Plotting to Kill - Part 1: Investigating an online conspiracy

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In April 2008, a School Resource Officer at Penn High School discovered a startling dialogue unfolding on Myspace. A 16-year old freshman, Russell Frantom, was spearheading a group dedicated to the Columbine shooters.

Further investigation revealed that Frantom and a second individual based in Ohio plotted two, simultaneous, shooting events in the spirit of the Columbine Massacre. One of which, was intended to take place at Penn High School.

It's a case that made national headlines at the time, but few details about the investigation were released--including the perpetrator’s name--because of his status as a juvenile. But with his permission, NewsCenter 16 delved deeper into the investigation.

April 2008:
Just before investigators discovered the plot, an unrelated threat in a Penn High School bathroom put school administrators on alert.

On April 22, 2008, a social media posting caught the attention of School Resource Officer, Cpl. David Sult.

It was dated April 8, 2008 at 6:03 p.m. "I wish it would really happen. The person would be a hero, like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of columbine."

The author of the post was listed as "Russell," a 16-year old from South Bend.

Sult called Russell Frantom down to the office on the morning of April 22 to discuss what he found online. He printed out pages and posts from the teen's Myspace account and questioned him about his discussions with a Myspace user by the name of "Dylan and Eric Fought Back For Us."

Sult learned the two discussed a plan to commit violence in the spirit of the Columbine Massacre in public places.

That's when Commander Mitch Kajzer of the St. Joseph County Prosecutor's Office High Tech Crimes Unit joined the investigation. Kajzer spent over an hour talking to Frantom and his guardian at the police station.

"He freely admitted it was his account and that he made the postings online," Kajzer explained, "he was very frank about it."

Kajzer said he was convinced after first speaking with Frantom that the teen fully intended to follow through with the plan; he just needed the supporting evidence to prove it.

Building the case:
Eric Tamashasky worked the case in 2008 with the St. Joseph County Prosecutor's Office.

He remembers the day vividly: he was sitting at a local restaurant when he received a call from Kajzer informing him "something" was going down at Penn High School and he needed to come in.

"When you start talking about school shooters we can't not take it seriously, we have to," said Tamashasky.

They were in a unique situation; because Cpl. Sult discovered the plot so early on its formation there was very little time for a substantial amount of evidence to accumulate. As a result, the prosecutor's office had to find a way to prove Frantom conspired to commit murder.

"There's always a large split between: we don't want to create a star chamber and penalize people for Thought Crimes. But then again, conspiracies are very dangerous, very deadly, and they give people confidence they otherwise wouldn't have," Tamashasky explained he needed an agreement between Frantom and a second individual, as well as an action in furtherance of that agreement in order to prove conspiracy.

Commander Mitch Kajzer was able to gather that evidence with information discovered on Frantom's Myspace page and computer.

What they found:
Frantom freely admitted during his initial interview with investigators that he possessed several venomous snakes. But police didn't anticipate everything else that they'd eventually discover when they searched the teen's room.

"A lot of weird things," Kajzer explained.

Police executed a search warrant at Frantom’s uncle’s house, where he was living at the time but faced several obstacles. Frantom’s room was located upstairs, but it could only be entered through a door that locked from the outside. In his bedroom, investigators uncovered what they described as a “strange” collection of items: a life-size statute of the Texas Chainsaw killer, a significant number of knives, swords and cutting tools, smeared red paint in the closet, masks, Chuckie dolls and much more.

A search into Frantom’s computer was even more telling.

Cyber investigators uncovered four pictures of bombs, 74 pictures related to Columbine High School, 11 pictures of guns, four pictures of knives, 44 pictures that appeared to have been taken in Penn High School, 370 pictures that include snakes and 72 pictures of subjects with weapons.

Police delved into Frantom’s messages both on Myspace and in Instant Messages with a user by the name of “Dylan and eric fought back for us! TCMI.” The user was later determined to be Lee Billi, a then 33-year old man from Lakewood, Ohio.

Frantom and Billi quickly developed a code, referring to bombs and weapons as “party favors” and a mass shooting as a “party.”

On April 20, 2008, Billi and Frantom discussed committing a Columbine-like mass murder both at Penn High School and in Ohio. Specifically, Frantom discussed obtaining schematics of Penn High School, including where security cameras were located.

The two agreed to synchronize their attacks and selected September 11, 2008 as the date of attack.

The following day, April 21, 2008, the two continued to plot:

Russell: “its amazing. I have absolutely no sympathy for anyone anymore. I just wanna invite them all to my party. As many as I (expletive) can. Damn I can’t wait.”

Billi: “i know how you feel. anyone at my party asks for sympathy and ill give them the same kind they gave me. Wich is none. I can’t wait either. The one thing that keeps me going is knowing that each day brings me closer. Also it helps me to make sure the party goes off perfectly. Think about it it may be awhile but it is good becuase youcan make it better”

That same day, Frantom wrote in his personal journal about his conversations with Billi, saying “throughout the weekend me and a friend of mine are planning something catastrophic. I am not sure if he’s for real or not about it he says he has been planning for sometime now. We picked September 11th, because its already iconic.”

In an interview with police, Frantom told investigators “I was just joking. I think I went too far.” When asked if he contemplated a school shooting he replied, “I do have those thoughts going through my head,” adding that “they started when my girlfriend broke up with me.”

Charges
Looking back seven years, Tamashasky said he never anticipated having a case of this nature ever placed upon his desk. The Prosecutor’s Office was faced with a difficult decision of whether or not to charge a 16-year old as an adult or as a juvenile.

Frantom’s dialogue with Billi was enough evidence for prosecutor’s to charge him with conspiracy. In addition to that, the Google searches on how to make a propane bomb found of Frantom’s computer confirmed investigators' fears that Frantom actually planned to follow through with this online plot.

On June 11, 2008, Frantom pleaded guilty to juvenile charges of Conspiracy to Commit Murder, a Class A felony.

The judge took the prosecution’s recommendation and handed Frantom over to the Department of Corrections, where he could have stayed at the “boy’s school” until he turned 21.

Frantom ended up serving less than one year in juvenile detention.