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Judge delays sentencing decision

Aaron Trump (Buy photo)

By Joe Beck

WOODSTOCK -- The sentencing of an 18-year-old Edinburg man convicted on charges linking him to plans for a shooting and bombing rampage at Stonewall Jackson High School in Quicksburg remained unresolved after three hours of testimony Wednesday.

Judge Dennis L. Hupp postponed announcing a decision on whether to place Aaron Trump on probation or send him to prison. Hupp said he needed several days to sort through the legal and psychological issues raised by defense and prosecution witnesses. Hupp will announce his decision at a hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. July 9.

"As I sit here right now, I don't know what I'm going to do with this case," Hupp said, adding, "This a difficult case."

Trump pleaded guilty in March to creating a non-explosive device intended to lead others into thinking it was a bomb. He also pleaded guilty to communicating a bomb threat. A third charge of conspiring to commit terrorism is still awaiting a conviction or acquittal.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Louis Campola argued for sending Trump to prison and defense attorney Brandon Keller sought to limit the sentence to probation. Both agreed with Hupp that the case was fraught with ambiguity.

Campola did not recommend a specific prison sentence for Trump. The lack of many similar cases in the state make it hard to determine an appropriate length for a prison sentence, Campola said.

"It's a complicated issue with a lot of factors," Campola said in an interview after the hearing.

The witnesses included a clinical psychologist, licensed social worker and probation officers, all of whom have worked with Trump. Trump's grandmother also testified. Their testimony focused around trying to answer how much of a risk Trump is to the community, what kind of treatments could ease his mental health problems and whether such treatments are available.

Keller argued that a prison sentence would be counter-productive and would likely make Trump a greater threat to the community upon his release than he is now.

The maximum sentence for creating a device designed to look like a bomb is five years in prison. Communicating a bomb threat could bring a sentence of up to10 years.

"If we have to think outside the box of sentencing someone at any point in time, this may be the time," Keller told Hupp.

Authorities built their case against Trump with text messages he sent to a girl in Missouri and writings found in a journal he kept. The girl notified authorities of the message after she received it.

Donna Steffey, a licensed social worker who had been working with Trump, saw the journal around the same time and also notified school officials of the threats found in his writings. Trump was arrested after school officials called police to investigate.

The text messages and other writings revealed that Trump, then 17, was plotting a massacre at Stonewall Jackson High School using firearms, Molotov cocktails, and other explosive devices, according to authorities. He was planning the massacre for April 2014, law enforcement officials said.

Steffey testified that the threats contained in the journal writings were a reaction to problems Trump was having coping with the pressures of high school.

"The biggest stressor was his peer relations," Steffey said, adding that worry over grades also contributed to Trump's fraying mental state.

Philip Pate, a clinical psychologist who examined Trump, traced the defendant's mental health problems to Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. The symptoms in Trump's case include social and communications problems and a "fixation" on violence, Pate said.

Pate initially testified that he regarded Trump as a "low to moderate" risk to act on plans for a school massacre or other acts of violence. But his later testimony leaned more toward moderate risk.

Pate also warned that Trump's tendency to try to model himself after people with strong personalities and his lack of social skills made him especially vulnerable to being manipulated by other inmates in jail or prison.

"If you put him with people in incarceration who are going to use him, he's not going to do well," Pate said of Trump.

Lenore Kuykendall, Trump's grandmother, testified under questioning by Campola that she didn't notice the supplies and parts for lethal weapons that her grandson had been accumulating in his bedroom during the time leading up to his arrest.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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