An Eastern Shore teacher was put on leave and taken for medical evaluation after authorities grew concerned about his writings — including a novel about a school shooting and a letter with "suicidal undertones" — and a model he constructed at his home of a school building.
But with authorities initially supplying few details, the case of 24-year-old Patrick Wayne McLaw blew up online. Commentators from across the political spectrum worried that his rights were being trampled by an overreaching government that was policing the teacher's thoughts rather than his actions.
Mike A. Lewis, sheriff of Wicomico County, where McLaw lives with his mother, said the teacher's writings — which include two self-published novels and a four-page letter he allegedly sent last month to a school official in Dorchester — along with the model in his backyard, raised legitimate fears.
McLaw was put on leave with pay from his job as a language arts teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge before the school year began last week, Dorchester County school officials said.
McLaw has not been charged with any crime. Attorney David Moore told The Los Angeles Times that his client is "receiving treatment."
When McLaw was taken for a medical evaluation last month at Peninsula Regional Medical Center, local news organizations noted the two novels he published under the pen name "Dr. K.S. Voltaer."
One, set in 2902, details a massacre at Ocean Park High School, claiming the lives of 947 individuals — "the largest school massacre in the nation's history," according to its description on Amazon.com.
McLaw's mother, Kay White, declined to discuss the allegations against him. But she said the school model, so large that McLaw erected a building in their backyard to house it, was just something he enjoyed making.
McLaw's attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Wicomico County State's Attorney Matthew A. Maciarello said the news media has mischaracterized the case as McLaw's being persecuted for writing fiction.
Rather, those books "in aggregate" with a letter he wrote and complaints police received about him convinced officials that he needed to be evaluated.
"I think this was textbook," Maciarello said. "You have to do your due diligence. You cannot risk the safety of the students. You cannot risk the safety of the teachers."
Before authorities began sharing details Tuesday, several online commentators decried the "disappearing" of a writer simply on the basis of a futuristic novel.
"From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats," Jeffrey Goldberg begins in a piece posted Monday on The Atlantic website. Goldberg goes on to denounce "the Soviet-sounding practice of ordering an apparently sane person who has been deemed unacceptable by state authorities to undergo a psychological evaluation."
He continued: "[S]o far, there is no indication that he is guilty of anything other than having an imagination, although on Maryland's Eastern Shore, as news reports make clear, his imagination is considered an active threat."
The libertarian magazine Reason and the liberal website The Daily Kos also were critical. In some cases, websites have updated their posts with more information from officials.
Maciarello said law enforcement agencies began investigating McLaw on Aug. 15 after a teacher at the middle school he attended complained to police that he visited her frequently, called her "Mother" and named a character in his book after her. The character is among those killed in the fictional massacre, Maciarello said.
Wicomico officials, working with their counterparts in other jurisdictions, learned that a deputy administrator with Dorchester County schools had received a four-page letter that contained what Maciarello called "a suicidal undertone."
The letter-writer identified himself as McLaw, "AKA Dr. K.S. Voltaer," Maciarello said, and warned that it could "be the last time you hear from me."
"Consider it my memoir. Consider it my farewell address. Consider it my resignation. Consider it what you will, but I just want someone to listen to me," Maciarello said, reading an excerpt from the letter.
The writer wrote of a teacher who had made complaints about him, Maciarello said.
Maciarello said the county's health officer thought the letter raised enough concerns that McLaw should be evaluated. Health and law enforcement personnel went to McLaw's residence two weeks ago, Maciarello said, and found him "cooperative."
They received consent to a limited search, Maciarello said, and "found a couple of other things" that caused concern. They included writing that referred to an "execution." Maciarello described it as three or four paragraphs written as "a letter to Antichrist from Antichrist's servant."
McLaw was taken to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury for evaluation and appeared last week before an administrative judge, Maciarello said. He said privacy laws prevented him from giving further details.
He and other officials stressed that McLaw is not being held by police. But he said police would continue to investigate allegations against him.
Authorities searched Mace's Lane Middle School before students returned for class last week.
"[We] agreed that the prudent thing to do was search for any type of weapons or implements or devices that could be damaging to children," Dorchester County Sheriff James W. Phillips Jr. said Tuesday.
They found nothing dangerous, and school opened as scheduled.
McLaw, a graduate of Salisbury University, started working at Mace's Lane last year. According to news accounts, he was one of nine nominees for the First Class Teacher of the Year, an award the county gives to teachers in their first year.
Dorchester Schools Superintendent Henry V. Wagner Jr. said none of the allegations investigated by authorities involved McLaw's employment in the schools. Wagner said McLaw was subjected to a background check before he was hired.
The only reference to McLaw in online state judiciary records relates to his 2008 petition to change his name from Patrick Wayne Beale to Patrick Wayne McLaw. The process was concluded the following year, according to the records.
Wagner said McLaw is not allowed to go onto school property or participate in school events while on administrative leave. He said his teaching duties have been assigned to other personnel.
Wagner said Cambridge police are maintaining "a presence" at the school.
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect age for Patrick Wayne McLaw. He is 24. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.