Police chief pushes federal prosecution in Sawyer case
Fair Haven Police Chief Bill Humphries says he has tried several avenues to get federal prosecutors to take on the case of the 18-year-old Poultney man accused of plotting to shoot up the town’s high school.
That includes writing to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I have not heard back from him,” Humphries said Monday of the country’s top federal prosecutor, who he attempted to contact through the Justice Department’s website.
Closer to home, federal prosecutors in Vermont on Monday would neither confirm nor deny that they are looking into the matter.
“I’m not a prosecutor so I don’t know what federal charges might apply,” Humphries said. “I just wanted to somebody to look at this.”
Humphries said he even took his plea to Congress, asking U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., for help getting attention from federal law enforcement agencies.
Welch said Monday that while he appreciates the police chief’s effort at leaving “no stone unturned,” he told Humphries it would be a matter better taken up with the federal prosecutors in Vermont.
“He was willing to do anything, including contacting Attorney General Sessions,” Welch said of Humphries. “My understanding is the way the U.S. Department of Justice operates it would be something where our own local U.S. attorney would probably have to be very much in that loop.”
Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose office is defending Sawyer, said Monday he didn’t see, “based on what I know now,” any federal violations in the allegations against his client.
“We’re not aware of anything that will make this a federal case,” Valerio said.
Legal experts say they don’t expect a federal prosecution to be brought in the case.
“I think the answer to it is pretty simple, nothing’s happened,” Jerry O’Neill, a Burlington attorney and former federal prosecutor, said Monday.
O’Neill added that he had no inside information on the matter, but said “given the level of concern that’s been expressed with respect to this individual” if federal charges could have been brought, they would have been brought by now.
“I assume they looked at it and said, ‘There’s not enough there,’” O’Neill said.
David Sleigh, a St. Johnsbury defense attorney, said federal prosecutors have been increasingly successful in extending their reach into typically state cases, particularly when communication devices are involved.
“They like headlines,” Sleigh added of federal prosecutors. “That said, you’d think if they had a strong federal case, it would have happened by now.”
State prosecutors recently dismissed the most serious charges against Sawyer, including three counts of attempted murder, citing a Vermont Supreme Court decision that made moving forward on those counts “untenable.”
A three-justice panel of the high court said in a ruling earlier this month regarding bail that merely planning a crime does not meet to the standard for an “attempt” under Vermont case law dating back more than a century.
The defendant’s father, David Sawyer, posted the $10,000 bail Friday needed to get his son released from jail. Jack Sawyer, who had been jailed since his arrest in mid-February, is currently at the Brattleboro Retreat receiving psychiatric care.
Two misdemeanor charges remain pending against Sawyer in state court, which his attorneys say they are trying to get thrown out. If convicted of those offenses, Sawyer faces no more than three years in jail.
Had the serious felony charges stuck, he would be facing life behind bars.
Gov. Phil Scott raised the possibility of federal prosecution in the case in a statement issued a little more than two weeks ago.
In that statement, Scott said his administration was “actively” working with state and federal prosecutors as well as other law enforcement agencies “to identify any and all legal avenues to keep (Sawyer) in custody.”
Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson, through a spokesperson, declined to Monday comment on the possibility of the federal prosecution in the Sawyer case, referring questions to the U.S. attorney’s office in Vermont.
One potential avenue that could open the case up to possible federal prosecution involves messages that authorities say Sawyer exchanged with a friend, a 17-year-old girl from New York state, over Facebook messenger.
In those messages sent across state lines, according to court records, Sawyer talked of plans for an attack on Fair Haven Union High School, where he formerly had been a student.
“The biggest problem the state has had all the way along here,” O’Neill said, “is that his talk about it has been, ‘This is what I plan to do,’ not, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”
O’Neill added, “I think the problem is more the insufficiency of the threat.”
A recent case that did draw federal prosecution involved a former South Burlington high school student arrested following a series of threats sent through a web of email and social media accounts.
Those threats led to three days of lockdowns at the high school and for one day the cancellation of classes districtwide.
The 19-year-old defendant in that case pleaded guilty in October to a federal charge of transmitting threats in interstate commerce. As part of the plea deal, he was sentenced in February to five years probation.
Sleigh, who was not involved in either case, said that matter was different than the one involving Sawyer. In the South Burlington case, he said, a “direct threat” was made against the school, while in the Sawyer case, no such a “direct threat” to the school was made.
Sleigh said he wouldn’t go as far to say that he’d be surprised if federal prosecutors brought charges against Sawyer.
“You know the old adage,” he added, “a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich.”
To be charged with anything other than a misdemeanor, however, a federal prosecutor would need to get a grand jury to agree that the charges were warranted and return an indictment, unless a defendant waived that process.
“I will say I think a prudent federal prosecutor would understand that there are enormous barriers to a successful federal prosecution,” he said.