Monster in the making?

How high school gunman Greg Wright got 22 years in prison—and why nobody is happy with the sentence

SAVING WRIGHT FROM WRONG<br>Retired school teacher Jim Adams has never met Las Plumas High School gunman Greg Wright, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming the boy’s full-time advocate. He’s shown here viewing a recording of the boy hugging his mother, Sharlee Morton, following his three-hour police interrogation.

Retired school teacher Jim Adams has never met Las Plumas High School gunman Greg Wright, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming the boy’s full-time advocate. He’s shown here viewing a recording of the boy hugging his mother, Sharlee Morton, following his three-hour police interrogation.

Photo By Robert Speer

Does Prop. 21 help?
In 2000, California voters strongly approved an initiative that gives prosecutors wide discretion in trying juveniles as adults. Studies of a similar, older system in Florida have shown that children sent to adult prisons reoffend more often, suffer more sexual abuse and are more likely to commit suicide than children punished in the juvenile justice system. Florida’s crime rate, meanwhile, remains one of the highest in the country.

Who is Gregory Wright, really? What kind of person is this 17-year-old Oroville boy who, on Sept. 28, 2007, gained instant notoriety when he took a handgun onto the Las Plumas High School campus and scared people with it before surrendering?

In District Attorney Mike Ramsey’s opinion, he’s “a dangerous young man with a proclivity and fascination with guns and violence” with an extensive juvenile record from Oklahoma. He was primed to kill someone that day, took a bunch of kids hostage, fired off his gun and scared them to death.

But to the people who know Gregory, he’s a sweet-natured but not very bright kid who’s been in special education most of his life and isn’t mature enough to understand the consequences of his often impulsive behavior. He’s never hurt anyone and wouldn’t have done so on that September day, they say; his real goal was to commit suicide.

Jim Adams is in that camp. He doesn’t know Greg Wright personally but has talked with people who do—and as a teacher he’s known plenty of kids like him, he says, which is why he’s doing all he can to drum up support for the boy and get his plea bargain withdrawn.

There’s a risk to Adams’ effort, however: As Wright’s Chico attorney, Philip Heithecker, explains, withdrawing the plea bargain could result in the case’s going to trial, which creates the danger of the defendant’s being found guilty of crimes that could send him to prison not for 22 years, but for the rest of his life.

Jim Adams is 69 years old. He’s a retired secondary-school teacher and certificated drug and alcohol counselor with four children and 15 grandchildren.

Like most people, he first heard of Gregory Wright when local television news shows covered the events at Las Plumas High School. As he followed subsequent media coverage and learned that Ramsey intended to try the youth as an adult, he became concerned. Nobody was hurt in the incident, he thought. Greg surrendered voluntarily. Why would he be tried as an adult?

The more he looked into the case, the more he thought Wright belonged in the juvenile justice system, not an adult prison. And, as he talked with people, he realized many others felt the same way. “There’s a powerful sentiment in the community that this is disproportionate,” he said.

He’s been working to drum up support for Greg ever since. His and others’ efforts have resulted in more than a dozen letters to the editor about the case, most of them decrying the 22-year sentence.

The term Adams uses to describe Greg’s behavior that day is “ambivalently suicidal.” Hurt and confused after receiving a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend, he went to school with a vague notion of killing himself.

In this version of events, Greg had no plan that day other than to kill himself, and not knowing where to do that, he went off to school instead, a gun tucked into his waistband. He blundered into the band room thinking it was empty, only to find it full of students. He had no intention of holding hostages and invited everyone to leave. Those who stayed did so because they wanted to try to talk him out of killing himself.

Adams points out that at Wright’s sentencing hearing two young women who stayed in the room testified that they didn’t feel threatened by him.

He further notes that on Jan. 25, Greg’s Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs caseworker, Jennifer Case, sent a letter to his mother, Sharlee Morton. In it Case notes that “Greg had no history of violence. He never had referrals for assaults and was never aggressive toward OJA workers.” She adds that she’d found him to be “very cooperative. He always made appointments as scheduled and was working very hard at a local grocery store to pay owed restitution.”

What’s Greg really like? Look at the video recording of his police interview, Adams says. When Morton finally is allowed in, they stand together hugging each other for more than two minutes, tears flowing down Greg’s face as his mother tries to reassure him. This is not a dangerous kid, Adams says.

Mike Ramsey’s take on Greg Wright couldn’t be more different.

In a Jan. 15 e-mail message to Adams and others, he charges that Greg set off to school with the intention of shooting a “romantic rival” and sought to track him down. Rather than blundering into the band room, he followed other students inside, choosing the room because it was a strategic place to barricade against the police. Students in the room “spoke of his ‘dramatic entry’ smoking a cigarette and carrying a gun,” Ramsey notes.

Once inside, Wright pointed his gun at the chest of a security guard who tried to enter and at the class teacher; “fired a round into the ceiling to prevent school officials from entering; took students hostage; threatened to shoot any law enforcement officers who attempted to enter the room; and later shot another warning round into the ceiling when he thought officers were attempting to enter.”

MOTHER AND SON<br>In this scene from his interrogation recording, Greg Wright talks with his mother, Sharlee Morton. She told police officials not to talk with him until an attorney was present, but such a request has no legal power. After being read his rights, Greg talked for three hours.

For all of these reasons, Ramsey decided it was appropriate to try Greg as an adult—something he had the discretion to do since voters passed Proposition 21 in 2000. He adds, though, that he didn’t believe a lengthy prison sentence was appropriate, which is why during plea bargaining he offered a seven-years-to-life term “with the promise that the prosecution would not object to a parole at the earliest possible time of seven to eight years” if Greg made a good-faith effort to rehabilitate himself.

Heithecker thought it was a bad deal. Parole is almost never granted, he said: “Everyone knows that if you do life in California, you do life.”

Ron Reed, a fellow Chico attorney, agrees. Of 29,000 “lifers” in California’s prisons, he notes, only 36 were given parole in the last seven months of 2007.

Going to trial was not an option either. Heithecker’s study of the charges against Greg, which included attempted murder, bringing a gun to school, firing the gun and holding hostages, convinced him that they had the potential to put the boy away for most or all of his life. Especially damaging was a 9-1-1 recording, on which students can be heard screaming when Greg fires his gun into the ceiling.

So Heithecker recommended Greg and his mother make a counteroffer that would guarantee he’d get out of prison in a certain time. Greg was adamant that he didn’t want to plead guilty to anything he didn’t do, including attempted murder. But that still left the gun and hostage charges, Heithecker told him, which could give him 40 years to life.

They agreed to offer Ramsey the 22-year deal, and the district attorney took it.

“I was between a rock and a hard place,” Heithecker said. “I did the best I possibly could under terrible circumstances.”

In a phone conversation, Ramsey said he “disagreed with [Heithecker] about Mr. Wright’s ability to get out [of prison]. … With the matrix the Parole Board uses, he would have been on the lower end” in terms of his danger to society. In addition, because nobody was hurt in the incident, it was unlikely people would come forward to object to his release.

“I think [seven-to-life] would have been a better sentence for Mr. Wright and better for society,” Ramsey said. “It would have given him more impetus to work at redemption.”

Whether Jennifer Case’s letter from Oklahoma would have made any difference is hard to know. By the time it arrived, Greg already had been sentenced.

Is 22 years in prison the right thing for him? Absolutely not, Heithecker said. “I wish it would have been handled as a juvenile case,” he explained, “but I had no control over that.”

What upsets Jim Adams is something that took place in the courtroom on Jan. 17, the day Greg was sentenced. He and Morton wanted Greg to withdraw his plea and were convinced that’s what Greg wanted, too. But at one point the judge, Sandra McLean, closed the courtroom to everyone but Greg, Heithecker, Ramsey and Michael Candela, the deputy DA prosecuting the case. For 20 minutes they conferred, and by the time they were through Greg had accepted his sentence.

Adams is convinced not enough was done to try to mitigate the sentence. Nobody had contacted Case, talked to Greg’s teachers and principal, or otherwise tried to figure out what kind of kid he really was.

“Our whole idea was to get him to pull his plea so he’d get a couple of weeks’ time and another attorney to offer a second opinion,” Adams said.

More recently, Morton submitted a habeas corpus writ challenging Greg’s conviction and sentence, but McLean denied it because neither Greg nor Heithecker had signed it. On Monday (Feb. 11) Morton resubmitted it with Greg’s signature. The writ charges that the boy was coerced into agreeing with the plea bargain. Heithecker strongly denies this, saying that Greg and his mother both agreed to the deal.

If McLean grants the writ, the danger of a trial—and a much longer sentence—remains. For his part, Ramsey says he’d be willing to put the seven-years-to-life offer back on the table.

Adams wrestles with the question of what to do—"it’s a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.” Two factors, both pointed out by reputable attorneys he knows, make him think going to trial ultimately might be the best way to go, despite the risks. One is that only by going to trial would Greg gain the right to appeal. The second is that, facing 22 years, he really doesn’t have that much to lose.

Prison is brutal, Adams says, and Greg will have to fight to survive and seek protection from a prison gang. “If you put Greg in the prison system, that 22 years is going to turn into life anyway,” he said.

“They made him out to be a monster, and now they’re going to turn him into one.”