From 1,200 miles away, a paralyzed Missouri teen-ager wouldn’t seem to pose much of a threat to middle school students in central Massachusetts. But when kids in Townsend, Mass., received menacing online messages and were directed to child pornography sites, they became frightened and alerted authorities.
Prosecutors said they traced the communications to Christian Hunold, 19, in Smithville, Mo. On Oct. 25, Hunold faced charges for distributing pornography to children and making threats. Of most concern, officials said, was a so-called “hit list,” where Hunold allegedly named 24 students and three teachers he intended to shoot.
The episode underscores the dangers of divulging too much personal information online to strangersand the need for parents and educators to teach responsible use of the internet to their children and students.
Still shaken by the episode, nearly 175 Townsend parents and educators attended a forum held by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, the Townsend police chief, and the superintendent of schools.
“I kind of felt worried because my sister was on the hit list,” Sean Dickhaut, a 7th grader at the school, told a local television reporter. “It was weird … that it would happen to our school.”
Officials said that over several weeks, Hunold directed students at Hawthorne Brook Middle School to child pornography web sites he created. They say Hunold, who has use of his right arm, got to know a Townsend student through a chat group for the rock group Limp Bizkit that he logged onto at home.
That student introduced Hunold to classmates who also communicated with him from home computers, officials said.
But when Hunold told the students he was in their community and planned to bomb their school and harm specific people, the students told authorities.
Bomb-sniffing dogs and a search of the school Oct. 22 determined there was no real threat, police said. But authorities said it does not matter that Hunold, who was paralyzed in a car accident a few years ago, might not have been physically able to carry out the alleged threats.
“It’s the psychological damage that you cause doing this,” Attorney General Tom Reilly said. “That’s the real danger with this type of online terrorism.”
Massachusetts officials filed eight charges in Ayer District Court, four involving pornography and four related to making threats and disrupting school. If convicted, Hunold faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the pornography charges and six months each on the others.
Missouri officials are also considering filing charges against Hunold. Lawyers for Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon were in Clay County Probate Court seeking his detention under a state law that allows authorities to hold a suspect for 96 hours if he is believed to be a threat to himself or others, said Mary Still, spokeswoman for Nixon.
Because the proceedings were closed, Still said her office could not disclose whether Hunold was detained.
Townsend Police Chief William May said parents should warn their children against giving out personal information over the internet. While stressing that Townsend children should not be blamed, he said they made “errors in judgment” by telling Hunold about themselves and their classmates.
William Pothier, a teacher named on the list, told the parents that officials were right to keep students in school that day.
“I was a teacher named on the hit list,” said Pothier. “I felt no fear on Friday; I only felt anger … If not Friday, when will it be safe to go back? We took back our school, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what we do here.”