Jack Sawyer’s journal contained a startling confession. It landed him in jail, and sent shockwaves through the state of Vermont.
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NINA KECK, HOST: It's late morning on Tuesday, February 13th in Rutland, Vermont. An 18-year-old named Jack Sawyer walks into Dick's Sporting Goods and heads to the back corner of the store.
On the wall, more than 150 guns are lined up parade style between displays of kids' hockey skates, and plastic deer decoys.
Jack hands over his Vermont Drivers' license, fills out a 4473 firearms transaction form, and just after 11 that morning, walks out with a pump action, Maverick 88 shotgun and four boxes of ammunition.
The next day is Valentine's Day and 1,500 miles away in a town called Parkland, Florida, a 19 year old former student shoots and kills 17 of his classmates and teachers -- you probably remember.
TV NEWS FOOTAGE 1 : Now to a developing story we're tracking
TV NEWS FOOTAGE 2: Those who ran, could, hiding in classrooms, even closets
TV NEWS FOOTAGE 3: This took place in Parkland, Florida
KECK: Meanwhile, here in Vermont, Jack Sawyer target shoots with the shotgun he bought the day before.
Now, he can cross the gun off the shopping list he keeps in a college-ruled spiral bound notebook.
On the cover of that notebook, Jack has taped a title: "The Journal of an Active Shooter." It's printed in a decorative curlicue font. At the bottom, he's taped his name, written in marker: "Jack S."
Inside the journal, in scrawling handwriting, Jack describes his plan to shoot up his former high school.
We know this, because the journal was later made public, as part of the state's evidence against Jack. In the journal, his entries include statements like quote:
"The biggest thing I'm trying to figure out right now is how can I get as far as I can into the shooting before cops bust me first and shoot me dead."
It's entries like this, and a startling confession, that would land Jack in jail staring down a possible life sentence. His case would catapult the state into a debate about where free speech ends and a mass killing begins.
KECK: From Vermont Public Radio, this is JOLTED.
I'm Nina Keck - I'm a reporter with VPR and I cover the part of Vermont where this story began.
LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, HOST: And I'm Liam Elder-Connors. I cover criminal justice for VPR.
For this five-part podcast we've used Jack's own words, police evidence, court records, and conducted dozens of interviews.
This is a story about a young man who had plans to shoot up his former high school.
MAJOR GLENN HALL: He told detectives that he had been reading books on the Columbine shooting
ELDER-CONNORS: Plans that were foiled -- by a teenager.
ANGELA MCDEVITT: I know I need to tell someone like, immediately.
ELDER-CONNORS: As our country grapples with school shootings and how to stop them, this is a story about a school shooting that didn't happen, and how it caused a Republican governor in a rural state to change his mind about gun laws.
GOVERNOR PHIL SCOTT: In the aftermath of Florida, this situation in Fair Haven has jolted me.
ELDER-CONNORS: It's a story about the decisions people had to make
VERMONT SUPREME COURT JUSTICE HAROLD EATON: So is it your position that no crime was committed here at all?
ELDER-CONNORS: And about how sometimes -- when something happens close to home,
SCOTT: I had to do some reflecting, some soul searching myself
ELDER-CONNORS: Things change
PROTESTERS: "Sign those bills, Sign those bills!"
ELDER-CONNORS: Part 1: The Shooting that didn't happen.
ELDER-CONNORS: It's Friday February 16 - three days after Jack Sawyer bought that shotgun at Dick's, and two days after Parkland. I'm in a conference room across from the Governor's office, waiting for a briefing from state officials.
COMMISSIONER OF PUBLIC SAFETY TOM ANDERSON: Good afternoon everyone. Tom Anderson I'm the Commissioner of Public Safety. This has been a very sad disturbing and tragic week for the United States and Vermont.
ELDER-CONNORS: That morning, I'd gotten a press release saying police had arrested an 18 year old for threatening quote "to cause mass casualties" at a high school in in Fair Haven, Vermont. It's the first time I hear about Jack Sawyer.
Honestly, I figure he'd made a bad joke about shooting up a high school-- police are probably dotting their i's and crossing their t's because, Parkland is so fresh on everyone's mind.
ANDERSON: In Florida 17 families have been forever changed. A school has been forever changed and a community has been forever changed.
ELDER-CONNORS: Some TV stations are taking the press conference live. A handful of state officials are just a few feet in front of me. I hope I'm not blocking the cameras.
ANDERSON: In Vermont the Fair Haven police and the Vermont State Police yesterday arrested an 18-year-old who was aiming to cause the same type of horror and mayhem in Fair Haven.
ELDER-CONNORS: Then a major with the Vermont State Police takes the podium.
HALL: Good afternoon I'm Glen Hall…
ELDER-CONNORS: Slowly, methodically, the major lays out what Jack Sawyer told police.
HALL: He told detectives that he was planning a couple of years ago to shoot up Fairhaven High School. He told detectives he did buy a shotgun the previous day...
ELDER-CONNORS: Jack told detectives he'd come back to Vermont to carry out the shooting -- although, Jack said, he hadn't thought about the plan for at least a week.
HALL: He detailed specific plans as to how he was going to carry out this shooting. He said he would have carried out the shooting but wasn't sure when. And even with law enforcement intervention he would carry it out when he had the opportunity.
ELDER-CONNORS:The room is unnaturally still. As the major recounts details, I feel like I can't keep up. I glance around at the other reporters.
HALL: We conducted a search of his vehicle.
ELDER-CONNORS: The major continues to recite statements from Jack's confession. He says when detectives searched Sawyer's car-- they found: the shotgun he purchased at Dick's --
HALL: 12 gauge ammunition….
ELDER-CONNORS: a journal,
HALL: that Jack Sawyer admitted was his. That journal was titled The Journal of an active shooter.
ELDER-CONNORS: That's the notebook that would become essential evidence in the case against him.
HALL: We recovered books on Columbine, a digital camera, a gas mask, a video recorder and thumb drives.
ELDER-CONNORS: Jack Sawyer is held without bail and charged with four felonies
HALL: The charges on the affidavit are attempted aggravated murder attempted first degree murder and attempted aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
ELDER-CONNORS: These are some serious charges. If he's convicted, Jack could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
KECK: The town at the heart of this story, Fair Haven, is right on the New York border. It's small, with 3,000 people.
And it's pretty, with a fenced in town green. There's a tall, white New England style church at one end, across from a Dollar General Store. In the summer, the town hosts weekly concerts on the green where they give out free ice cream - every other Friday.
The town calls itself the "slate center of the nation," thanks to a quarry which has been mined by the same company for more than 150 years. Not surprisingly, the high school sports teams are called "the Slaters."
Even before Jack Sawyer's arrest, some folks in town might have recognized his name. That's because back in 2016, Jack had made people at school nervous -- posting threatening things on Facebook, and writing a research paper on Columbine. That spring, Jack dropped out of school. And not long after that, his parents sent him to an expensive school for troubled teens in Maine. He spent more than a year there.
Fair Haven Police Chief, William Humphries says people start paying attention to Jack when he comes back to Vermont, in February of this year. He's living out of his car, couch surfing at friends houses.
CHIEF WILLIAM HUMPHRIES: Jack had told his friend that he had bought a shotgun. And the friend, didn't understand why he bought a shotgun when you're trying to get a job you're living out of your car you don't have any money and you spend $200 bucks doesn't seem logical.
KECK: Here's what leads to Jack's arrest on Thursday, Feb. 15. On Tuesday, the mother of one of Jack's friends hears her daughter and another friend talking about Jack's new gun. This is the same guy who'd had the disturbing Facebook posts -- the guy who was into Columbine and had dropped out two years before.
She doesn't really connect the two until the next day -- Wednesday -- when she gets a notification on her phone about the Parkland shooting.
That's when she calls 911. That night the school superintendent puts Fair Haven Union in a sort of lockdown.
Chief Humphries goes to talk to Jack, and finds him, putting away his shotgun after target shooting.
And it was 8 o'clock at night it was dark then, in the winter obviously, and he was target shooting in the yard with the shotgun he had just bought.
And then Chief Humphries leaves Jack there, and drives back to the station. See, Jack is 18. At the time, buying a gun was legal for him. And the last time anyone here can remember Jack making people nervous was years ago.
HUMPHRIES: He wasn't threatening suicide, he wasn't threatening anybody. It's not illegal to target hunt, target. He was on private property he wasn't shooting across a road. You know you have to commit a crime or something for us to take action on.
ELDER-CONNORS: The next morning, a Thursday, Fair Haven Union High School starts more or less as usual.
PRINCIPAL JASON RASCO: We had a school to run.
ELDER-CONNORS: But after the school lockdown the night before, Fair Haven's principal, Jason Rasco says, students and teachers are nervous.
RASCO: I'm going around just to make sure, I'm out and about, and we have I call it an ‘intel' if you will. The chief, the chiefs were here.
ELDER-CONNORS: The school superintendent and Chief Humphries arrive to huddle with Principal Rasco. Here's Humphries:
HUMPHRIES: we were kind of formulating OK this is the information we know this is what we're going to put out to the school to try to to try to be transparent and try to explain why we rerouted the busses the night before ...
ELDER-CONNORS: They send an email to parents to basically say, yes, we are aware people are nervous, but we believe the threat is not credible. The superintendent has just finished sending the email when Humphries discovers he got it wrong. The threat is credible.
HUMPHRIES: While we were doing that dispatched called me, "hey we have a dutchess county sheriff's office officer would like to speak to you on the phone."
ELDER-CONNORS: Duchess County is in NY state. Three hours south.
HUMPHRIES: Okay. So I had them put it through to my cell phone, I get on the phone he immediately asked me "hey do you know a Jack Sawyer?" "uh, Yeah," I say "yeah, we're actually workin a case right now where his name came up." "Well I have a text messages you really need to look at."
HUMPHRIES: ... I think that the color went out of my face went white like oooh wait a minute that's not good.
ELDER-CONNORS: At this point, Principal Rasco -- who had left to check on students -- rushes back to his office
RASCO: People's faces are [guttural noise].
ELDER-CONNORS: The text messages had been handed over by a 17 year old in upstate New York, and her actions would alter the course of history here in Vermont. Her name is Angela McDevitt. She'd met Jack at the therapeutic high school in Maine. The two had been messaging back and fo rth on Facebook when Angela mentioned the shooting in Parkland. Jack's response stunned her. He called the Parkland shooting quote fantastic. He said he 100% supported it.
MCDEVITT: I was so in shock I was just like "you can't say that, people are dead."
ELDER-CONNORS: We'll talk more with Angela in a future episode. But by the end of the day on Thursday, February 15, Jack Sawyer was charged with attempted murder, and held without bail in a local jail.
KECK: This story could have ended with Jack Sawyer's arrest: police got Jack in custody, before he could hurt anyone. Fair Haven Vermont did not join Parkland, Florida or Santa Fe, Texas or any of the two dozen or so schools that have been in the national headlines for school shootings in 2018.
You could say there was no shooting because the system worked. Someone saw something, they said something. police responded, and made an arrest.
And yet, what didn't happen in Fair Haven sent shockwaves through the entire state. The case opened up huge legal questions in Vermont -- about whether our laws are adequate for our times; about the line between free speech -- and a criminal act… and it set in motion something truly unforeseeable in this rural state.
PROTESTERS: Traitor! Traitor!
KECK: It's eight and a half weeks after Jack Sawyer was arrested. Vermont's Republican Governor walks onto the steps of the statehouse building in Montpelier and surveys the people packed on the big lawn.
PROTESTERS AND SUPPORTERS: Booo! Bravo!
The Governor sits down at a desk and signs three bills.
SCOTT: That's why today we choose action over inaction, doing something over doing nothing.
ELDER-CONNORS: Under the new law, most Vermonters have to be 21 to buy a gun, bump stocks and large capacity magazines are banned, most private sales need a background check, guns can be removed from scenes of domestic violence and taken away from people who pose a risk to themselves or others.
In a whirlwind, lawmakers in Montpelier had pushed the bills through committee hearings and votes, and Governor Phil Scott had signed into law the most sweeping gun control bills in Vermont history.
According to The Washington Post, since the shooting at Columbine in 1999, more than 187,000 students have experienced a school shooting. Yet despite that, at the federal level little has changed when it comes to gun control.
Where we do see change in gun policy is at the state and local level - where communities are directly affected by a shooting.
After 20 kids were killed at Sandy Hook, Connecticut enacted some of the strongest gun control laws in the country - including a ban of high capacity magazines and mandatory background checks for all gun purchases.
Less than a month after the shooting in Parkland, Florida passed gun control laws that banned bump stocks, raised the minimum age to buy a gun and also armed school employees.
The story of Jack Sawyer and the story of gun control in Vermont are intertwined. The affidavit police used to document evidence against Jack Sawyer moved a Republican Governor to reverse his stance on gun laws in a state with some of the most permissive gun laws in the country..After a school shooting that didn't happen.
And yet on the same day Governor Phil Scott signs those bills, the legal case against Jack falls apart. Just 100 yards away from where the Governor sits, signing the bills on the statehouse lawn, Vermont's Supreme Court justices look at the same evidence that Scott had seen. And -- come to a different conclusion.
ELDER-CONNORS: Over the next four episodes, we'll talk to Jack Sawyer's family and friends,
KECK: we'll untangle the legal case against Jack -- and see how it fell apart,
ELDER-CONNORS: We'll watch one of the most gun-friendly states in the country turn on a dime
KECK: And finally, we'll ask what can you learn by studying a n averted school shooting?
On the next episode….
SPENCER FOWLER: I can't believe that he was my best friend and I didn't know about this. I didn't know that there was this side of him that was hurting so much.
KECK: You can listen to our second episode right now at Joltedpodcast.org or wherever you get your podcasts. We'll be dropping a new episode every Thursday for the month of September, so be sure to subscribe.
KECK:: JOLTED is reported and produced by Liam Elder Connors and Nina Keck. Emily Corwin is our editor and project manager. Sarah Ashworth is our Senior Editor. Angela Evancie is VPR's Managing Editor for Podcasts. John Van Hoesen is VPR's Chief Content Officer
ELDER-CONNORS: Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Additional music by Poddington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions. Engineering support is from Chris Albertine.
We had digital support from Jonathan Butler, Noah Villamarin-Cutter and Meg Malone.
Special thanks to our colleagues John Dillion, Bob Kinzel, Peter Hirschfeld, Bayla Metzger, Jane Lindholm, Francesca Orsini, and Lynne McCrea.
Support for JOLTED comes from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from Primmer Piper Eggleston and Cramer, PC.