Leonardo Santamaria for NPR
It was sunny and cold on February 13, 2018, when 18-year-old Jack Sawyer arrived with a brand new pump-action shotgun and four packs of ammunition from Rick's sporting goods store in Rutland, Vt.
The next day, Valentine's Day, Sawyer brought out his new weapon to practice.
At about the same time, about 1,500 miles away in Parkland, Florida, a 19-year-old shot and shot 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Not long after, Vermont learned that it might have narrowly avoided a similar massacre. The state police said they arrested Sawyer after allegedly threatening mass victims at his former high school in Fair Haven, a small town near the New York border.
The police said Sawyer had described his plans in detail: He told them that he had read books on the Columbine shootings in 1999 and that he had a relationship with the two shooters. Sawyer said he had moved back to Vermont to fulfill a similar plan at Fair Haven Union High School.
He also had the police search his car, where they found the shotgun and ammunition he had legally bought, and a journal entitled "The Journal of Active Sagittarius."
But the Fair Haven Union High School did not join Marjory Stoneman Douglas or Santa Fe or Columbine or Virginia Tech.
In many ways, the system worked: someone saw something, said something, and the police made it an arrest. But what happened next would create a fundamental tension at the heart of our criminal justice system: when does a thought – or plan – become a crime?
"I know I need to tell someone right away"
The police said they monitored Sawyer after they got a tip from Jennifer Mortenson on February 14th. Her daughter was Sawyer in Fair Haven Union a few years ahead, and Mortenson was aware that Sawyer had threatened high school in the US past. She was alerted when she heard from a friend of her daughter that Sawyer had bought a weapon. Then Parkland passed and Mortenson decided to alert the police.
The officials responded, but after questioning Sawyer, they hired that they had no reason to arrest him.
Then a friend of Sawyer named Angela McDevitt spoke.
A few days before Parkland, Sawyer, and McDevitt had been using Facebook Messenger on Facebook. According to a police report, Sawyer told McDevitt, "A few days ago, I planned to destroy my old high school."
McDevitt was shocked and scared – she was not sure what to do. Then she heard about Parkland and told him so.
Sawyer's answer stunned her: "That's fantastic," he wrote. "100% support."
. I remember staring at my phone as I thought, "Oh my god." I was so shocked, "McDevitt says," I just thought, you can not say that, people are dead. "And then I thought," I know, I have to tell someone right away. "
The next morning, On February 15, McDevitt showed the news to authorities near her home in New York State, and the Vermont State Police had Sawyer detained early in the afternoon.
At the police station, Sawyer was taken to a small room and two officers The Vermont State Police Interviewed The detectives recorded their conversation on video and the record was included in the court records showing how the police tell Sawyer that his mother and father are waiting outside, and the 18-year-old says he will rather talk to the police without his parents.
Nina Keck / VPR
For several hours, Sawyer shows that he's been thinking about attacking his old school, and he wants to set a new record: the highest death rate for a school shooter – more than 32 people.
He says he would kill himself when he was done: "If I ever die, I would like it."
And he says his arrest would only delay his plan.
Sawyer also reveals that he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was treated at a therapeutic boarding school in Maine. At the time, detectives did not know that this was just part of Sawyer's many years of mental health history.
The "overwhelming experience" of being treated
Lawyers are often bursting when people engage in mental health discussions about mass shooters. They argue that people with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
But talking to Sawyer's family and close friends keeps drawing attention to his mental illness.
His former classmates from Fair Haven Union say that Sawyer was at first funny and nice, if a bit shy and distant. In the tenth grade, he had become more distant and posted disturbing things on Facebook. He did a housework on Columbine and brought a book about the shootings to school.
In the spring of 2016, school staff, counselors, and law enforcement agencies began working with Sawyer's family to create a plan. They wanted to get Sawyer to safety and make sure he did not hurt anyone.
But on the same day that Sawyer was meeting with the Headmaster to discuss this plan, he broke off. Not long after, a friend told Sawyer's mother Lyn Wolk that her son was suicidal.
Courtesy by Lyn Wolk
"It's a very overwhelming experience to figure that out," says Wolk in an interview at her home in July 2018.
She is tense and sitting upright in her office. It is clearly difficult to talk about, and she chooses her words carefully.
Wolk says it's not easy to find help for her son – especially in a small, rural state like Vermont. Friends would recommend therapists in the area, but none of them picked up new patients. There is also a shortage of psychiatrists in the state, especially psychiatrists who see children. It was therefore difficult to find out about her son's medication.
"We knew what he needed, we knew what would appeal to him," Wolk recalls. "But we knew there was nothing like it in our area."
In February 2018, Rose Kennedy, Rutland County prosecutor, commissioned Sawyer with four charges of crimes: two charges for attempted murder and one charge each of attempted first-degree murder and attempted a deadly weapon assault.
These charges are among the most serious in Vermont's Criminal Code. An attempted murder is punishable by the same punishment as an actual murder charge: life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Kennedy petitioned to detain Sawyer without bail, and a lower court agreed.
In Fair Haven, where Sawyer reportedly planned to carry out his attack, many people said that they felt safe.
But Sawyer's public defender Kelly Green believed the prosecutor had gone too far.
"Huge accusation, huge!" Says Green and shakes his head. "Not only because the allegations were so grave, but because the facts were not there, the facts did not support the allegation that Jack did not commit these crimes."
She believes that there was a better option – civil engagement. This meant that a court had to take Sawyer to a psychiatric hospital where he could get help.
Kennedy, the prosecutor, said she did not seek a civil liability because she had no access to Sawyer's medical records and there was no guarantee that the court would grant her application. And more importantly, Kennedy says she believed that Sawyer had attempted to kill – that his plans and preparations deserved the indictment.
However, legal experts in Vermont began to quickly discuss whether the charges went too far – and whether the state went down a slippery slope of persecution of thought. They asked thorny questions like:
Should anyone be allowed to think, "I want to shoot my old school"?
Or write it down In a magazine?
Or do you do that and then buy a weapon?
In other words, has Sawyer ever violated the law?
Jared Carter, assistant professor at Vermont Law School, says no – at least not according to the law, as it was written when Sawyer was arrested.
He points to a groundbreaking case in 1906 over a Vermont prisoner convicted of attempting to escape. The prisoner turned to the Vermont Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction.
"Many people might say," Well, wait a minute. The guy collected metal saw blades to break out of the jail. Why is not that enough? "Carter explains. "And I think the reason is that he might have had this design, that he might have had that idea, that he could have bought some blades, but in fact he had done nothing and in this country "We Criminalize Acts – No Thoughts."
Sawyer's defense lawyers made a similar case. They argued that Sawyer had not tried any of the crimes he was accused of and therefore could not be held without bail. And as with the suspected prisoner, the case went to the Supreme Court. The thirteen-year-old Jack celebrates the end of the school year with a huge banana split. His mother says it's not easy to find help for her son – especially in a small, rural state like Vermont.
Courtesy of Lyn Wolk