By Alan J. Keays
Mark Gutel said he purposefully has no internet service in his downtown Kinder Way Cafe.
Without WiFi, he says, customers are encouraged to talk, and for the past two months the dominant topic of conversation has been the case of 18-year-old Jack Sawyer, accused of plotting to shoot up the town’s high school.
“There’s a lot of questions, there’s a lot of fears,” said Gutel, 48. “There’s a lot of: What do we do now?”
A ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court last week — which said that Sawyer could no longer be held without bail on the charges against him — has unnerved residents of this western Rutland County town of 2,700. Bail was set this week at $100,000; as of Wednesday, it had not been posted.
The initial coverage of the case focused on evidence, including the journal the former Fair Haven Union student was alleged to have kept, titled “Journal of an Active Shooter,” and the “kill list” he was accused of making, of students and staff.
The possibility of Sawyer’s imminent release has residents feeling anger, frustration and confusion about the situation and the attention it has drawn to their small town — until now known mostly for being “The Slate Center of the Nation.”
“There’s a mix of reaction,” Gutel said of his customers. “Most, I got to tell, are disappointed with the decision.”
The high court ruled not only that Sawyer can no longer be held without bail, but also that the charges against him, including attempted aggravated murder and other “attempted” crimes, are not supported by the evidence.
The ruling — that merely planning an act does not constitute an attempt under Vermont law — rested on a century-old legal precedent, set when the court overturned the conviction of a prison inmate charged with attempted escape because, though someone had slipped him a hacksaw, he had never used it.
Sawyer’s attorney has filed a motion to dismiss the case against him, and to have him released immediately from custody.
Prosecutors and Gov. Phil Scott are seeking other ways of keeping him locked up.
Sawyer remained at the Rutland jail this week, awaiting a bail hearing.
The former Fair Haven Union High School student two years ago had been sent by his parents to a residential treatment school, after Fair Haven school officials expressed concern about what they said was his fascination with the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting in Colorado.
Sawyer grew up in Poultney, a town bordering Fair Haven; according to court records, he attended Fair Haven’s high school because it offered additional opportunities.
When he returned to Vermont in February, he told police he was living in his car and couch-surfing at friends’ places.
There has been no testimony in court, and no allegations in documents filed in the case, that Sawyer has been on or near the grounds of Fair Haven high school since he returned to Vermont.
‘He seemed OK”
Dominique Colford, 18, taking a short break from skateboarding near the expansive green in the center of town, said he was a classmate of Sawyer at the high school
Sawyer was a bit of an outsider who kept to himself, Colford said.
But “I grew up with the kid,” Colford said. “He was a good kid; he seemed OK.”
Colford, who is no longer in school and is looking for work, wondered what would have happened had Sawyer hung out more with him and his friends, who not only enjoyed skateboarding around town, but looked out for each other as well.
“I wish he could have joined us,” Colford said. “Maybe it would have been a good thing for him,”
Across the street from where Colford was skateboarding, Bill DeGraaf, 65, of Fair Haven was walking his dog, Kady, on a downtown sidewalk. He expressed a sentiment shared by many in town: Surely Sawyer should be charged with something.
“There should be some kind of charges for a case like this,” he said.
Gov. Scott said last week he would work with the Legislature to quickly address what he called a loophole regarding attempted crimes.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said the Senate Judiciary Committee would take up the matter to address the changing times.
“The distinctions between contemplating, planning, preparing, attempting and committing a crime are subject to the same factors as much other policy – social, technological, etc.,” Ashe said.
Changes in the law would apply to future prosecutions, but they cannot be applied retroactively to Sawyer.
‘A lot of stress’
Back at the cafe in Fair Haven, Susan Moore, 60, of Castleton said she has a niece in the fourth grade at the elementary school in Fair Haven.
“I know it causes a lot of stress for them there,” Moore said of students and staff at the school. “She watches the news, she hears it on TV and she hears the adults talking about it and they are running more drills in the school, so she’s is aware of it.”
Moore said the case highlights the need for increased mental health services in Vermont.
“We always need more resources for mental health,” Moore added. “At the same point, I don’t think we can wait until something happens to address it.”
Scott has said that, if Sawyer’s released, the state Department of Public Safety would give the Fair Haven Police Department help to secure the school.
Brooke Olsen-Farrell, the school superintendent, has sent notices home, explaining measures the school is taking to improve security and tighten access.
A no-trespass order
The school district has obtained a no-trespass order against Sawyer, should he be released.
Visitors to the high school have to be buzzed to get in through locked doors.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy, the prosecutor, has obtained an extreme risk protection order against Sawyer — the first application of a law the governor had signed only a day earlier.
The order permits authorities to seize any firearms he may have following his possible release from jail. Sawyer does not plan to challenge the order, his attorney says.
While the case has played out in a courtroom in Rutland and at the Statehouse in Montpelier, it is in Fair Haven where it has hit close to home.
Superintendent Olsen-Farrell said parents have already started calling to express concern about sending their children to school should Sawyer be released, and staff members have expressed similar reservations.
Kevin Durkee, 66, who has an insurance agency and owns several downtown buildings, said he’s on edge about Sawyer’s possible release.
“I’m shocked it would happen here,” he said of the case. “I’m sorry it would happen here.”
He said he’s glad for the intervention of law enforcement.
“Hopefully, this is a wakeup call for him, but he’s only one,” Durkee said of Sawyer. “This is happening all over the place. Why? Why is it happening?”
He added, “If we don’t look at the root cause of this violence, this anger, taking guns away is not going to help. It might slow them down, but we’ve got to figure out why it’s happening.”