UPDATED: Sawyer case ‘hanging by a thread’ as judge lowers bail
RUTLAND – A Rutland judge on Wednesday lowered bail for Jack Sawyer, the 18-year-old accused by police of plotting an attack on his former high school in Fair Haven.
The bail ruling had been anticipated since last week when prosecutors dropped the most serious charges against Sawyer, including three counts of attempted murder, following a recent Vermont Supreme Court decision in the case.
That left pending two misdemeanor counts, which Kelly Green, Sawyer’s public defender, described in court Wednesday as “hanging by a thread.”
Green declined comment immediately after the hearing, and later only said that her client would not be posting bail today. Green said in court that if released, Sawyer is seeking to go to the Brattleboro Retreat, or another similar facility, for inpatient psychiatric care.
Prosecutors had sought to keep bail at $100,000, the amount set by the judge following an earlier hearing. Green argued for Sawyer’s release on conditions only,and if monetary bail were imposed, Green asked that it be set at $5,000 requiring a 10 percent deposit.
The judge sided with neither attorney, dropping the cash bail to $10,000.
“Fairly viewed,” Zonay said, “the nature and circumstances of the offenses, (Sawyer’s) stated basis for returning to Vermont to effectuate a shooting, and his character and mental condition call into question his ability to make decisions based upon what may be his long-term interest.”
The judge added, “On all the factors, and having considered (Sawyer’s) financial status, this court concludes that bail in the amount of $10,000 is the amount necessary to reasonably assure his appearance.”
The judge also set strict conditions for Sawyer should he post bail, including that he be released into the custody of his father, David Sawyer of Poultney, and abide by a 24-hour curfew, leaving the residence only under the “eyeball” supervision of his father.
Sawyer’s mother lives in Florida with his stepfather, David Wolk, the former president of Castleton University.
Other conditions of Sawyer’s release are that he is prohibited from venturing onto any school property, and he must stay out of the town of Fair Haven. He also cannot use or possess “any device” with internet capabilities.
“Do you understand these conditions?” Zonay asked Sawyer, as the hearing came to a close.
“Yes,” replied Sawyer, seated at the defense table in cuffs and dressed in the same grey sweatshirt, tan pants, and sneakers he has worn to previous hearings in the case.
“Are you able to make sure that you follow these conditions?” Zonay asked.
“Yes,” Sawyer responded.
Sawyer was initially ordered held without bail following his arrest in mid-February on attempted murder charges.
However, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that, in Vermont case law, merely planning to commit a crime did not meet the standard for him to be charged with an attempt to commit a crime. The ruling meant Sawyer could no longer be held without bail, and it cast doubt on the felony charges against him.
Though Zonay had set bail at $100,000 at a hearing last week, the prosecutors’ subsequent decision to drop the felony charges, saying the Supreme Court ruling had made continued prosecution on those counts “untenable,” led to the hearing Wednesday morning.
Sawyer still faces two misdemeanor offenses, criminal threatening and carrying a dangerous weapon with the avowed purpose to commit serious injury or death.
Together, those misdemeanor offenses could carry a prison sentence of three years. Until the felony charges were dismissed, Sawner had faced the possibility of life in prison without parole.
“The landscape of this case has changed drastically since we were here last,” Green, Sawyer’s public defender, said Wednesday in arguing for her client’s release. “We ask that the court strike bail altogether.”
She said Sawyer did not have the $100,000 prosecutors were seeking.
“He has $750, give or take,” Green said.
She said her client has been “extremely cooperative” with the judicial process.
“Jack was cooperative when the police interviewed him for eight hours,” Green said. “He freely signed releases for the police to review all his medical and mental health treatment records, he invited them to read his diary, to search his car, to confiscate his belongings. He’s just been cooperative.”
Police said that diary, titled, “Journal of an Active Shooter,” included plans for carrying out the shooting and a “kill list” of students and staff.
At the time of Sawyer’s arrest on Feb. 15, authorities said he had plans to cause “mass casualties” at Fair Haven Union High School. They cited his purchase of a shotgun and ammunition in Rutland days before his arrest as showing intent to carrying out the shooting.
Sawyer’s attorneys have contended that the case was overcharged from the beginning. They said it should have been handled as a mental health matter.
“These are two misdemeanors, with all due respect,” Green said of the two pending offenses against Sawyer, adding that she intends to file a motion to appeal the judge’s finding of probable cause on those charges to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy, who is prosecuting the case, contended that the $100,000 bail set last week was still warranted. The amount, $100,000, was in fact twice the $50,000 she had initially argued for. The judge himself doubled it.
Kennedy argued that while the most serious charges against Sawyer have been dropped, the “nature of the offenses hasn’t changed.”
“The threat to Fair Haven Union School is the same and the state is proceeding with what statutes are available,” Kennedy said.
The prosecutor said Sawyer had been living in his car at the time of his arrest, and that he told police he had stopped taking medication prescribed for anxiety and depression. She also said Sawyer had driven to California about two years ago, on his own.
Sawyer had left sometime after school officials had become concerned about his fascination with the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, according to court records.
When he returned to Vermont, his parents sent him to Ironwood, a residential treatment school in Maine. He had graduated from the school and was living in a halfway house in Maine when he decided to check himself out and return to Vermont. This was shortly before his arrest, according to court records.
Sawyer’s intention upon returning to Vermont, Kennedy said, was to stage a mass shooting at his former high school in Fair Haven.
He was arrested shortly after a friend, a 17-year-old girl from New York state, alerted police to conversations she had had with Sawyer over Facebook messenger in which he talked of his plans.
Police say the tip played a central role in the decision to take Sawyer into custody.
“The allegations that are before the court speak to the defendant’s mental status,” Kennedy said in court Wednesday. “The state believes that if defendant chooses not to abide by conditions of release or not to reappear as directed, he will simply not do so.”
Following the hearing, Kennedy said of the $10,000 bail set by the judge, “I understand why court ruled the way he did.”
She declined further comment other than to say her office will continue to work with law enforcement and school officials as the case continues forward.
Standing next to her, Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries was asked how he felt about the possibility of Sawyer’s release.
“I think we all have concerns,” the police chief replied.
Also Wednesday, Judge Cortland Corsones signed off on extending the first extreme risk protection order under a new law that took effect earlier this month.
A temporary order was issued about two weeks ago, allowing law enforcement to seize any weapons Sawyer may have, even though he was in jail at the time of the order. Prosecutors said they sought it out of concern that Sawyer soon would have the opportunity to post bail and be released.
The hearing on Wednesday in Rutland Superior family court extended the order six months, the maximum under the law, which Sawyer did not challenge.
The extreme risk protection order was one of three pieces of firearms legislation Gov. Phil Scott signed into law earlier this month. The governor has cited Sawyer’s case for his shifting stance on the need for increased gun restrictions.
The bill that led to the order from the family court judge Wednesday provides for a civil process to seize firearms from those deemed to pose an “extreme risk” of harm to themselves or others.