By Joe Beck
The case against a Strasburg man accused of carrying a board into Sandy Hook Elementary School bearing the words "high-powered rifle" ended at least temporarily Friday with a surprise decision by the prosecution.
Special prosecutor Nicholas Manthos dropped a charge of disorderly conduct against Christopher Gerrit Johnson, according to a written statement distributed in Shenandoah County General District courthouse minutes before a bench trial was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m.
Manthos, whose regular job is Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney for Frederick County, said he intended to resurrect the case at an unspecified date.
"I will say there's going to be an indictment forthcoming," Manthos said in an interview.
Manthos said he formally dropped plans for the bench trial on Wednesday.
Manthos had no further comment, citing the need to limit remarks about a case he is still seeking to prosecute.
Johnson, 33, of Strasburg, was arrested on Dec. 19 at the school. Authorities said he entered the school with the 2x4 board while classes were in session and walked into the central office where he met with school officials.
Classes continued and no one was injured in the incident.
Days before, a gunman killed 26 students and educators at a school in Connecticut, also named Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Johnson's attorney, David Silek,who practices in Front Royal and Manassas, said he will seek to have his side of the case presented to the grand jury.
Grand juries usually only hear from the prosecution. They decide whether there is sufficient probable cause to believe a defendant committed a crime and should stand trial. Grand juries do not determine innocence or guilt.
Grand juries may issue indictments for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct, but it is more common for them to consider felony cases.
"We're going to seek to have my client testify before the grand jury," Silek said. "I don't believe in the grand jury getting only one side of the story."
Silek said the decision to drop the case came as a surprise to him.
"I don't know why he did it," Silek said of Manthos, adding that he heard about the decision during "a conference call with the court."
Silek had at one time planned to call a long list of witnesses from Sandy Hook's students, staff and faculty. He said he recently reached an agreement with Manthos that would have limited the number of witnesses who would have testified at the bench trial.
The case was assigned to Frederick County Commonwealth's Attorney Ross Spicer and later to Manthos after Shenandoah County Commonwealth's Attorney Amanda Wiseley sought a special prosecutor. Wiseley cited a possible conflict of interest stemming from her mother working at Sandy Hook Elementary and her children attending classes there.
Silek praised Spicer and Manthos.
"It's been a pleasure working with Mr. Spicer and Mr. Manthos," Silek said. "They are the epitome of professionalism."