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Pottstown teen accused of plotting school attack

A 15-year-old freshman was charged yesterday with criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder for planning to "shoot everyone he did not like" at Pottstown High School.

A 15-year-old freshman was charged yesterday with criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder for planning to "shoot everyone he did not like" at Pottstown High School, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said.

Richard Yanis planned to use three firearms and ammunition that he had stolen from his father's gun collection and given to a friend to hold, Ferman said at a news conference in Norristown.

But the plan unraveled when the suspect's father, Michael Yanis, 52, reported the guns stolen Nov. 11, touching off an intense, month-long investigation by police and Pottstown School District officials.

That culminated Thursday when authorities took Richard Yanis into custody. Ferman wouldn't say where he had been taken but said that it was local and that Yanis was getting mental-health care.

Yanis will be tried as an adult because the juvenile-crimes code doesn't include attempted murder with a deadly weapon. The criminal complaint filed yesterday in district court was only a stopgap measure, Ferman said.

"We filed the charges against Yanis today and lodged an arrest warrant as a detainer to prevent his release from custody," Ferman said. "He has not yet been 'arrested.' That will occur upon his release from the institution."

A man claiming to be a family friend who answered the phone at the Yanis home on Feist Avenue in Pottstown yesterday declined to comment.

A woman who answered the phone later declined to say whether the family had hired an attorney. Ferman said she didn't know.

The district attorney credited police and school authorities with uncovering the plot and detaining Yanis before he could do any harm.

"This is a story about a tragedy being averted because of the careful work by everyone involved," Ferman said.

Between Thursday and yesterday's announcement, ballistics tests were conducted on the firearms and interviews held, Ferman said.

She said there was "evidence that the defendant had the intent to commit the crime of murder and engaged in substantial steps towards accomplishing his intention."

"Of particular note here," she added, "he had the immediate capacity to commit the crimes with the guns and arsenal of ammunition waiting to be delivered upon his word."

Court papers said police learned of the case when the elder Yanis reported a .22-caliber, semiautomatic pistol; a .45-caliber, semiautomatic pistol; and a .357-magnum revolver missing from a basement gun locker. Also gone were three boxes of ammunition.

Police interviewed a 16-year-old friend of the younger Yanis, a fellow student at Pottstown High, who said he had agreed to "hold" the guns for Yanis.

He showed the guns to his stepmother; she drove him to the Manatawny Creek in Pottstown's River Front Park, where the teen dumped the guns into the water, Ferman said.

The friend went to school Thursday and told a teacher about the location of the guns. The teacher told school officials, who "within minutes" notified authorities, Ferman said. Divers recovered the guns and ammunition that day, and tests found them fully functional.

Neither the 16-year-old friend nor his stepmother has been charged with any crime, but the investigation continues, Ferman said.

The plan was that Yanis would tell his friends to "go home from school," and then stage the shooting from one site inside the school, Ferman said.

"He was going to shoot teachers and students and ultimately to take his own life," she said.

What motivated Yanis remained unclear. Ferman called him "an outcast, a loner who didn't have many friends."

"He was picked on," she said. "He felt like he didn't fit in very well,"

The boy was once a top student, but his grades had slipped recently, causing him to repeat ninth grade, Ferman said. He also suffered from depression, she said.

John Armato, the school district director of community relations, said the teen was not "involved in anything. He comes to school, and at the end of the day, he leaves."

Neighbors of the Yanises said the young man was a familiar presence who seemed outgoing and friendly with other children.

One young man with whom Yanis sometimes played football, tag and video games said he was shocked by the accusations.

"I really don't think he is the person who was going to do that," Nat Creasy, 11, said. "He was always a nice kid."

Brian J. Steer said that he had known Yanis since the family moved in across the street about seven years ago and that "the idea he would do anything along these lines, to me, is hard to believe."

David Krem, superintendent of Pottstown schools, said the district's 3,200 students and their parents learned of the matter yesterday through an Internet system that called each home and left a recorded message.

The high school principal also went on closed-circuit TV to brief pupils. "The most important message is that they were never in any danger," Krem said.

Armato said there would be counselors, teachers and administrators on hand to deal with pupils' concerns today.