Princeton, N.C. — A Johnston County teen who was arrested and suspended after bringing two unloaded shotguns to school said Thursday that he lied to the principal about forgetting the guns were in his vehicle.
Cole Withrow, 18, released a statement to the media shortly after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge. He received a 45-day suspended sentence from Johnston County Judge Andy Corbett.
In his statement, Withrow publicly apologized to school administrators, law enforcement personnel and District Attorney Susan Doyle.
"I was not truthful...I did in fact know that the two shotguns were in my truck on school property. I did not mean to hurt anyone by my actions," he said in the statement.
Withrow was facing a felony charge of bringing a weapon onto school grounds April 29. He entered the misdemeanor guilty plea during a probable cause hearing Thursday.
"I hope you learn a valuable lesson from this," Corbett said. "Be careful in the future."
In a case that garnered national media attention and sparked a social media campaign to #FreeCole, the teen first said he accidentally left the shotguns in his truck after a weekend of skeet shooting and did not mean to bring them to Princeton High School, where he was a senior. Withrow said he tried to get permission from administrators to take them home but instead was arrested and suspended.
But Principal Kirk Denning and sheriff's Deputy Adam Davis, who arrested Withrow, presented a different picture of what happened. In court, Doyle read statements from the men, who said the teen lied when he told staffers that he only realized the guns were in his truck after he went to the vehicle to retrieve a bookbag and a drink.
Doyle said security video from the school shows Withrow never went to his truck. He purchased a drink from a concession area and was talking to other students at the time he claimed to be in the parking lot.
Davis said it would have been impossible for Withrow not to know the guns were in the vehicle. He said the end of the barrel of one of the guns was near the gas pedal.
According to Davis, Withrow was texting and laughing as he taken to jail, saying "Ha, ha, my friends are going to start a petition about why I'm being charged with this."
Doyle said the situation was "frustrating" for school officials, who could not talk publicly about the case because of confidentiality laws.
Johnston County Board of Education Chairman Larry Strickland said officials were deluged with negative emails.
"Messages were posted threatening school officials, messages were posted that were intimidating and slanderous, and messages were posted completely misstating and not knowing the facts of the case as people jumped to conclusions about the matter. The ...emails and calls received by the Board of Education were uncalled for and extremely hurtful." Strickland said in statement.
He praised board members and school staff for following policy, which prohibits the disclosure of information, even at risk to their own reputations.
"In the future, we would ask that the media and the public not jump to conclusions in student discipline and or criminal matters, especially when all the facts are not known to them."
In his statement, Withrow said he wanted to correct the misinformation reported to the media.
"I understand this inaccurate information resulted in many agencies and individuals suffering significant harm," he said. "I should have stopped the inaccuracies, and I did not. As a result, I think it is imperative that I now take responsibility for my own actions."
Earlier this week, a school hearing officer upheld Superintendent Ed Croom’s recommendation that the teen receive a long-term suspension. The recommendation is not an expulsion, and Withrow will finish his education at an alternative school.