Gossip & Gunpowder
How explosive talk burned Ryan Grossman
From the April, 2009 issue
"He's always liked guns."
Seventeen-year-old Benjamin Lucas is sweat ing bullets. He's on the witness stand at the 14A District Courthouse in Pittsfield Township, testifying for the prosecution at the preliminary exam of a classmate who's been his friend since kindergarten.
"Like some kids have a passion for trading cards, he had a very strong passion for guns."
His friend, Ryan Grossman, is sitting across judge Cedric Simpson's courtroom on this November day. The Saline High School senior is facing three felony counts, each of which carries penalties of up to fifteen years in prison.
Police found "explosives and a bomb" on the dresser in his bedroom, according to a state trooper quoted in the Ann Arbor News. They reportedly found other guns and weapons in his bedroom-and a book called How to Kill.
Assistant Washtenaw County prosecutor Amy Reiser asks Benjamin what Ryan said to him.
"If anybody rubbed him the wrong way, he would have no trouble taking him out."
Did Ryan have a motto?
"Kill or be killed."
And did he have a hit list?
"He said it was in his head. . . . Basically, everybody was gonna die but me, because I was his friend. And, of course, his family wasn't gonna die."
Benjamin says another friend, Kyle Wykes, was at the top of Ryan's hit list.
And he tells the court that his friend said he was going to kill students and teachers "bomb and execution style"-that Ryan was going to place a fertilizer bomb in "the main supports of the school" in the commons area or the cafeteria.
"He said he'd researched Columbine, how they killed people."
Ryan Grossman went to school as usual on the morning of October 24. He left in handcuffs.
The afternoon before, a student-apparently Kyle Wykes-emailed a school official, worried about what he had heard from Benjamin Lucas concerning Ryan Grossman. On Friday morning, principal Ben Williams hauled Grossman into his office and called the police. Students were locked in their classrooms while a dog sniffed the school for
While two Michigan State Police officers interviewed Ryan at the school, others executed a search warrant at his parents' rural home. After the weapons and explosives were found, Ryan was arrested. The next morning he was arraigned on three felony charges of building a bomb and possessing explosives with the intent to threaten people or property. After his family posted a $25,000 bond (later lowered to $15,000), he was placed under house arrest and ordered to stay away from the school.
Responding to the story on the Ann Arbor News website, mlive.com, one anonymous poster asserted that "this punk probably has links with al qaeda." But some students wrote to defend him. "This doesn't sound like Ryan at all," wrote Sean Hogan. "He is a great guy, a great friend, and is always nice." Another friend, Matt Guidi, agreed: "He never showed any violent tendencies."
Others wondered whether "explosives" would include things like M-80s. "I would be lying if I said I didn't know any teenage boys in my life that have had 'explosives,'" wrote one poster. "Especially if you live in the country. boys are always wanting to destroy or blow something up."
But "jacktreehorn" wrote in a knowing tone that people should "be advised that the prosecutor's office is NEVER going to overcharge in a public case like this. . . . Whatever was presented to the prosecutor's office in this case convinced them that this young man met the elements of all of these crimes."
Michael Vincent is a man in his sixties with a full head of white hair and a matching beard. His office, full of Elvis memorabilia, is in a former carriage house overlooking the Huron River between downtown Ypsilanti and Depot Town. On one of the most frigid of an icy January's days, a court clerk calls him on the phone and asks how he is doing.
"Old and cold," he replies.
Vincent is an interesting character. He was once on track to be a college professor of philosophy. But he got bored by the prospect of life in academia and decided to become a cop instead. Then, after twenty-five years on the force in Ypsilanti, he retired and switched sides from law enforcement to defending those collared by law enforcement.
Given his background, it's not surprising that the first witness Vincent calls in Ryan Grossman's defense is a veteran state trooper. Ronald Smith questioned Grossman in the principal's office that morning.
"Did you have any reason to believe that there was any danger to anybody at Saline High?" Vincent asks.
"No," Trooper Smith replies.
"And you told the superintendent and principal that?"
"And you ordered no mass evacuation of the school?"
Smith goes on to say, "At no time did I feel that Ryan Grossman had any intention of bringing weapons or guns into that school."
Intent is central to these three charges against Grossman. Vincent frames the choice as between accepting the judgment of his witness, a state trooper, and the prosecution's witness, a high school senior who, he says, likes to "gossip."
"Everything Ryan would tell me, I would always bring up with my friends like Kyle," Benjamin Lucas tells Vincent under cross-examination. Then he lists seven other kids he told about Ryan Grossman's tough talk.
In answer to the defense attorney's questions, Benjamin says he's never seen a written hit list, has never seen any fertilizer, much less a fertilizer bomb, and has never seen Ryan with any structural diagrams of the school. He says the talk of killing and bombing occurred several months earlier, during summer campfires on Ryan's farm.
Vincent moves in for the kill.
"You never told the police?"
"You never told the principal?"
"Why didn't you?"
"I never took him seriously."
In a courtroom packed with supporters of Ryan and his family, Vincent argues that there is not enough evidence to put his client on trial-that "the only thing they found was this plastic bottle, but there's been no testimony . . . that he ever had the intent to take a device like this to school . . . to destroy property."
Prosecutor Reiser responds by reading in the courtroom from Benjamin Lucas's statement to police about Ryan: "He knows more than ten ways to kill someone with his bare hands. He always carries a knife, even to school. . . . He invited me over to join him in making a fertilizer bomb." Vincent erupts: "This is wrong to do this to this young man! . . . This is over the top."
Judge Simpson schedules a continuation of the preliminary exam because the state police crime lab hasn't finished analyzing what police found on Ryan's dresser. So Ryan's house arrest is extended.
A few weeks later, in December, both sides return to court. Their competing experts spend hours discussing the device found on Ryan's dresser-a small plastic container filled with a mixture of gunpowder, black powder, and flash powder. State police crime lab analyst Craig Nutter calls the mixture "low explosives" and says the device was equipped with a "cannon fuse." Vincent's expert, David Balash, doesn't dispute that but argues that it wouldn't explode. He testifies that the device might pop and spin a little and would burn rapidly but that it was relatively harmless-that he would not be concerned about having his grandchildren within fifteen feet of it when it was set off.
Vincent refers to it as a "fizzle cracker" and to Ryan's alleged threats as "campfire talk"-teenage bluster broadcast around the school at lunch hour.
Judge Simpson dismisses the felony charges, saying the prosecutor hasn't shown Ryan had any intent to harm anyone. But then Simpson himself enters a new charge: possessing a bomb or explosive. It's a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Simpson says that it's within a judge's authority-though extremely rare-to add charges a prosecutor may have overlooked. Deputy chief prosecutor Steve Hiller refuses to comment. Defense attorney Vincent calls the whole episode a case of "9/11 hysteria." He says: "Since 9/11 we have been on hyper -alert. If you constantly live and view the world at a high stress level, one can see things that normally would be fine become scary."
Vincent says he understands that schools must take threats seriously-but "young men from thirteen to their early twenties, they sit around and BS about girls, sports, and violent stuff. It's what boys do. That's what I did. I used to build rockets-God knows what they would call them now.
"They live in the country. They shoot twenty-twos at birds. They go hunting. It's a different lifestyle."
And that How to Kill book? On Vincent's advice, the Grossman family isn't talking to the press-but the attorney says that Ryan's father found it in the garbage years ago and gave it to him.
Ryan Grossman remains on an electronic tether, awaiting a hearing March 25 on the new felony charge. Meanwhile, he is doing his course work from home. If he is convicted, he could face up to five years in prison. If he is acquitted, he will be allowed to come back to school and finish his senior year. Presumably he will do so with his mouth tightly shut.
[Originally published in April, 2009.]
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