A 15-year-old boy who was arrested after the shooting death Tuesday night of his 11-year-old sister was playing with a plastic “ghost gun” and thought he had removed its ammunition before it went off, a prosecutor said Friday at the boy’s initial juvenile court appearance.
The apparent accident, the boy’s attorney said, will haunt the boy for the rest of his life.
“This has got to be one of the most horrible set of circumstances that I can recall in my 25-plus years of doing this,” state Assistant Public Defender Benjamin Gonring said. “It is a tragedy on any number of levels.”
The boy, who faces the juvenile equivalent of homicide by negligent handling of a firearm, was ordered released to his mother’s home after appearing by video in juvenile court.
Court Commissioner Anton Jamieson said the boy will be supervised by the county’s home detention program and will have to follow a number of rules.
Guns will not be allowed in the family’s home, he said, but the boy’s mother said they have moved from the apartment where they were living to a hotel room that consists of a single room where the boy can be seen at all times.
“It’s just a little square area with clothes and a bed and a TV,” the boy’s mother said.
Originally, Fitchburg police said the boy would be charged in adult court with first-degree reckless homicide. But after consulting with the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, it was decided the case instead would be prosecuted in juvenile court.
The boy’s sister, Carolanah Schenk, who was a sixth-grader at Oregon’s Forest Edge Elementary School, died at a hospital after the shooting.
Assistant District Attorney John Rome said the shooting, which occurred around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at an apartment in the 5100 block of Curry Court in Fitchburg, happened after the boy believed he had emptied a gun of its ammunition. But a bullet was still in the chamber when the gun went off. The gun, Rome said, was a “ghost gun,” a gun with no serial number made largely from 3D-printed polymer parts.
He did not indicate who made the gun or where it came from. A delinquency petition filed in the case was not immediately available.
Rome said the gun was being stored near a couch in the living room. The boy told police, Rome said, that he had removed the gun’s magazine and was putting the gun down on a table when it went off and struck his sister.
Rome said the boy moved his sister to the sofa and then hid the gun, which was later found by police outside in some bushes. Other people were in the apartment at the time of the shooting, he said.
Police searched the apartment and noticed there were “many weapons stored haphazardly around the house,” Rome said. “Some of the guns were secured. Some were not.”
Before the shooting incident, Rome said, there had been reports that the boy was outside playing with an Airsoft gun and was confronted by a neighbor with a shotgun. Police were called.
Rome asked that the boy remain in custody because he poses a risk of harm to others. He also questioned whether there was adequate supervision at home. He said police have found Snapchat photos of the boy posing with a gun, including on the day of the shooting, when a photo showed him “pointing a gun that looks realistic at the victim’s head while she was asleep.”
But Gonring said the boy had already spent 36 hours in solitary in the adult Dane County Jail and another 24 hours in isolation at the Juvenile Detention center and it was best for his family if he went home to be with them.
He said he wished the court wouldn’t compound the tragedy by causing more harm to the boy and his family.
He asked Jamieson to pay attention to what two witnesses in the room told police — that the boy had told them the gun was not loaded and that he was seen removing ammunition from the gun.
“I understand that the charge is negligence, but this clearly was an accident,” Gonring said. “This is a kid who thought he was dealing with an unloaded gun.”
What’s happened in the time before the shooting and now, Gonring said, were “life-changing events. Life changing. Haunting events.” The boy has had days alone to think about them and now does not pose the same risk as before, he said.
“There is zero chance he’s going near anything,” Gonring said. “He’s going to have to live with this guilt for the rest of his life.”
The boy’s mother also asked Jamison to allow the boy to come home.
“I would rather just him be home so he can deal with us and try to bury his sister,” she said, “so he can have peace of mind.”
She said the family would get “long-term therapy.”
“This is no joke at all what my child did,” she said. “I know what my child did is my fault. My fault. Not just his. So I know we need help and we are going to get him all the help he needs.”
“He made the decision and the bad, bad thing, but I’m the disappointment here,” she added. “I let him down, and I know that.”
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 13 before Circuit Judge Susan Crawford.