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Sage Valley Student Takes Plea Deal

Parents line up outside Sage Valley Jr. High School, waiting to pick up their children after a 14-year-old male was arrested for making threats against a student and staff member on Nov. 13 (Photo Credit: Adam Ritterbush)

Parents line up outside Sage Valley Jr. High School, waiting to pick up their children after a 14-year-old male was arrested for making threats against a student and staff member on Nov. 13 (Adam Ritterbush)

A Father Reflects on Son’s Life, Sentencing

One handgun was in his locker, the other under his waistband. The Sage Valley eighth-grader’s plan, he later explained to authorities, was to shoot nine people. A teacher he didn’t like and some of his classmates who he said made fun of him and made him angry.

On the morning of Nov. 13, 2018, then 14-year-old Dale Warner told several students about his intentions, and even flaunted the guns to peers between classes in the hallway. Several times during his morning class Dale asked to go to bathroom, pacing between his locker and the classroom. Eventually, one of the students told principal Terry Quinn about the guns and Dale’s behavior, and Quinn made a beeline to his classroom to disarm the teen of a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun with one round chambered. The second handgun and a full magazine were later retrieved from Dale’s locker.

Following his arrest, the teen told detectives that he’d brought the guns to honor his biological father who he’d learned had recently died, according to court documents. When his dad was his age, he too brought guns to school and had gone to prison, he’d said. Dale wanted to follow in his footsteps.

At the preliminary hearing Nov. 21, the 14-year-old was charged with nine counts of attempted murder. Standing before Campbell County District Court Judge Michael
“Nick” Deegan in an inmate-issued, lime green jumpsuit and shackles, Dale repeated “not guilty” to all nine charges. Despite his age, Campbell County Attorney Nathan Henkes successfully argued that Dale be charged as an adult, not a juvenile, where he’s likely to serve jail time. Since his arrest, he has remained in the Campbell County Juvenile Detention Center on a $275,000 cash-only bond.

Taking the deal

More than a year later, on a Friday morning in late January, Dale appeared again before Judge Deegan for a pre-trial in the Sixth District Court, where he accepted the plea deal offered by Campbell County Attorney Ronald Wirthwein, Jr., in lieu of going to trial. Dale’s sentencing is scheduled for early May.

Flanked by attorneys, local Public Defender Jefferson Coombs and State Public Defender Diane Lozano, the now 15-year-old expressed regret for his actions before pleading guilty to two lesser charges of felony possession with unlawful intent, both of which carry up to five years in prison and up to a $1,000 fine or both, and entering a plea of no contest to felony assault and battery, for which he could serve up to 10 years in prison, pay a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

Behind him, in the first row of the courtroom, Dale’s adopted father Scott Warner sat with elbows on knees and thumbs pressed into his closed eye sockets, slowly rocking back and forth. Already, the day had not been going well for him, beginning with his waking up to no electricity with the clothes he’d been planning to wear to court still damp in the dryer. His wife Andrea had flown to Tennessee a few days earlier to attend her dad’s funeral service, so he sat alone, showing up 20 minutes early because he couldn’t sit still. Up until he heard his son’s plea that morning, he wasn’t sure which way his child planned to go.

Other family members and friends sat in the rows behind Scott, including Dale’s adoptive mother Ronda, and Scott’s ex-wife of 17 years, along with Dale’s older brother, 17-year-old Delaney, who had also been adopted by the Warners.

Scott looked up briefly when his son entered his pleas, despite his belief that his son was still getting a raw deal. Adamantly, Scott said he still believes his son should have been tried as a juvenile. This request, however, was shot down for a second time in November by Sheridan County District Court Judge John G. Fenn following a two-day closed hearing of which all present parties were legally bound not to discuss.

As a result, in a best-case scenario, Dale would be eligible for – though not guaranteed – parole as early as spring of 2024 or as late as 2027, depending on sentencing, according to Coombs. Because juveniles are not permitted by Wyoming state law to be incarcerated in adult prisons, Dale will initially be sent to a juvenile facility in Omaha until he’s 18, at which point, he would  be transferred to a Wyoming prison.

And though Coombs recommended that his client take the lesser sentence, he agrees with Scott, that Dale should have been charged as a juvenile.

Speaking on behalf of the victims, Wirthwein told Judge Deegan that he hadn’t heard from everyone involved that day, but that those he’d had spoken to expressed consent that Dale receive a lesser sentence and said that he felt confident everyone involved would agree.

When asked by the judge to explain his actions that day, Dale admitted that he’d taken two handguns from Scott’s pickup without permission with the intention of threatening his classmates and teachers. He said he’d chosen his third-hour English class to bring the guns to, not because he didn’t like the kids or teacher or wasn’t doing well in that class, but because it “seemed easier” and was right before lunch.

“Where did this come from?” Judge Deegan asked, wondering if it was true that he’d just found out that his biological father had died and was acting out emotionally.

Indeed, Dale confirmed that his dad had just died a few days prior, and he was feeling emotionally overwhelmed and wanted attention. He didn’t know how to handle his feelings, he said, and wanted to get himself into jail. He and his biological father had been talking a lot by telephone recently, Dale further explained, before he’d learned of the news of his passing, a fact that Scott and Andrea hadn’t known.

Dale’s birth family had a complicated genealogy, Coombs stood up to explain, including nine siblings, not all of whom shared the same biological parents, though both Dale and Delaney were born on the Lakota-Sioux Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in Cherry Creek, South Dakota. The boys had been taken out of the home and put into foster care as infants, due to the parents’ drug and alcohol abuse. Together, the two spent their lives in foster care and group homes until both were adopted by Scott and Ronda around five years ago.

Dale also told Judge Deegan that he’d been happy with the Warners and appreciated that they loved and cared about him and admitted that for the first time, he’d felt like he’d had a home. The Warners got divorced about three years after bringing the boys home to Gillette, though they shared joint custody and had an amicable relationship, Dale said, and the boys spent equal time living between both households.

In the weeks leading up to the incident, Dale said he’d begun huffing gasoline and glue, and the weekend before, he’d lied to his parents about his plans for the night, and instead went to a party where he drank and did drugs.

He’d made a really bad decision in bringing guns to school, Dale told Judge Deegan, looking down at the handcuffed wrists in his lap as he sat at the table between his lawyers.

Scott looked up briefly before cradling his head in both hands.

Standing by his son

Their last few conversations in the week leading up to the pre-trial had not exactly gone well, Scott admitted in an interview that morning with County 17. They’d said some stupid things in anger, Scott said, and both were tense, but the night before, they’d finally apologized to one another in a phone call.

When talking about Dale, most of Scott’s stories begin with “son.” As in, “I told him, ‘son, you’ve got to own up to your mistakes,’” or “son, use your head.” He’d waited his entire life to be able to say that, Scott said, and never tires of hearing his boys call him “dad.”

Sometimes Scott takes it hard, he admitted, particularly his recent conversations with Dale prior to this pre-trial hearing in which Dale said he’d never be able to have a successful life as a felon. Once out of jail, “what will he do?” Dale had asked. It’s hopeless, he’d told his father, who had been adamant about remaining positive throughout the process of his son’s indictment and incarceration, and said that, when the time came, together he, Andrea and Ronda would all help him get back on his feet.

Some of Scott’s relatives had served jail time, he said, and had been rehabilitated and turned their lives around, he’d told Dale. That’s what family does.

“No matter what, or how dumb a person’s actions,” Scott said, “you don’t turn your back on family.”

He’s done a lot of stupid things himself, Scott noted, including abusing alcohol for almost 20 years resulting in four DUIs, until roughly a decade ago when he finally got sober. His family stuck by him, and he’s planning to do the same for both his sons, no matter what.

“I love him,” he said simply. “He’s my son.”

Scott paused. Had Dale actually pulled the trigger, he said, he’s not sure if his loyalties would have been so unwavering. Luckily, the principal intervened, and as Scott vehemently believes, his son never had any real intention of hurting anyone other than himself.

“He’s had a rough life,” Scott said, shaking his head.

“That’s the problem,” Scott’s current wife Andrea added. “People just see the monster in the headlines and don’t know anything about that person’s life up until that point. Those boys have been through Hell up until now.”

Wednesday’s child

Scott remembers the first time he first saw Dale during their initial visit to the Black Hills Children’s Home Society in Rapid City after the director of Wednesday’s Child, an adoption agency, had called he and Ronda about the two brothers. It had been Halloween and a little over-sized kid in a Mario costume went whizzing by them. Off to the side, Scott recalled, another little big kid silently watched them from behind the mask of a Grim Reaper costume.

It all fell into place, and after two years of fulfilling all the necessary obligations, the couple’s adoption of Dale and Delaney was official.

After the divorce, Scott rekindled a previous relationship with Andrea, who had been his high school girlfriend in their hometown, outside of Cheyenne. The two had been prom dates but had broken up after high school. They married, and Andrea recalled having instantly fallen in love with the boys in her new role as step-mom.

When Dale and Delaney first came to live with the Warners, their years institutionalized, however, had been ingrained in their behaviors. It took them months to stop asking for permission to use the bathroom, Scott said. Little things that he’d taken for granted, the boys didn’t seem to know. Like running. Though Dale was athletic and good at both football and basketball, Scott was unsettled watching Dale running down the length of the field during his first football game.

“He didn’t know how to run,” Scott said. “We (he and the team’s coach) had to teach him. Somehow he’d just never learned.”

There was also the incident with the lawn mower, Scott recalled. Dale had volunteered to cut the grass once while Scott toiled around on his car in the garage. Scott remembered hearing the lawn mower cut out and waiting for it to start back up again. After a few minutes, Scott went out into the yard to investigate why he wasn’t hearing it start up again only to find the lawn mower parked up against a fence with fence wire coiled around the blade. Down the hill in a ditch, he saw a little head pop up and immediately disappear, then pop up again, then disappear, as if playing a game.

It initially made Scott laugh, he smiled, until Delaney explained that Dale was hiding because he had broken Scott’s lawn mower and didn’t want to get beaten or sent back to the Black Hills Children Home. That heartbreaking moment was a turning point for Scott, who was then more determined than ever to help this kid, his kid.

Initially, he had a hard time accepting his new life with a new family outside of his family on the reservation, Scott said of Dale’s somewhat rocky transition into his new home, particularly leaving behind Dale’s dad, Delbert, who at several points in his life tried to turn his life around for his family but always fell short due to his addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Looking back, Scott said, he realizes the complicated feelings Dale no doubt must have harbored toward his biological father.

“Every kid dreams of their family getting back together, but it just wasn’t going to happen, and we didn’t want to see him get hurt,” Scott said. “Their dad was always fighting for them, though. I give him credit for that.”

The Warners suspect that Delbert and Dale’s  older brother Leon were testing his allegiances. In the weeks leading up to that day, Scott and Andrea noticed a visible change in Dale’s behavior.

“Something was off,” Scott said. “We could tell something was wrong. He was acting distant, but at the time we thought it was just normal teenage stuff, maybe something involving a girl.”

“We thought he was a just being a normal kid,” Andrea said, shaking her head.

They hadn’t known about the drugs and alcohol or the phone conversations with Delbert. Or that Dale was hurting in the wake of the news that he’d lost his father, or that he’d ever take Scott’s guns without permission, let alone take them to school. Ironically, Dale had never shown an interest in learning how to shoot when Scott had volunteered to take the boys to the shooting range. Delaney enjoyed it, but Dale had absolutely no interest, Scott said.

Mostly, though, Scott is bothered by the fact that Dale had taken his anger and frustration out on others.

“I told him the worst thing you can do,” he said, “is take your emotions out on others who havc nothing to do with your situation.”

Facing consequences

In his cell at the detention center, Dale spends his days sketching his favorite basketball and football sports idols, Scott said. To date, he’s filled a couple shoeboxes. Along with visits from Scott and Andrea, he also talks on the phone with Delaney but isn’t permitted to meet with him in person. For Christmas, the Warners sent Dale books and clothes via Amazon, which is the only way he and other inmates can receive presents at the Campbell County Juvenile Detention Center.

In the days following the incident, Dale told the Warners that he was sorry for what he’d done. He insisted he never intended to hurt anyone. They believe him. The Warners think he didn’t understand the severity of his actions or the gravity of the consequences. The worst thing he thought would happen is that he’d be kicked out of school and sent to the Y.E.S. House for a while, Scott said. Now, he’s looking at several years behind bars.

 “I think it sucks,” Scott said minutes afer walking out of the courtroom hearing that Friday, where he stood in a circle with other family members and High Plains Community Church Youth Pastor and insurance agent, Lyle Austin, who seconded Scott’s sentiments that the sentence was grossly unfair for a child.

As Dale’s spiritual advisor, Austin said, he had spent a lot of time with him in recent weeks and he too believed that Dale had never intended to hurt anyone. In fact, he believes that Dale had been acting out emotionally like a hurt child, who if anything, was just trying to hurt himself.

“His lawyers should have never let him take that deal,” Austin said.

That said, the sentencing was already done and over, and like it or not, Dale will spend the next several years incarcerated, where Scott is already thinking of ways to help his son.

Scott shared advice from his mother, Cheri Warner, a former cook at the Wyoming Medium Corrections Institution in Torrington, who spoke of the necessity for Dale to form an affiliation with the Native Americans already incarcerated to help Dale navigate the otherwise perilous life in prison.

“They’re the only group who still believes in loyalty and honor,” Scott said, “and I hope they take him under their wing.”

He sat down on a bench outside the courtroom and again put his head in his hands with a wan smile like a guy who hasn’t slept in several days.

“It’s been a hell of a week,” Scott said, shaking his head, “but we’ll get through it.”