South Portland teen accused in murder plot is back in custody

Dec. 1—The South Portland teenager accused of trying to recruit another person into a scheme to commit murder at his high school will spend at least a week in custody after allegedly violating the conditions of his release.

Tristan Hamilton, 17, was booked at Long Creek Youth Detention Center on Thursday after he was accused of participating in hateful social media group chats. A judge Friday ordered him to remain in custody until another hearing next Thursday.

The ruling marked a change of course for District Court Judge Peter Darvin, who had previously denied multiple requests from prosecutors to detain the teenager. Hamilton is charged with terrorizing, arson and criminal solicitation for murder, and has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He attended the hearing remotely from Long Creek.

"These are violations which show a certain degree of deception and subterfuge," Darvin said. "I don't think it's the innocent communication of a lonely boy. I think it's more."

But the judge emphasized that he does not believe Hamilton poses any immediate threat to a specific individual or group and said that the messages did not include specific threats — though they did include some "generalized threats." Moving forward, Darvin said, part of the case will revolve around whether the views the teenager expressed are constitutionally protected or if they crossed the line into actual threats.

The exact contents of Hamilton's messages remained under seal Friday, like most details in the state's case against him. Darvin again barred attorneys from speaking openly in court about many of the specifics. And strict confidentiality laws surrounding juvenile proceedings prevent the public from accessing court documents.

The judge said the public can expect to learn more details about the specifics of the case if the prosecution continues an effort to move the case to adult court. That hearing would likely take place over two days in January.

Hamilton was released from a short stay at Long Creek after a dramatic SWAT raid on his home in April and has been living at home with several conditions, including that he is prohibited from possessing weapons and flammable objects, barred from going to school grounds, must receive therapy, and must check in with a juvenile community corrections officer multiple times a day. He also is under a tracking monitor.

He also had been barred from using social media — but on Thursday, an FBI special agent shared hundreds of screenshots with South Portland police showing Hamilton secretly participating in online group chats as recently as October, according to Assistant District Attorney Abby Couture.

She said the messages demonstrate a "hate of certain races, classes and beliefs," and a predilection for "extreme violence."

She argued that Hamilton remains a threat and should remain in detention.

"It is absolutely mind-blowing to the state that we can even have this conversation at this point," Couture said.

The defense acknowledged the teenager had violated his release conditions but was adamant that he was not a threat. Hamilton's parents told Darvin that the case has alienated the teen from his community and former friends.

His father, Adam Hamilton, pleaded not guilty in September to multiple charges stemming from the April raid on his home, including resisting arrest and obstructing police from arresting his son. The older Hamilton attracted criticism during his campaign for a South Portland School Board seat in 2021 when several Islamophobic and transphobic memes and statements he posted in 2019 resurfaced. Hamilton later distanced himself from the statements, saying he had evolved and they did not represent who he was.

Detaining Tristan Hamilton indefinitely at Long Creek could isolate him further and make it more difficult for him to catch up to his peers, his attorney Mark Peltier said.

"To put it bluntly, he's lonely," Peltier said. "He went back to a place where he knew he could get some acceptance. He doesn't believe this stuff."

Peltier appeared frustrated with the prosecution's claims that Hamilton posed a threat to the community, which he said would hurt his client once they circulate through the media.

Hamilton's correction officer, who has been monitoring the teenager's phone and internet activity since the summer, told Darvin that he has mostly done a good job following his conditions of release, echoing comments she made in October. But when asked by Darvin whether she thought Hamilton should be detained, she said she didn't have an answer.

"I was disheartened by the information I saw yesterday," she said. "With the new information it makes me question moving forward if there was more that I was not aware of."

Darvin attempted to walk a middle line between the two parties. He agreed with prosecutors that Hamilton should continue to be detained, but only temporarily — the parties will return to court Thursday morning for another detention hearing after Darvin has had time to examine more evidence of Hamilton's recent violations, including the screenshots shared by the FBI. Darvin granted Hamilton's correction officer latitude to let him out of Long Creek early if she determines it's appropriate.