Crime

17-year-old arrested in threats at San Gabriel Elementary School

This candleholder containing sodium ferrocyanide was found zip-tied to a chain-link fence near the playground at San Gabriel Elementary School.
This candleholder containing sodium ferrocyanide was found zip-tied to a chain-link fence near the playground at San Gabriel Elementary School. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Atascadero police have arrested a 17-year-old Atascadero boy suspected of making a Hollywood-style threat against San Gabriel Elementary School last month, after searches of two homes led to the discovery of evidence allegedly used in the crime.

On Sept. 11, the school was evacuated before the start of classes after threatening letters and a suspicious object were found on campus. City police, as well as the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad and the county Hazardous Materials Team, conducted an extensive sweep of the campus based on threats made in the letters.

On Wednesday, Atascadero police Chief Jerel Haley identified the brown liquid discovered near the playground as sodium ferrocyanide. It was contained in a candleholder that was zip-tied to a chain-link fence near the playground.

The substance is far less toxic than most forms of cyanide and is found in different commercial products, such as table salt, where it acts as an anti-caking agent, and in the chemicals used in film processing, Haley said.

Letters found outside classrooms instructed officials to “play a game,” similar to the popular “Saw” horror film franchise, Haley said, and indicated the liquid was a combination of cyanide and acid.

In one letter, the person instructed teachers to locate different sets of keys, some for classrooms and some for padlocks left on school gates. The letter instructed staff to retrieve keys from the candleholder containing the liquid near the playground. 

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

However, the amount of sodium ferrocyanide found did not present a substantial risk and would have been toxic only if ingested, Haley said, and it would not have produced “off-gassing,” or the harmful release of vaporized cyanide.

“The amount of the substance was such that it would have had to have been ingested to be harmful,” Haley said. “There’s no indication any children came into contact with the substance.”

Police are not identifying the teen arrested Wednesday, citing his age. Haley said it is believed the boy acted alone.

Two homes were searched in relation to the investigation, Haley said, one within the city of Atascadero and the other in an undisclosed unincorporated area of the county. He said evidence discovered at those residences was used during the crime but declined to provide further details.

The teen was arrested on suspicion of using a facsimile weapon of mass destruction and threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction. As of Wednesday afternoon, he remained in custody at the San Luis Obispo County Juvenile Detention Center.

District Attorney Dan Dow said he assigned the case to a senior deputy prosecutor who will review the evidence collected during the investigation and make a recommendation for formal charges. Should charges be filed, prosecutors could attempt to charge the teen as an adult.

Officers were still in the process of collecting evidence Wednesday, but so far officials have not disclosed a motive for the threats, and Haley said it appeared the school was targeted because of “proximity.” The teen is a student at an Atascadero school, Haley said.

The investigation was led by the Atascadero Police Department with assistance from the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI. San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputies assisted in searching the two homes Wednesday.

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