A lack of evidence against Kidus Chane Yohannes, the UVSC student suspected of plotting a mass shooting, could potentially unhinge Utah County’s attempt to convict him on two counts of providing false information to obtain a firearm.
The case against Johannes stems from a tip received by the Orem Police Department last June that accused the 20-year-old Ethiopian refugee of having violent intentions toward police and U.S. military personnel.
Lieutenant Doug Edwards of Orem said in a written statement, "We were alarmed enough about what was reported that we refused to sit on the information and see if Yohannes was going to make good on his threats."
The following day, June 8, police obtained and served a search warrant for Yohannes’ living area and vehicle. The student was arrested and charged with two counts of providing false information to obtain a firearm and one count of possession of stolen material, based on a bankcard that was uncovered in his vehicle.
The report that spawned Yohannes’ subsequent arrest and detainment was filed by Sam Westfahl, another UVSC student and Yohannes’ roommate.
Westfahl claims that Yohannes was fascinated with killing and was targeting the police. He went on to note that he was concerned for his own and the general public’s safety.
Four days prior, on Monday, June 4, Orem police had received another report from the same apartment, this time filed by Yohannes. In the report, Yohannes detailed how two of his roommates had cut wires in his personal computer. Sam Westfahl had been specifically mentioned.
Orem police, as well as several media outlets, mention Yohannes’ history of violence, threats, criminal activity, weapons arrests and illegal firearms. When questioned by The College Times regarding these accusations, Donna Kelly, deputy Utah County prosecuting attorney admitted that there is no evidence of a violent history.
When asked specifically about his past criminal record, she noted that "his previous convictions do not involve a violent crime." Kelly was also unaware of any history of threats originating from Yohannes, and that firearms charges based on the evidence at hand in the case are very uncommon.
Yohannes’ defense sees the case in a very different light than that which has been portrayed in the media. "This is all about two roommates from different backgrounds that didn’t get along; Kidus was never a threat to anyone," said attorney Richard Gale, on behalf of the Public Defenders Association and Yohannes’ legal representation.
The case against Yohannes now rests on the two charges of providing false information to obtain a firearm. The College Times has reviewed the two application forms held as evidence in the case. Both are correct in every detail including name, birth date and address. The only exception is in the nine digit alien registration number Yohannes provided.
Both forms contain the same alien registration number and both were returned from background checks with an additional verification number, allowing Yohannes to complete his transaction.
It appears that during the application process, both the state and federal government found no issue with the number Yohannes provided.
Utah’s Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) Chief Ed McConkie said, "It is common practice to check alien registration numbers." He also mentioned that the BCI has access to multiple state, federal and international databases. "If there is a problem," said McConkie, "we turn it over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)," which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
The College Times contacted an officer from ICE, who requested that he not be identified, and asked if two numbers could have been assigned. "There could be multiple numbers assigned to an individual depending on requests for adjustment of status or other reasons," he said. When asked if it was possible, under any circumstance, to guess a nine digit alien registration number, he said, "You could guess a number, but as far as guessing (a different) one that matched your information, that is not going to happen."
Yohannes was in possession of the two rifles for eight months before his arrest on June 8. A March 2007 investigation turned up the same problem with the alien registration numbers Yohannes provided, but no action was taken. This information resurfaced after Westfahl told police that Yohannes was dangerous.
The March 2007 investigation was prompted by a routine traffic stop by Provo Police Officer Dave Moore. At the time, Yohannes was found with ammunition and a rifle in his vehicle, which police later confirmed had been purchased legally.
The police report narrative claims that the serial number on the rifle appeared to be self-installed, and that the rifle also had an American name on the trigger. Norm Van Wagenen, the firearms dealer who sold the rifle to Yohannes, said, "That describes just about every surplus rifle in my store; they all look like that." Van Wagenen noted that Yohannes was nice, polite and very well spoken during their transactions.
Brian Barnard, a civil rights attorney with the Utah Legal Clinic said, "In a case like this, because of the hype involved, prosecutors are often pressured to get results." When asked about the firearms violations, Barnard said, "Something like this is usually passed on to the federal level where penalties are more severe."
There have yet to be any federal charges filed. Yohannes faces deportation if convicted of a felony. Barnard indicated that the prosecution might be pushing for a felony conviction because, with deportation, Yohannes would be gone and no longer an issue.
The only concealed-weapons charge listed on Yohannes’ adult record was for a pocketknife found in the door compartment of his vehicle during the March 2007 traffic stop. The charge was dismissed.
Yohannes has spent the last four months in solitary confinement at the Utah County Jail. Bail was set at $250,000.
If he receives a felony conviction, deportation proceedings will be initiated, and he could be sent back to the government from which his family has sought asylum.