By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – The 7-year-old boy was crying, soaking wet and knocking on stranger’s doors asking for help, according to Jacob Clark.
The child was dropped off by a school bus driver in a neighborhood not his own in Packwood and his 48-year-old mother found him after an hour and a half of searching, Clark said.
Cheryl A. Strong left an angry voice message at White Pass school, so alarming the building was placed in lockdown for three hours the following morning when it was heard. So alarming, she was charged and convicted of two felonies and then sentenced this week to three years plus two months in prison.
“The school screwed up; so did my client,” defense attorney Clark said. “She never intended to hurt anyone. If this wasn’t the school she called, we never would have been in court.”
It took a jury less than three hours to find the former grocery store clerk guilty earlier this month of one count each of felony harassment, threats to kill, the school secretary and Rebecca Miner, the district superintendent.
The words that got her jailed: “Sorry Chris, but I’m going to f****** shoot everybody that goes to your f****** school, works there,” according to court documents.
Lewis County Superior Court Judge Richard Brosey said he understood the frustration but the phone call led to a lot of fear and trepidation for elementary school children, who don’t understand what’s happening or why.
Brosey said he didn’t understand how the boy was let off at an address other than his new address, but that schools do the best job they can.
“School staff should not have to put up with that kind of abuse,” Brosey said to the mother as she awaited to hear her fate.
He sentenced Strong to 38 months, the middle of the standard sentencing range for her offenses.
Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor Mark McClain asked for two consecutive terms of 43 months, the top of the range. Because of the jury’s special finding the crime affected more than the two victims named, the judge was free to give her the maximum of two five year sentences, one to be served after the other.
Clark had told the judge the circumstances didn’t justify that much time, and noted if his client didn’t have some convictions from when she was younger, the case may have merited about six to 12 months in jail.
It happened in March when the household was in the process of moving from a home on U.S. Highway 12 to another about seven miles away up in the High Valley neighborhood.
Christy Collette, the school secretary, said Strong had changed their address with the school and told them they were going to be moving.
Collette said never was she worried that day the boy was not on the right bus, and that she spoke to Strong that afternoon telling her he was on the other bus and said if Strong didn’t find him, to call her back.
Strong told her son to tell the bus driver he was to get let off at the old bus stop that day, according to the judge.
According to Clark, the child was let out in the High Valley neighborhood at a third address, and wandered around, asking strangers for help until his mother located him.
Strong left the phone message that got her into trouble.
The following morning, school employees ordered a lockdown as soon as they heard it; sheriff’s deputies responded about 7:45 a.m. to the East Lewis County school.
Just before 11 a.m., after Strong had phoned and asked about picking up her son since it was in lockdown, she was told to come on in and she was taken into custody by a waiting deputy. She was not armed.
Her lawyer asked the judge at sentencing on Monday afternoon to consider what his client had experienced the afternoon prior.
“The day before, no one was around to let Ms. Strong know where her child was,” he said. “Apparently no one’s around at 3:41 (p.m.), so Ms. Strong panicked.
“Did she say something stupid? Absolutely.”
Clark agreed the following day it had an impact on a large number of people, but said law enforcement knew Strong was not at the school, he said.
He noted how over the past dozen years, three large scale traumatic events have occurred involving schools and guns.
“If this wasn’t a school, we probably wouldn’t be here; but it was was,” he told the judge.
White Pass School District Superintendent Miner declined to explain what occurred with the bus ride home that day, noting that she’d given her testimony during the trial.
“I would just say, the school district has the safety of all our students in mind,” she said in a brief telephone interview. “We are always looking to improve.”
Miner said she wouldn’t comment any more specifically, when asked if anyone was reprimanded.
Strong was taken into custody immediately following Monday’s hearing; the judge allowed for a $250,000 appeal bond.
The little boy is with his father having gotten picked up soon after his mother’s arrest and taken to Tuscan, Arizona. A family court hearing is set for tomorrow, and Strong has indicated she wants her family members to step in, as she doesn’t feel that’s a safe place for him, according to the deputy prosecutor and the judge.
Before she was led to the jail, she told the court she was sorry.
“I’d like to apologize for the results of my actions,” Strong said. “I was afraid for my son, I was scared.
“I didn’t mean or intend to hurt anyone.”
For background, read “Packwood bus mixup: Mad mom will get to simmer off behind bars” from Tuesday May 6, 2014, here