Kentucky Zombie update

Last week, I commented on a story, first credulously (perhaps because the story hit a nerve personally) and then in the addendum/update more skeptically. It was a story in which a young man from Kentucky, William Poole, was arrested for making “terroristic threats,” based on his writings. In the first story that I encountered about this, Poole claimed it was because of a story he had written about zombies taking over a school. This story got wide play in the blogosphere, but a little more digging showed that it was more complex than I had first realized. Besides blaming myself for lack of skepticism, I still find it disturbing that the story was so easy to believe. If there weren’t such a post-Columbine paranoid climate of fear and “zero tolerance” in our schools, no doubt my B.S. detector would have immediately told me not to take this story at face value.

Having been burned once, I promised to try to keep up with new developments. Well, there’s been one, although I’m a couple of days late noticing it. (I'm rather surprised the anonymous commentor who had been so vocal in my previous post didn't remind me.) Mr. Poole has finally been arraigned, as described here and here.

Here's an excerpt:
William Poole, 18, was arrested February 22. In a jailhouse interview with LEX 18 News shortly after his arrest, Poole said that the writings that got him arrested are being taken out of context. Investigators say they discovered materials at Poole's home that outline possible acts of violence aimed at students, teachers, and police.

In court Tuesday, police released some of Poole's writings, and they contradict some of what he told LEX 18 in his interview. Poole says he wrote the short story for English class. Not so, according to police. They say his teachers deny knowing about such writings, and add if they did, the teachers would have reported their concerns about the contents to school officials.

Some of the details Poole wrote about included wanting to assemble a group of boys he called "True Soldiers and "No Limit Soldiers" to take over a high school.

Police say they've interviewed seven George Rogers Clark High School students who say Poole tried to recruit them into his group.

Investigators add that Poole wrote about bringing weapons and tools into a school. And, perhaps most disturbing, they say Poole wrote down what he called "Dates of Death", which happened to be February 19 and 20 of 2005 - dates mentioned that were just two days before police arrested Poole.
OK, so it looks as though the police account is probably closer to the truth than I had wanted to believe. However, one thing the police involved in the case keep saying still disturbs me:
Even so, police say the nature of the story makes it a felony. "Anytime you make any threat or possess matter involving a school or function it's a felony in the state of Kentucky," said Winchester Police detective Steven Caudill.
Let’s get this straight. ANY time? “Possess matter involving a school”? What does he mean by that? Does “matter involving a school” include possessing a school yearbook maybe? I may have been wrong to swallow Poole’s story so uncritically at first, but this story still suggests to me that the police in Kentucky have gone off the deep end a bit and that their law against “terroristic threatening” is way too vague. In the end, after having learned a lot more, what scares me the most about this incident is the "nature of the story makes it a felony" statement by the police. Does it bother you? If it doesn't, it should. It sounds like censorship and violation of my free speech. That’s way scarier than Poole, in my book, given that Poole is looking more and more like a disturbed young man who got busted for having fantasies that disturbed young men often have.

Let’s assume, however, that Poole wrote exactly what the police claim he wrote (although we may never know now if that’s the case, because the judge ordered his writings sealed—which makes me suspect that the end result of this case will be a plea deal in which Poole’s writings are permanently sealed, thus sparing the police any embarrassment if the writings turn out not to be as threatening as claimed). The police have never stated that what Poole wrote wasn’t a story, as Poole claimed, at least not as far as I can tell from the news reports. So, in essence, the police are saying that writing a story whose content sounds like a threat against a school is a felony in and of itself.

A felony? What about the First Amendment? Try to convince me that this sort of law and reaction aren’t a danger to free speech. But, before you do, consider the law itself, as quoted here:
Under Kentucky law, a person is guilty of terroristic threatening in the second degree when they threaten to "commit any act likely to result in death or serious physical injury" to students, teachers or employees of a school.
Now consider what little we actually do know about what Poole wrote, as described in court testimony and reported. Here is an excerpt from the writings, the only one quoted verbatim thus far (descriptions of other parts are here and here, but no other direct quotes):
They stood at the yard carrying bags full of weapons and tools. They yelled kill them. All of soldiers of zone two started shooting. They are dropping every one of them. After five minutes all the people were laying on the ground dead. [Note: According to the cited stories, Poole's fictional organization was broken up into four zones. Zone One was in Barbourville, Kentucky; Zone Two was Clark County; Zone Three was in South Carolina; and Zone Four was in New York City.]
Is the above quote disturbing, coming, as it does, from a high school student? Sure. Poorly written? Definitely. But it still sounds like a piece of a story to me, albeit a bad one. I’m not sure how this constitutes “terroristic threatening” or whether Poole is actually “threatening” to actually do what is described. It’s hard to tell for sure, given how little was revealed in the news reports of the court testimony. However, if what is described in the court testimony as described in the news stories is the most threatening of Poole’s writings (not an unreasonable assumption, given that the police knew they were under the microscope and that they wanted to get an indictment), then I don’t see how Poole’s writing should be criminalized even under the disturbingly vague criteria of the Kentucky terroristic threatening law, even if the police have represented it accurately. It should not be against the law for even a minor to write something like that just because it was written about a school. I hope that even those who have commented on my first post about this incident so vociferously in favor of Poole’s being arrested can understand why I find the law under which Poole was arrested and charged very disturbing as far as our First Amendment rights go. (And, no, Poole's story is not like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater or inciting a mob to violence. It appears to be far too vague to meet the criteria for presently accepted exceptions to the First Amendment of incitement, threats, or imminent danger.)

Don’t get me wrong. Don’t jump to the conclusion that I don’t care about the contents of the story. I’m not saying that teachers or police should ignore such a violent story if they come across it or that they should not be concerned enough about it to report it to the authorities. However, the state doesn’t need to criminalize speech to prevent a disturbed student from violent acts. For example, the story could certainly serve as reasonable grounds to search Poole’s house, locker, and anywhere else the police could think of for weapons. It’s not necessary to make writing the story itself into a felony, especially since there are no specific threats or people mentioned in it. (Remember, as far as I can tell, the only crime Poole has so far been charged with is “terroristic threatening.”) Similarly, the police claim that Poole tried to recruit others to his “group” to help him take over the school. If that’s actually the case, then I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of laws against conspiracies that could have be used to prosecute him. But that’s not the law the prosecutor chose. He chose the terroristic threatening law. Finally, I tend agree with Poole’s grandparents. He probably needs counseling and psychological help, not jail.

So, while I was disturbed about the arrest of Poole when I first read about it, it turns out that I had gotten myself all worked up for the wrong reason. I now correct my mistake. Now I’m getting myself all worked up about this incident for what I believe to be the right reason—its negative implications for free speech. Under Kentucky’s “terroristic threatening” law as it was interpreted in this case, I would have to be afraid that writing any violent story set in a school or anything involving a school that could be remotely perceived by someone as threatening might potentially be considered a felony in Kentucky. If I lived in Kentucky and were a writer, I’d be very afraid of writing any sort of fiction in which anything worse than a bad case of acne happens in a school.

Perhaps you think that's no great loss. I disagree. As Benjamin Franklin once famously said:
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.


  1. I hope that I'm not being included among those who you refer to as 'those who have commented on my first post about this incident so vociferously in favor of Poole’s being arrested'! I was certainly not throwing my weight behind this - just thinking critically as is my duty:) For what it's worth, my string suspicion is that this is a case of bad application of a poorly draughted law - typical knee-jerk stuff.

    However, I'm going to criticize again, Orac (oh how you must be growing to detest me!)... I'm slightly surprized at you for taking the clearly ill-informed and ungrammatical words of a cop as an authority on the letter of Kentucky State Legislation - that's almost like accepting a politician's interpretation of the law as correct. I'v done a little spadework of my own, and (unsurprisingly) the phrase 'matter involving a school' occurs nowhere in the legislation used. Yes, the law (Kentucky HB 1 of 2001, if I'm correct in my identidication of the law in question) has special application for schools, but this is mainly in that threats made against schools are considered more serious (a class C or D felony) than against most other individuals or institutions (a class A misdemeanor).

    The actual legislation defines terroristic threatening in the first degree as 'Intentionally mak[ing] false statements that [the accused] or another person has placed a weapon of mass destruction on [school or government property]; terroristic threatening in the second degree, OTOH, is defined as 'threaten[ing] to commit any act likely to result in death or serious physical injury to [an employee of or person at a school].'

    The weirdness clause is this qualifier, and I'm guessing this is the bit to which the cited copper was referring: 'A threat directed at a person or persons or at a school does not need to identify a specific person or persons or school in order for a violation of this section to occur.' This is, of course, potentially tricky - I'm uncomfortable with weasel clauses like this. Indeed, the whole act is dodgy as it isn't sufficiently clear in defining a 'threat'; on the other hand, presumably this case is a test case which will fix the interpretation of the law (that's my assumption, anyway - as a Brit I'm used to a system which places a great deal of importance on in-court testing and judicial precedent; no idea whether that would apply in Kentucky!).

    Please note I'm not defending the law or the decision to prosecute - don't misconstrue partial defence as support!

    The law itself may be found here:

  2. I think any suppression of a young person's creativity is a terrible thing.

    The key issue here seems to be what constitutes a "threat". I really don't see how a piece of obvious fiction can be considered a threat, unless there are other factors that go along with it (like pipe bombs under his bed or something).

    With photographers being told they can't take photographs of public property, and kids told they have to be careful what they write about, it seems like free speech is being continuously undermined in the USA.

  3. I think any suppression of a young person's creativity is a terrible thing.

    The key issue here seems to be what constitutes a "threat". I really don't see how a piece of obvious fiction can be considered a threat, unless there are other factors that go along with it (like pipe bombs under his bed or something).

    With photographers being told they can't take photographs of public property, and kids told they have to be careful what they write about, it seems like free speech is being continuously undermined in the USA.

  4. OutEast: No, I wasn't including you among the anonymous posters, and I do not detest you. I really don't mind criticism, as long as it's reasoned. Sometimes it even convinces me I was wrong.

    However, while I would agree that the words of a single ill-informed cop is not the authority on the law, I would disagree with your seeming implication that the opinion of that ill-informed cop doesn't matter. After all, it is those ill-informed cops and their flawed understanding of the law that drives how the law is enforced. Also, cops and prosecutors are always pushing the envelope as far as the law goes, testing how far they can take a law. One need look no further than the Patriot Act to see that most prosecutions under it are not for terrorism, but for other crimes. That's why the language a law is written in has to leave as little wiggle-room as possible.

    Unlike you, I'm not a big fan in "test cases" to define what the law means. If a test case is needed, then, to me the law was poorly or vaguely written. Also, there is no guarantee that the test case will result in a ruling that is reasonable. It is possible that a "test case" of this Kentucky law will result in my worst imaginings of what this law could mean being codified into judicial precedent. That would be the worst result and it has to be considered a possibility for any badly written law. Personally, I hope this law is challenged all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but even that is not a sure thing. The Supreme Court doesn't always rule in a way that protects our freedoms or strike down laws like this. Better to try to keep our legislators from writing and passing such abominations in the first place.

    Lambic: I share your concerns. The key problem is who is determining what writings are a threat.

  5. I agree Orac. It's gone way too far, and people aren't even allowed to voice their opinions of reality, much less, any creativity.

    Direct threats, plans, consipiracy is one thing.

    Writing creatively, vaguely, is quite another ... it's a frustration valve that can keep people from making direct threats, plans ....

  6. This report has more excerpts. Included with the journal was correspondence with the students Poole tried to recruit. And note that while they say the story didn't contain any names that Poole is prohibited from meeting with any of the people named in his writings -- and according to his sister, the writings include a list of 500 students, teachers and police officers that Poole wanted to "blow away." It is also important to note that if you're talking about a high school in Winchester, there is only one option as there is only one high school -- you don't have to name it if there's only one.

    Published on Wednesday, March 9, 2005 1:15 PM EST

    Police disclose contents of writings allegedly threatening school takeover

    Winchester Police Detective Steve Caudill, reads an excerpt from William Poole's journal, which police allege was a detailed plan to recruit a gang for an armed takeover of George Rogers Clark High School. During a preliminary hearing in Clark County District Court Tuesday afternoon, Caudill read from several documents written by Poole that referred to recruiting 100 people into an organization called NLS, or No Limited Soldiers. He also read from a letter reportedly written by an acquaintance in Barbourville, offering to provide money and weapons. (Sun photos by James Mann)
    By TIM WELDON/Sun Staff Writer

    A chilling and sometimes violent account of a school takeover raised eyebrows during a hearing in Clark County District Court Tuesday afternoon. What's still unclear is whether 18-year-old William Poole's journal entries were a fictional story or details of a plan to recruit a gang to unleash an armed assault on George Rogers Clark High School.

    During the preliminary hearing, excerpts from a journal written by Poole, who is charged with second-degree terroristic threatening, seemed to provide few clear-cut answers.

    The preliminary hearing marked the first time Winchester police have publicly disclosed Poole's writings that led police to charge him on Feb. 22 with threatening an armed takeover of the school, where Poole was enrolled as a junior.

    Poole told police during a 30-minute interview following his arrest, and later reiterated during an interview with WLEX-TV, that what police had seized was a story about zombies taking over a high school, assigned by his English and computer teachers at GRCHS.

    However, Detective Steve Caudill testified that neither teacher had any knowledge of what Poole had written and there was no mention of zombies in any of the writings.

    Poole occasionally shook his head or laid his head on the defense table as Caudill read excerpts from a journal police allege was an attempt to recruit a gang to take over GRCHS.

    Police were tipped off to the writings by Poole's grandmother, with whom he lived. Caudill explained that she read his journal and became concerned.

    Seven documents were seized by police. According to police, Poole was attempting to create a gang called NLS, or No Limited Soldiers, sometimes also referred to as "True Soldiers," an organization that was to be comprised of Poole's acquaintances, according to Caudill.

    Throughout his writings, Poole makes numerous references to a "brotherhood," such as in an overview, in which Poole wrote, "We will make the brotherhood known throughout the high school." It continues with a three-part plan: 1) Recruit new soldiers, 2) Get everyone in ranks, and 3) get the numbers to 100.

    Caudill testified that at least seven acquaintances of Poole's reported that Poole had attempted to recruit them into a gang, but that none of them were interested.

    In his writings, Poole makes references to four geographic zones. Zone Two refers to Clark County, according to Caudill. The other three zones mentioned in Poole's journal are Barbourville, South Carolina and New York City.

    Caudill also read from a letter sent by an unnamed person who was referred to as a "colonel" in the Barbourville organization, promising to aid Poole with weapons and money. In one passage, Caudill testified the person in Barbourville admitted breaking into homes and said he had thousands of dollars and 50 guns at his disposal.

    "You know what I mean, man. We will handle things if you want us to," the individual wrote Poole, who referred to himself in the journal as "Nappy Boy," the head of the Clark County organization, according to Caudill.

    In the overview to his writings, Poole wrote, "We will shut down all the other groups that come against us." The only way to join the brotherhood, he wrote, "is doing something stupid."

    A separate story, titled "War" was described by Caudill as "futuristic," and referred to a group of people sitting down at a kitchen table, where they plan a takeover of a school, determining how long it will take for police to arrive on the scene. "They will all die together," Poole wrote.

    Another excerpt, read by Caudill, states, "All the boys sit down at the kitchen table and start planning it out. They wrote down how many teachers, students and guards were at the high school. Also, how long it would take police to get there. They wrote down what was needed and how they was going to do it. They agreed right there they they would all die together."

    He continued, "They yelled, 'kill them,' and all the soldiers of Zone 2 started shooting. They are dropping every one of them. After five minutes, all the people are laying on the ground dead."

    Other documents, titled "Death of a Soldier" tells his family goodbye and list two separate dates for his death, Nov. 20, 2004, and Feb. 19, 2005. The latter date was three days before Poole was arrested.

    One document mentioned that William P would go to the school and map out the floor plan, including locations of the cameras.

    Nowhere in Poole's writings did he refer to a specific school. It also did not list any specific targets, making only general references to teachers, students and school security.

    According to Caudill, Poole told police that a teacher at GRCHS read the piece called the "Overview," and warned that Poole could be in trouble if others at school saw it. Consequently, Poole reportedly told police that he left his writings at home. The teacher told Caudill he did not see any of the journal entries that police confiscated.

    Assistant County Attorney John Keeton told reporters after the hearing that, as a prosecutor, he has to take the writings seriously. "The downside of not taking it seriously is beyond comprehension," Keeton explained. He added that "it will all have to play out in court."

    District Judge Brandy Oliver Brown denied a motion by Poole's attorney, Brian Barker, to reduce his $5,000 bond. Brown instructed Poole that if he's able to post a $5,000 bond, he is to remain away from school property and may not have contact with anyone named in his writings.

  7. Also, the police officer's quote in the original story from WLEX was an incomplete quote taken out of context. Those of us who could see the local broadcast could tell that the police officer had spoken before and after what was stated in his quote.

    Also, if you read the complete story about the court hearing, it states that the writings were sealed because they include the names of minors. Once the trial is over, a good media lawyer could easily use the Freedom of Information Act to request a copy, even if it must be a copy with the names of the minors deleted. There is no reason to expect that no one will ever see what Poole wrote.

    And yes, I am in favor of him being arrested because that's the only way he's going to get help, which will keep him from harming others or himself.

  8. Thank you for the story, but our additional information does not change my opinion. In fact, your additional information reinforces my opinion. If Poole truly did contact others, then I see no reason why conspiracy laws wouldn't be able to provide sufficient pretext to arrest him. There is no reason to outlaw a specific type of story to handle this case.

    Biggest red herring quote from your story:

    Assistant County Attorney John Keeton told reporters after the hearing that, as a prosecutor, he has to take the writings seriously. "The downside of not taking it seriously is beyond comprehension," Keeton explained. He added that "it will all have to play out in court."

    No one is saying that the police shouldn't take this seriously, nor am I, at least not any more after my initial facetious take. What I am saying and what I have been consistent about all along is that you don't need and therefore shouldn't have a vague law that tramples free speech rights in order to deal with disturbed young men like Poole. Unfortunately, the police will likely trumpet this as a "success" of the law.

  9. Poole returns to jail

    By TIM WELDON/Sun Staff Writer

    William Poole's freedom was short-lived. The Winchester teenager, accused of terroristic threatening for allegedly plotting an armed takeover of George Rogers Clark High School, was rearrested Tuesday, 10 days after he was released from the Clark County Detention Center on a $5,000 bond.

    Poole, 18, was observed Thursday with a friend at Shearer Elementary School, allegedly violating a condition that District Court Judge Brandy Oliver Brown set for Poole's release from jail. The two reportedly went to the school to pick up the unidentified friend's sister, and Poole was recognized by school personnel.

    Winchester police Detective Steve Caudill said Poole's appearance on school property "caused nothing short of sheer panic."

    At a preliminary hearing earlier this month, Brown ordered Poole to remain off school property and not to have contact with anyone named in any of Poole's writings that were seized by police. Caudill said Poole's companion was somebody with whom he was living and was not named in any of the writings that police seized.

    On Feb. 22, Winchester police arrested Poole after they read several journal entries that they allege were part of a plan to recruit an organization to take over GRCHS, where Poole is a junior.

    Poole's case has been the subject of countless Internet blogs and message boards around the country and has even received international attention after Poole claimed that his arrest was based on a fictional story he wrote about zombies taking over an unnamed high school.

    A civil rights organization in California posted the $5,000 bond on March 19 to have Poole released while a grand jury considers whether to indict him on a terroristic threatening charge.

    A bond forfeiture hearing for Poole has been scheduled for Thursday morning.

    I was thinking he was banned from the High School and it's property. Now they call it a violation to be on the property of an Elementary school across town. He was with someone who had a legitimate reason to be there


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