AP NEWS

More federal charges against alleged Santa Fe shooter unlikely, officials tell families

March 21, 2019

GALVESTON — Families of people killed in the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School were told in a private meeting with federal officials that it is unlikely federal charges will be filed against the alleged shooter, participants in the meeting said Wednesday.

During the meeting Tuesday in the FBI field office in Texas City, U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick and FBI officials said they had enough evidence to charge the alleged shooter in connection with unexploded pipe bombs found at the school, the meeting participants said. But the officials reported that the Justice Department was unwilling to move forward on those charges for now.

Dimitrios Pagourtzis, an 18-year old former student at Santa Fe High School, has been charged by state prosecutors with capital murder and aggravated assault against a peace officer in the May 18 shooting rampage at the school that left 10 people dead and 13 wounded. If convicted, Pagourtzis faces life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

Victims’ families hoped that a federal conviction for Pagourtzis, combined with a conviction in state court, would keep him behind bars for the rest of his life. Several of the families gave emotional testimony at the Texas Capitol on Mar. 13, raising concerns that a bill allowing inmates convicted as juveniles to get out of prison earlier could reduce the amount of time Pagourtzis will spend behind bars.

“Our local agencies are ready and willing to push forward but their hands are being tied by whomever in Washington, D.C., as far as moving forward,” said Pamela Stanich, who attented the meeting and whose son, Jared Black, was killed during the shooting. “So we need to untie those hands.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney confirmed the meeting but declined to comment on whether Patrick discussed not bringing federal charges. “We fully support the Galveston DA and his prosecution of the individual charged in the case,” the spokeswoman said. An FBI spokeswoman confirmed that bureau officials attended the meeting.

The Houston Chronicle previously reported that the Justice Department considered filing charges against Pagourtzis after some of the explosive devices found on him when he was arrested at the high school — CO2 canisters wrapped with duct tape — were found to be functional.

Families said that in the Tuesday meeting, Patrick told them that there was enough evidence to proceed with charges of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, a charge that carries a life sentence, but had been told to stand down by superiors at the Justice Department. Patrick added that federal charges could still be an option if the state fails to convict Pagourtzis, the family members said.

Charges would have to be filed before Pagourtzis turns 21 because he was 17, considered a juvenile, when the shooting occurred. Federal authorities could also petition a federal court to transfer him for trial as an adult.

“(Patrick) has a boss that he reports to and his bosses are telling him not to prosecute at this point,” said John Barnes, a Santa Fe School District police officer wounded during the shooting, who was at the Tuesday meeting.

Other attendees said Patrick told them he planned to meet with William Barr, the recently confirmed U.S. attorney general, in the coming weeks to discuss the Santa Fe case.

Nick Poehl, Pagourtzis’ defense attorney, said he has not been informed of any decision not to bring federal charges against his client. He declined further comment.

The families came away distraught by the news from Patrick, perplexed as to why no federal charges would be filed if there is evidence to do so. They plan to hold a news conference next week to raise awareness about the lack of federal charges.

“It’s upsetting as hell to me, because quite frankly I expect better from my government, especially because I’m a police officer,” Barnes said. “You’d expect they’re always going to do the best they can to prosecute and all that stuff and it’s just flat-out shocking to me that they are balking on federal charges.”

Steve Perkins, whose wife, Ann, was a substitute teacher killed during the shooting, said he and other families were committed to lobbying for legislative changes that might ensure Pagourtzis a life sentence. Perkins testified in Austin last week against a proposed bill that would give those sentenced to life in prison for juvenile crimes a chance to petition parole boards for release 20 years after being convicted; the law now requires them to wait 40 years.

“If I can get them to change the law federally that (Pagourtzis) acted as an adult, he was tried as an adult in Texas…and see if they won’t change the laws to where we can actually put this guy away, I think that’s our only hope,” Perkins said.

Stanich said she would like to see federal law changed so that school shootings could be prosecuted as an act of terrorism. She said she has written letters to President Donald Trump and would keep doing so until federal action is taken. Stanich said she was offended that Patrick could not be more specific about who in the Department of Justice was resisting federal prosecution.

“I felt that it was unacceptable to not file federal charges and I wanted to know who to contact, and they were not able to give us that information, so I didn’t push it,” Stanich said. “I just told them we will find out who to contact.”

Staff writer Shelby Webb contributed reporting.

nick.powell@chron.com