published Friday, March 7th, 2014

The man whose seemingly threatening words threw college into an uproar won't do time

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James Gaines Letter
James Gaines Letter

Kisha Caldwell got something she wasn't expecting Thursday morning.

An apology.

Caldwell, Chattanooga State Community College's director of enrollment services, came ready to testify at James Gaines' preliminary hearing. He faced a possible three-year prison sentence after making statements that resulted in a two-hour lockdown the afternoon of Jan. 23 at Southern Adventist University.

Frustrated that he couldn't get a transcript he needed from Southern to get into Chattanooga State on the final day to register for spring classes, Gaines told Caldwell that morning that he might have to "strap a bomb on me" and "put a gun to their head," to get it, according to the affidavit for Gaines' arrest. He also said, "I'm sorry. I'm just kidding."

Gaines won't do any time. He'll continue counseling he already has begun and perform eight hours of community service. He also had to issue a letter of apology under an agreement with the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office. Gaines will appear at a hearing in 90 days to make sure he has satisfied the requirements.

"I feel terribly that I put Ms. Caldwell in a position where she thought that my statements could be a threat," says the apology letter that Gaines' attorney, Lee Davis, handed to General Sessions Court Judge David Bales, who read it aloud.

"[She] was incredibly helpful throughout the entire process of helping me continue my education," the letter reads. "I deeply regret that my choice of words put her into an uncomfortable situation."

"I followed protocol"

Caldwell said afterward that she was happy to get the apology. She didn't regret reporting Gaines' comments to Chattanooga State police Chief Stephanie Hill, which set events in motion that resulted in the lockdown at Southern.

"Protocol. I followed protocol," Caldwell said. "I did what every person should do, and that was to make sure that I have the best interests at heart."

While the district attorney's office didn't pursue false-reports charges against Gaines, it could have, according to a memorandum signed by Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston.

"Whether the person making such comments was joking or not is irrelevant," Pinkston's memo states, though he added that "[Gaines'] comments, while inappropriate, do not appear a sustained intent to violate the law."

  • photo
    James Gaines, center, walks away from the bench after appearing in Judge David Bales courtroom Thursday morning for a preliminary hearing. The judge accepted an agreement for counseling and community service stemming from an incident when statements he made caused the lockdown of Southern Adventist University. At left is Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston, while defense attorney Lee Davis is seen at right.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

Gaines' supporters gathered 1,125 signatures on the website ipetitions.com asking the DA's office to drop the charges.

In 2009, Gaines dropped out of Southern Adventist University, several courses shy of a degree. His father had just gotten lymphoma. Gaines, who grew up going to Adventist schools in Nashville, got a job and began saving for the day he could return to school.

He became a personal trainer at a local YMCA and works in a program there that helps cancer patients and survivors rehabilitate. Aside from a speeding ticket, his record is clean.

"No joking matter"

Two college safety experts said campus isn't the place for jokes about shooting and bombing.

"Would you joke like that going through TSA at the airport?" asked Gary Margolis, former chief of police at the University of Vermont and co-founder of the consulting firm Margolis Healy Solutions for Safe Campuses. "In this day and age, you don't joke about things like that."

Anne C. Gross of the National Association of College and University Business Officers co-authored the National Campus Safety and Security Project Survey in 2008, the year after Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17.

Told of Caldwell's decision to report Gaines' statements, Gross said, "Imagine the heat she would have gotten if [she hadn't reported him and] he had been someone who really meant harm."

Gross couldn't put an exact number on campus lockdowns that occur around the country.

"It's not uncommon," she said. "You hear maybe monthly about some incident in a school that triggers a lockdown."

While incidents such as the Virginia Tech massacre gave campus shootings a high profile, killings on campuses are rare, Gross said.

"There's 3,700 colleges and universities around the country, and the shootings are pretty spread out," she said. "In general, college campuses are pretty safe places to be."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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