It was sunny and cold on Feb. 13, 2018, when 18-year-old Jack Sawyer walked out of Dick’s Sporting Goods in Rutland, Vt., with a brand-new pump-action shotgun and four boxes of ammunition.
The next day, Valentine’s Day, Sawyer took his new gun out for target practice.
Around the same time, about 1,500 miles away in Parkland, Fla., a 19-year-old shot and killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Not long after, Vermont learned it might have narrowly avoided a similar massacre. State Police announced they had arrested Sawyer after he allegedly threatened to cause mass casualties at his former high school in Fair Haven, a small town near the New York border.
Police said Sawyer had described his plans in depth: He told them he had been reading books about the 1999 Columbine shooting and that he related to the two shooters. Sawyer said he moved back to Vermont to fulfill a similar plan at Fair Haven Union High School.
He also let police search his car, where they found the shotgun and ammunition he had legally purchased and a diary titled “The Journal of an Active Shooter.”
In many ways, the system worked: Someone saw something, then said something, and police made an arrest. But what happened next would play out a fundamental tension at the heart of our criminal justice system: At what point does a thought — or a plan — become a crime?
“I know I need to tell someone immediately”
Police said they started keeping tabs on Sawyer after getting a tip from Jennifer Mortenson on Feb. 14. Her daughter was a few years ahead of Sawyer at Fair Haven Union, and Mortenson was aware that Sawyer had threatened the high school in the past. She became alarmed when she heard from a friend of her daughter’s that Sawyer had bought a gun. Then Parkland happened, and Mortenson decided to alert the police.
Officers responded, but after questioning Sawyer, they determined they did not have grounds to arrest him.
Then a friend of Sawyer’s named Angela McDevitt spoke up.
A few days before Parkland, Sawyer and McDevitt had been chatting on Facebook Messenger. According to a police report, Sawyer told McDevitt, “Just a few days ago, I was still plotting on shooting up my old high school.”
McDevitt was shocked and scared — she wasn’t sure what to do. Then she heard about Parkland and messaged him about it.
Sawyer’s response stunned her: “That’s fantastic,” he wrote. “100% support it.”
“I remember staring at my phone, just being like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was so in shock,” McDevitt says. “I was just like, ‘You can’t say that; people are dead.’ And that’s when I kinda was like, ‘I know I need to tell someone immediately.’ ”
The next morning, on Feb. 15, McDevitt showed the messages to authorities near her home in upstate New York. By early afternoon, Vermont State Police had Sawyer in custody.
At the police station, Sawyer was placed in a small room and interviewed by two Vermont State Police detectives. The detectives videotaped their conversation, and the recording was included in court documents. It shows police telling Sawyer that his mother and father are waiting outside. The 18-year-old says he prefers to talk to the police without his parents.
Over several hours, Sawyer reveals that he has been thinking about attacking his old school and he wants to set a new record: highest death count for a school shooter — more than 32 people.
He says he would kill himself when he was done: “If I do ever die, I would want it to be that way.”
And he says his arrest would only delay his plan.
Sawyer also reveals he has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and had received treatment at a therapeutic boarding school in Maine. At the time, detectives didn’t know that was only part of Sawyer’s lengthy mental health history.
The “overwhelming experience” of getting treatment
Advocates often bristle when people lump mental health into conversations about mass shooters. They argue that individuals with severe mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.
But when you talk to Sawyer’s family and close friends, they bring up his mental illness over and over.
His former classmates at Fair Haven Union say that at first, Sawyer was funny and nice, if a little shy and standoffish. By 10th grade, he had become more distant and was posting troubling things on Facebook. He wrote a term paper on Columbine and brought a book about the shooting to school.
In the spring of 2016, school staff, counselors and law enforcement began working with Sawyer’s family to create a plan. They wanted to keep Sawyer safe and make sure he didn’t hurt anyone.
But the same day Sawyer was supposed to meet with the school principal to discuss that plan, he dropped out. Not long after, a friend told Sawyer’s mother, Lyn Wolk, that her son was having suicidal thoughts.
“It’s a very overwhelming experience to figure out,” Wolk says in a July 2018 interview at her home.
She is tense, sitting up straight in her office. It is clearly difficult to talk about this, and she chooses her words carefully.
Wolk says finding help for her son wasn’t easy — especially in a small, rural state like Vermont. Friends would recommend therapists in the area, but none of them were taking new patients. There is also a shortage of psychiatrists in the state, especially ones who see children, so it was hard to figure out her son’s medications.
“We knew what he needed. We knew what would appeal to him,” Wolk recalls. “But we knew that there was nothing like that in our area.”
In February 2018, Rose Kennedy, the state’s attorney for Rutland County, charged Sawyer with four felonies: two counts of attempted aggravated murder, and one count each of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Those are among the most severe charges in Vermont’s criminal code. Attempted aggravated murder carries the same sentence as an actual murder charge: life in prison, with no possibility of parole.
Kennedy asked that Sawyer be held without bail, and a lower court agreed.
In Fair Haven, where Sawyer allegedly planned to carry out his attack, many people said that made them feel safe.
But Sawyer’s public defender, Kelly Green, believed the state’s attorney had gone too far.
“Huge charges, huge!” Green says, as she shakes her head. “Not just because the charges were so serious, but because the facts weren’t there, the facts didn’t support the charge. Jack didn’t commit those crimes.”
She thinks there was a better option — civil commitment. That meant getting a court order to place Sawyer in a psychiatric hospital where he could get help.
Kennedy, the state’s attorney, says she didn’t seek a civil commitment because she didn’t have access to Sawyer’s mental health records and there was no guarantee the court would grant her request. And more important, Kennedy says, she believed Sawyer had committed attempted murder — that his plans and preparations merited the charge.
Still, legal experts in Vermont quickly began debating whether the charges went too far — and whether the state was going down a slippery slope of prosecuting thought. They asked thorny questions like:
Should someone be allowed to think, “I want to shoot up my old school”?
Or write it down in a journal?
Or do that, and then buy a gun?
In other words, did Sawyer even break the law?
Jared Carter, an assistant professor at Vermont Law School, says no — at least not according to the law as it was written when Sawyer was arrested.
He points to a landmark 1906 case about a Vermont prisoner convicted of attempting to escape. The prisoner appealed to Vermont’s Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction.
“Many people might say, ‘Well, wait a minute. The guy was collecting hacksaw blades to break out of prison. Why isn’t that enough?’ ” Carter explains. “And I think the reason is because he might have had that design, he might have had that idea, he might have purchased some blades, but he hadn’t actually done anything. And in this country, typically we criminalize acts — not thoughts.”
Sawyer’s defense attorneys made a similar case. They argued Sawyer didn’t actually attempt any of the crimes he was charged with and therefore couldn’t be held without bail. And as with the Vermont prisoner, their case made its way to the state Supreme Court.
In early April 2018, the justices heard arguments from both sides: Prosecutor Kennedy said that because Sawyer provided so much detail about his intent to murder students, his move back to Vermont from Maine, where he had been living, actually began the act of murder.
“Once that happens, does it matter what he does after that?” Justice Harold Eaton asked during the proceedings. “He could say, ‘You know, I’ve changed my mind,’ throws the gun away, goes back to Maine. He’s still guilty?”
Kennedy said yes, under Vermont case law he would be guilty.
Sawyer’s defense attorney disagreed and pointed out that Sawyer had been arrested almost a month before the date he had chosen for his attack.
The justices sided with Sawyer. They said he may have prepared to commit a crime, but that isn’t the same as attempting a crime and that meant he could be released on bail.
The ruling forced Kennedy to dismiss all four felony charges. She had added two misdemeanors to keep Sawyer’s case in court, but they were much less serious — at the time, they carried at most three years in prison, combined.
Sawyer’s family quickly posted $10,000 in bail, and in late April 2018, the 18-year-old walked out of jail. He agreed to check himself into a psychiatric hospital in Vermont, and the court ordered him to stay away from Fair Haven Union High School and from McDevitt, his friend who alerted police.
Yelling fire in a crowded theater
Kennedy says she respects the Supreme Court ruling, but she wonders what will happen when the next Jack Sawyer comes along.
“There’s still a chasm in the case law in Vermont,” she says. “There’s got to be a place where law enforcement should be able to act to stop a horrific crime from occurring that’s a lot sooner on this continuum than when someone actually shows up to commit the act.”
At the very bottom of the Vermont Supreme Court’s decision, the judges state that they only interpret the laws as they are written; it’s up to lawmakers to change Vermont’s attempt laws.
Almost immediately, state lawmakers did take this up. About three months after Sawyer’s arrest, the Legislature passed a new “domestic terrorism” law.
Some states have been able to charge teens who have threatened violence by accusing them of making terroristic threats — something akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater.
Marsha Levick, chief legal officer at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, says even with these statutes, it’s difficult to know when something is a real threat.
“We have struggled as a country, across the country, different state laws, trying to articulate the permissible boundaries of how we can punish terroristic threats.”
“You don’t take a threat lightly anymore”
In August 2018, Sawyer’s lawyers were able to move his case from adult criminal court to family court, which would keep it confidential and provide more treatment options.
In March 2019 — more than a year after Sawyer’s arrest — his case was resolved. The 19-year-old was adjudicated as a youthful offender for carrying a dangerous weapon, a misdemeanor.
Normally we wouldn’t know this — family court matters aren’t made public. But lawyers on both sides, and Sawyer’s family, felt it was important to update the community on his whereabouts, and the judge agreed.
Sawyer’s mother, Wolk, said in an email that her son was transferred at the end of April to a secure residential treatment facility outside Vermont. He’ll remain under the supervision of Vermont’s Department of Corrections and Department for Children and Families until his 22nd birthday. According to the state attorney’s office, he is not permitted to possess firearms.
Wolk says the past year has been heartbreaking for her family, but she believes her son’s case has led to positive developments in Vermont — like the new domestic terrorism law, new gun control laws and increased state funding for school safety. And she has seen broader discussions around issues like mental health, diversity and school bullying.
Wolk says she is grateful for the outcome of her son’s case; that’s he is getting “additional mental health treatment focused on a healthy future, not the mistakes of the past.”
But she also knows his story is not going away.
In Fair Haven, many community members remain torn. Some think the courts got it wrong; most want Sawyer to get help. But almost everyone is eager to put this story behind them.
And that hasn’t been easy. Some students and five staff members left Fair Haven Union because of what happened.
Social studies teacher Julia Adams stayed. But she says she is still angry, and she worries Sawyer will one day carry out his threat.
“You don’t threaten my kids in my classroom, or my colleagues,” Adams says.
“Who knows if he’ll get the help that he needs or if anything will ever change with him. … You don’t take a threat lightly anymore.”
She says there’s not really closure — she is just trying to move forward.
This story was adapted from Vermont Public Radio’s JOLTED, a podcast about a school shooting that didn’t happen.
Nicole Cohen edited this story for broadcast and for the Web.