A Spotsylvania County teenager who was part of a plot to shoot students and staff members at Riverbend High School last year is expected to spend the next four years in a prison program designed to improve his chances of a better future.
Tristen Smith, now 18, was sentenced in Spotsylvania Circuit Court on Tuesday to 10 years in prison on a conspiracy to commit murder conviction. He also received 40 years in suspended time on two burglary convictions he received in juvenile court.
But Judge Joseph J. Ellis agreed to place Smith in a prison housing the Youthful Offender Program, a four-year program that lawyers say provides job skills, mental health and substance abuse treatment and education to younger offenders.
Both Ellis and Commonwealth’s Attorney Travis Bird made it clear that Smith would serve his entire 10-year sentence should he fail to complete the program.
“This is the last chance he will have for the state to have any lasting effect on his life,” Bird said. “Hopefully he will come out a better person.”
Smith was 17 when the shooting plan was uncovered by the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office, but was tried as an adult. His 16-year-old codefendant, Gavin Oztuna, was already convicted as an adult but received an indeterminate sentence in a juvenile facility when he was sentenced in April on the same charge.
Smith and Oztuna were arrested in October when police learned of a plot for a mass shooting at Riverbend High, where both of them were students. The scheme involved calling in a bomb threat and Smith shooting people as they came out of the school.
Police said they got the information and made the arrests long before the plan could have been carried out. Defense attorney John Spencer said Smith told him he was “just acting out” and never intended to actually shoot anyone, “but we don’t know if it would have happened or not.”
According to court records, the two defendants exchanged text messages about Smith’s desire to become the “next school shooter.” In the texts, Smith expressed frustration about how he’d been treated at the school and said he was going to “make everyone feel the pain they caused me.”
Spencer said he had a tentative deal with the previous commonwealth’s attorney’s office to have Smith sentenced as a juvenile, but Bird, who took over in January, nixed that idea. A juvenile disposition would have most likely meant incarceration for no more than six months, lawyers said.
Bird and Spencer eventually agreed to recommend the sentence that Ellis handed down Tuesday.
Ellis initially sounded like he would not accept the sentence. He berated Smith for his juvenile behavior, which included burglaries and drug and alcohol abuse starting at age 12. Ellis said Smith’s actions merited decades behind bars.
“Leniency has not served the commonwealth well when it comes to Mr. Smith,” the judge said. “It seems that the only way to protect the community is to lock you up until you are too tired to commit crimes.”
But Ellis then said he would take a chance on Smith, largely because of his respect for Bird and Spencer.
Smith made a brief statement in which he expressed “deep regrets” for his actions. He was then allowed to hug his parents before being taken back into custody. Smith has already been incarcerated for nearly a year.