COLUMBIA, S.C. — An Army trainee who left a base in South Carolina without permission last year and briefly held a group of children hostage at gunpoint aboard a school bus has been found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The decision agreed to by prosecutors, defense attorneys and a judge means the 25-year-old New Jersey man will be sent to a state mental hospital for four additional months of treatment.

The trainee left Fort Jackson near Columbia where he was in basic training in May 2021 with an unloaded rifle. He first tried to flag down cars on Interstate 77, then boarded the school bus in a nearby neighborhood, investigators said.

He told the driver he didn’t want to hurt the elementary school students. The bus driver said that as he drove away the students began asking the trainee a number of questions like if he was a soldier, why he was doing this and whether he was going to hurt them.

The driver said the trainee got frustrated with the questions, let the driver and students off the bus and drove a few more miles (kilometers) before Richland County deputies found the bus and arrested him. No one was hurt.

Two different mental evaluations of the trainee found he had schizophrenia and that he thought someone was coming to hurt him and his family when he left the base, public defender Fielding Pringle said in court Thursday.

Interviews with the trainee’s family and other soldiers showed he was struggling with the undiagnosed mental illness for years and that his condition was deteriorating during basic training, Pringle said, according to media reports.

The trainee faced dozens of charges including 19 counts of kidnapping.

Pringle said once he started getting help, the trainee’s mental condition improved rapidly. In the nearly two years he has been in jail getting treatment, he hasn’t had a single disciplinary infraction.

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