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Cox clears air on campus threat

November 9, 2011

By Annie Hunter, Managing Editor

Young Harris College President Cathy Cox held a meeting Nov. 3 to inform students about the recent events concerning the threat letter found on Sept. 13, the alleged attack in the Senior Village on Oct. 19 and the arrest of YHC student Joshua Simmons.

Simmons, a junior from Cisco, pled guilty to making false statements to law enforcement and is currently being held at Towns County Jail for the next two months.  Simmons admitted to planting a threat letter directed at YHC students, lying to the police, attempting to frame another student and staging an assault.  Because Simmons pled guilty and has been sentenced, Cox was now able to divulge the details of the events leading up to his arrest to the student body.

“The purpose of the student debriefing meeting was to allow students to hear directly from YHC administration about the recent campus incidents and how the situations were resolved,” said Denise Cook, director of communications and marketing at YHC. “The meeting was informative and successful and provided students an opportunity to ask questions and offer feedback on how the matter was handled.”

More than 60 students attended the meeting.  Campus police and staff from the offices of Student Development and Advancement also attended the meeting.

Following the detailed account of the investigation and arrest (a summary of which follows), students were allowed to ask questions and make any comments on how the matter was handled.  Overall the feedback was positive, with several students praising the manner in which the investigation was handled. During the meeting Simmons’s roommate expressed gratitude towards YHC police for professionally handling the incident in the Village.

One student voiced concerns about Simmons’s role as a police cadet. Ken Henderson, chief of Police at YHC, assured her that all cadets undergo screening and that Simmons had nothing in his background to indicate he was capable of such behavior.

Another student asked about visiting Simmons. Henderson suggested calling the Towns County Jail to confirm the days and hours for visitation.  Susan Rogers, vice president of Student Development at YHC, reinforced that while Simmons is not allowed on campus, students can go off campus to meet with him.

Cox concluded the meeting by stating that YHC is a family, and no student should hesitate if he or she needs to speak with someone about these events or has any general concern.  Lynne Grady, director of counseling and psychological services CAPS, is available for anyone in need of counseling.

The administration, police force and Grady have been working everyday on closing this investigation since the discovery of the letter.

While commenting on the success of the investigation, Cox said it is still a tragedy as it involves a member of the YHC family.

“The campus has been put through a hell of a trauma.  There’s nothing good about this story other than we closed the loop and can feel good about where we are,” said Cox, calling Simmons’s situation heartbreaking.

Following the debriefing, students expressed relief and appreciation for the meeting.

“We were kind of kept in the dark, but I understand why,” said Rebecca Fordyce, a sophomore art major from Oglethorpe.  “It’s good to really know what’s going on now.”

Ashley Eschbach, a freshman history education major from Key West, Fla., echoed Fordyce’s sentiments.

“I was surprised, he didn’t seem like the type to do this,” said Eschbach.  “There were so many rumors. It’s good to know what really happened.”

The Threat, Investigation and Arrest

EDITOR’s NOTE

The following account of the events since Sept. 13 was provided by Cathy Cox, president of YHC at the meeting with students.

Just before 7 a.m. on Sept. 13, Cox received a phone call to her home from Henderson informing her that a threatening letter had been discovered on Maxwell Center.

The note read “Bang.  Bang.  You can’t stop it.  Students die today.”  A housekeeper had found the note rolled up in the door handle of one of the main doors on the front of the building.  Cox said emergency protocol was immediately put into place, despite not knowing the full meaning behind the cryptic message.

An hour after the housekeeper reported the note, another call came into the police station– this time from Simmons who claimed he found the note on his way back to his apartment in the Village.  Simmons had been studying with friends for a math test in Duckworth Library and was walking back to his room when he said he spotted the note attached to Maxwell’s door handle.  Simmons said he read the note and was so upset he returned to his apartment to pray.  An hour later he called the police.  This raised the first red flag for the police.  Simmons was a police cadet and was known for being eager to report any trace of suspicious activity on campus.  The police felt it was out of character for Simmons to wait an hour to inform law enforcement about such a serious matter.

In addition, Simmons had made plans with his math study group to meet for breakfast before their test after getting a few hours of sleep, but never showed.  When members from the group called him about his whereabouts, they said he acted ‘strange.’  Simmons told his friends that he found the note and saw a man place it on the door.

An emergency faculty meeting was held that morning to gain any leads from professors who might have noticed a distressed student in their classes.

Students received text messages and emails from the E2Campus, an emergency alert system for YHC students, canceling all classes before 10 a.m. until further notice.

Cox said it was debated whether it would be appropriate to instruct students to remain in their dorms.  Because the letter was vague, Cox did not want to risk telling students to remain in their residence halls if they would not be truly safe there.

A bomb-detection canine unit was brought in from Rabun County to sweep the academic buildings.  Finding nothing, and with the campus heavily monitored by law enforcement including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, classes resumed at 10 a.m.  All buildings remained on lockdown, however, with access only through the front doors.  Residence Life staff continued to watch over the residence halls.  Students were told that they may be searched by police if they were suspected of carrying a weapon or an explosive.  Cox hoped that by allowing students to return to class, the campus could gain back some normalcy, as well give faculty and law enforcement the opportunity to observe student behavior.

While Simmons’s stories were changing, he was given the benefit of the doubt as he was upset.  The GBI pursued him as a suspect but still followed any leads received through the YHC police and the Towns County Sheriff’s tip-line.  Several students were questioned and administered a polygraph test.  Simmons claimed he had nothing to do with the threat letter, citing his active involvement in religious life on campus.  In an effort to clear his name, Simmons consented to the polygraph test, but did poorly.  Polygraph tests can give reliable results, but cannot stand up in court as primary evidence because test subjects can manipulate body cues, leading to inaccuracies.  The test results encouraged the GBI to continue to view Simmons as a suspect.

Simmons became nervous from all the attention he received from the police and began asking fellow students to send in character references to Cox and the police department.

“I don’t know why but Josh Simmons asked me to write this.  He’s a really good guy.  I’ve known him two weeks,” said Cox, mimicking the letters with a light-hearted laugh.  Cox said in all seriousness she understood that students were trying to do the right thing and help a friend, and she did not hold anyone at fault.

Meanwhile phone calls continued to flow into the tip-line that a different student planned on killing students at YHC.  When the police would follow up on these tips and track down the alleged suspect, the accused student was completely oblivious to the caller’s claims and GBI believed the other student posed no threat.  This wrongly accused student had previously been questioned by the police, and Simmons was one of only a few people who knew his identity.

Police gathered more evidence implicating Simmons as a legitimate suspect by tracing text messages and emails sent from Simmons to YHC’s Information Technology department. Police found messages where Simmons inquired about where cameras and surveillance equipment were set up on campus.  Simmons used a false name and created a separate email address as an alias.  He even stopped by ITech personally, stating he was a friend of the fabricated student and also wanted to know about the cameras.

On the night of Oct. 19, Towns County dispatch received a 911 call from a student living in the Village that his roommate had attempted suicide.  Police and EMTs responded to the call.  The victim turned out to be Simmons, who said he had not tried to commit suicide but that he had been attacked by a masked man.

Simmons changed his story for a third time since the original discovery of the note, stating that the man who attacked him that night was the same masked man he saw placing the note on Maxwell.  The masked man allegedly broke into the apartment, cut Simmons with a knife, wrote on him with marker and bound his hands and feet with zip-ties.  The attacker waited to attack Simmons until his roommate was in the shower.

Simmons refused medical attention and would not go to the hospital.  The GBI crime scene specialist concluded that no attack occurred as there was no evidence of a break-in or struggle, with Simmons lacking any defensive wounds.  Simmons had also been spotted at Walmart buying markers, likely the same ones used in the alleged attack.

The College released a statement to YHC students the same night police responded to a 911 call. The statement indicated there was no credible assault and no one was believed to be in danger.  Cox still kept a strong police presence to ease any concerns about campus safety.

Simmons’s father had been alerted about the attack and drove to campus out of fear for his son’s welfare.  Cox said when Simmons’s father arrived they told him that the attack had been staged.  Simmons was once again questioned by the police into the early hours of the morning and subsequently arrested and transported to Towns County Jail.  The District Attorney was prepared to charge Simmons with several major felonies including making a terroristic threat.  The DA offered Simmons a lighter sentence, with the possibility of benefitting from Georgia’s First Offender Act, if he pled guilty.  This means if Simmons meets all terms of his sentence his criminal record will be expunged.  Simmons must complete three years of probation after being released from prison, as well as pay fines and restitution to the College.

Simmons will also receive internal disciplinary action from YHC.  The details of this action are confidential; however Cox did share that Simmons will either face suspension or expulsion in the coming days. Rogers clarified Simmons will be banned from the campus for a period of time.  If he were to be suspended, he would not be allowed to re-enroll at YHC for at least a year after his release from prison.  Rogers indicated it would be highly unlikely that Simmons would return after just a year’s suspension and stated he would be facing the most serious level of suspension or expulsion.

The lingering question is why?  Why did Simmons plant the letter in the first place?  That’s something for which Cox said she has no answer.  Simmons never stated if he actually had intentions of harming students.  Perhaps he tried to get out of the math test, and things got out of hand.  It could have been a prank gone awry, or maybe he was hoping to find the letter and appear as a hero.  Cox said she suspects Simmons is suffering from mental illness that neither his family nor friends previously noticed.  His mother indicated to college officials that they are considering treatment options for him.  Simmons’s mother has conveyed that he is incredibly sorry and remorseful.  Cox concluded the summary of events by asking that the campus keep him in their thoughts and prayers.

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