Northern Ireland

Hoax US bomb-threat teenager Megarry spared jail

Ben Megarry, file pic Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Ben Megarry was 15 when he made the hoax bomb calls

A County Antrim teenager who admitted making hoax bomb threats to US schools, airports and organisations has not been sent to prison.

Ben Megarry, 19, who has autism, was charged with making a total of 23 hoax bomb threats between March and September 2012.

Megarry, from Harmin Park, Newtownabbey, pleaded guilty to all the charges.

He wept after being freed on two years' probation.

Megarry was also ordered to complete 70 hours of community service.

The schools he threatened included Columbine High School, the scene of a massacre in 1999.

Belfast Crown Court Judge Sandra Crawford told Megarry his crimes would normally require a lengthy custodial sentence, but there were several mitigating factors in his case.

These included his age at the time of the offences and the connection between his offending and his undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome.

The judge said she was prepared to accept pre-sentence report recommendations that found that there was a low likelihood of him re-offending and that he did not present a threat of serious harm to the public.

Each of the charges stated that Megarry "communicated certain information which he knew to be false... with the intention of inducing a false belief that a bomb or other thing was liable to explode or ignite".

He admitted making two hoax bomb threats to Columbine High School in Colorado on 16 and 18 April 2012, as well as to Malibu High School and Chico High School.

Megarry also admitted making calls to LAX Airport in Los Angeles and a Walmart store in Missouri, among other locations.

The judge said it "was a sad irony" that many of the schools targeted by Megarry had pupils who were disabled or diagnosed with special needs.

She said it was agreed his condition was not uncovered until February 2014 and that, at the time of his offending, there were no checks and balances to tackle many of the features of his condition that his offending "unfortunately displayed".

This included Megarry's "social naivety, desire to impress acquaintances and susceptibility to suggestion from others".

'Operating in a bubble'

A defence lawyer said reports indicated that a remorseful Megarry may not have made the calls, which were part of a prank also involving others, had he been diagnosed as autistic before he was 15.

He added Megarry had been operating in a bubble, and not separating fact from fiction, leading him to his bedroom where he would seek the remote company of others, with a desire to impress.

The lawyer said Megarry had expressed, as best he could, his sorrow for what he had done.

The court heard that due to the hoax alert at Malibu High School, a number of sporting events, including the State swim finals, were cancelled, causing chaos to "some 1,000 out-of towners".

It also heard that both Kansas International Airport and JFK International Airport in New York were thrown into turmoil due to alerts, delaying flights, with inconvenience to hundreds of passengers.

In the case of one call to JFK International Airport in September 2012, a major terrorist incident was declared after authorities were told "there were improvised explosives" on two flights.

The court heard it was accepted that three calls made to a store in Fredericktown, Missouri, caused an estimated loss of $55,000, with some 7,000 customers having to shop elsewhere.

In addition, it was revealed that while local authorities spent between $8,000 and $25,000 policing the hoax calls, this did not include and was nothing like the cost of the follow-up investigations.

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