‘They think they are gangsters’: Teens, guns, drugs and social media can turn to deadly mix, investigations show

A 16-year-old boy hugged his crying parents Friday morning after facing a judge in juvenile court.

The teen was in the court of Butler County Juvenile Judge Ronald Craft on charges of felonious assault and aggravated robbery for allegedly shooting a teen during a robbery in the parking lot of the Fairfield Twp. Walmart last month.

The teen victim in that Jan. 20 shooting is recovering from a gunshot wound to the leg, but two victims in unrelated Middletown and Ross Twp. incidents are dead. All three shootings involve elements that law enforcement officials say they are seeing create a dangerous, and sometimes deadly, mix for teenagers more frequently: Guns, drugs and social media.

MORE: Ross teen charged with killing student has criminal past

“(We have) kids that grow up and become teenagers and they become wannabes and they get on their Facebook pages, their Twitter accounts and they think they are real tough and they think they are gangsters and they have guns and they have drugs. This is why we are here today,” said Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones during a Wednesday news conference for one of these incidents, during which a Ross High School student was shot and killed in what authorities have called a robbery gone bad.

“People don’t accidentally get shot very often, but when you have people who are inexperienced, but they think they are tough and they have guns and they bring guns and they think they are gangsters, usually somebody dies.”

Two recent incidents show the deadly possibilities. Stephan Cotter, 22, of Loveland, was shot and killed on Dec. 8 in the 2200 block of Pearl Street in Middletown, allegedly after 16-year-old Paul Dillon Craft set up a drug deal for the sale of Xanax and marijuana but instead shot Cotter during an altercation caused by a robbery attempt, according to police.

Middletown Detective Jon Hoover said Craft told police several versions of what happened, but he eventually confessed that he met up with Cotter and another man with the intent to purchase marijuana and Xanax, but instead, he pulled out a gun and attempted to rob Cotter. Hoover said Craft admitted to shooting Cotter but said he did not mean to do it.

Craft said he purchased the gun from a drug user on Crawford Street then threw it in the river after the shooting, according to police.

Facebook messages from Cotter’s cell phone show conversations between Cotter and Craft discussing the drug deal and a map of Middletown showing Cotter where to meet Craft on Pearl Street, Hoover said.

MORE: Teen accused in Walmart parking lot shooting ordered to stay in juvenile detention

Last week, Judge Craft listened to the evidence against Paul Dillon Craft and bound his case over to adult court for litigation. Craft, who had been in trouble while at the county juvenile detention center after his arrest for murder, was also transferred to the Butler County Jail to await a grand jury’s consideration of his case.

Another deadly incident happened last week. Three firearms, live and spent ammunition and drug paraphernalia were found at a Hine Road resident in Ross Twp. after a Ross High School student, 18-year-old Austin Hensley, was fatally shot in the head by a 17-year-old in what sheriff’s deputies say was a robbery gone bad.

The 17-year-old suspect is charged with murder, aggravated robbery and tampering with evidence. Officials say he wiped down the gun and hid it after the shooting. A second 17-year-old is charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing his father’s gun in connection with the homicide.

Again, because of their ages and the charges, the boys could be tried as adults. In the case of the alleged shooter, it is a mandatory bind over to adult court if probable cause is found. Both are in juvenile detention.

Detectives say Hensley was lured to the house through social media on a ruse to trade guns, but the intent all along was to rob him. An altercation ensued and Hensley was shot.

MORE: Middletown teen’s murder case sent to adult court

The sheriff said the teen charged with murder had a previous criminal history and was charged with making terroristc threats in the past, stating he had a bomb in his locker. Butler County juvenile court officials confirmed the teen was charged in connection with an incident in March.

In addition, the suspect has a criminal past dating back to 2016 that includes domestic violence, making false alarms and assault when in juvenile detention.

Paul Dillon Craft also has a criminal past in juvenile court dating back to 2013 for theft, public indecency, burglary, criminal damaging and domestic violence.

Fairfield Twp. Police Capt. Doug Lanier said there is no doubt that social media has played a part in making it easier for teens to set up drug deals and and robberies.

“We have seen more teenagers, 14 or 15, who have guns with them,” he said.

But he noted it is not when just planning serious crimes: “We had a rash of car break-in involving teens and they had guns.”

Lanier added he does not believe it is the first time the suspect in the Walmart parking lot shooting has planned a robbery, and the investigation is ongoing.

Middletown Maj. Scott Reeve said there are common elements, including social media and guns, in violence involving teens, but pointed out that possession of guns is only one factor.

"When I was in school I had a gun and guys had a rifles strapped in the back window," he said. "However, nowadays the use of weapons has become different."

Violence seems to be the motive for guns, not hunting or target practice with cans, he said.

“And you know, they have all these Facebook friends, but they are not really friends, you really don’t know what you are getting into with social media and meeting up with friends on Facebook,” he said.

Law enforcement is often criticized for being too hard on teens when charging them with making terroistic threats during school incidents, noted Butler County Sheriff’s Maj. Mike Craft.

“People often ask us why we take this so seriously, ” he said. “Very seldom does a kid innocently make a threat of violence. That is a sign something is just not right.”

Craft noted the Ross Twp. suspect is now charged with murder, but the the behavior started with his threats that he had a bomb in school.

“It is an alarming problem, and people better wake up,” Craft said, noting the recent robberies that resulted in shooting seem to be planned by teens for a “thrill.”

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