In the aftermath of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., chilling comments that 18-year-old Steven Matthew Fernandes is alleged to have made to a confidential FBI source in Las Vegas last summer are taking on more significance.
Fernandes, in federal custody on firearms and explosives charges, told the FBI source that his high school classmates considered him "most likely to show up to school and just start killing people," according to court documents filed by prosecutors.
He also bragged about wanting "to go to a nursery school and use kids for target practice" and kill more people than the shooter who fatally wounded 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., this summer, the documents allege.
FBI agents assigned to the Southern Nevada Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Fernandes on Sept. 13 with a loaded 12-gauge shotgun in his Saturn coupe.
Last month, with Fernandes safely behind bars, federal prosecutors quietly filed a motion to ship him outside Nevada to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility for a full-fledged mental evaluation while he awaits trial.
A hearing Thursday on the motion before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen comes amid national talk of gun control and mourning over the deaths of 20 children and six women in the Newtown massacre.
"This case is more poignant now after the Newtown horrors," said Christopher Blakesley, a UNLV criminal law professor. "Our consciousness has been raised so much by that terrible event."
In their court papers, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Patrick Walsh and Nicholas Dickinson said they want to know whether Fernandes was insane at the time of his arrest and whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.
"The evaluation may also assist the parties in determining whether the matter can be resolved prior to trial," the prosecutors wrote.
Blakesley said the prosecution effort makes sense.
"It seems fairly responsible to check whether he's competent so they can get into the substantive elements of whether he committed a crime," Blakesley said. "They have to get past that hurdle."
But the government request isn't coming without a fight.
Fernandes' defense lawyer, Crystal Eller, filed court papers Tuesday opposing the mental evaluation.
Eller argued prosecutors haven't met the legal burden required to show a need for a psychological examination.
"There has simply been no evidence whatsoever placed before the court that indicates Steven does not understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or that he has been in any way unable to assist properly with his defense," she wrote.
Eller also contended that Leen hasn't had the ability to evaluate the reliability of the unidentified FBI sources who claim to have heard Fernandes' comments.
"These alleged statements have been displayed in writing without the court having the benefit of actually hearing them, including verbal indicators such as sarcasm and other voice inflections that would shed light on the genuineness of the statements," Eller said.
After Fernandes was arrested, FBI agents found explosives and bomb-making materials and devices in his bedroom, with a copy of "The Anarchist's Cookbook," prosecutors alleged in court documents.
The book explains how to manufacture explosives.
Agents also found five rifles, four handguns and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his Las Vegas home. Fernandes was living with his mother and two younger sisters.
Prosecutors wrote after the arrest that a confidential FBI source provided an email from Fernandes in which he described himself as the commanding officer of the 327th Nevada Militia, an urban survivalist unit with six or seven members.
At a detention hearing in October, Eller argued that before his arrest, Fernandes was regarded as a "very responsible and grounded teenager" who was scheduled to ship out with the U.S. Marines.
"This is someone who sees himself as a fighter for this country, not a terrorist," Eller said.
But in their court papers, prosecutors quoted Fernandes as saying his group was training to "go to war" with the government or "some invading asshole country."
Contact Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135.