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Accused of plotting Tampa school bombings, these two boys changed course

TAMPA — Just like everyone else, they heard about Jared Cano, the 17-year-old accused this week of plotting to kill students and teachers at Freedom High School.

But Mark Stapleton and Austin Cook understand something few others do: What it feels like to be in the news, to be labeled dangerous. What it feels like to be known for wanting to blow up a school.

Last year, Cook told someone he planned to kill enough Leto High School students to "break the record" at Columbine High School. Now he's working mornings at a cafe and planning to study culinary arts.

Four years ago, Stapleton and a friend instant messaged about wanting to die. That snowballed into accusations of plans for school violence. Now his Facebook page shows him in medical scrubs, on his way to becoming a surgical technician.

Their message to Cano:

Your life isn't over.

• • •

A year ago, authorities got a tip that Cook had talked about blowing up Leto High and tried to recruit someone to shoot students. Deputies found he had searched Columbine and Virginia Tech on his home computer.

Cook, then 17, denied he was serious, but he was held in jail while he awaited trial. He was terrified, he said, and he remembers his mother visiting — and crying every time she left.

In March, he pleaded guilty to threatening to discharge a destructive device. He was sentenced to two years of community control and eight years of probation.

Now, Cook can leave home only for work or education and gets regular check-ins from probation officers. He has developed a passion for cooking. He doesn't watch much television or movies — a judge ordered that he stay away from violent content — so he shoots hoops and works in the yard. He sees a therapist. He's learning to deal with anger.

Cook, now 18, said he never intended to do anything violent at Leto. He was saying stupid things, he said, and they got back to the wrong people. He said he still feels framed.

But he also acknowledges he had problems. He smoked marijuana, skipped classes, got in trouble with the law, cared about nothing. Consider his comments then on his MySpace page: "Everybody rejects me. People are all the same. I hate life and people."

So in some ways, he said, his arrest shook things up in a good way. He said he dropped his old friends; quit drugs; got some order to his life.

"I think it was somewhat of a positive experience," he said. "It took me off the path I was headed down."

On Wednesday, when the world learned about Cano's alleged plot, Cook had just finished taking his GED.

• • •

The news broke in September 2007:

Three students were charged with felonies, after police said the teenage boys, ages 15, 16 and 17, discussed a plan to turn on the natural gas lines in the science lab and light a match to blow up a class at Freedom High School.

Stapleton, then 16, was one of them. He was sad and mad — among other teen problems, his girlfriend had just dumped him.

"Everybody talks. They get mad. They say, 'I want this school to blow up,' " Stapleton said. But it was only talk, he said. "There was actually no list of people we wanted to hurt or a plan to blow up a science lab."

Prosecutors offered Stapleton and the others deals on juvenile conspiracy charges. He pleaded no contest and completed 70 hours of community service. He also served 21 days in detention — where kids tried to pick fights, he had to sleep in a tiny room alone, and he missed his family. It made him want to never break the law again.

He hasn't been in trouble since.

Now 20, he is getting his associate's degree from Southwest Florida College and is almost done with training to be a surgical technician. His criminal record has been expunged.

Does the arrest haunt him?

"I think it actually helped my life," he said. "I was making F's in high school. I ended up taking a GED and I went on from there."

His lesson: Watch what you say, especially when you're angry.

• • •

Stapleton and Cook are alike in another way: They drew distinctions between themselves and Cano, who police say had all the materials needed to build pipe bombs and take multiple lives.

"I mean, he actually had the stuff," Stapleton said. "They searched our houses. We had nothing. This kid obviously had a whole plan."

Cook agrees but he still can relate.

"I've had everybody thinking I was a monster," said Cook. "So I know what he's going through."

Stapleton thinks Cano, if convicted, will be punished, but that doesn't mean he won't get his life back one day.

"It's going to be hard for him, of course," Stapleton said. "But he will come back no matter what.

"I mean, I won't lie — I sort of thought he was insane …"

It is, after all, a world where some kids do more than talk, and where talk is sometimes the only warning people get before violence.

"But he might have a better life," Stapleton said.

"I'm trying to think positive."

Times staff writer Phil Morgan and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374 and Alexandra Zayas at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

The story so far

Jared Cano, 17, is accused of plotting to blow up Freedom High School, where he had been expelled in March 2010. He faces charges of possessing bombmaking materials; threatening to throw, project, place or discharge a destructive device; cultivating marijuana; and possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

Prosecutors are still reviewing interviews and reports and expect to make a decision on whether to charge Cano as an adult in coming weeks. His arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 2. Cano is being held in secure detention. His mother, Michelle Cano, did not return a message left at her apartment Thursday.

Meanwhile, someone has started a "Free Jared Cano" Facebook page.

Accused of plotting Tampa school bombings, these two boys changed course 08/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 19, 2011 1:00am]

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