Teen pleads guilty to bringing gun to school

WOODSTOCK — A local teen pleaded guilty Monday to six charges stemming from him bringing a gun to Central High School in October.

Nicholas Dawson, 17, was charged as an adult after he brought his father’s 9mm Glock handgun to school on Oct. 12-14,  when he was 16 years old. A student alerted the school resource officer on Oct. 14 that he had seen Dawson with the gun, and the officer patted Dawson down and found the gun in the waistband of his jogger sweatpants with the drawstring tied around the trigger guard. Central High School was placed on lock down as a result.

After his arrest, Dawson told police that he had brought the gun  two days before because he heard on Oct. 11 that a group of other students was planning to attack him. Dawson was charged with three counts of bringing a gun to school and three counts of being a juvenile in possession of a firearm, all of which he pleaded guilty to on Monday.

He had also been charged with grand larceny of a firearm. Prosecutor Louis Campola contended that Dawson took the gun without his father’s permission. Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp dismissed the charge during a related trial on Monday after determining that the intent to permanently deprive his father of the gun had not been proven. Hupp also tried Dawson on two counts of child pornography possession and three counts of participating in a criminal street gang while committing a crime.  Hupp found Dawson guilty on the child pornography charges and not guilty of the three gang charges.

Testimony at the trial included a law enforcement official’s report of a search of Dawson’s phone at the time of his arrest that led to the discovery of two videos that were determined to be child pornography. There were also several photos showing various symbols and signs that Grayson Hopkins, a gang expert with the Sheriff’s Office, identified as gang insignia.

There was also a photo showing Dawson with a blue bandanna over his face and a gun in his hand in the group of images taken from the phone. At the time of his arrest, was wearing a tri-folded and paisley-printed red bandanna around his right wrist with the letters “SMM” written on it in marker. Hopkins said the letters constitute an insignia characteristic of the gang “Sex, Money, Murder,” members of which he said are present in Shenandoah County.

For those reasons, Dawson was also charged with two counts of child pornography possession and three counts of actively participating in a criminal street gang while committing a crime.

Glen Koontz, Dawson’s attorney in the case, argued that his client merely has a deep interest in criminal gangs but is not in any way associated with gang activity. He added that Dawson was wearing the bandanna for fashion, and that the red bandanna and the blue insignia are from rival gangs, so if he was affiliated with a gang he would not wear both. Koontz said that if Dawson was associated with a gang, the conflicting evidence did not point to specific one.

“The best the evidence shows on these charges is that Nicholas Dawson has a keen interest in — I think they call it ‘gangsta’ culture,” Koontz said during the trial.

Hopkins said that the totality of the circumstances shows that Dawson was showing signs of “self-indoctrination” to a gang without actual initiation, which is easy to do with access to information about gangs through the internet. He added that he believes Dawson was “seeking association with a notorious element,” which is why he even told another student that he was in a gang.

Dawson took the stand and maintained that he told the other student that he was in a gang to impress her, and that he thought the gang lifestyle “looked cool,” which is why he was interested in it. He also admitted to being a member of a fight club, which he said members treat as a mock boxing gym with gloves and protective equipment, because of his interest in martial arts. Dawson told deputies when he was arrested that he was known for his fighting skills, and Campola questioned why Dawson would be afraid of being “jumped” if he was such a fighter.

“Martial arts don’t teach you to fight multiple people at once,” Dawson answered, turning side to side in his chair as Campola fired off questions during cross examination.

Campola also brought up that while in Northwestern Regional Juvenile Detention Center, Dawson wrote an anonymous threatening letter to a girl where he talked about being a gang member. Dawson said that he wrote the letter on behalf of a friend, and it was all part of a fake persona to scare her into returning stolen property.

Campola said during his closing argument that Dawson sought to be seen as a gang member by his peers, “regardless of his actual level of formal involvement.”

As for the videos depicting child pornography, Dawson said that they were shared on a group messaging app called Kik, but he never actually downloaded them to his phone. Koontz said that this was not indicative of knowing possession.

Hupp found Dawson guilty on the child pornography charges, saying that Dawson’s phone has a pass code and access to it was therefore limited. Hupp found Dawson not guilty of the three gang charges, saying that there was no evidence that Dawson was a member of or affiliated with a gang, or that he brought the gun to school to bring notoriety to any gang.

“What I think we have here is a teenager with an unhealthy obsession with street gangs,” Hupp said when explaining his ruling.

A pre-sentence report was ordered, and a sentencing hearing was set for Dec. 1 in Shenandoah County Circuit Court. Dawson faces a maximum of over 25 years imprisonment.