Jovan Collazo, who was charged with hijacking a school bus full of children, was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Jovan Collazo, who was charged with hijacking a school bus full of children, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. (Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Department)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — The Fort Jackson recruit charged with hijacking a school bus full of children was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Instead Jovan Collazo will be committed for 120 days following a court appearance Thursday.

In May 2021, Collazo left Fort Jackson and hijacked a school bus with 18 elementary school students and a driver on board, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department said.

The 25-year-old U.S. Army trainee from New Jersey was charged with 19 counts of kidnapping, armed robbery, carjacking, pointing a firearm, carrying a weapon on school property and possession of a weapon during a violent crime, Richland County court records show.

But on Sept. 27, 2022, a Circuit Court judge ordered Collazo to be evaluated by the state Department of Mental Health for his “criminal responsibility and capacity.”

The insanity conclusion was reached Thursday after two separate reports from doctors, and agreed on by both the prosecution — represented by Deputy Solicitor Dan Goldberg — and defense, Fifth Circuit Public Defender Fielding Pringle.

It was “one of those rare occasions where we are all in agreement,” Pringle told the judge.

Judge Debra McCaslin accepted the conclusion, and agreed that Collazo lacked the capacity to distinguish moral and legal right from wrong at the time of the hijacking.

It was apparent from the time of his arrest and during his initial evaluations that he was schizophrenic, Pringle said. The reports similarly found that Collazo was convinced that someone was coming to hurt him or his family when he escaped Fort Jackson with an unloaded M4 rifle and hijacked the bus from a nearby neighborhood.

Following interviews with other soldiers and his family, it was apparent that Collazo, who was 23 at the time of the incident, had been struggling with the early manifestations of his illness for some time, Pringle said. The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes late teens to early 20s as the typical age of onset for schizophrenia in men.

While unaware of the disease, his family would try to soothe his intense feelings of paranoia while Collazo lived at home in New York.

“It was just so tragic because the family just didn’t know,” Pringle said. “Those delusions persisted and followed him down to South Carolina.”

Collazo has been incarcerated at the Alvin S Glenn Detention Center since May 2021. During that time, Collazo had accepted his treatment and was learning to come to terms with his illness, Pringle said. In those two years, he has not received a single disciplinary infraction, she said.

“I don’t need to tell you how remarkable that is,” Pringle said.

Signing off on the plan, McClaslin looked down at Collazo, who his hair grown out into a ponytail from the Army buzz cut he had sported during his arrest.

“I wish you luck,” McClaslin said.

Escape attempt

Following his arrest, Collazo tried to escape from Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, The State previously reported. Collazo assaulted a guard before breaking his leg in the escape attempt, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.

Collazo’s attorney, 5th Circuit chief public defender Fielding Pringle, characterized the escape attempt as a desperate act by a “troubled man on suicide watch.”

“People who are thinking clearly and normally do not run around jail dorms completely naked with their hands cuffed behind their back running into locked steel doors and jumping from the second tier to the floor below,” Pringle said, at the time. “These are not the actions of a healthy and clear-minded individual who is trying to escape.”

Hijacking the school bus

On May 7, 2021, Collazo ran away from his unit at Fort Jackson in the morning and began trying to get rides from cars on Interstate 77, authorities said.

He walked to Percival Road, where he boarded the school bus with 18 children going to Forest Lake Elementary, Lott said. Armed with a rifle, the recruit told the bus driver to take him to the next town, Lott said.

Collazo’s weapon, an M4 carbine, did not have any ammunition because neither live rounds nor blanks had been issued to trainees, former Fort Jackson Commander Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle said.

With the bus on the move, the trainee brought all of the kids to the front of the bus, where they began to frustrate him with lots of questions, according to Lott.

After traveling about 3.5 miles, Collazo had the driver stop and let the kids and driver off, the sheriff said. Collazo drove a couple miles, but soon abandoned the bus and left his rifle on board. Collazo had difficulty driving the bus, according to the sheriff.

After leaving the bus on Old Percival Road, Collazo tried to get rides and clothes when he was spotted on I-77 and was taken into custody without incident, according to Lott.

The students and the driver were not physically injured.

While they had the opportunity to be present, none of the children or the bus driver chose to be in court Thursday, Goldberg said.

Lott praised the children and the bus driver’s training, which allowed him to remain calm and deal with the situation. Lott called the bus driver a “hero.”

©2023 The State.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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