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Here's what happened when cops ID'd a man who said he wanted to shoot up an NC school

UNC Charlotte police used tactics borrowed from the Secret Service after a student reportedly told a doctor that he planned to "buy a gun and shoot up his school" when he turned 21.
UNC Charlotte police used tactics borrowed from the Secret Service after a student reportedly told a doctor that he planned to "buy a gun and shoot up his school" when he turned 21. File photo

Three weeks after Nikolas Cruz roamed the halls of his high school in Parkland, Florida, shooting and killing 17 people, a UNC Charlotte police lieutenant got a disturbing call from another department.

A UNCC student had told a physician that, according to an arrest warrant, "When he turns 21, he is going to buy a gun and shoot up his school." Police charged Matthew Saavedra, 20, on March 21 with making a false report about mass violence on school property.

The case, amid public tension over the safety of schools, riveted the attention of area law officers. Behind the scenes, a surveillance and information-sharing network modeled after tactics the Secret Service uses to keep presidents safe went to work.

UNCC police Chief Jeffrey Baker said he doesn't know of a case in which someone sought help from a mental health professional who then tipped police to a potential threat.

"Sometimes you’ve got to worry about what you don't know," he said. Saavedra "actually sought help. What about the ones who don’t?"

Baker said UNCC police followed the example of the Secret Service: Making contact with the source of a threat, determining whether they have the means to carry it out, and then preventing anything from happening.

UNCC police detectives interviewed Saavedra, who has no criminal record, before his release on $25,000 bond from the Forsyth County jail. They talked to his roommates, professors and family. He's now staying with his mother in King, Baker said, and can be charged with trespassing if he returns to the UNCC campus.

UNCC police later contacted federal agents who flagged Saavedra's name, because of the felony charge against him, on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, making him unable to legally buy a firearm.

Saaavedra had gone to a medical clinic in King, north of Winston-Salem, about mental health issues, UNCC police said in an affidavit. He also told a King police officer that he "is fascinated with mass shootings, he has studied the Colombine (Col.) shooting, and he watches Reddit videos where people die," according to an arrest warrant.

Saavedra was committed for a mental health evaluation after making those statements, court documents say.

A search of his Charlotte apartment found a UNCC emergency response guide, opened to the active shooter response pages, search warrants show. Police seized a laptop they sent for analysis by the FBI and blueprints of four campus buildings that are connected by their second floors.

The search found no firearms, Baker said.

Saavedra's defense attorney, Ryan Stump of Charlotte, wouldn't comment on the allegations against his client. But he said media reports based on search warrants tell only part of the story, with some accounts not making clear that no weapons were found.

"We offered our cooperation to everyone involved," Stump said. "It's not what was in the search warrant, but what was reported in initial stories — there was important information left out of those stories. We would ask that he not be convicted in the media and that everyone withhold judgment until the full picture comes out."

Saavedra, who could not be reached, has an April 16 court date in Mecklenburg County.

The day after his release from jail, police officers followed him from King to the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. Saavedra was polite and cooperative, police told WGHP in High Point. Stump said Saavedra visited the campus only to see a friend from high school. He consented to a search of his car and left the campus when asked, Stump said.

The sheriff of Pulaski County, Va., north of the N.C. line, also reported that detectives there also followed Saavedra's red Toyota into neighboring Carroll County.

Last Friday, a Mecklenburg County judge modified the terms of Saavedra's release on bond. The judge deemed Saavedra a danger to himself and the public, banning him from going on any school campus or possessing a firearm until his charge is resolved.

"We're in daily, and sometimes hourly, communication with state, federal and local law enforcement agencies — anyone who would potentially have reasons to know about what is going on with Saavedra because of the threats he has made," said King police chief Paula May. "When we share something, we share it as a group to make sure everyone knows what's going on."

May said she met with Saavedra, who she said was calm, respectful and cooperative but "expressed concerns about all the attention and the pressure from that attention."

"Overall, he expressed that because the (Florida) school shooting was a hot topic, it was just something that interested him. He did not feel that his behavior was out of the ordinary," May said. He attempted to explain some of the materials that police found in his apartment, she said.

A little-known center in Raleigh, created after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, tracks potential mayhem. Administered by the State Bureau of Investigation, the N.C. Information Sharing and Analysis Center collects and vets information on "immediate and emerging threats" and alerts local law enforcement and other authorities.

After 9/11, said acting special agent in charge Elliot Smith, "a lot of information was out there, but the information wasn’t shared." The center's 20-person staff includes intelligence analysts, sworn law enforcement officers and civilian employees. They receive information from a variety of sources including its website and toll-free number.

Last May, Smith said, a law enforcement officer in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada interviewed a young woman about a threat posted on social media. She told the officer she'd been having conversations with a North Carolina student who had said he intended to stab other students at his school.

Using a possible name the woman provided, Smith said, the center helped track down the student at Forest Hills High School in Union County. A school resource officer found several knives, a bottle of flammable liquid and a "hit list" in his book bag, the sheriff's office said. The student was under 16 and not publicly identified.

"The student hadn’t had any issues or discipline issues,” Union County sheriff's deputy A.J. Wallace, who found the weapons, later said. "And so when we spoke to him he was very calm."

School-related threats have been on the uptick since the Florida shootings, Smith said. Most are bomb threats.

Two teenage boys were arrested last week after making bomb threats against Charlotte's Hawthorne Academy, police said. In Alexander County, northwest of Charlotte, the sheriff's office charged a woman earlier this month for threatening to bomb a middle school, apparently because she was upset by discipline of her son. Authorities in South Carolina reported multiple threats after the Parkland shootings.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender