Another “normal” teenager went ballistic April 9 in a suburban Pittsburgh high school, stabbing 21 students and a security guard before subdued by Assistant Principle Sam King, handcuffed and taken into custody. Sixteen-year-old Alex Hribal used two 8-to-10-inch kitchen knives to inflict damage on fellow high school students at Franklin Regional High School, plunging his knives into torsos, slashing any body part he could get his hands on. Starting his rampage at 7:13 a.m., Hribal walked the halls slashing everyone in his path. “He did it so stealthily that at first no one knew what was happening,” said freshman Josh Frank, commenting about the methodical way in which Hribal went about his business. When you consider it’s easier to run away from a knife attack than a gun, its surprising that Hribal was able to slash 21 students plus a high school security guard.
Just after Westmoreland County District Atty. John Peck told reporters that the teenager would be tried as an adult for attempted murder and aggravated assault, Hribal already had defense attorney Patrick Thomassey on the case. “He’s a typical young kid. He’s a B+ student. The family is like Ozzie and Harriet. They have dinner together every night,” said Thomassey, trying to humanize his client that slashed more bystanders than any high school student in U.S. history. Calling him a “typical young kid” is over-the-top when you consider the act. “All the students liked him. He wasn’t a loner. He worked well in groups, and this happened. So there’s a reason for it—that’s what I’m saying. And we have to get to the bottom of that,” said Thomassey, already publicly airing Hribal’s defense before the custodian mobbed up the blood. Going to great lengths to normalize Hribal doesn’t pass the smell test.
Before ambulances carried off the bloody victims, the Hribal family had already hired a defense attorney to control the public message. Calling the Hribals a perfectly normal family doesn’t detract from the reality that their 16-year-old went ballastic, slashing 22 people. Before the crime scene was taped off, Thomassey was already filing a petition to have the case re-directed to juvenile court where Hribal stands a better chance of a lighter sentence. Now that Alex is in custody facing arraignment, Thomassey wants his client psychiatrically evaluated to find out “where he is mentally.” “I’m not sure what he knows what he did, quite frankly,” said Thomassey, already giving prosecutors ammunition. Painting Hribal as “normal” hurts his case because either he was driven into homicidal rage by prescription or illicit drugs or the kid has a serious preexisting mental disorder.
Thomassey implied he’d get to the bottom of what prompted Hribal to slash his schoolmates. “He’s scared. He’s a young kid. He’s 16, he looks like 12. I means he’s a very young kid, he’s never been in trouble, so this is all new to him,” said Thomassey, giving too much exculpatory information. No prior brushes with the law or school behavior problems doesn’t offer any kind of defense. Before the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School massacre killing 13, injuring 21, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were viewed as relatively “normal” high school kids. Thomassey insists Hribal was a regular kid when students’ reports say otherwise. “He [Hribal] was very quiet,” said Mia Meixner, an eye witnessed to the April 9 attack, contradicting the “normal” description given by Thomassey. Thomassey has gone out of his way to say Hribal’s ballistic episode came out-of-the-blue.
Violent or ballistic episodes don’t come from nowhere. While parents sometimes don’t pay enough attention, there’s usually some psychiatric or counseling record somewhere that discusses a ticking time-bomb. “From past experience with him, he hasn’t been violent at all. He’s actually been a really nice kid from all the times I’ve talked to him,” said Meixner, surprised by the attack. “And he had this, like, look on his face that he was just crazy and he was running around just stabbing whoever was in his way,” said Meixner, commenting about what looked like a full-blown psychotic break or a drug-induced violent manic episode. Why Hribal’s family hired a defense attorney before he was taken into custody suggest strongly that his attorney’s narrative doesn’t match what happened behind closed doors. Acting shocked gives his family a way of denying any responsibility.
Watching the latest senseless act of violence shows how more disguised forms of mental illness fly under the radar before it erupts. Hiring an attorney before their 16-year-old slasher was in custody suggests that the family knew more than their leading on through their attorney, Patrick Thomassey. “They [his parents] offer their condolences to everybody involved in this case. They’re very upset. They did not foresee this coming at all,” said Thomassey, playing his cards close to the vest. Thomassey didn’t deny that Hribal wasn’t currently under treatment for mental illness, only that they didn’t see his ballistic episode coming. That was the same statement given by the family of Adam Lanza who massacred 28 students and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec. 14, 2012 in Newtown Connecticut. More facts from the press and authorities will eventually tell the real story.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.