your neck out, you take it across the neck. But it is better to stick your neck out, be wrong, and accept the consequences, than it is to duck and let the world pass you by unchallenged in all its idiocies.

Writing about the problems of William Poole I never expected that my posts would rise so high on the Google search engine. The comments I’ve received tells me that there are a number of people in Winchester who are afraid. And sometimes, people who are afraid resent you coming in and telling them not to be afraid. And they are unafraid to tell you so. This can be a little wearing, even though most who have commented (or e-mailed) have been polite and respectful.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I do not consider the citizens of Winchester to be rednecks or anything of the sort. Second, I acknowledge that facts have come forward which have damaged Poole’s credibility and have no doubt dulled that edge of the shock and the outrage that first accompanied this story. So why do I continue to follow the case of William Poole?

Even if William Poole is convicted, I believe that I will have been right to take an interest in this case. Yes, maybe I end up looking foolish defending a convicted criminal, but what if he’s innocent? He wouldn’t be the first high school student to have written a violent short story and have gotten into trouble for it. This becomes even more pressing considering that the police in the case don’t appear to have set a very high bar for themselves on what constitutes a real threat to the community. The blog Orac Knows explains this very well:

“Let’s assume, however, that Poole wrote exactly what the police claim he wrote (although we may never know now if that’s the case, because the judge ordered his writings sealed — which makes me suspect that the end result of this case will be a plea deal in which Poole’s writings are permanently sealed, thus sparing the police any embarrassment if the writings turn out not to be as threatening as claimed). The police have never stated that what Poole wrote wasn’t a story, as Poole claimed, at least not as far as I can tell from the news reports. So, in essence, the police are saying that writing a story whose content sounds like a threat against a school is a felony in and of itself.”

As shocking and tragic as the events of Columbine were, and the recent shootings in Minnesota are, the fact remains that those incidents were abberations, not the norm. Growing up in high school, I knew students who wrote violent stories or who drew violent art. I myself wrote a tale about a terrorist campaign against the United States (you can read it here). I even knew students who had access to gunpowder and knew how to build small bombs. I did not know a single student who was a threat to life or property. Many of us are weird, some of us are antisocial, but most of us are not a threat. If we are too eager to see weirdness as a threat, we risk harming the very people we’re so desperate to protect.

Make no mistake: if Poole was conspiring to attack the school with a gang, I’d be cheering for a lengthy sentence. But being surly, picking fights at school, mouthing off, writing violent journal entries and otherwise being generally weird, is not sufficient evidence to convict one of conspiring to make terrorist attacks. At least, it shouldn’t be. But check out the comments on this blog post.

Here are some more red flags to look for (on a potential threat —jb):

  • Was he ever the subject of any “anger management” sessions before his arrest?

  • Did he ever have or did he ever see a psychologist or psychiatrist before the arrest?

  • Was he ever institutionalized or hospitalized at any time before the arrest?

  • Was he on any medications at the time? (SSRIs and/or Ritalin)

  • Did Poole have any internet discussions with anyone about violence before the arrest? Was there any evidence that others, especially older people, influenced him or encouraged him in his acts?

  • Was there ever any evidence that he was involved with Satanism or other strange religions?

  • Did he play any Live Action Role-Playing(LARP) games at any time before his arrest?

I have no problem with red flag number 5. That’s actual cause and effect towards a violent act that needs to be stopped. But look at the others: if you were in anger management, you are a potential terrorist? If you saw a psychiatrist, you are a potential terrorist? If you were institutionalized or taking medications to fight off depression, you are a potential terrorist? (Some of my friends and family members had better hide their pill bottles) If you are involved in Satanism, you are a potential terrorist? (Well, maybe. Good thing the commentator didn’t say Islam, or I’d really blow my top) If you are involved with role playing games, Dungeons and Dragons, Everquest or the Society for Creative Anachronism you are a potential terrorist?!

And if you are a young man writing violent fiction, featuring a school being attacked in any way, you are a potential terrorist.

That would be the real tragedy, here: not that Poole lied about what he wrote, but that by the standard seen here, people who write works of fiction will get in trouble for it.

This is why we stick our necks out, even in the face of the possibility that we may be sticking our necks out for the wrong person.

We shall see.

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