MIDDLEBURY – Until last week, Vermont had evaded the fear of school shootings that have swept the nation.
The state was put to the test last Thursday after two separate tips reached Rutland County authorities regarding a teenager, 18, who was thought to pose a dire threat to the community. A young woman from Poughkeepsie, NY, contacted police after receiving messages from the teen, who is her, claiming he wanted to commit a shooting at a high school 30 miles south of Middlebury. Two days later, a parent also contacted authorities regarding suspicious behavior.
The eighteen-year-old was Jack Sawyer. In the span of only a few days, Sawyer was searched, arrested, arraigned on multiple charges of attempted aggravated murder and held without bail. Sawyer’s comprehensive plan to kill students at Fair Haven Union High School in Fair Haven, Vt., was thwarted in a matter of days through the swift action by local officials.
Sawyer’s life had been unstable in the past few years. After being kicked out of the local public school, he was being treated at a resident facility in Maine for the past year for anxiety and depression. According to Sawyer’s father, David Sawyer, he had checked himself out of the facility and returned to Vermont to seek a job on Feb. 9.
The disturbing affidavit written by Det. Sgt. Todd Wilkins last week detailed the events leading up to Sawyer’s arrest. On Feb. 13, Sawyer purchased a shotgun from Dick’s Sporting Goods. Two days later, Chief William Humphries was contacted by the Duchess County Sherriff’s Department regarding text messages Sawyer had exchanged with a young woman from Poughkeepsie, NY.
In the exchange, the woman questioned why Sawyer had returned to Vermont. “Back in VT I’m trying to start fresh,” Sawyer replied. “Just a few days ago I was still plotting on shooting up my old high school so it’s not like I really wanted a future anyways.”
The woman also was the one to notify Sawyer of the Florida high school shooting. Sawyer had been recently fixated on the 1999 Columbine shooting, and was reported by Det. Sgt. Wilkins to have been reading about it recently. “That’s fantastic. 100% support it,” Sawyer wrote in response to the massacre in Florida.
After reviewing the messages, Det. Sgt. Henry Alberico and Wilkins located Sawyer in Poultney, Vt. The two interviewed the teenager thoroughly, and it became evident how substantial his plan to kill students at Fair Haven High School was. Through the interview, the two learned of Sawyer’s aspirations to purchase an AR-15 and 9 mm Glock (both of which he could legally purchase in Vermont), the journal he had started months earlier entitled “Journal of an Active Shooter,” and that he simply wanted to kill “as many as [he could] get.”
This scare came only days after the school shooting on Feb. 14, in which 17 people were killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Immediately after the Florida rampage, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, stood by the existing gun laws, which are some of the weakest in the nation. The was given an “F” grade by the Gifford Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, named for the former Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured in a mass shooting in 2011.
For Scott, it took the threat of a school shooting in Fair Haven to reconsider the question of gun legislation, although he declined to offer any specific changes that he was open to. He expressed his shift in stance at a press conference last Friday. “If we are at a point when we put our kids on a bus and send them to school without being able to guarantee their safety, who are we?” Scott said at the news conference. “I need to be open-minded, objective and at least consider anything that will protect our kids.”
Since the fall, Senator Dick Sears, a Democrat from Bennington, has worked on a senate bill that would create a process to remove guns from citizens who appear to be a threat to themselves or others: those like Sawyer. For the next two weeks, the Senate Judiciary Committee will work on bringing the bill to a vote.
Gun Owners of Vermont, a group that endorsed Gov. Scott in the 2016 election, remains adamant that there be no strengthening of gun laws in the state. Ed Cutler, vice president of the group, told the Burlington Free Press that he suspected Scott was yielding to political pressure. “I hope he comes to realize that we’re his core base,” he told the paper.