Crime

His threat closed a local school for 2 weeks. Now he says district is trying to bilk him

Bret Landen, 19, was convicted last year of making threats in an elaborate Hollywood-style hoax targeting San Gabriel Elementary School in 2015. Landen is pictured here in a 2016 preliminary hearing.
Bret Landen, 19, was convicted last year of making threats in an elaborate Hollywood-style hoax targeting San Gabriel Elementary School in 2015. Landen is pictured here in a 2016 preliminary hearing. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

An Atascadero man who as a teenager made bizarre, Hollywood-style threats that shuttered San Gabriel Elementary for two weeks says the school district is trying to charge him for construction projects that were already in the works.

The Atascadero Unified district is attempting to recover nearly $500,000 from Bret Landen, 19, who was convicted in April 2016 of felony counts of threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction and making criminal threats.

In September 2015 when he was 17, Landen left notes around campus for school staff, urging them to “play a game” and retrieve keys from a container tied to a playground fence that was later determined to contain a low-toxicity form of cyanide.

The hoax was reminiscent of the “Saw” horror movie franchise and caused officials to close the school for two weeks as they contracted cleaning services and conducted environmental testing. Students were rerouted to nearby schools during the closure.

Landen was sentenced to a year in jail and served roughly six months due to various credits. He faces about seven years in state prison if he violates his probation or other court requirements, according to court records.

In its first restitution claim in November 2015, the district said the incident cost it about $206,000.

The Atascadero Police Department also told The Tribune at the time that the city’s response to the incident cost about $41,000, but it would not seek reimbursement.

Last week, Landen’s attorney, Kara Stein-Conaway, filed a motion seeking to compel the district to release requested records she says will show that some of the restitution the district is seeking is to cover projects that were already in the works when Landen pulled off the ruse.

San Gabriel elementary 2985
Caution tape blocks off access to San Gabriel Elementary School during the two-week closure in September 2015. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The demand is clearly a windfall because the (school) would be in a better place than before the defendant’s criminal conduct.

Kara Stein-Conaway, attorney for Bret Landen

In her motion, Stein-Conaway requests that a restitution hearing scheduled for next Monday be continued so she can subpoena additional records needed to contest the district’s demand.

Stein-Conaway wrote that it appears the school district is “attempting to pass on to Mr. Landen their construction costs for projects where plans were in place well before his criminal conduct.”

“It is undisputed that the defendant caused no physical damage to school property,” the motion reads. “(The) demand is clearly a windfall because the victim would be in a better place than before the defendant’s criminal conduct.”

Of the roughly $500,000 total, the district is seeking $235,634 for security fencing installed at Atascadero Middle School and Atascadero High School, even though those schools weren’t involved in the case.

The attorney claims that she’s received records showing that the district received a cost estimate in August 2014 for the “Atascadero Junior High Project,” which included the $124,895 security fence installed at the school that the district is now demanding Landen pay for.

“The category is called ‘restitution’ and is carrying out the will of the voters to put those harmed by unlawful conduct back in the place that they were before the wrong-doing,” Stein-Conaway wrote in an email Monday. “It is not to put the claimants in a better position than they were before the unlawful conduct occurred.”

The district also seeks $23,810 for construction delays and shift adjustments at the elementary school, as well as $32,585 for testing and site cleanup. Stein-Conaway argues that the district and various law enforcement agencies involved have not provided her records showing the district had to incur those extra costs.

The district is also asking for $94,000 for losses in average daily attendance and “other relocation costs that are attributable to not being able to use the campus for two weeks.”

“I currently lack sufficient information to determine the nexus between Mr. Landen’s criminal conduct and whether it was reasonable to have the school closed for two weeks following the incident,” Stein-Conaway wrote.

She said on Monday that she is unable to calculate what she thinks is a fair restitution amount because she’s been unable to get records.

The school district has not yet filed a response to the motion, and a representative from the superintendent’s office declined to comment Monday.

The motion will be heard Friday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

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