FAIR HAVEN, Vt. — When people who knew Jack Sawyer saw something, they said something.
A mother told the police that Mr. Sawyer, who had seemed troubled in the past, had just bought a gun. A friend of the young man also contacted the police: He was talking admiringly of the school massacre in Parkland, Fla., the friend warned, and hinting at sinister plans of his own.
The police soon detained Mr. Sawyer, 18, a former student at Fair Haven Union High School. They said they had found a journal in his car that laid out disturbing plans for a shooting at the high school. “I’m aiming to kill as many as I can,” the journal read. The school resource officer, the journal went on, might have to be shot “point blank” in the head.
Mr. Sawyer was charged with aggravated assault, two counts of attempted aggravated murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder — all felonies — and held without bail. Many in Fair Haven, a town of 2,700 residents on the western edge of Vermont, exhaled, believing they had stopped America’s next mass shooting.
But last month, a ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court cast doubt on the viability of the charges against Mr. Sawyer. The most serious charges were soon dropped, leaving only misdemeanors, and he was released on bail last week.
Residents were outraged — fearful for their safety and angry at a legal system that seemed not to take into account the realities of school shootings. In recent weeks, school officials said, the district spent $150,000 on new school security measures. Parents were consumed with questions about security for graduation or prom. State troopers’ cars became a sight as common as the school bus outside of Fair Haven Union High.
“I think we are the ones in prison now,” said Jessica Nadeau, 37, whose daughter, Olasia, 14, spoke of a nightmare about Mr. Sawyer and the stories of what he might do. “Now we’re all the ones who are locked into this fear.”
As the nation grapples with massacres in places like Parkland and Las Vegas, much attention has been given to the importance of identifying would-be gunmen and stopping them long before carnage begins. But this case, which has unfolded in Vermont over the last three months, shows that even in situations where warnings emerge, there is no simple way to weigh the seriousness of a threat against the legal rights of an individual in a case where no shooting has happened.
The Vermont Supreme Court said Mr. Sawyer’s acts did not meet the legal standards of the most serious charges against him. To constitute an attempted crime, the justices said, someone would have to not only prepare to commit a crime but take clear steps toward carrying it out.
“An ‘attempt’ under Vermont law requires an intent to commit a crime, coupled with an act that, but for an interruption, would result in the completion of a crime,” three justices wrote. They looked to a 1906 case, in which the Supreme Court found that a prisoner who had obtained 12 hacksaws — but not yet used them to try to saw through the bars of his jail window — could not be convicted of attempting to escape. Mr. Sawyer, they said, “took no action so proximate to the commission of a school shooting as to constitute an attempt.”
A lawyer for Mr. Sawyer, Kelly Green, said that common sense — not just legal precedent — would argue that Mr. Sawyer’s acts did not add up to attempted murder, a crime that can carry life in prison.
“Jack simply had thoughts about committing these crimes, wrote in his journal about committing the crimes, wrote his fantasy plans, and he purchased a gun,” Ms. Green said. “The average person on the street can understand that all of that is not good, but it’s not an attempted murder.”
The first signs of a problem in Fair Haven appeared on Feb. 14, an afternoon when images of the school shooting in Parkland were beginning to spread across the nation’s televisions. A parent told the police that Mr. Sawyer, who had left Fair Haven in 2016, had returned and had bought a gun. In court documents, police wrote that they knew Mr. Sawyer had made threats against the school two years earlier, but did not see evidence of anything new, and decided not to hold him at that point.
A day later, a teenage girl warned the police that Mr. Sawyer had described the Parkland shooting as “fantastic,” and wrote to her, in a Facebook message, “Just a few days ago I was still plotting on shooting up my old high school.”
With that, the police detained Mr. Sawyer and questioned him for hours. They said they seized a shotgun, ammunition, the journal and books about the massacre at Columbine High School from his car. According to a police affidavit, Mr. Sawyer told them that he had left a residential program where he had been getting treatment for depression and anxiety and that he had stopped taking medication that was prescribed to him. The police said he also told them that he intended to carry out a shooting at his former school.
“Sawyer stated it may not be next week, next month or even next year, but eventually he will carry out his plan,” Detective Sergeant Todd Wilkins, of the Vermont State Police, wrote in court documents.
The State Supreme Court’s ruling set off anger around the state and a flurry of calls for a rewrite of state law, which some experts said was more ambiguous on the legal issue of “attempted” crimes than other states. Prosecutors added misdemeanor charges of criminal threatening and carrying a dangerous weapon, and dropped the felony charges against Mr. Sawyer. The lowered charges carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison, in all, and Mr. Sawyer was released from jail on $10,000 bail.
“I am extremely concerned and frustrated that our current laws have allowed for the release of an individual who — as the court record shows — intended, and may still intend, to carry out a horrific crime,” the governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, announced.
The case led Mr. Scott, a Republican, to support a raft of new gun laws, including an “extreme risk” law, which was used last month to ensure that Mr. Sawyer cannot legally possess a weapon. Mr. Scott also encouraged lawmakers to pass a domestic terrorism law and other proposals to give prosecutors more tools in the future.
Mr. Sawyer’s family did not respond to a request for comment, and Mr. Sawyer, who left jail last week, could not be reached. Ms. Green said that Mr. Sawyer was receiving mental health treatment in a residential facility, which prosecutors said was voluntary. A judge placed strict conditions on his release, including barring him from entering Fair Haven. Ms. Green said his family was committed to ensuring that he and the rest of the community were safe.
She accused the state of causing panic in Fair Haven by sensationalizing the case. “The state’s attorney charged these outlandish and, on its face, frivolous charges, which caused a cacophony of terror in the community,” Ms. Green said.
In Fair Haven, people say they have a mix of complicated feelings. Some said they fear the town would never really feel secure again; still, many of them also said they knew Mr. Sawyer.
“He was one of our kids,” said Andrea Ochs, 46, an office manager and bookkeeper who has two daughters at the high school. “‘How did we fail him?’ is almost how I felt.”
He was an introverted student, said Jason Rasco, the acting principal of the school, and in 2016, administrators became worried about his abiding interest in the Columbine shooting. After he briefly ran away, his parents sent him out of state for treatment, according to court documents.
“It’s not a popular thing to say I care about him, but I really do,” Mr. Rasco said. But, he added, “I fear him because of what he is doing to others in the building, and what he is doing to my staff.”
Some staff members have decided not to return to school next year, Mr. Rasco said. Several students have been absent since the threat emerged. And many who come to school — where security measures, like new surveillance cameras, have been installed — have made new routines. Olasia Nadeau, Ms. Nadeau’s 14-year-old daughter, has moved her seat in some classrooms so she is always facing the door. A parent, Scott Hadeka, said he would start driving his son home after school instead of allowing him to walk. Czarina Ranney said her son, who is in middle school, now carries a bulletproof sheet in his backpack.
For students like Leah Gannon, 18, there are still standardized tests to take, jobs to hold down, and trips to neighboring towns to secure prom clothes. But she said she had to remain alert.
“I don’t try to forget it, because I always want it in the back of my mind, to feel safe,” Ms. Gannon said. “We do not feel safe.”
Many residents have read the chilling contents of the journal, which prosecutors made public. “We know all of his deepest thoughts,” said Michelle Murray, who has two children at the high school. “He managed to terrorize a community.”
On April 27, the day that Mr. Sawyer was released from jail, word spread quickly. In Whitehall, N.Y., 15 minutes away, students were given fliers showing Mr. Sawyer’s face.
Julia Adams, a social studies teacher in Fair Haven, said some students left school early. Some who remained peppered her with questions about the risks. She told them that school, with its locked doors and state troopers outside, was the safest place they could be. It was a relief, she said, when they turned back to studying the Civil War.
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