By Joe Beck
Christopher Gerrit Johnson took weeks to find an attorney to help him fight a charge of disorderly conduct stemming from an incident in which he allegedly entered Sandy Hook Elementary School with a board bearing the words "high powered rifle" on both sides.
Now he has two attorneys, and they sounded ready to mount an all-out effort Friday in an appearance in Shenandoah County General District Court.
Johnson, 33, of 333 Junction Road, Strasburg, is free on cash bail and did not appear at the hearing.
Judge Amy Tisinger set a trial date of 2:30 p.m. July 12 after attorney David Silek, who has offices in Front Royal and Manassas, served notice that he intended to subpoena students, faculty and staff from the school.
"I expect a large number of witnesses for the defense," Silek told Tisinger.
Another attorney, Carlos Flores Laboy, whom Silek described as his co-counsel, joined him in the courtroom.
In an interview after the hearing, Silek, who was making his first appearance on behalf of Johnson, said his client had committed no crime when he entered the school on Dec. 19 and walked into the main office with the board.
Silek explained he intended to call a long list of witnesses to demonstrate that Johnson's actions did not disrupt the school, contrary to the criminal complaint, which accuses him of spreading "fear and panic among school staff and administration."
"I want to know what makes them think this is disorderly conduct," Silek said.
Silek said students work with boards in high school shop classes and work crews routinely enter schools with 2-by-4 boards.
He also contended that trying to prosecute someone for writing "high powered rifle" on a board raised First Amendment issues of free expression.
"Walking into a school with a 2-by-4 board is not an illegal act, and words alone are not enough," Silek said.
Silek said Johnson is still looking for work after losing his job at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., as a result of his arrest. Silek blamed the job loss on Johnson's inability to make it to work during his incarceration, which included a mental health evaluation at a facility in Petersburg.
Silek said he saw no indication that Johnson was suicidal at the time of the alleged offense and declined to say whether he would raise mental health issues as part of the defense.
Silek repeated earlier claims by Johnson that he was trying to draw attention to deficiencies in security at the school days after more than 20 students and faculty died in a mass shooting at a school in Connecticut that also was named Sandy Hook Elementary.
"The real problem here is that the schools and the sheriff had their heads in the sand" regarding school security, Silek said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org