Crime

He was the mastermind of a plot to kill a classmate. Now, this teen is headed to prison

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.

A 17-year-old boy choked up Thursday as he apologized for plotting to kill a classmate and drag the body into an orchard.

Jeremiah D. Cunningham shook with emotion during his sentencing in the November 2017 crime.

“I’m sorry for what I did to the, what I was going to do to the victim, and I’m sorry for the victim’s family,” he said. “I’m sorry that I ... I’m sorry ... I’m sorry. It’s all I can say.”

Cunningham claims he was defending the honor of co-defendant Fe H. Hadley when planned the attack on Ryan Vaughn.

Their scheme to stab Vaughn, then 18, during their lunch hour at Kiona-Benton City High School was foiled by two students who noticed a suspicious person in a red mask and they chased him off.

Both Cunningham and Hadley were 16 at the time, and were charged as adults in Benton County Superior Court with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

Jeremiah Cunningham was sentenced 10 years in prison for conspiring to kill a classmate.

‘Hard to ignore the callousness’

Cunningham pleaded guilty last month and on Thursday he stood before Judge Cameron Mitchell with an uncertain future.

While the standard range for the crime is 15 to 20 years in prison, prosecutors recommended a shorter sentence of 12 years. The defense asked for half that.

Mitchell decided 10 years in prison was a just sentence given the seriousness of the crime, Cunningham’s background and the impact it will have on the lives of both Vaughn and Cunningham.

“It’s ... hard to ignore the callousness of the plan. You demonstrated very little concern for human life,” said the judge.

Mitchell said he took into consideration Cunningham’s youth, lack of criminal history and the fact he was convicted of planning a murder, not completing it.

He also recognized that Cunningham will still be a young man when he’s released, and “he’s going to have to try to make his way in this world.”

Juvenile facility before prison

Cunningham turns 18 on July 10. He likely will serve a few years in a state juvenile facility, then be transferred to a state prison with other adults.

He has been in the Benton-Franklin juvenile Detention Center on $500,000 bail since his arrest.

hadley
Fe Hadley, 16, is charged in Benton County Superior Court as an adult with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Hadley also appeared in court Thursday. Her trial was continued to July 8.

She was moved from juvenile detention to the Benton County jail on her 18th birthday in early April. Her bail now is set at $100,000.

On Thursday, Deputy Prosecutor Taylor Clark said it was not just a spur-of-the-moment idea on Nov. 15, 2017.

Cunningham, Hadley and a third teen planned it for several weeks, went to the market in advance to scout out the security cameras, and even took several days to convince Vaughn to come to lunch that day.

Could have faced murder

“But for the two other students that happened to be at the location and spotted (Cunningham) in the field behind Ki-Be market, this plan would have been carried out and the defendant would have been looking at another charge,” said Clark.

Cunningham has been described as the mastermind.

He reportedly did not like Vaughn and got Hadley to lure the senior student from campus to the nearby market.

Vaughn and Hadley briefly dated, but Vaughn told investigators it ended because Cunningham “was getting too protective over her.”

Kiona Benton City teens credited to foiling a plot to murder.

Clark said Cunningham gave investigators a disturbing amount of detail about his plot.

He planned to come up behind Vaughn, kick his legs out from underneath him and stab the student in the chest. He thought about slitting his throat but knew that would get too much blood on Hadley, said Clark.

Vaughn opted not to attend the sentencing hearing, but Clark said he felt comfortable with the 12-year recommendation. He told the prosecutor he did not want her to ask for anything lower.

‘Knows ... he has done wrong’

Defense attorney Ryan Swinburnson said his client “knows that he has done wrong and he’s never wavered in that.”

Cunningham took responsibility in his initial interview with law enforcement, said Swinburnson. The case has dragged on for 1 1/2 years because the lawyer was trying to make sure there was no legal defense before pleading guilty.

“Anybody could have been harmed in this. We don’t know how it would have turned out,” he said. “That’s not what we’re here to decide — what could have happened or what would have happened? The offense is just the planning to, and that is what he has admitted to.”

Mike Blewett spoke on behalf of Cunningham’s family, pleading with the judge to give the teen leniency.

He said Cunningham made a very wrong decision and is ready to take his punishment, but it scares him what an adult sentence will do on a child. Prison ruins people, said Blewett, and Cunningham has a whole life ahead of him.

Cunningham is prohibited from having any contact with Vaughn for the rest of his life.

The teen still has a second criminal case for allegedly threatening to put the name of a detention center employee on a “hit list.”

During a hearing Wednesday in Benton County Juvenile Court, his attorney said they anticipate resolving the felony harassment charge. If not, he will have a trial-by-judge on May 24.

Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.

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