Jennifer Crumbley is a terrible mother. Does that mean she should go to prison?
We are in the midst of an unprecedented American trial: a parent criminally charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter for the school shooting perpetrated by her then fifteen-year-old son Ethan in 2021.
Four students were killed and seven were wounded at Oxford High School in Michigan.
The slaughtered were popular, bright, attractive and athletic, targeted by the shooter for those very reasons.
The weapon and ammunition Ethan used had been bought for him by his parents as a Christmas gift.
As he depicted in a journal that neither of his parents ever looked through — same with his phone and social media use — he drew a young girl in profile, a gun to the back of her head, and a bullet firing alongside the words: ‘The first victim has to be pretty girl with a future so she can suffer just like me’.
Taking the stand this week, Jennifer Crumbley exposed herself as a profoundly disengaged mother who ignored her only child’s desperate pleas for help, in one instance mocking him.
A text from Ethan to his only friend, sent seven months before the shooting, was submitted into evidence. It read: ‘I hear people talking to me, and see someone in the distance. I actually asked my dad to take me to the doctor yesterday, but he just gave me some pills and told me to suck it up… it’s to the point where I’m asking to go to the doctor… My mom laughed when I told her’.
Another, to the same friend: ‘I’m having bad insomnia… and paranoia… I need help… I was thinking of calling 911 so I could go to the hospital… but then my parents would really be p***ed’.
Another: ‘I’m mentally and physically dying’.
In court, Jennifer’s defense claimed that she never saw those messages.
But Ethan did send his mother the following texts on March 9, 2021, at 7:50 pm, eight months before the shooting – all of which went unanswered for days:
‘Can you get home now?… There’s someone in the house I think.
‘Someone walked into the bathroom and flushed the toilet and left the light on… Maybe it’s just my paranoia… But when are you going to get home?’
Jennifer Crumbley testified that she was out that night, riding her horse, and that her non-responsiveness was due to poor internet connectivity. Also, she thought Ethan was just trying to get her attention. Not that she cared about that, either.
The portrait that has emerged in court is devastating: A deeply troubled child, often left alone at home for hours on end, crying out for parental attention and love, regarded as an inconvenience at best and a burden at worst, his mother distracted by a grim extramarital affair she was conducting in a Costco parking lot.
All while her son exhibited the textbook development of a mass school shooter.
Here’s a message she sent on March 17, 2021, a little over a week after Ethan begged her to come home that night: ‘I’m gonna get drunk and ride my horse’.
When challenged about texts Ethan sent to her describing a ‘demon’ who ‘f**ked up the kitchen’, and asking her to ‘at least please text back’, she testified: ‘I’m sure I saw them [Ethan’s messages] but they just didn’t stick out to me’.
This is the same woman who boasted on the stand — with a straight face — that she was a ‘super-vigilant helicopter parent’. Who was she kidding?
Jennifer and her husband James Crumbley – he will stand trial on the same charges next month – should never have had children.
Instead of being embarrassed by their own patent neglect and cruelty, they were embarrassed by their son. Does anyone think that Ethan didn’t know that?
In the aftermath of her arrest soon after the shooting, Jennifer didn’t mention Ethan for ten days throughout 14 phone calls.
Recorded conversations with her father have Jennifer asking for money, or about how many calories are in a sandwich she may eat, or if she can still claim child credits on her tax forms.
She took $3,000 out of Ethan’s bank account. She and James went on the run, no thought for their son. Hey — his life was over. Why should their lives be ruined?
If you could be convicted in a court of law for being terrible people, Jennifer and James would get life without parole.
Days before the shooting, James bought Ethan the 9-millimeter Sig Sauer, a gift Jennifer bragged about on social media – and which they failed to keep properly locked up at home.
She then took her son to a shooting range, despite his open struggles with depression and hearing voices. She bought him 100 rounds of ammunition.
She claimed total unawareness that he was torturing baby birds and decapitating them, keeping one severed head in his bedroom for months.
She never once took him to a therapist or a counselor. His overall health was so neglected he had, at one point, thirteen cavities.
She dealt with Ethan’s clear manifestation of depression and a chaotic mind, his messy and disgusting bedroom, by literally closing the door to it.
She was so self-involved that she spent the bulk of her free time at a barn, where she had boarded two horses at great expense, or with her lover at hotels where they engaged in group sex.
Her house was so filthy one neighbor claimed Jennifer would let the dog urinate inside.
This crisis reached critical mass on the morning of the shooting.
Jennifer was called to a meeting at the school and texted her husband: ‘EMERGENCY’.
Included in that text was a screenshot of a drawing by Ethan on a school worksheet: A gun pointing down towards the words, ‘the thoughts won’t stop. Help me’.
He also drew a figure lying dead with bullet wounds, and ammunition next to the words ‘blood everywhere… my life is useless’.
James texted Jennifer back: ‘My God WTF’.
But Jennifer claims she wasn’t concerned about the contents of the drawings; she was more upset that Ethan had defaced a school test, and that doing so was a taunt — to her, because she was angry about his failing grades.
Again: Jennifer Crumbley is consumed only with herself. That much is clear.
But let’s pause for a moment. There were two other people at this meeting on the day of the shooting: school counselor Shawn Hopkins, who had received multiple emails from teachers alarmed by Ethan’s behavior, and dean of students Nicholas Ejak.
One teacher had seen Ethan googling bullets on his phone.
Another reported that ‘in his autobiography poem he says that he feels terrible and that his family is a mistake’.
Another emailed counsellor Hopkins saying Ethan was trying to fall asleep in class constantly.
There are also reports that Ethan brought live ammunition and a dead bird’s head to school, and posted threats on social media.
Yet in this meeting, neither Hopkins nor Ejak insisted that the Crumbleys take Ethan home. They did not send an alert that this student should be barred from campus until he was properly evaluated.
The Crumbleys left and Jennifer went back to work, despite having the flexibility to take time off and make her own hours – often meeting her lover during weekday mornings.
No adult in that meeting looked inside Ethan’s bag, which contained the murder weapon.
No adult thought that Ethan’s depictions and writings of murderous impulses warranted urgent action, save Hopkins insisting that he be seen by a mental health professional within 48 hours.
So if Jennifer, as she told police, ‘didn’t look at [the drawings] that closely’ and didn’t find them that concerning — well, what about the educational professionals in the room? Shouldn’t they also be held legally culpable?
And what about a gun lobby that exerts a complete stranglehold on Congress, that markets and makes firearms available to children?
The gun range that Jennifer took Ethan to hosts ‘kid-friendly outdoor activities’ and advertises free gun rentals on Mother’s Day and at church dinners. What about that?
If we are to regard the routine slaughter of schoolchildren as the cost of gun rights in America, aren’t there many people and institutions just as complicit as Jennifer – if not more?
Ethan Crumbley was a system-wide failure. But only his parents are being tried criminally.
If Jennifer Crumbley is convicted, every parent of a child who commits a felony will be at risk.
This woman is a monster, no question about it. But she’s not even being charged as an accessory.
And if this does turn out to be prosecutorial overreach, if she does walk, that’s another precedent set: How much truly contemptible parenting, with catastrophic consequences, can one person get away with?
Jennifer’s affect on the stand — she presented as disheveled and ungainly, her voice flat and emotionless, her malignant narcissism allowing very little grief expressed for the young lives lost — will not endear her to the jury. Or to America, transfixed by this most consequential trial.
We can’t convict people on unlikability. Or for being irredeemably unsympathetic. But Jennifer Crumbly may have sealed her own guilty verdict when she was asked, by her own defense lawyer, if she would have done anything differently.
‘No’, she said. ‘I don’t want to say I’m a victim, because I don’t want to discredit the families that truly are the victims on this [sic] – but we did lose a lot’.
She may be about to lose a whole lot more than she ever imagined.