James Crumbley found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Oxford school shooting

A jury found James Crumbley guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter over the murders his son committed at Oxford High School in 2021.

James Crumbley enters the Oakland County Courtroom of Cheryl Matthews, Wednesday, March, 13, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.

James Crumbley enters the Oakland County Courtroom of Cheryl Matthews, Wednesday, March, 13, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.

A Michigan jury has held the father of the Oxford High School shooter criminally responsible for the lives his son took in 2021.

Jurors found James Crumbley guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter, roughly a month after his wife, Jennifer Crumbley, was convicted on an identical charge. Legal experts say the cases mark the first time the parents of a mass school shooter have been held criminally responsible for the actions of their child.

But prosecutors said the heinous nature of the crime demanded an equally harsh response.

The Crumbleys faced charges of gross negligence. The prosecution maintained that the parents could have reasonably foreseen their son was troubled and primed for violence. Instead, prosecutors claimed, they bought the teen a gun and failed to lock it away from him.

James Crumbley became the central figure in both allegations.

If the father had only taken a few simple steps, that fatal day at Oxford High would never have happened.

Ethan Crumbley was 15 years old when he took a pistol his father bought for him as a Christmas present to Oxford High School in November, 2021.

He methodically roamed school hallways, fired 32 shots, killed four students and wounded seven other people, including a teacher.

Ethan Crumbley then put down the gun down and waited for police to arrive, prosecutors said, so he could watch the carnage he’d created. He pleaded guilty to the murders a year later.

During his plea, Crumbley responded to a prosecutor’s question by saying the gun “was not locked” when he brought it with him to Oxford High School.

That assertion became one of the focal points of the case against his father.

Jennifer Crumbley had testified during her trial weeks before that her husband was responsible for storing the gun.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable being in charge of that,” she said. “It was more his thing so I let him handle that.”

Video showed the pair at a police station immediately following the shooting, with James Crumbley saying the firearm was “hidden” in an armoire, the bullets stashed in a separate area under some jeans.

Nicole Beausoleil, mother of Madisyn Baldwin who was killed in a mass shooting at Oxford High School in 2021, becomes emotional as Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald makes closing statements in the trial against James Crumbley, Wednesday, March, 13, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.
Nicole Beausoleil, mother of Madisyn Baldwin who was killed in a mass shooting at Oxford High School in 2021, becomes emotional as Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald makes closing statements in the trial against James Crumbley, Wednesday, March, 13, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.

But Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor Marc Keist noted that Crumbley never said the gun was locked.

Law enforcement officials testified that cable locks sold with the gun designed to prevent a trigger from being pulled were found in the Crumbley’s home after the shooting — still unopened.

The prosecution also extensively cited entries Ethan Crumbley made in a journal found after the shooting in a backpack the teen left in a school bathroom.

Oakland County Sherriff Detective Lt. Tim Willis read aloud passages where the teen wrote, “The shooting is tomorrow. I have access to the gun and the ammo. I’m going to prison for life and many people have about one day left to live.”

Keist noted that James Crumbley was near the school as reports of the shooting first surfaced. Phone records showed Crumbley tried to call his son several times.

Yet rather than wait to see if the teen emerged safe from the school, Crumbley told investigators he quickly drove back to his house, then called 911.

“I have a missing gun and my son was at the school and we had to go meet the counselor this morning because of something he wrote on a test paper,” Crumbley said in a recording played in court. “I raced home just to find out and I think my son took the gun, I don’t know.”

Prosecutors paid particular attention to a troubling picture Ethan Crumbley drew on that math assignment paper, which was shown to his parents on the day of the shooting.

It depicted a bleeding figure shot by a gun that looked exactly like the one the teen’s father had just bought him as a Christmas present. The drawing included phrases like “help me,” “blood everywhere” and “the thoughts won’t stop.”

Ethan Crumbley had scribbled some of those words out after he was brought to a counselor’s office, but a teacher had taken a photo on her phone of the original.

School counselor Shawn Hopkins testified he thought the picture indicated Ethan Crumbley might have suicidal tendencies. James Crumbley later dismissed the drawing as “doodles.” The parents had a short meeting with the counselor but would not take their son home, saying they both had to go back to work. Hopkins demanded they seek counseling for him within 48 hours. He said there was no sign the teen posed an immediate threat to himself or anyone else so he was sent back to class. Hopkins said he felt it was better that Ethan Crumbley not be left alone.

A school official even returned Crumbley’s backpack to him, which likely contained the pistol the teen would use hours later to kill, joking about how heavy it felt.

Prosecutors contended James Crumbley could have stopped the massacre before it began if he had told the Oxford High staff his son had a new gun like the one in the violent drawing. Jurors also heard excerpts from text messages Ethan Crumbley sent a friend months before the shooting. The teen described a descent into a world of hallucinations, where the voices in his head kept getting louder.

“I actually asked my dad to take me to the doctor,” he messaged his friend. “But he just gave me some pills and told me to ‘suck it up.’“

The defense countered that James Crumbley never knew what his son had written. Crumbley’s attorney had argued the texts and journal should not be allowed as evidence because lawyers couldn’t cross-examine the author.

Ethan Crumbley’s court-appointed lawyer advised him not to testify in his parents’ trials.

The school shooter is weighing an appeal of his life without parole sentence and would exercise his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if he was compelled to take the stand.

In Michigan, if an attorney calls a witness they know will take the Fifth, it means an automatic mistrial. Yet James Crumbley’s attorney, Mariell Lehman, still poked holes at the messages. She noted that none of them ever said the murder weapon was not locked, nor specified precisely how the shooter gained access to it.

And for the first time on a witness stand, Oxford school officials acknowledged they knew Crumbley’s son had been to a shooting range days before the murders occurred.

Lehman said the parents told police they wished they had taken their son home after meeting with counselor Shawn Hopkins on the day of the shooting.

But during cross-examination, Lehman asked Hopkins if either he or the Crumbley’s could have foreseen the violence ahead.

She said, “We know what happened within a couple hours of this meeting. It’s easy to look back and say that different decisions could have been made, right?”

“I made the decisions I made based on the information I had,” Hopkins responded.

“At the time,” Lehman answered.

Hopkins added that the father told the teen at the meeting that, “You have people you can talk to. You have your counselor, you have your journal. We talk.”

Throughout his trial, the defense painted James Crumbley in a far different light than how prosecutors portrayed his wife.

Jennifer Crumbley came across during testimony in her trial as indifferent, more concerned with her horses than her son.

By contrast, police video showed James Crumbley stifling sobs after learning his son was the shooter, calling him a “perfect” kid who never got in trouble and repeatedly telling him, “I love you.” Crumbley said he knew his son was sad over the death of his grandmother, a pet dog and his best friend abruptly moving away — but nothing more than that.

In court, Crumbley — dressed in a suit and wearing headphones to help with his hearing — presented a mostly calm figure.

He did look away from courtroom monitors, swallowed hard and wiped his nose with a tissue as the prosecution played security video of the bloody shooting.

In her opening statement, Lehman told jurors, “What the prosecution wants you to believe, the part that’s not true, is that James Crumbley knew what his son was going to do and knew he had a duty to protect other people from his son. He didn’t know.”

Lehman claimed Oxford is an area with a strong gun culture, and going to a shooting range with friends or family is not uncommon.

The lone defense witness was Crumbley’s sister, Karen Crumbley, who testified that she saw nothing concerning between her brother and his son when she visited them in the months before the shooting.

She added that it was not unusual to have guns in the Crumbley household.

“If you’re getting a gun specifically for your child to use at his leisure, that’s wrong,” Karen Crumbley said. “With adult supervision, I don’t see any problem with it.”

Lehman disputed prosecutors’ claims that the parents went “on the run” following the shooting.

The Crumbleys were declared fugitives after failing to turn themselves in after they were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

But in police body cam video the night the pair were found in a Detroit art studio, James Crumbley could be heard saying, “We were leaving at 7 in the morning” to report to the authorities.

A different side of Crumbley emerged midway through the trial, when his communications from jail were severely restricted. Law enforcement officials confirmed that Crumbley had made threats while incarcerated over a jailhouse phone and in an electronic message.

Jurors never saw that view of Crumbley. The sanctions were enacted while the jury was not present, to avoid influencing the eventual verdict.

Unlike his wife, James Crumbley never took the stand in his own defense.

Experts say Crumbley had a distinct advantage in his trial since it followed his wife’s conviction on identical charges.

University of Michigan law professor Ekow Yankah said James Crumbley’s defense team already had a preview of the evidence prosecutors were likely to present.

“You have a new jury, you’ve got a slightly more, perhaps, sympathetic defendant,” he said.

But Yankah said jurors also saw the same video of the shooting used in Jennifer Crumbley’s trial. He called it a graphic example of what prosecutors claimed James Crumbley’s alleged carelessness cost students at Oxford High.

“What they’re ignoring is broken and dead bodies on the other side. Any prosecutor wants to bring that home,” Yankah said.

Prosecutor Karen McDonald illustrated that point in her closing argument. McDonald took the murder weapon from a courtroom table and threaded a cable lock through it.

It took about 10 seconds.

If James Crumbley had taken those 10 seconds to do the same thing, McDonald said, four students would not have died at Oxford High.

The prosecutor called it one of the “tragically small steps” Crumbley could have taken to prevent the massacre. The worst omission, McDonald alleged, was that Crumbley ignored his son’s pleas for counseling, even when they were scrawled beside a bloody picture on a math assignment.

“How many times does this kid have to say it? He writes the words ‘help me’ on a piece of paper! And his parent, James Crumbley, is called to the school and what does he say? He says, ‘We gotta go to work.’ “

But defense attorney Mariell Lehman insisted Crumbley repeatedly showed concern for his son’s welfare after the shooting, a sign of how deeply he cared about the teen.

Lehman told jurors there was no proof James Crumbley did not properly secure the firearms in his household, especially the gun his son used to kill at Oxford High.

“If the prosecution had evidence that James knew that his son was accessing them without his permission, the prosecution would have shown you that. But you didn’t see it. Because it isn’t true. James didn’t know,” Lehman said.

But that argument did not sway the jury.

Both James and Jennifer Crumbley will be sentenced on April 9. They both face a maximum of 15 years in prison.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.