The murder plot at Ki-Be was foiled. Here’s why it took 6 days for an arrest

These teens plotted to kill a classmate, say officials

Investigators say these teens were preparing to murder a fellow student at Kiona-Benton City High School.
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Investigators say these teens were preparing to murder a fellow student at Kiona-Benton City High School.

Bomb threats, kill lists, death threats, shootings.

It seems like every day brings word of a new incident at a school somewhere in America.

Although the Tri-Cities hasn’t seen a tragedy like the recent high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., it has had its share of recent scares.

From a shooting threat at Enterprise Middle School in West Richland to a “death list” making the rounds at Connell High School.

And there was the disturbingly close call at Kiona-Benton City High, where two students are accused of plotting to kill a third — their plan foiled at the last minute.

Officials say the Ki-Be incident proves all threats must be taken seriously, even in small districts where school officials know their students well and wouldn’t think them capable of turning on each other.

Documents obtained by the Herald under the state’s Public Records Act shed new light on Ki-Be’s scary incident, including the six-day gap between when school officials were told of the threat and when Benton County sheriff’s deputies learned the details.

Principal Clay Henry says he took the threat seriously and investigated.

But if he had it to do again, he’d bring in law enforcement right away.

“There’s nobody to blame in this. It’s just people trying to do the best they can do at the time, and not knowing any better,” Henry said. “Every day, to me, is a learning opportunity and experience. That’s exactly what I tell my kids. In this situation, I’ve learned a lot.”

Ki-Be leaders say they’ve tightened policies as a result — any direct threat is now reported to law enforcement immediately.

That’s a positive development from the situation, they said.

A plot foiled

Authorities say Ki-Be students Jeremiah D. Cunningham and Fe H. Hadley, both 16, planned to kill classmate Ryan Vaughn behind the Ki-Be Red Apple Market on Nov. 15.

Vaughn wasn’t hurt, the alleged plot interrupted at the last minute by some other students in the area.

Still, Cunningham and Hadley are charged in Benton County Superior Court with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

In interviews with detectives, the teens admitted to plotting the attack.

Hadley sent Vaughn Facebook messages asking him to go with her to the market that day, documents show.

Cunningham brought a knife to school — a black-handled steak knife that he found in a dumpster, according to the documents.

In surveillance video from the market, they can be seen talking and pointing near the market.

It’s scary to think how close this came. If that boy would have gone behind that store, if that girl would have been effective in getting him back there, we don’t know what the outcome would have been, but it could have been very bad.

Jerry Hatcher, Benton County sheriff

Cunningham can be seen pulling a knife out of his coat.

At first, things went as planned, officials claim.

Vaughn and Hadley met up at school and walked to the nearby market.

But Cunningham, wearing a mask and waiting out back, was spotted by some other students, documents said.

Those kids warned Vaughn and Hadley that someone strange was hanging around.

“Ryan said that he didn’t believe (the other students) and went towards where the guy was supposed to be,” detectives wrote after their interview with Vaughn.

“(Vaughn) said that he stood at the top of the hill with his arms crossed and eventually saw the guy in the red mask. Every time the (other students) ran up towards him, he ran off, and when the (other students) went back, the guy in the red mask came closer,” the report said. “At one point, the guy in the red mask was near some bushes and waved for Ryan to come closer.”

Vaughn felt “that the guy was after him” and decided to head back to school, the report said.

Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher said the situation was too close for comfort.

“It’s scary to think how close this came,” he said. “If that boy would have gone behind that store, if that girl would have been effective in getting him back there, we don’t know what the outcome would have been, but it could have been very bad.”

A tip and an investigation

For Henry, it had been a hectic and strange morning — before he even heard about a threat.

Toward the end of lunch, some kids told him that a weird guy in a mask was lurking by the market. Henry called the sheriff’s office and also drove over himself.

He didn’t find a masked man, but he did come upon a car accident involving Ki-Be kids. He helped with that and then continued searching, heading back to school when he came up empty.

That’s when he first got wind of the alleged murder plot. A student told him she’d heard that Cunningham and Hadley were involved in a plot to kill Vaughn at the market.

She named another student who supposedly knew more.

Henry was somewhat skeptical — some of the kids involved reportedly had reputations as “drama” students who made wild claims. Still, he started interviewing and digging.

By the end of the day, he’d talked to multiple teens, including Cunningham and Hadley, as well as their parents.

“I (talked) to each parent separately and explained the information that I had and that each student would be ‘emergency expelled,’ which could be up to 10 total days. The timeframe allows me to investigate and decide if I have to involve the police,” Henry wrote in an official statement. “(Each) parent took their student home.”

Video footage brings it into focus

Henry still didn’t have a clear picture of what had happened.

During the next couple days, he talked to more students and waited on the market’s surveillance footage.

The video arrived after school Friday, but Henry didn’t watch it until Monday, wanting to view it with fresh eyes.

In his first viewing, with the assistant principal, it was clear that “what the students had told me and what the video showed was completely different,” he wrote in his sheriff’s office statement. But he didn’t see any weapons.

It wasn’t until Tuesday morning, when he sat down to watch the footage again with Deputy Brad Klippert, Ki-Be’s school resource officer, that he saw the knife.

Our first strategic goal is not our reading goal, our graduation goal. Our first goal is the safety of our students.

Dave Bond, Kennewick superintendent

At that point, “we both realize that the situation became serious,” Henry wrote in his statement.

Henry had called Klippert on Nov. 15, but the deputy was already off duty that day and the rest of the week.

Henry also talked that day with a different deputy, who’d come to check out the report of the masked man.

But at that point, Henry had only just heard the new rumor. He told the deputy he might have something else — a threat involving students. But Henry didn’t have specifics yet and agreed to call him back if needed.

It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that Henry called Klippert again, asking for his help. They agreed to meet the next morning.

Once the knife was spotted, Klippert called in detectives. Cunningham was arrested that day, and Hadley was charged a few weeks later.

A third teen also allegedly was enlisted as a lookout. The boy was armed with a wooden dowel but told detectives he believed it was a prank. He hasn’t been charged.

‘Ah-ha moment’

Wade Haun, Ki-Be superintendent, said he’s satisfied with how Henry handled the matter.

The principal did the best he could with the information he had, Haun said.

Henry said that, in his mind, the danger was over once Cunningham and Hadley were removed from school. He didn’t consider potential danger outside of school, he said.

He called that realization an “ah-ha” moment.

District and sheriff’s officials have met and talked several times since the incident, and they said their relationship is stronger than ever.

“Safety is paramount to us, plain and simple,” Hatcher said, adding the school district is a safe place.

A broader look

Despite events in recent years, schools actually are safer now than they were decades ago, said Mike Donlin, program supervisor for the state superintendent’s School Safety Center.

“Generally speaking, (they) are better prepared,” creating plans and drilling for everything from shootings to natural disasters, he said.

School districts across the Tri-Cities have detailed safety plans in place and are in touch regularly with first responders.

In Kennewick, for example, the city’s police and fire departments help with monthly drills in the school district.

“Our first strategic goal is not our reading goal, our graduation goal. Our first goal is the safety of our students,” Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond said.

Pasco and Richland districts also run regular drills and work closely with police and fire agencies.

“We never stop addressing (safety),” said Randy Nunamaker, Pasco’s executive director of operations. “Parents can rest assured we’re never going to stop trying to address those things.”

The districts all have many ways for students and others to report threats or concerns, from sending anonymous messages online to going to staff.

Personal relationships cultivated by staff go a long way toward making schools safer, said Joan Gribskov, Richland’s safety manager.

Often, “it’s the culture in each building and the trust between staff and students that will help us prevent something. It’s the, ‘See something, say something.’ That’s huge,” she said.

In Benton City, Henry pointed out the reason officials heard about the alleged plot was because a student came to him with a rumor.

A safe place

Henry and district leaders said Ki-Be High is a special place. With only about 450 students, it’s the kind of school where everyone knows one another.

Ki-Be officials say the community has been supportive — before and after the November close call.

“It does take a village to raise a kid. It’s the police, the school, the community,” said Henry, who’s in his fourth year as the high school’s principal. “I think everybody truly does trust the sheriff’s department, the school — and that it’s the safest place we can make it.”

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald