PLYMOUTH - Nineteen-year-old Tobin "Toby" Kerns will spend the next five months behind bars at the Plymouth House of Correction for his role in a conspiracy to carry out a Columbine-style massacre at Marshfield High School three years ago.
Kerns learned his fate yesterday, when Juvenile Court Judge Louis D. Coffin sentenced him to 10 months in jail, with five months of credit for time served, on charges of threatening to use deadly weapons and conspiracy to commit mass murder. Kerns has been held in the Plymouth facility's juvenile unit since his conviction on Sept. 27, but will serve the remainder of his sentence as an adult.
Yesterday's sentencing brought to a close the first of two prosecutions stemming from the plot, which was disclosed in September 2004, when three students told police that Kerns had been planning an attack at the high school.
Police arrested Kerns, who was 16 at the time, and charged him as a youthful offender. Two of the boys were granted immunity in exchange for their testimony. The other alleged coconspirator, Joseph Nee, is free on bail as he awaits a Jan. 30 trial in Plymouth Superior Court.
Authorities said the alleged plan was to launch an attack on April 20, 2005, to coincide with Hitler's birthday and the anniversary of the 1999 school shooting in Littleton, Colo., at Columbine High School. The date was moved to April 15 because of school vacations, according to court documents.
Kerns has contended that he was set up by his three former friends and has insisted that Nee - the son of Thomas J. Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association - was the mastermind behind the plan.
"I never agreed to, or planned to, kill anyone," Kerns said in a recent telephone interview from jail. "I had nothing to do with these kids at the time of my arrest. In fact, I hadn't for some time. They went to the police and pointed the finger at me because they were afraid that I was actually going to turn them in."
Kerns said he dismissed Nee's alleged plan as "hot air" and never believed anyone was in danger.
"It may not have been the most perfect of plans - the evidence suggests it was not close to actually being carried - out - but there was a plan," Coffin said. "The impact on community can't be undervalued in this case."
News of the Columbine-style terrorist plot "shook the Marshfield school community to its very core," Coffin said. "It's unfortunate this case took so long to play itself out."
Coffin sentenced Kerns to two 10-month jail terms in the adult House of Corrections, to be served concurrently. Kerns will be credited with 155 days for the time he served since his September 2004 arrest, including time just after his arrest and since his conviction.
More than a dozen friends and supporters gathered in the courtroom for his sentencing. As he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Kerns turned toward them and said, "Take care of my kitties," referring to his pet cat and kittens.
Kerns's family recently moved to Seattle and faces foreclosure on its 18th-century Cape-style house on Main Street because of financial strains stemming from the case, according to a letter Ben Kerns, Toby Kerns's father, wrote to the judge.
John Ford, 21, who had hoped that Kerns would be released yesterday, said he was disappointed by the sentence. Ford knew Kerns at Marshfield High and later worked with him at a loan collection agency in Norwell.
"Everyone I talk to in Marshfield supports Toby," he said.
Marsha Chez - Toby Kerns's aunt, the lone Kerns family member who was able to attend - said, "I'm really concerned."
"I'm worried about his health," Chez said. "He looks way too skinny. My husband does criminal law, so I know what goes on in prisons. But it could have been way worse."
Kerns was tried as a juvenile offender, which meant he could have received an adult or juvenile sentence. He faced a maximum penalty of up to 40 years in prison on the charges after his September conviction.
At yesterday's hearing, the lead prosecutor on the case - John P. McLaughlin, who has since gone into private practice in Quincy - returned to court to recommend an adult sentence of 2 1/2 years. He said the decision to make Kerns serve time was justified because of his prior record. In 2002 and 2003, Kerns was charged with vandalism and breaking and entering, and he was on probation at the time of the alleged conspiracy.
"I think the sentence is fair," McLaughlin said. "He was on a suspended sentence when he committed this offense. An adult sentence is definitely appropriate. There are actual victims in this case. Everyone who goes to Marshfield High School, everyone who works there is a victim in this case. There were specific targets. There were preparations made. . . . This wasn't just some kid just sitting around a cafeteria table talking, 'Wouldn't this be fun?' They had this planned for a long time. To say it wasn't going to happen is ridiculous."
Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.