While You Were Away …

NOTE: To protect the identities of minors involved in this story, their names and the names of their family members have been changed. All other adults are referred to by their real names.

Thomas Kub’s parents are out of town, and the party is roaring. Hundreds of high schoolers are bumping and grinding in the dark, squirting tequila into one another’s mouths with water guns and blowing up balloons with marijuana smoke. A former classmate who posed for Playboy after graduation is dancing with three freshmen who can’t believe their luck. It’s an uninhibited display complete with Ecstasy pills and girls jumping topless in the bounce house.

But Thomas is worried. The unpopular 17-year-old never expected his party to reach such epic proportions, and he fears his parents’ reaction when they return. He climbs on a counter to tell people the party’s over, but before he can speak, the partygoers begin cheering for him. He’s everyone’s best friend — at least, for this one night.

Thomas is the main character of a 2012 fictional film called “Project X.” The movie is billed as a comedy, but it’s not so funny when it happens in real life.

A few days before last Christmas, a Rock Bridge High School student decided to throw a party like the one portrayed in “Project X.” Fifteen-year-old “Jake” knew his grandmother was house-sitting for a friend who lives on Grant Lane. He’d gone with her once to water the plants and casually asked about the homeowners. Later, Jake returned to his grandmother’s house, stole the friend’s house key from her purse, and let himself into the house on Grant Lane. He and a couple of friends began inviting other kids to a party on Dec. 21.

Over the next week, the unlocked house became a free-for-all. Police reports obtained by Inside Columbiaindicate 60 to 70 teens came and went as they pleased, looting, pawning the homeowners’ belongings, using and dealing drugs, and trashing the house.

“Terri,” Jake’s grandmother, quickly noticed the key was missing. After looking all over her house, she suspected her 3-year-old grandson had played with it and left it somewhere. She called her vacationing friends who sent her another key. While Terri waited for the new key to arrive in the mail, she and her husband drove by the house on Grant Lane to check on it; everything looked fine from the front exterior.

Inside the house was a different story. Three days after Christmas, the house on Grant Lane was so devastated that cleanup was out of the question. Jake told his father what he’d done. His father contacted a Missouri Department of Family Services caseworker who told the police, and the party was finally over.

But the fallout was just beginning for the homeowners, Kathy Keithley-Johnston and Steve Johnston. When they got the call from the Columbia Police Department, the Johnstons were vacationing in Arizona. Steve rushed home to survey the damage.

Drug paraphernalia littered the house. A fire extinguisher had been discharged. Cabinet doors and drawers were ripped off. Someone had taken a fireplace poker to the Johnstons’ kitchen appliances, including a new refrigerator. Holes gaped in the walls. People had urinated on the mattresses and defecated in a closet. Strangers had slept in the family’s beds, and blood and vomit punctuated the mess.

Pieces from the Johnstons’ American Indian art collection — including kachina dolls and Hopi carvings — were stolen or broken. In a valuation letter Steve wrote to Family Court Commissioner Sara Miller, he claimed the collection was easily worth $100,000. Also missing: TVs, an Xbox, Kathy’s jewelry and designer handbags, clothes belonging to the couple and their 29-year-old son, and perhaps most disturbingly, about a dozen guns.

The Johnstons had homeowners’ insurance through American Family, but they fear their coverage wasn’t sufficient to cover their losses, which they estimate will surpass $50,000 in damages to the structure alone. The house essentially had to be gutted before repairs could begin. It no longer feels like home to Kathy, who heads a nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization, and Steve, an environmental geologist who owns a consulting firm.

Family heirlooms have been the toughest material losses for the Johnstons. Kathy’s father, former Taney County Sheriff Chuck Keithley, died in May, and Kathy wanted to lay his service revolver on his casket at the funeral. But the revolver went missing the week of Jake’s party, so she placed an empty holster on his casket instead. “That’s a hard thing when your dad carried that to protect your county for 20 years,” she says.

Unfortunately, stories like the Johnstons’ have become all too familiar.

In March, police in Miramar, Fla., arrested an 18-year-old who allegedly broke into a foreclosed home and planned to throw a “Project X” copycat party there. Police had to turn away hundreds of would-be partygoers who showed up at the house after seeing invitations on YouTube and Twitter. The same month, a teenager in Houston died of multiple gunshot wounds at another copycat party held in a mansion.

Closer to home, a family from Leawood, Kan., returned from vacation last summer and discovered teens had ravaged their house, with damage to the tune of $100,000. According to The Kansas City Star, neighbors saw kids entering the house and became suspicious. One even snapped photos of license plates on the vehicles parked at the house. But nobody called the police.

One of the Johnstons’ neighbors also saw cars and people going in the vacant house, according to a police report given to Inside Columbia. But Kathy says the Johnstons hadn’t told their neighbors they were leaving town, and the neighbor didn’t call the police.

“Project X” director Nima Nourizadeh has shrugged off criticism his film could inspire destructive behavior among teens. “I don’t want to speak [to] whether it is irresponsible or promoting certain things it shouldn’t,” he said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s an R-rated movie. It all depends on the individual whether you take inspiration from it.”

“Not afraid of anyone”
In this case, the inspired individuals were Jake and his friends.

Jake “used to be a sweet kid,” according to his 18-year-old sister, “Danielle,” who was not involved in the crimes on Grant Lane. As a child, her brother had few friends and was picked on, she says. Once, another child shot Jake with a BB gun on the school bus.

Things were rocky at home, too. Jake’s parents repeatedly split up and got back together before they finally divorced several years ago. Danielle says their father had problems with substance abuse and likes to fight. She won’t elaborate much, but she does say, “He wrestled all the way through high school, and then he would like to fight outside of wrestling.” Their mother, she says, is too permissive with Jake.

“She’d give Jake whatever he wanted just to try and make up for the way his dad treated him,” she says. “Kind of let him get away with everything, and eventually it just spiraled out of control.”

Jake and Danielle lived with their mother after the divorce, but their grandmother — Kathy’s friend Terri — says Jake acted out at school. Terri says she thinks his troubled behavior as a plea for her former son-in-law’s attention. “Jake wanted desperately for his dad to love him, and he wanted to be like his dad,” Terri says.

Jake has at least one thing in common with his father: He’s into fighting, too. He and his friends film their mixed martial arts-style fights and post them on YouTube. Police reports indicate that two of Jake’s buddies fought in the Johnstons’ garage on Dec. 21, and one boy was knocked out cold. No one took him to the hospital or called a parent for advice. As a nurse and a mother, Kathy was appalled when she learned of that incident. “I am truly surprised the child did not die,” she says. “You’ve got a head injury, you’re vomiting — hello, that’s a sign of a concussion.”

Terri believes her grandson threw the “Project X” party to fit in with his peers, much like the character Thomas Kub in the film. Danielle describes Jake’s crowd as “rotten” and “entitled.” “A lot of them,” she says, “are just spoiled rich kids who think they can take whatever they want, whether it’s theirs or somebody else’s.” Danielle concedes she can’t speak about everyone who came to the Johnstons’ house, though, because the party ballooned to include people Jake didn’t know.

Other clues about the teens are telling. One high schooler who admitted he slept over at the Johnstons’ house had been arrested for stealing a couple of months earlier. Investigators heard stories that another partygoer was a “junkie” who probably sold some of the Johnstons’ guns for drugs, according to one of the police reports. His mother confided in Kathy, describing attempts to get help for her son by reaching out to the Columbia Police Department and even Dr. Phil.

Many of the adolescents involved in the case boldly tweet about underage drinking and getting high. Some post photos of themselves holding joints or liquor bottles. One teen uploaded a series of texts with someone she referred to as “the Xan man.” Most don’t bother to protect their tweets. On Kathy’s birthday in June, a girl antagonized her by retweeting the original party invitation that kicked off events at the Johnstons’ house.

Kathy contacted several parents of the teens whose names are mentioned in the police report. Many were in denial, she says, and few reached out to apologize.

“These children have no filter,” Kathy says. “They think they can say anything, they think they can do anything, and they’re not afraid of anyone.”

“Dead serious”
Determined to find evidence, Kathy launched her own investigation online. She started following Jake, his friends, and his friends’ friends on Twitter and Facebook. She sent police numerous screen shots showing the teens wearing what Kathy believed to be the Johnstons’ clothes and accessories, but authorities didn’t issue warrants based on the photos.

In a police report obtained by Inside Columbia, Detective Mitchell Baxley recounts a conversation in which he told Steve the items featured in the Twitter photos “were not so exclusively made and did not rise to the level needed to obtain a search warrant.”

Baxley also wrote in the report that he explained that many of the Twitter photos the Johnstons consider proof of the teens’ criminal activities are time-stamped with dates that precede the Dec. 21 party, some by as much as two months.

“That is not true,” Kathy insists. She maintains she sent only tweets posted after Dec. 20, 2012.

But the detective says, “I will stand by that report many times over.”

In response to Kathy’s inquiries, one of the teens left her a threatening phone message, which Kathy forwarded to Inside Columbia. “Stop contacting my friends and family,” the young woman says. “I’m done with your f—ing sh-t, Kathy. I’m dead f—ing serious. … I can even f—ing beat your a– if I want to. And I will, if it gets to this point.” Police swiftly arrested Jordan Elliott, now 19, but she posted bail and was released.

In the months since the party, Kathy says the Columbia Police Department didn’t do enough to investigate the teens. She doesn’t understand why officers didn’t interview every teen whose name appeared in the police reports. And she’s unhappy the police department hasn’t provided the Johnstons with all of the reports from their case, although Capt. Jill Schlude emailed them explaining the records are closed because charges are still pending in the Boone County prosecutor’s office.

Kathy has contacted various parties about her dissatisfaction with the Columbia Police Department’s actions. She forwarded Inside Columbia a response from U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler’s office that says the congresswoman has made an inquiry to the FBI on Kathy’s behalf and will be in touch.

“Where is the justice?”
Columbia police arrested six teens and requested additional warrants for three others, according to a letter Schlude wrote the Johnstons. Four of those arrested were tried as juveniles and convicted of felonies including burglary, stealing and property damage. Jake and another teen were ordered to pay restitution of $4,000 each, the maximum a minor can be required to pay. The other two convicted juveniles were to split the Johnstons’ $1,000 home insurance deductible.

Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Roger Johnson says his office has filed a charge against 18-year-old Gabrielle Elliott, Jordan’s sister, alleging she “knowingly remained unlawfully in an inhabited structure … for the purposes of committing stealing therein.”

By summer’s end, Kathy and Steve had received part of the restitution ordered, declining to reveal the actual amount. They’ll likely receive the rest down the road — the Missouri Juvenile and Family Division Annual Report shows underage offenders paid 98 percent of the restitution they owed last year and 100 percent in 2011. But even the full $9,000 won’t come close to covering the Johnstons’ financial burden, they say.

The Johnstons believe the convicted juveniles got off easy. “They were all tried with felonies, their hands were slapped, they were sent home with their parents, and their records were sealed,” Kathy says. “Where is the justice? Is there justice in the justice system?”

Some of the suspects have had other brushes with the law since the December burglaries. In January, police tried to stop a stolen vehicle and arrested two teens Kathy believes were involved in her case. In March, another teen discussed in the police reports was arrested on suspicion of first-degree burglary, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

“I lie awake at night”
“Project X” feeds viewers a sugarcoated ending: When Thomas’ father comes home to a partially burned-down house and a car submerged in the swimming pool, he doesn’t even yell about the destruction. Instead, his voice betrays a hint of admiration. “I didn’t think you had it in you,” he tells his son. Thomas faces some minor legal woes, but he returns to school a hero. He even gets the girl.

Those final scenes could leave a powerful impression on a boy like Jake, whose family members say he’s desperate for the approval of his father and peers.

But the reality is far uglier than the Hollywood version. Steve says his family is struggling to get their lives back on track. The ordeal has been all-consuming for the Johnstons.

Nine months after the party on Grant Lane, none of the Johnstons’ guns had been recovered and reports of recent shootings torture Kathy. “I lie awake at night and wonder if that was a gun that came from our house,” she says.

Kathy and Terri find some comfort in their friendship, which remains strong despite Terri’s grandson’s culpability. Sometimes they cry together on the phone. “It is hurtful for both of us,” Kathy says.

It has become painful for Kathy to remember all the happy birthdays and anniversaries spent in the house on Grant Lane. The home she and Steve had loved from the moment they first set foot in it 20 years ago feels foreign to them.

“It is not home,” Kathy says. “It is only a house now.”

Busy Beats Bored
Jake has left the home he shared with his mother and sister, and now lives with his father in a neighboring city where he attends an alternative school.

It’s hard to ignore the parallels between Jake’s troubled background and some of the risk factors outlined by the state courts’ Juvenile & Family Division: ineffective parental management style, trouble at school, negative influence exerted by peers. According to the division’s risk-assessment tool, such factors are “variables that increase the likelihood of future delinquency.”

But Columbia Police Department Public Information Officer Latisha Stroer cautions against generalizing. She’s seen children from great homes become juvenile offenders, and she’s seen kids from unstable families make the A-plus honor roll.

Still, there are things parents can do to help their kids stay out of trouble. “The best thing to do is set rules and stick to those rules,” Stroer says. “Parents should make consequences clear and follow through with them, whether that means taking away their teens’ car keys for a set period of time, grounding them or taking away Internet privileges.” She also stresses the importance of parental involvement in children’s lives, urging parents to know their kids’ friends as well as the friends’ parents.

“When kids have a lot of time on their hands, they become bored and they start thrill-seeking or looking for trouble,” Stroer says. “Children and teens need to stay active in healthy extracurricular activities such as band, sports, art or Scouts.” It’s critical, she says, that these activities truly interest the kids — not just Mom and Dad — or else the kids may still be bored.

Rock Bridge High School Principal Jennifer Mast sees this as one of the ways schools can make an impact on teens. “If we can offer some of those things that they’ve never been exposed to before that they show some interest in, those are alternatives to whatever they’re choosing to do at home,” she says. “Learning to play an instrument is not a choice that all students have in the home environment, but they may have that choice at school.”

Home Security For Travelers
The Columbia Police Department rolled out a new “watch in passing” program last spring in response to burglaries. Columbians can fill out an online form listing when they’ll be out of town, whether any vehicles should be in their driveways and so forth. While residents are away, police officers will check on their homes once or twice daily and report the observations to the beat sergeant. If something’s amiss, the department will get in touch with the homeowner. The Boone County Sheriff’s Department also offers a watch-in-passing program with an online request form.

Requesting that police keep an eye on your home is smart, but residents should also make other preparations so their homes look lived in while they are away, says Public Information Officer Latisha Stroer. If you’ll be gone for several days, ask a trusted neighbor or family member to mow grass and shovel snow for you. Have them collect your newspapers and mail, or put a hold on delivery, as newspapers piled on the driveway make it easy for burglars to spot empty houses without even getting out of their cars. Put your lights on timers and make sure doors and windows are secured with functioning locks.

Have a conversation with your house sitter about your expectations, Stroer says. Let them know how often you’d like them to check on the house, whether it’s OK for them to give the key to anyone else, and whether they can bring anybody with them when they check on your home.

Finally, Stroer adds, talk to your neighbors. Ask them to call the police if they notice anything unusual such as cars coming and going from your house. “That’s a harder part nowadays,” Stroer says. “We don’t know our neighbors like we used to.”

Although the Johnstons took many of these precautions, Kathy says she wishes they had taken yet another: installing a security system with a video camera and an alerts feature. Homeowners can hire security companies to set up systems for them or install their own equipment purchased from retailers. Products such as the Dropcam send text or email alerts when the motion sensor is activated, and the manufacturer offers an add-on service for recording footage.

There are even home-security applications such as the free Presence iOS app by People Power, which allows users to transform two Apple products into a home security system complete with motion detection, email alerts and brief automatic recordings when the sensor is tripped. The downsides: Apps like Presence don’t have night vision, and undisguised electronics in the front yard might actually lure in burglars.