ASHLAND, Mo. - When an Ashland teen sent that threatening text message to a friend less than two weeks ago, was it just an awkward adolescent prank that went awry? A creative bit of fiction? Or a warning authorities could not in good conscience ignore?
Whatever it was, it set in motion a tragedy that has left many Mid-Missourians lamenting the violence that pervades society.
Jacob Meadows, 17, of Ashland, fatally shot himself in the chest in the early morning hours of Sept. 10 after Boone County law enforcement personnel tried to take him into custody in order to question him about a text message threatening the Southern Boone County School District.
Earlier this week, Southern Boone County Superintendent Chris Felmlee talked about how the school community is coping and he discussed the events as they unfolded last week.
As safekeepers of all of the district's schoolchildren, Felmlee said he and law enforcement had no choice but to respond to the text message when they received it.
"Our concern was to make sure Jacob got the help he needed. No one wanted to see any harm come to Jacob," Felmlee said. "But that doesn't discount the facts of the text."
Since the incident, law enforcement have made the text available to the press.
"You do not realize how long I've been hunting you, (redacted) You do not know me, but I know you. I am neither friend no foe. But I am here to deliver you a warning. A warning that, if heeded, could save your life ...
"I have been a shady stranger to most people; shifting around locations and towns - hitchhiking when necessary. I have been under the radar of the United States Government for many, many long years. I am a ghost. I am a shadow on the wall. And let me tell you - life should not be this way. For anyone.
"But I was put here for a reason. And that reason, is to warn you of a horrible disaster that will happen in your Ashland high school around 2:35 PM. There is no option if you want to live. Stay at home. Pretend you are sick. Survive."
Some people read those words and detect the fantastical imagination of a teenage boy who enjoyed fiction. Others perceive them as the harbinger of another Columbine.
Calling it a "direct threat to my students and staff," Felmlee said: "Clearly the text was threatening.
"It set the stage for something terrible to happen. When I receive something of that nature, I don't care who the sender is. That's a cry for help."
Felmlee said two things happened in his mind. First, he felt he had to put into motion some way for the sender to get the help he or she needed; second, he felt he had to ensure the safety of the school district's numerous buildings.
"I don't have the luxury of discounting this threat," he said.
Ultimately, six law enforcement agencies were mobilized to search the school for a bomb or other dangers. None were discovered, but classes were cancelled for the day.
According to members of the Meadows family, the text was meant as a spooky practical joke cooked up by two friends to prank a third. But because the third teen didn't have Jacob's cellphone number, he didn't recognize the sender, so he did take it seriously and informed police.
According to the family, once the third teen realized who sent the message, he tried to reassure police it wasn't serious.
In the wake of his own grief and the community's furor, Jacob's father, John Meadows, published a poignant letter that was circulated widely via both social media and the conventional press. (Read the full letter here.)
He was contacted for an interview, but was not available.
The letter discloses the events of what happened that night, when officers came to the house twice - to discern what happened the first time and take him into custody the second time.
In it he talked about his son's struggle with ADHD, his joy playing saxophone in the band, his close relationship with his son, the bullying his son endured as a younger kid, and his son's loving nature.
John Meadows wrote: "Those of you on the outside must be curious at the massive outpouring of love and grief of an entire community for a kid who supposedly threatened his school. There's a simple answer for that: He didn't.
"Those who knew him know that, and said as much to those investigating the tragedy. I know Jacob would not want to be remembered as a terrorist and, with this statement, I want to set the record straight."
Meadows described a gentle boy incapable of hurting anyone.
"Jacob wouldn't hurt a fly. Many of you have found yourselves shoved aside when you were about to step on a bug or mistreat a frog or snake, so that Jacob could capture these creatures and set them free outside. Some of you saw the orphaned squirrel he rescued and raised," he wrote.
In his letter, Meadows said his son dealt with bullying as a younger student, but had discovered coping strategies.
Meadows wrote: "I talked to him about it recently, and he told me he had a "strategy' for those who persisted in not liking him. He said, "I just keep trying to be nice to them, say hi to them, maybe compliment them. It always works eventually, and they become my friends.'"
One of Jacob's friends - Cesilie Centobie, 17, senior - concurred with Meadow's assessment that Jacob didn't intend to hurt anyone. The two teens ate lunch together daily when they shared the same lunch hour their sophomore year.
She described a "tall, lanky, extremely intelligent" young man with a "goofy smile" who loved to talk and was socially awkward, who was not great with the ladies and was prone to saying things that would cause others to hush him. If he didn't know something one day, he would research it and tell you all about it the next, she said.
"He was always cutting up in class. He loved making people laugh. He was a sweet, sweet kid," she said. "He was the best saxophone player ever. The biggest group, the band, took him in."
She added: "He had a pretty rough time in high school. Kids would pick on him, but he would give it back." Specifically she remembers people commenting on his camouflage Army jacket.
Centobie said he wasn't a silent type who tended to brood and lash out. He always had something to "tell, show or talk about," she said.
Which is why she believes the text was written in jest, not in anger.
From Centobie's point of view, bullying is "definitely" a problem at the high school. And, in the days following his death, it infuriated her to see students who previously had harassed Jacob publicly mourning him.
But then she saw one of those students openly crying.
"He was so sorry. That's when I realized that kids who did pick on Jacob could be just as upset as kids who didn't," she said.
She said her peers at schools are feeling a mix of emotions.
"People have a lot of different opinions," she said.
She has not heard anyone blame law enforcement for their response, but some - believing Jacob may have been serious about shooting up the school - are angry with him, she said.
"Others are angry they feel that way," she said. "It's a very raw feeling right now at school."
Felmlee answered the charge about bullying at school.
"Is there bullying? Yes. Is it systemic? No," he said.
He said when allegations of bullying reach administrators, his staff addresses them. "We deal with them. We investigate them," he said. "And we have several strong programs" meant to prevent bullying from happening.
Felmlee - who is new to the SoBoCo superintendency - said the district pulls together a behavior plan when they need to address a student who exhibits behavioral concerns.
"As the new guy looking in, Ashland is doing a lot of things right," he said. "I'm not going to tell you we don't have bullying. But we do have a good plan for addressing it."
Although unconnected to Meadow's death, the district held meetings this week explaining to parents how they respond in the event of a shooter or intruder.
School Resource Officer Travis Fowler said the old model of asking teachers and student to sit tight until help arrives was "setting them up for failure."
"We now give teachers the authority to do whatever it takes to save the kids," he said.
Fowler suggested he'd like to see schools comply with intruder codes the same way they comply with fire safety codes.
The topic of Meadow's death and law enforcement's response was touched upon. Parents mostly did not criticize the school's response.
Richard Begemann, a parent, said the meeting "got him thinking" about the implications of a shooting and the sorrow of the community at the Meadows family's loss. But he said he approves of the school and law enforcement officials' decision to investigate the text message, cancel classes and search the buildings for dangers.
"When you lose a life, it affects everyone," he said. "But I'm glad they took it serious. Nowadays, you have to."
In a voice veiled with tears, Nancy Lynn Meadows, Jacob's stepmother, said when the Boone County deputy and the Ashland police officer approached the family that night they were stern, but kind, to Jacob.
The family has reached out to the deputy since that night and want to do the same with the other officer.
"We don't blame anyone at all," she said.
Instead, she said she wishes she could communicate how much they appreciate the community's support. "It overwhelms you, the kindness of people," she said.
Maj. Tom Reddin said their are no more interviews left to complete on the case, but officers are still determining if any more questions are left to investigate before they review what happened.
Reddin said that night Jacob was wearing only a pair of shorts. He offered no resistance, he was not agitated and there was no sign he intended to hurt himself.
Reddin said the officers showed the teen a "little bit of compassion" when they let him retrieve his shoes from the laundry room. On his way through the kitchen, Reddin said, he picked up a gun from on top of the refrigerator. His father had other guns locked away but had overlooked that one, which the family used for small game.
"Nobody is a mind reader. No one knew what was going on in the young man's mind," Reddin said. "The officers are second only to the parents in wishing the outcome was different."
Reddin said the deputies share the family's sorrow.
"No one is to blame. This is an extremely tragic incident. Everyone wishes the outcome was different," he said. "Should we have done things differently? We cannot take the discretion out of the hands of the officers. All we can do is train and use best practices, and we continue to do that."