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The Straits Times
Dec 1, 2023
Suffering from depression, a 16-year-old student at River Valley High School bought several weapons, including a combat axe, between March and April 2021.
Now 18, he was sentenced to 16 years in jail after pleading guilty on Dec 1 to killing a fellow student with an axe.
He had planned to slash people in school so that the police would shoot him to death.
On July 14, 2021, he took the axe and a knife to school in a badminton racquet bag, which he hid under a sink in the toilet, but failed to follow through with his plan.
He tried again on July 19, 2021.
At about 11.15am, he left his classroom and waited in the toilet, armed with the axe, and repeatedly slashed a 13-year-old student who had entered the toilet.
The two did not know each other.
The assailant, who cannot be named under the Children and Young Persons Act, pleaded guilty to a charge of culpable homicide.
He was originally handed a murder charge, but it was reduced in February.
On Dec 1, a previously imposed gag order on the name of the victim, Ethan Hun, was lifted by the High Court at his parents’ request.
In sentencing remarks, Justice Hoo Sheau Peng noted that Ethan’s parents had written that they have forgiven the accused, in reply to a letter of apology sent by the assailant’s parents shortly after the tragedy.
This was a display of remarkable strength and fortitude, said the judge.
She said she hoped that Ethan’s parents and other loved ones will find a measure of healing and closure from this tragedy.
As for the sentence, Justice Hoo said a clear message must be sent to others who might find themselves in the same state of mind as the assailant to deter them from entertaining the thought of engaging in similar conduct.
“This was a gratuitously violent killing, terrifying and incomprehensible in its randomness,” she said.
The judge said that while the teen’s decision to take his own life was attributable to his major depressive disorder, the condition did not prevent him from recognising that his plan to kill others was wrong.
The teen’s depression was but one of three major factors that contributed to the killing, and has been reflected in the prosecution’s decision to reduce the charge against him, said the judge.
She said he must also bear some responsibility for refusing to accept the professional help that was offered to him, and for continuing to expose himself to graphic videos depicting scenes of death before the onset of his depression.
The assailant appeared stoic in the dock and chatted calmly with his family and friends, who were allowed to speak to him after the sentence was passed.
His lawyer, Mr Sunil Sudheesan, told reporters that he would be appealing against the “crushing” sentence.
The lawyer had earlier told the court that the teen had a significant family history of mental illness on his father’s side.
Mr Sudheesan said the boy made two attempts at suicide in 2019, but his family did not realise the severity of his condition.
He was then assessed by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) to have an adjustment reaction.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Sean Teh told the court that the teen started having suicidal thoughts in February 2019.
In April 2020, the boy started watching videos depicting actual scenes of human death.
In January 2021, he felt overwhelmed during the new school term and thought about killing himself. “The accused’s mood was low, and he did not want to interact with people or deal with school responsibilities,” said the prosecutor.
Having failed in his previous suicide attempts, the teen felt the only way he could overcome the psychological barrier of taking his own life was by getting someone else to kill him.
He eventually decided to go on a killing spree in school so that the police would have to shoot him.
Between February and March 2021, he wrote two poems that alluded to mass killings conducted in a school.
Between March and July 2021, he did numerous online searches for stabbings, school shootings and attacks, and suicide.
He also wrote a note on his mobile phone dated July 5, 2021, which stated his intent at suicide.
On March 6, 2021, he bought a tomahawk axe from a store.
On March 17, he bought a Cold Steel Trench Hawk axe measuring 50cm by 22cm and a sharpener from a second store.
In April that year, he bought a Morakniv bushcraft stainless steel knife measuring 23.5cm by 4cm from a third store.
The names of the stores were not mentioned in court.
The teen sent the axes and knife for sharpening at a store offering sharpening services at least once, and bought a badminton racquet bag to hide the weapons.
On July 14, 2021, he arrived in school earlier than usual, with the Trench Hawk axe, the knife and the badminton racquet bag, as well as a roll of “caution tape” with black and yellow stripes in his backpack.
He headed for one of the toilets in the school and cordoned off the corridor with the tape to prevent other students from going in.
He then placed the bag containing the weapons under a sink, and returned to his classroom.
He waited in a cubicle for an opportune time to attack someone, but could not bring himself to do so.
On July 19, 2021, he again left the bag of weapons under a sink and pasted the “caution tape” across the corridor before returning to his classroom.
When he returned to the toilet at about 11.15am, the tape was hanging from only one side of the wall, and there were students in the toilet.
He waited for them to leave, then closed the toilet door and windows to prevent the prospective victim’s screams from being heard.
At about 11.30am, after Ethan entered the toilet, the accused went out briefly to paste the tape across the corridor.
He then attacked Ethan, and said “I’m sorry”.
DPP Teh said the assailant claimed he felt catharsis and regret after the attack, and decided not to kill anyone else.
At about 11.35am, the teen left the toilet with the axe and approached other students to call the police, but they ran away.
He complied when a teacher asked him to drop the axe, which she then kicked away from him. When the teen told her he had killed someone and asked her to call the police, she asked to see the body to confirm what he had told her.
When she saw Ethan on the toilet floor, she ran to seek help and bumped into a teacher who was on his way to the scene after he received a call from a student.
While the female teacher was contacting the school authorities, the teen called the police and reported: “I just killed someone. With an axe. I don’t know who. Are you going to send someone or not?”
The male teacher then called the police when he saw the body.
Paramedics and police officers arrived at about 11.50am, and the teen was arrested.
The teen, who has been in remand since the incident, took his O-level examinations in 2022 as a private candidate while in custody.
A psychiatric report from Dr Kenji Gwee of the IMH on Aug 18, 2021, said the teen was suffering from major depressive disorder around the time of the killing.
The onset of depression contributed to the killing, as it accentuated his fatalistic thinking.
The consumption of the videos desensitised him to the physicality and gore when taking a life, added the report.
In a subsequent report on June 20, 2023, Dr Gwee and Dr Cai Yiming said the teen’s depression is in remission, his recovery is progressing well, and his likelihood of reoffending remains low.
DPP Kumaresan Gohulabalan said this case of homicide was one that was truly unprecedented.
He sought between 12 and 16 years in jail, saying the killing was meticulously planned in the months prior to it.
“The facts show that the deceased, a young boy, was killed in cold blood as part of the accused’s detailed and methodical plan,” he said in sentencing submissions.
Mr Sudheesan said the teen has made proactive efforts to be more open in his conversations with his family, sharing more about his attitudes, problems and emotions.
The teen’s mother has completed a course in youth work, while his father is going through the same course.
The teen’s mother also took on a new job concerning youth mental health, while his father has committed to retire from his job to take care of his son upon his release.
Their son’s sentence has been backdated to July 19, 2021, when he was arrested.
Ethan’s parents were not in court, but their lawyer Mervyn Cheong was present to follow the case on their behalf.
In a statement through Mr Cheong, Ethan’s parents said: “We are heartbroken. We believe many who know Ethan will be too.
“Yet, we want to encourage everyone to remember Ethan fondly instead. Remember him for his goodness, his kind heart and his peace-loving nature. Remember that he would want us to be happy.”