CPS in dock as 'British Columbine' boys cleared

Jury takes just 45 minutes to decide that 'bomb plot' was little more than a fantasy
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The Crown Prosecution Service was forced to defend itself yesterday against claims it had wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds by bringing two teenagers to court accused of conspiring to blow up a shopping centre then committing a Columbine-style massacre at their school.

A jury took just 45 minutes to accept the argument of Matthew Swift, 18, and Ross McKnight, 16, that the alleged plot, which prompted a major police investigation and two-week trial, amounted to little more than adolescent fantasy scrawled in a school textbook.

The two boys, who live in the same street in Denton, Greater Manchester, and who had never been in trouble with the police before, faced possible life sentences if found guilty of conspiring to murder teachers and students and cause explosions. They have been in custody since their arrests in March – an experience which they described as "purgatory" – and said they now wanted to get on with their lives and hoped to be allowed to join the Army.

The CPS insisted it was right to bring the case to court after police seized evidence kept in journals and diaries following a late-night drunken phone "confession" by Mr McKnight to a girl he admired. She told her mother who called the police.

But although a safe in the bedroom of one of the teenagers was found to contain plans of their school, Audenshaw High, along with instructions on how to use acetone peroxide as a detonator, no explosives or firearms were recovered.

Watched by members of the jury that had just acquitted them, the boys stifled tears as they spoke of their relief outside Manchester Crown Court yesterday. Mr McKnight, whose father, Ray, is a serving police officer with 20 years' experience, said: "I would like to make it clear that at no time was any person put at risk either at Audenshaw High School or Crown Point North Shopping Centre. This was just a fantasy. This was never a reality." The 16-year-old was forced to sit his GCSEs while on remand at Hindley Young Offenders Institution.

Mr Swift, who has been held as a Category A prisoner at Strangeways since his arrest, said: "I would like to thank my friends and my legal team who continued to believe in me and who have supported me through this difficult time. I would now like to put this behind me."

Roderick Carus QC, who defended Mr McKnight, said prosecutors should make allowances for the "frivolity of youth". He said: "I think this was an unnecessary, heavy-handed prosecution against two young lads who could have been dealt with in a more sensitive way. As the jury's verdict demonstrates, this was a waste of public money, hundreds of thousands of pounds."

John Lord, reviewing lawyer at the CPS said: "The case brought against Matthew Swift and Ross McKnight was, we believe, one that was as equally strong as serious. As such, we felt it was in the public interest to ensure that the charges against the defendants were given the full scrutiny of a jury."

During the trial it was claimed that the teenagers were obsessed with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 12 students and a teacher and then killed themselves during a shooting spree at their high school in Colorado in April 1999. The prosecution claimed that the two Manchester boys intended to mount their scheme – codenamed Project Rainbow – on the 10th anniversary of the US massacre, having conceived the idea in November 2007. The prosecution had claimed that the boys were halted with just a month remaining.

So convinced were investigators that the pair were scheming to re-enact Columbine that two detectives were flown to Colorado to question the homicide department which investigated the killings. The Columbine lead investigator, Kate Battan, was then brought over to Manchester where it was planned she might give evidence.

The court heard that Mr Swift's interest in the massacre was first aroused when he was shown the Michael Moore documentary about the rampage, Bowling for Columbine, as part of his A-level studies at school.

At Mr Swift's home, officers found The Anarchist Cookbook, a Vietnam-era counter-culture manual first published in 1971, which contains recipes for molotov cocktails and booby traps. Also in his bookshelf were Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries, the book said to have inspired the Columbine massacre killers.