URBANA — Ely R. Serna received a maximum consecutive prison sentence of 23 1/2 years Wednesday during a sentencing hearing in the Champaign County Common Pleas Court.
In April, Serna, 18, pleaded guilty to one count each of attempted murder with a three-year firearm specification, felonious assault and inducing panic stemming from the Jan. 20, 2017, shooting at West Liberty-Salem during which two students were injured.
Logan Cole, who sustained significant injuries in the shooting, spoke during the hearing while a parental representative spoke on behalf of Adam Schultz, who was also injured.
No fine was imposed as part of the sentence and upon his release, Serna is subject to a mandatory post-release control for five years.
State asked for maximum sentence
During the state’s presentation, Champaign C0unty Prosecutor Kevin Talebi asked the court to impose the maximum sentence.
Regarding using mental health as a mitigating factor in the case, Talebi said Attorney Dennis Lieberman, Serna’s attorney, took the position where Serna’s mental health was a mitigating factor. Talebi contended the state believed this was being used almost as an excuse for Serna’s misconduct.
Prior to the sentencing portion of the hearing, the parties along with Judge Nick Selvaggio asked questions of Dr. Daniel Davis.
Davis was asked by Lieberman to perform a psychological evaluation on Serna and to provide a recommended treatment intervention for him.
Davis noted Serna suffers from severe depression – which would be a topic of discussion throughout Wednesday’s proceedings. Serna’s use of marijuana and unauthorized prescription pills was also discussed by the parties during the hearing.
“The state rejects any assertion that the defendant was not cognizant of the wrongfulness of his conduct and the state rejects any assertion that the defendant was unaware of what he was doing,” Talebi said. “The state finds the defendant’s claim that he believed he was being directed by a higher power highly suspect and in the state’s opinion it’s just not supported by the facts.
“Again I’m not saying the defendant does not suffer from mental illness. I’m sure he is and was depressed as the doctors have indicated and I’m sure his depression was a contributing factor to his commission of the offense because he did want to die. However, any mental illness that may have existed with this defendant does not excuse his criminal behavior – the defendant knew what he was doing and he knew what he was doing was wrong.”
Speaking on Serna’s actions leading up to the shooting, Talebi noted he specifically decided to remove the shotgun from his home while no one would notice, he disassembled and concealed the gun, changed into clothing which would not attract suspicion and reassembled the gun in a bathroom using tools he brought to school.
Talebi added Serna brought a mask with the words “(expletive) you” written on it.
Talebi contended an acceptance of responsibility for what Serna did was absent from a sentencing memorandum filed by Lieberman and letters of support for Serna.
“Many of these letters referred to the defendant’s conduct as a mistake,” Talebi said. “This was not a mistake, this was not an accident. This was a carefully planned, premeditated and deliberate act designed for the purpose of terrorizing and killing as many people as possible.”
When Logan Cole entered the bathroom, Talebi said Serna fired two rounds at Cole. Hearing the gunshots, Talebi said a teacher went to the bathroom where he observed Cole on the floor and was pursued by Serna as he fled the area yelling “shooter.” Talebi said Serna shot twice at the teacher as he ran into his classroom full of students.
Talebi said Serna also fired into the door of another nearby classroom.
Talebi spoke about the consequences Serna’s conduct had on students, teachers, staff and the entire West Liberty community. He said teachers and students were traumatized not knowing who was injured within the school and how many shooters were in the school.
“The students within the school broke out windows climbing out into the cold and ran from the building into adjacent fields fearing for their life,” Talebi said. “Other students hunkered down in their classroom barricading doors arming themselves with chairs or whatever objects they could find preparing to confront an armed shooter who might enter the room.”
Sixteen months since the shooting, Talebi said many teachers, students and parents are still dealing with the trauma of the incident.
Following Talebi’s statements, Nancy Schultz, mother of Adam Schultz, Logan Cole and West Liberty-Salem High School Middle and High School Principal Greg Johnson spoke about the impact of the shooting.
During her remarks, Mrs. Schultz spoke about how her son knew Serna prior to the shooting, commenting that Serna was a polite individual. She said on the day of the incident her son had to dive to the floor to avoid a bullet that went past his head and following the shooting he experienced trauma through not eating or sleeping.
Mrs. Schultz also noted her daughter ran two miles in a field from the school during the shooting. She was asked to be seated by Selvaggio following comments she made directed towards Lieberman.
During his remarks, Cole recounted the events of Jan. 20, 2017 – a day which he said started exciting as he planned to participate in his first mock trial competition. Dressed in a suit and tie, Logan Cole said he was waiting for the bus to leave when he went to the bathroom to check his hair.
“As I turned the corner I saw someone in a mask standing there with a gun and I was shot once in the chest and again in the base of my neck from a couple feet away,” Cole recalled. “I remember falling down face first and my teeth cracking on the concrete. It all happened so fast that it took me a bit to process what had just occurred.”
Cole said he remembered facing Serna telling him to not kill anyone or himself. Cole gave a summary of the multiple medical procedures he underwent following the shooting and discussed potentially more serious injuries he could have sustained.
“At the end of my treatment, my wound doctor said ‘this is simply a miracle,’” Logan Cole said. “I fully believe that there is no other way to describe this incident than by saying that it was a miracle God intervened on that day.”
Regarding his health, Logan Cole said he has several hundred lead pellets contaminating his body. He noted the high lead levels in his body carry a long term risk of high blood pressure, decreased kidney function, infertility and some mental deficits. Cole also gave multiple examples of how the shooting affected him mentally.
“Last year I would get so anxious in the mornings especially on Fridays as the bell rang that another school shooting would occur,” Cole said.
Speaking on Serna, Cole asked the court for the maximum sentence.
“Ely as you heard me say, I believe that the consequences of your actions should be proportionate to the actions themselves,” Cole said. “In many ways even if you serve the full sentence possible it will not compare to the damage that was done to so many lives on Jan. 20 (2017).
“I would like you to know that I’ve forgiven you for what you did to me and our school. I also want you to know there’s a difference between forgiveness and justice. The reason I can show you forgiveness is because Christ first showed forgiveness to me.”
Following the hearing, Cole’s family expressed gratitude for a number of people who helped them in the months following the shooting.
“This has been a long process and there’s lots of people we’re very grateful to that have supported us throughout this process – specifically Kevin (Talebi) and his team have been very supportive and we appreciate them,” Ryan Cole, Logan’s father, said after the hearing. “The school district has been very supportive of our family so to (West Liberty-Salem Superintendent) Kraig (Hissong), Greg (Johnson) and (Assistant Principal) Andy (McGill) and the whole team there, teachers, the community as a whole has just stood with us and been very supportive. I’m very grateful for that.”
Johnson said at the time of the shooting, 165 high school and middle school students stayed in the building while others evacuated the building. Following the shooting, Johnson said the number of guidance office visits from students skyrocketed.
“During the second half of (the) 2016-2017 (school year) we saw twice as many students visit the guidance office as the first half,” Johnson said. “Data from the first five months of this school year show a 276 percent increase over the same period of time as the previous year.”
Johnson said the school’s guidance staff deals with students visiting for stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the shooting.
When given an opportunity to speak, Serna said words could not express the guilt and shame he had for the pain he caused many people.
“I don’t live a day in my life anymore not thinking about it and wishing I could take it back,” Serna said. “But I can’t do that and I am truly sorry for those who have been affected by my actions.”
For the attempted murder charge, the court imposed an 11-year sentence with the firearm specification carrying a three-year sentence. The court imposed an eight-year sentence for the felonious assault charge and an 18-month sentence for inducing panic.
All sentences were ordered to be served consecutively.
Nick Walton can be reached at 937-652-1331 Ext. 1777 or on Twitter @UDCWalton.