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School buzzes with talk of arrest

Published Feb. 22, 2006

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Talk in the hallways of Clearwater High School Monday centered on a single subject: Christopher Rodriguez, whose arrest police say may have averted a tragedy.

The 15-year-old sophomore had bought weapons, made silencers, studied military manuals and amassed neo-Nazi hate literature before coming to the attention of authorities, police say.

"Kids were freaking out," junior George Xiarchos said. "In every class that you went into, people were saying, "Did you hear about the thing in the newspaper?' Or, "We could have been like Columbine.' "

Detectives found no evidence that Rodriguez had developed a plan to harm anyone, but considering his extreme views, access to weapons and proficiency in using them, police say there's no telling what might have happened.

Clearwater High principal Nick Grasso could not be reached Monday, but a school district spokesman said the district received only one call about Rodriguez's arrest. The district sent a crisis response team to counsel any students disturbed by the news, but none sought help.

The chairwoman of Clearwater High's school advisory committee said she had been out of town and hadn't heard from concerned parents. Patti Baldwin said Grasso and school administrators put safety above all other concerns.

"They put the fires out before the matches are lit," she said. "They have good noses."

Rodriguez was arrested on Jan. 18, but details of his case didn't become public until an article Saturday in the St. Petersburg Times. Rodriguez, who entered a plea to weapons charges in juvenile court on Friday, has been committed for an indefinite period to a juvenile justice facility in New Port Richey that specializes in teenagers who need mental health counseling.

Sophomore Siobhan Stone, 16, said many of her classmates approached her on Monday, knowing that she and Rodriguez had been friends.

"They were just calling him a psycho," she said. "But he wasn't a crazy person. He made stupid choices, a lot of them, but I couldn't see him as some psycho."

At times, Stone said, he seemed generous, buying her lunch occasionally and giving her one of his own Christmas presents, a gift card, so she could buy a compact disc at the mall.

"It was one of the nicest things anyone ever did for me," she said.

Stone said Rodriguez had made dramatic changes since they met in middle school. In seventh or eighth, he was devastated after breaking up with his girlfriend, then dyed his hair blond and developed new interests.

"He just started hanging out with different people and found other things he liked better - like guns and Hitler," she said.

Rodriguez first drew the attention of school officials and police on Jan. 18, investigative records show. A teacher contacted an assistant principal after learning of two comments Rodriguez had made.

In one, he said he always carried a knife. In the other, he said, "Why do you sit me next to people that I want to shoot?"

So an assistant principal and school resource officer Thomas Dawe escorted Rodriguez to the office on Jan. 18 and asked if he had any weapons. Rodriguez reached into his duffel bag and pulled out brass knuckles. Dawe also found a ski mask.

Clearwater police went to his home at S Pegasus Avenue, where he lives with his grandfather, Charles Rodriguez, who acts as his guardian.

They found the teenager had assembled a small arsenal, including a Russian SKS semiautomatic rifle and a .22-caliber derringer with its serial number filed off, police said. The pistol had been fitted for a homemade silencer.

Among the evidence police recovered during their investigation was Xiarchos' school identification, which was found at the home of a friend of Rodriguez's. It had been shot with a gun.

"It was crazy," he said. "I was completely flabbergasted."

Police have said they don't believe Rodriguez actually had any grudge against Xiarchos, who had lost his ID in the school library. Xiarchos doesn't know Rodriguez or the other friend who had his ID.

Police also confiscated Rodriguez's computer, which had numerous files from white supremacist Web sites and a cache of video files showing real executions. He also had a copy of the surveillance tape showing Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shooting in the Columbine High cafeteria in 1999.

One file on his computer drew the Secret Service into the investigation. It was an image showing President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney with targets and swastikas over their heads.

On Friday, one parent contacted by the Times said she was disturbed that Rodriguez was found with weapons at home, but felt a little better since he did not appear to have been an immediate threat to anyone at school.

"There's always the threat (of students having weapons at home) in this day and age," said Susan Kostacky, whose 15-year-old daughter, Amanda, is a sophomore. But, "if his reasons for not being here or being arrested were for things going on in the school, it would worry me."

When she heard that Rodriguez had asked a teacher, "Why do you sit me next to people that I want to shoot?" Kostacky said, "that's a little unnerving.

To anyone worried about the school's safety, Baldwin said, "Come spend the day at Clearwater High School. . . . They do a fabulous job."

Times staff writer Jose Cardenas contributed to this report.