A 17-year-old boy accused of setting fire to a high school bathroom was bound over to District Court on Thursday afternoon.
At Derek Paul’s preliminary hearing, Circuit Judge Wendy M. Bartlett ruled there was enough evidence for him to stand trial for first-degree arson. She also kept his bond at $25,000, cash only.
Paul is alleged to have started a fire in the handicap stall of a second-floor bathroom in Thunder Basin High School the afternoon of Sept. 30.
School staff said Paul had thrown a temper tantrum earlier that day when he was sent to lunch detention for his failing grades, Gillette Police Detective Julianne Witham said.
He was a student who was “angry with the school,” so he decided to start a fire with “intent to destroy or damage” the school, said Deputy County Attorney Nathan Henkes.
Public Defender Andrew Johnson, representing Paul, said it was “a small fire in the bathroom,” and that there was no testimony showing that Paul intended to threaten the school in any way.
The incident “reads like a poorly planned prank,” Johnson said.
Paul has no criminal history, Johnson added, and the charge of first-degree arson was not appropriate given the gravity of the situation.
The damage was contained to the bathroom, which sustained heavy smoke damage. Both toilet paper rolls and the plastic toilet paper container in a handicap stall were completely burned. There was no fire accelerant found at the scene, and the fire itself did not take long to extinguish, Johnson said.
Henkes pointed out that the reason the fire didn’t cause more damage to the school was because of the efforts of the Campbell County Fire Department. He added that many lives were put in danger that day, with 300 to 400 students, teachers and other school staff having to evacuate the building because of the fire.
Johnson asked Bartlett to reduce Paul’s bond from $25,000 cash-only to $10,000 cash or surety. He said Paul is on the autism spectrum and the school stopped providing him special education assistance “that he needed.”
Paul has been expelled from Thunder Basin, so he has no reason to go back to the school, Johnson said.
“He’s not a danger to the school or the community,” Johnson said.
Henkes disagreed, saying Paul still poses a risk to the community and the $25,000 bond is not unreasonable.
Bartlett said the crime Paul is accused of is very serious and decided to keep the bond where it is.
School district officials estimate the bathroom will cost between $40,000 and $50,000 to repair.
Fire alarms at Thunder Basin High School went off shortly before 4 p.m. Sept. 30. Paul, a student at the school, was arrested on suspicion of first-degree arson that evening.
Two janitors tried to put the fire out with a fire extinguisher but were unsuccessful. They were both checked by EMS for smoke inhalation. The Fire Department arrived, put out the fire and spent several hours clearing smoke from the bathroom and hallways.
Surveillance footage showed a student, later identified as Paul, with a backpack entering the bathroom at 3:29 p.m. He left the bathroom nine minutes later. Other than a janitor who walked out, no one else was seen going into or coming out of the bathroom. At 3:46, smoke was seen billowing out of the bathroom door, Witham said Thursday.
Janitor Jose Juarez was in the restroom when Paul came in. Juarez said the boy went straight to the sink and washed his hands. When Juarez left the bathroom, he saw Paul walk into the handicap stall, which he found “to be suspicious,” Witham said.
Paul’s mom told police that her son was in the school library at the time of the fire and claimed he was wrongfully accused of starting the fire.
In a phone conversation with police, the boy said he went from his class to his history teacher’s room, then to the library. After that, he got his jacket from his locker, went downstairs and left the school.
Witham asked Paul at what point he went to the bathroom. He was silent for eight seconds, then claimed to be getting another call. Witham asked him again, and after 10 seconds he said he didn’t know.
Witham told him that he was upstairs when he went to the bathroom, and he agreed.
Witham said Paul denied lighting the toilet paper on fire, but admitted he was the only person in the bathroom once the janitor left and agreed that there was no fire when he entered the bathroom.
He refused to tell officers where he was and hung up, but his mom called and said he’d agreed to meet with them at his home. Before he arrived, police saw his car traveling west on Interstate 90 and pulled him over. Witham then arrested Paul at about 7 that evening on suspicion of first-degree arson.
In Wyoming, that crime carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $20,000.