Teen whose ‘Saw’-style threat shut Atascadero school must pay district $235,000

A court filing said Bret Stephen Landen had been bullied and the threat at San Gabriel Elementary School was “a misguided cry for help.”
A court filing said Bret Stephen Landen had been bullied and the threat at San Gabriel Elementary School was “a misguided cry for help.”

The teenager whose Hollywood-style threats closed San Gabriel Elementary for two weeks in 2015 must pay the Atascadero Unified School District about $235,000, a San Luis Obispo judge ruled Friday.

Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy ruled that Bret Stephen Landen of Atascadero owes the district $235,341 for costs and lost revenues related to the incident.

The district had originally sought roughly $476,000, including the costs for installing security fencing at two other district schools.

Though Duffy indicated that she would likely order Landen to pay an additional $110,000 for security fencing at Atascadero High School once the district completes the project and submits another claim, she rejected a district request that Landen pay for a similarly expensive fence already built at Atascadero Middle School.

Landen, 19, was convicted in April 2016 of single felony counts of threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction and making criminal threats. He was sentenced to one year in San Luis Obispo County Jail, and served roughly six months due to various credits.

Atascadero Unified initially claimed the closure of the school cost the district about $206,000, though it increased that amount to about $476,000 in a later restitution filing, according to court records.

Landen’s attorney, Kara Stein-Conaway, contested that demand, arguing that the district was attempting to get Landen to pay for construction projects the district already had in place at the high school and middle school prior to the San Gabriel incident, even though those campuses weren’t involved in Landen’s bizarre ruse.

Petitioners in a restitution case are not allowed to seek damages that would benefit them beyond what they lost due to the crimes.

On Monday, Jeff Stein, Landen’s attorney, said his client had not yet decided if he will appeal the ruling.

District Superintendent Tom Butler said Tuesday that the district is pleased that most of its requests for restitution were approved, and that the ruling is “one step forward in our recovery from this difficult event.”

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy also awarded $247 to the state Victims Compensation Board on top of the restitution, which covers new locks, lost daily attendance revenues, additional staff wages, construction costs, environmental testing, private security, and relocation of students to neighboring schools during the closure.

Atascadero police Chief Jerel Haley reveals details about the investigation into the threatening letters and suspicious object found Sept. 11, 2015, at San Gabriel Elementary School.

The amount also covers some items, such as classroom lockdown kits and new campus visitor software, recommended by a district School Safety Committee formed in the wake of the San Gabriel incident.

In its restitution filing, the district argued that an additional total of $235,634 was needed for security fencing at both the high school and the middle school, which it approved for the next fiscal year due to public outcry. The district argued that though Landen’s crimes occurred on just one campus, the entire district was “profoundly impacted.”

Though the fences were already planned at both schools, the projects would not have begun so soon if not for Landen’s crimes, the district argued. The middle school fencing is already complete, but the high school fencing project has not yet begun.

Stein-Conaway argued that the district was trying to further punish Landen with excessive demands for items already in the works, and that the district was basing restitution in part on emotional impact.

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Caution tape closes off San Gabriel Elementary in Atascadero in September 2015 after bizarre notes and a low-toxicity form of cyanide found on campus prompted officials to shutter the school for two weeks for testing and cleanup. David Middlecamp

“... It does not follow that AUSD can legally recover the cost for items they never possessed from the defendant,” Stein-Conaway wrote.

In order for the district to recoup the $110,000 cost of the Atascadero High School fence, it must submit another restitution claim when the project is completed.

Landen was arrested more than a month after he left letters around the San Gabriel campus urging officials to “play a game,” similar to the popular “Saw” horror film franchise. School staff arriving to work on the morning of Sept. 11, 2015, found letters outside classrooms instructing them to locate different sets of keys, some for classrooms and some for padlocks left on school gates.

The letter instructed staffers to retrieve keys from a candleholder zip-tied to a chain-link fence near the playground that, unbeknownst to them, contained a liquid later identified as a combination of low-level cyanide and acid.

“If these tasks are not completed by 8:00 a.m., there will be consequences to follow, possibly affecting the children,” Landen’s letter read. “Make your choice.”

No one was injured in the incident, but the district ultimately shut San Gabriel Elementary down for two weeks as it conducted environmental testing and cleanup. In the meantime, students were rerouted to nearby schools.

Landen faces about seven years in state prison if he violates his probation or other court requirements, according to court records.

According to a court filing by Landen’s attorney Oct. 12, Landen planned the elaborate threat because he was bullied.

“Mr. Landen, when interviewed after his arrest, stated that he had been frequently bullied, often felt isolated and committing the offense was a misguided cry for help,” the document reads.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the total amount of restitution ordered by Judge Jacquelyn Duffy, and to clarify her comments related to the Atascadero High School security fence project.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

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