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Why Did It Take the FBI 90 Days to Arrest a Would-Be Campus Shooter?

A student made a threat online about "shooting up" his school in three days, but it took the feds three months to arrest him.
August 27, 2014, 10:00pm
Zachary Milton Hess. Image: Facebook

In Las Cruces, New Mexico, Zachary Milton Hess, 19, was arrested Monday by the FBI for "using the internet to make a threat or to maliciously convey false information." On May 27, according to an FBI complaint and a spokeswoman at the US Attorney's office for the District of New Mexico, Hess allegedly threatened to "shoot up" his college, New Mexico State University. Considering the high number and profile of school shootings in the past two years, why did it it take 90 days for law enforcement to apprehend Hess?

According to the FBI's complaint, Hess allegedly said in a chat on Omegle (a site that randomly connects unregistered users in conversations) that he'd be shooting up his school, "NMSU," on May 30. Hess told his random chat companion, a resident of the UK, "You're going to be one of the 4 people I'm going to be telling before I shoot my college campus up in 3 days."

"Dude, that's not funny... [e]specially after this Friday," replied the other chatter, referring to the Isle Vista, CA shooting spree carried out a week earlier by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger.

"Call the cops I don't care it' (sic) going to happen," Hess replied. But then nothing happened.

The understandably concerned British Omegle user took a screenshot of the conversation and posted it to New Mexico State University's Facebook page. The university then posted a notice on their wall, and relayed the threat to NMSU police and the FBI:

The FBI traced the threat back to a Comcast-owned IP address where Hess lived with three roommates. On May 29, the FBI arrived and questioned everyone present about Omegle, and the shooting threat. Hess said he knew about Omegle, but hadn't been on it recently. Hess and everyone else present denied any knowledge of the threat.

The FBI then proceeded to searching the computers of all the house's residents. According to FBI's complaint, Hess's browsing history indicated that he'd been on Omegle at 6:46 PM, May 27. As well, the agents conducted a separate interview in private, in which Hess admitted he'd made the threat, but that he wasn't serious about it. So why couldn't the officers snag him right there?

According to a post on Hess's Facebook page from the day after his Omegle threat, (and a day before the FBI's initial visit), he'd been in the hospital expecting visitors:

Screenshot: Facebook

It wouldn't be until June 26 that special agents invited Hess for an interview, at which point law enforcement advised him of his Miranda rights, and had him sign a screen shot of the original threat he sent through Omegle a month before. Still, it would be nearly another two months until a complaint was filed, followed by the warrant leading to Hess's arrest.

A laundry list of expenses incurred by the university are cited in the FBI's complaint, including "1,000 man hours lost," a mass text message sent to 18,744 people on May 29, warning of the threat, and an interruption of new student registrations.

So, when did Hess's threat become real: when university bureaucrats figured they'd rather not foot the bill for the inconvenience he created? If convicted on the charge in the complaint (18 USC 844(e)) Hess could face a maximum penalty of ten years behind bars. The feds must not have seen Hess as a real danger if it took only two days to find him, but three months to detain him.

Criminal Complaint by Dan Stuckey