Days after Florida massacre, L.A. County authorities raced to thwart a school shooting plot in Whittier
School Safety Officer Marino Chavez speaks to media about how he overheard a student threatening the school. Chavez alerted the authorities that resulted in the arrest of teen and discovery of weapons. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)


As a school resource deputy, Marino Chavez said his after-lunch routine has changed little in 28 years.

When the period bell rings, Chavez strolls the campus of El Camino High School, in Whittier, and ushers lingering students to class. But last Friday, Chavez overheard a frustrated student say something that shocked him.

“I guarantee you the school will be shot up in three weeks,” a 17-year-old student told a classmate.

It was just 48 hours after a gunman opened fire at a Florida high school, and the student’s words left Chavez cold.

He immediately confronted the student, who has an extensive disciplinary record.

At first, the teen denied saying anything, but then he said he was only kidding.

“He didn’t appear scared, but he was like, ‘Well, I didn’t mean it,’ ” Chavez told reporters at a news conference Wednesday. “I said, ‘I know you students say a lot of things. But you can’t be saying these words.’ ”

The interaction quickly led to a conversation with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Hours later, investigators searched the teen’s home and recovered two semiautomatic AR-15 rifles, two handguns and 90 high-capacity magazines.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he was grateful his officers had the chance to head off a potential tragedy.

“As we see these incidents occur one after another, we’re all looking to say, ‘How do we stop this?’ ” McDonnell said.

The teen, who was not identified because he is a juvenile, is being held on suspicion of making criminal threats, the sheriff said. His older brother, 28-year-old Army veteran Daniel Barcenas, said the weapons belonged to him, and he has been booked on suspicion of numerous crimes, including possession of an assault weapon, according to McDonnell.

One rifle was registered in Barcenas’ name, authorities said. The other was not registered in the state of California, McDonnell said.

Barcenas is being held in lieu of $35,000 bail and is scheduled to appear in court Thursday morning, according to jail records. Calls to the Department of Defense seeking comment about Barcenas’ service record were not immediately returned.

A picture of the weapons cache seized during the investigation of a potential school shooting plot in Whittier.
A picture of the weapons cache seized during the investigation of a potential school shooting plot in Whittier. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)


The student was angry about rules inside the classroom, Robert Jacobsen, an attorney for the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, told reporters outside the school Wednesday in video posted by KCBS-TV.

“The teacher has expectations for the students to engage in learning during class time and told students to keep their cellphones and their earphones off so they can learn,” Jacobsen said. “And this student wasn’t happy about that. … At least what we understand at this time, it was simply over that.”

Law enforcement officers in the region have been on high alert since 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz was accused of opening fire in the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida on Valentine’s Day. Many of the dead were teenagers, some as young as 14. Teachers who tried to shield their students from the deadly gunfire also were killed.

McDonnell said that although it was not clear how serious the Whittier student was about committing violence, after the attack in Florida, investigators’ “main interest was to avoid letting anything like that happen.” In the last week, heavy criticism has been lobbed at the FBI for failing to act on a tip about threats made by Cruz in the past, and Chavez said Wednesday that the incident in Whittier showed the importance of heeding early warning signs.

“The Sheriff’s Department can only respond if they are told,” he said.

Authorities found that there was a gun registered to the student’s home address and used the teen’s statement and the registered weapon as probable cause to search the teen’s home, officials said.

Inside the home, authorities found four guns that would have been easily accessible to anyone who lived there, according to one of the arresting deputies, Martin Maciel. Ammunition was found in the teen’s room, and a loaded pistol was in a nearby closet, Maciel said. In the garage, police found the two AR-15 rifles and a second pistol.

Barcenas, the teen’s older brother, told authorities all the weapons and ammunition belonged to him. He did not explain why the firearms were loaded and unsecured.

McDonnell said the department has noticed a surge in tips about potential school shootings in 2018. The day before Chavez overheard the teen’s comment, detectives investigated a 15-year-old student at El Camino High School who said the teen wanted a school administrator killed after being suspended for using a cellphone in class. The Sheriff’s Department determined the student did not have the ability to carry out the threat, McDonnell said.

In a statement released Wednesday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn praised the response by Chavez and deputies.

“Thanks to the actions of school safety officer [Marino] Chavez and Sheriff’s Deputies Scott Reynal and Martin Maciel, a potentially deadly and devastating attack on our children was avoided,” the statement read. “As we continue to mourn the lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and recent mass shootings across this country, this incident is a reminder that our own communities are not immune to the epidemic of gun violence in this nation.”

In Southern California, in addition to the alleged Whittier plot, Inglewood police on Monday became aware of a social media post “indicating that students attending a specific Inglewood school were at risk of being targeted by a shooter,” according to a news release.

Police detained the person behind the original post on Tuesday and have discussed possible criminal charges with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Inglewood police said they would maintain a heightened presence at all Inglewood Unified School District facilities as a result. Calls to Inglewood police seeking additional information were not immediately returned.

And on Wednesday morning, Long Beach Unified School District Supt. Chris Steinhauser alerted parents of an unconfirmed threat that an attack was being planned at Long Beach Polytechnic High School.

“While these rumors are unsubstantiated, we take them seriously and are working with law enforcement to actively investigate,” Steinhauser wrote in a warning published on the school’s website. “You will see additional law enforcement presence at the school today. We appreciate those who alerted us. Your students will be safe and protected at school.”

Long Beach Police Sgt. Bradley Johnson said detectives received information about the potential threat Tuesday and worked “through the night” to determine its credibility. Police planned to have an increased presence at Long Beach high schools Wednesday, according to Johnson, who said no arrests had been made.

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT & @JosephSerna for crime and police news in California.

Courtesy: L A Times

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