Who is Jack Sawyer, and why did he want to kill his former classmates?
Note: These transcripts are provided for accessibility and reference. If you are able, we strongly recommend listening to this episode of JOLTED at joltedpodcast.org. Please check the audio before quoting in print, as the transcript may contain minor errors.
[TAPE - Courtroom sounds from 2/27/18 cameras snapping photos]
NINA KECK, HOST: It's late February. I'm at the courthouse in Rutland waiting with a throng of other reporters for a hearing to start. It's for Jack Sawyer, the 18-year-old Vermonter who's accused of plotting to shoot up his former high school.
The state prosecutor has charged Jack with four felonies, including attempted first degree murder. If he's found guilty -- he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Everybody stops chatting when Jack Sawyer is led into the courtroom. TV news crews are filming as he sits down with his lawyer – a public defender named Kelly Green.
I'm plugged into the court's soundsystem along with the TV crews, so I can hear through my headphones what's being said into all the courtroom microphones – including the one at the defense attorney's table where Kelly Green is talking softly with her client - asking how he's doing.
[soft sounds from defense table] "You okay? Yeah –
Jack Sawyer is in handcuffs and chains. His face is pale, his eyes are hard to read. His long hair and drab prison-wear make him seem kind of creepy.
Green ruffles the hair back out of his eyes – and, almost like a mother - gently scolds him for not getting a haircut.
I'm struck just then by the realization that Jack Sawyer is 18 – legally an adult - but I've got a daughter the same age - and to me, in that moment, he looks like a kid.
KECK: From Vermont Public Radio, this is JOLTED.
Jolted is a five-part podcast about a school shooting that didn't happen, the line between thought and crime, and a Republican governor in a rural state who changed his mind about gun laws.
I'm Nina Keck
LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, HOST: And I'm Liam Elder Connors
For better or worse, Jack has become a public figure here in vermont. But what we know about him is limited to the police report prosecutors used to charge him. We wanted to know what's NOT in that report.
STEPHANIE SMITH: When you look at Jack, you go oh, postcard family for a kid. You know you'd go, oh I wish my kid had that kind of life."
TAPE KECK: "Do you ever worry that you're being conned by Jack?"
DAVE WOLK: "Yes."
ELDER-CONNORS: Part Two: How Did We Get Here?
KECK: We tried to reach out to Jack through family, his lawyers and friends - but he didn't respond to our requests for an interview.
Jack's father David Sawyer - who's been a steady presence in the courtroom for his son - also did not respond to our interview request. But Jack's mother Lyn and stepfather Dave Wolk are willing to speak to me.
Jack's parents got divorced when Jack was 12 and two years ago, Lyn married Dave Wolk. The two moved to Florida last year so that's where I visit them.
[Sounds of knocking and greeting Wolks -"Welcome! ...You made it! Thanks."]
KECK: Their new house is everything a home in Vermont isn't.
[TAPE: "Nice Lanai!]
KECK: There's no mudroom, lots of ceiling fans and the backyard looks out onto palm trees. It's beautiful.
[sound of getting arranged for interview. "I'll sit in front of you, I think that'll work...like an interrogator…. Want to take your blood pressure? (laughter)]
KECK: If we sound kind of chatty, it's because I've interviewed Dave Wolk a lot for VPR - he's one of the most prominent people in Rutland County.
[Tape - "Take me back to that day"…]
But this interview is different and as I sit across from Dave and Lyn to talk about Jack - as a parent - I can't imagine what the past year has been like for them.
KECK: "This situation has been 24/7 for you guys and you're both nodding."
DAVE WOLK: "Yeah it is. There's just so many moving parts in terms of the legal issues."
LYN WOLK: And when we're physically not doing something it's on our mind constantly."
KECK: There's a lot the couple won't talk about because some of Jack's lesser charges are still pending - at this point they're sealed in family court.
Our interview stops and starts a lot and everyone's a little nervous.
LYN WOLK: "Ok, lemme think about this..."
KECK: When Liam and I set out to do this episode, we knew we were walking a fine line. We didn't want to glorify Jack or sensationalize him.
But Jack's story is important, too, because it spotlights some of the most difficult issues facing Vermonters and Americans today -- and the ways they overlap. There's mental health and teen isolation; there's gun violence and the legacy of Columbine; and there's the question of how to make laws that can both protect our lives and protect our liberty.
TAPE KECK: "I'm curious what you think about the public's desire to understand where Jack came from - I mean what do you think about me asking you these questions and people wanting to know this stuff?"
LYN WOLK: "I can understand that absolutely that they would have an interest in that - in a case like this, in a story like this there's a lot of fear, and the only way to conquer that fear is knowledge. The public is fearful and they are looking for answers, they're looking for information and the Jack that they see is the Jack in handcuffs and shackles on the front page of the paper or in the news."
TAPE KECK: "As Jack's mom what's it been like for you to see your son in chains and going to court like that?"
LYN WOLK: "Um…. hmm….It's certainly has been hard of course. ….they don't see the other sides of Jack."
SPENCER FOWLER: "He was the first person I actually had to sleep over with. Which is funny, yeah. Super nerve racking when I was a little kid to have my first sleepover, I was so nervous, but he was like ‘no, no it's cool."
KECK: That's Spencer Fowler. He remembers the first time he met his best friend Jack. They were both in grade school.
FOWLER: "It was…..ooph, what was the day called when the parents go in to meet with the teachers? What is that called?
KECK: Parent teacher conference?
FOWLER: Yes...no….. "Open house. So it was second grade and it was open house and I remember Jack had just gotten his dog, Sally, and he was going around and he was showing people some magic tricks that he had. We just started playing on the playground and that was the day that we became friends. And then ever since then we've been great friends."
KECK: For the people who know Jack Sawyer best -- or at least, who thought they did… Jack's arrest, his journal - the one that lays out his detailed plan to murder his classmates and take his own life… they never saw it coming.
FOWLER: "I remember the first time that I saw the mug shots of him going into court and I went Jack what are you doing wearing a camo shirt? I've never seen him wear a camo shirt before in my life and he was growing out his hair too! So I'm like wow, that makes him look even worse right now. This is not what he looks like regularly, everyone should know that"
Spencer's mom, Stephanie Smith says Jack was like another son at their house.
STEPHANIE SMITH: "He enjoyed travel. He enjoyed the adventure, kind, loved animals, absolutely loved animals. Just a nice kid, a nice kid."
KECK: And here's the unsettling thing… when you hear about school shooters, and wannabe school shooters, you want to think they came from someplace BAD - Severe neglect, abuse, that there should be warning signs from day one - maybe they tortured animals or something. But Stephanie says… it just wasn't like that with Jack.
SMITH: "When you talk to people who know Lyn who know Dave Sawyer their hearts are breaking for them because nobody saw this coming. Nobody said ‘Oh wait a minute. They're a dysfunctional family.' That didn't happen because they weren't a dysfunctional family. They were a functional family having their kids participate in tons of things, having a strong home life.…. Jack had a very nice childhood."
KECK: So from the outside - the people who knew Jack growing up say - perfect family.
But from the inside, things weren't so perfect.
ALLISON SAWYER: "OK. So yeah my grandma made this for me when I went to Europe a couple of years ago…"
KECK: Allison Sawyer is one of Jack's two older siblings. She shows me a photo album her grandmother made for her - it's got snapshots of her and Jack through the years with captions like: "My new baby brother," "Our new puppy," and "Happy Times!" with an exclamation mark.
TAPE KECK: "This one looks like it's at Disneyland, or Disney World?
SAWYER: "Disney World. Yep. Exactly. That was interesting. And even then, like, actually yeah, his like anger came out then. Like you could um,I remember my parents and older brother wanted to go on the Tower of Terror and Jack and I did not and so we stayed with my grandparents. And I remember he like threw a huge fit, that like, caused a scene and I'm not sure if he hit my grandma, but could have probably once or twice...(laughter) soooo."
KECK: I would have blown over this, ‘cuz meltdowns and Disneyworld just kind of go together. But Allison says even when Jack got older - like around 11 or 12 - there was this anger. He'd lash out and hit her sometimes, hard.
She says for the most part growing up, Jack was sweet and caring. But when your little brother gets charged with attempted murder, you start to wonder, what did I miss?
Looking back, Allison says, it was in middle school that she first began to notice something else about Jack.
SAWYER: "Probably around his time in seventh or eighth grade, even probably sooner like sixth grade. I remember just he was miserable, like when he would come home from school, and not constantly miserable, but I could definitely tell like it wasn't just like school affecting him. It seemed like there was a little bit more."
KECK: That little bit more? Now, Allison thinks it was mental illness. Since then, both Allison and Jack have been treated for severe anxiety and depression. Allison, who's 22, says she's doing better now. But she says anxiety has always made it hard for her to talk to others and connect.
SAWYER: "At the time I didn't realize him wearing a hoodie would be anxiety. I thought he just wanted to wear a hoodie. But now that I've grown up I can see how that could completely be a safety blanket. The hoodie, the hat."
KECK: She says in his early teens, Jack always wore a hoodie or a hat - even around the house. It was something Allison says Jack and his dad fought about at the dinner table.
And Jack had this weird posture she says. He'd kind of hunch over and fold in on himself.
TAPE KECK: "And you think that was a sign of his anxiety?
SAWYER: "Yeah, I think so, or you know, self esteem issues related to his anxiety."
KECK: Allison says she can relate to Jack's anxiety and depression. But unlike her, Allison says Jack also has this anger, with no outlet.
Mental health advocates often bristle when people lump mental health into conversations about mass shooters. Experts point out that individuals with severe mental illness are much more likely to be victimized by violence than perpetrators.
But when you talk to people about Jack - they bring up his mental illness over and over.
And the Sawyers lived in a small town. Jack's sister Allison says that meant help was hard to find.
SAWYER: "Mental health was definitely, like, not a thing at Poultney. Maybe it is now, but when I went there it was like, that was never spoken about."
KECK: Poultney Elementary School is in Poultney, Vermont, the town where Allison and Jack grew up. It's beautiful, but it's out there. Hunting and farming are big, so is wearing camouflage - which can show that you're part of the state's outdoor tradition. At prom in this part of Vermont, it's not uncommon to see couples wearing matching camo tuxedos and gowns.
SAWYER: "If you're any different it's extremely hard - I wore the more goth kid clothes and everyone else is wearing Abercrombie and Fitch, or camo. But yeah if you're not in the in crowd, basically you're not a normy and I don't know how you get into the in crowd. But Jack and I were not."
KECK: This might sound like typical middle school. But it leads the Sawyers to send Jack to a larger high school one town over. One with more kids and more options. So in ninth grade, Jack enters Fair Haven Union - a larger school - at least by Vermont standards.
But high school turns out to be where Jack struggles more than ever.
[TAPE - sound of Fair Haven Union High School hallway]
KECK: That's the bell at Fair Haven Union High School. About 400 students in ninth through twelfth grade move from class to class. The school serves six nearby towns - mostly working class communities.
It's a pretty typical Vermont high school - small, rural, mostly white kids. Here, too, there's a clear pecking order when it comes to popularity and being good at sports or into hunting is a definite plus.
Jack enrolls as a freshman in the fall of 2014 and classmates I spoke to describe him as funny, nice, a good guy. But they also say Jack was shy and kept to himself .
Elle Kearns was one of his classmates at Fair Haven Union.
ELLE KEARNS: "He wasn't very outgoing or very noticeable. I know even just like in the lunchroom or anything like that like he wasn't very talkative or anything like that."
Elle's description of Jack as not very noticeable strikes me. I wonder how I would have felt had someone described me that way in high school. Did Jack feel invisible? Was that why he started trying on different personas? As a way to say ‘pay attention to me?'
See, Jack's sister tells me her brother went through different phases with clothes, that he liked to shock people. For a while in high school, she says he wore his pants down low with lots of jewelry.
SAWYER: "Yeah he definitely wanted to be a thug in a gang and uh, kinda displayed that and wore gold chains and he wore a red red bandana and um, like really got into it, to the point where kids started bullying him because he's a small white dude from a small town. Um, so I KNOW they bullied him."
Other students at Fair Haven Union tell me Jack was bullied as well, but no one I spoke to had seen it first hand including Elle Kearns Jack's old classmate.
In fact, Elle says by tenth grade, Jack was the one making other people uncomfortable.
KEARNS: "I heard one kid would like said a joke that was you know if anyone was going to shoot up the school would be Jack and I think it was mostly because of the way he dressed and some of the things he posted on his Facebook page. So, I think that I wouldn't say he was bullied more than any other student, but I would also say his high school career was probably not the perfect, you know, happy high school."
TAPE KECK: You said someone at school kind of thought you know, if there was gonna be a shooter, it'd be Jack. Why'd they say that?
KEARNS: "Because on his Facebook page like he had pictures of guns and pictures of him holding up money and I think it was just kind of the quiet, standoffish-maybe attitude that he had made people even more wary of getting to know him."
By tenth grade even Jason Rasco, who was then assistant principal, is worried about Jack's isolation. He tries to have coffee with him a few times to check in.
PRINCIPAL JASON RASCO: "And I remember going into the lunch room to talking to him about different things and about getting involved - I mean you don't want to see anybody sitting alone."
Teachers notice Jack is more distant and less engaged in his school work. Then Jack writes a research paper about the Columbine shooting and brings books about Columbine to school.
RASCO: "I mean it was some of his friends that came to us with some of the information."
This is March, 2016.
At Fair Haven Union, school staff, counselors, and law enforcement meet to create a plan. They want to keep Jack safe and make sure he doesn't hurt anyone. Jack's family is involved.
Jason Rasco sets a date to meet with Jack to talk over their concerns. But the day they're supposed to meet, Jack runs away to California.
The sixteen year old gets in his car and drives four days there - and then four days back. When he returns, he tells his mom he can't go back to school.
That's when Jack's family checks him into his first in-patient mental health facility. Over the next month or so, Jack will spend time in two others. His mom Lyn says he spends one night in a hospital hallway, there just isn't space for mental health patients.
LYN WOLK: "It's a very overwhelming experience to figure out A what your child needs. B, where to go to find that and and C, how to put it all together. While everything around you is moving at a very high speed um, and it's changing around you very quickly."
KECK: Lyn is looking me in the eye through all of this - she's sitting up straight.
Every step she explains has hurdles, especially in a small, rural state like Vermont. For instance, Lyn says friends would recommend therapists in the area - but when she'd call they weren't taking new patients. There's a shortage of psychiatrists here - especially ones who see kids - so Lyn says it was hard trying to figure out Jack's medications.
In desperation, she starts to Google.
KECK: "What were you Googling?
LYN WOLK: "You know when we were looking for specialized treatment for Jack we didn't know what we were looking for. And we knew we knew what we needed. We knew what he needed. We knew what would appeal to him. But we knew that there was nothing like that in our area and we just started Googling."
KECK: This is surprising because Jack's stepdad, Dave Wolk, is so well connected. He was Vermont Secretary of Education, a state senator, a principal, a school superintendent, and Castleton University president. If he can't find help here, who could?
Full disclosure, Wolk counseled my own daughter several years ago when she was trying to figure out what to do after high school.
Lyn and Dave say it's on Google that they find a therapeutic boarding school that looks promising.
But services at Ironwood, the school they choose in Maine, don't come cheap. A year there runs families more than 100-thousand dollars. On the admission page of the Ironwood website, there's a big ad for a loan company called "Prosper Loans".
LYN WOLK: "So in Jack's treatment we have spent over two hundred thousand dollars of our own money. We have gone through savings. We have gone through education accounts. We have gone through it all, so."
DAVE WOLK: "And um, you know we were fortunate because Lyn and I had saved money it was our savings for retirement. But what about the people who haven't saved money and who can't afford it?"
KECK: Before Jack is 17, he's spent time in four different mental health care facilities.
Ironwood, the school in Maine, seems to help. It's rustic with a big farmhouse and barn. There's no internet and no phones. Students follow a strict routine of therapy, classes and chores. There are lots of animals to take care of which Jack likes. And he even makes a friend.
[TAPE sounds of entering Angela McDevitt's house]
A girl named Angela McDevitt.
Angela plays a pivotal role in Jack's fate and that of Fair Haven Union High School. She lives in a town not far from Poughkeepsie, in New York state. So, my colleague Liam and our editor Emily pay her a visit.
[TAPE "Hi! Hello - Hi are you Angela? Ok, I'm Liam, Nice to Meet you. Good to meet you."]
ELDER CONNORS: Angela McDevitt is 17. She leads us down to the basement of her parents' house -- her territory. It's crowded with a foosball table, ping pong, and a big couch.
Angela sinks into a corner of the couch, crosses her legs and wraps her arms around a pillow.
ANGELA MCDEVITT: "I was sent away without my knowledge. To Maine. Which is where I met Jack, at Ironwood. It was a treatment facility. Everyone was there for various reasons, some being more intense than others."
ELDER-CONNORS: Angela says her parents took her to Ironwood in desperation -- she says they were fighting a lot, and she was making "bad decisions."
It's while she's there that Angela got to know Jack. She describes him as quiet, someone who was left out by the other boys. She says he was really good with the animals, but could be awkward with people.
MCDEVITT: "You never really knew if Jack liked you. He was always very nice. But it definitely wasn't a surprise when he would say something, like, crazy like like really like upsetting almost like, I remember you make comments like ‘Oh I'm depressed anyway.' Um, we kind of just like took it as his personality, but he was always just very very nice to us."
ELDER-CONNORS: Angela made a point to check in with him every day.
MCDEVITT: "And I remember asking him, like, ‘oh how depressed are you today?' Just, to like, whatever, and he'd be like, ‘aww, not too bad today, or actually, I'm doing pretty well.' And as I got to, talking to him more, I think the answer to that question got, better."
After Jack and Angela complete their programs they stay in touch. Angela heads back to high school in upstate New York, and Jack enters community college in Maine. He also starts working part time at a Dunkin Donuts and Home Depot.
KECK: Jack's mom Lyn says he seems happier than he's been in a long time.
LYN WOLK: "At his graduation it was the proudest day of my life with him, and he had done so much incredible work and it was incredible to see him and it was a really great program."
KECK: But after Ironwood things get rocky. His schedule isn't tightly controlled anymore - he has access to the internet and social media - the pressures of college and work. It's around this time, that Jack starts writing in a diary. That college ruled notebook we've mentioned, which he titled, The Journal of an Active Shooter.
The first page begins:
"I'm getting tired. I don't know why I hate people with such sickening disgust for them. I don't know why people hate me and laugh about me behind my back. I don't know why I think so much. Every second of every day, millions of these thoughts run through my head. I want it to stop."
Jack writes his name at the top of the first entry, with a date. Jack Sawyer, October 23rd, 2017. By February, he's filled 31 pages. That month, the journal becomes public when it's entered into evidence.
TAPE KECK: "Did you read the journal?
DAVE WOLK: "Yeah."
KECK: What went through your mind?
DAVE WOLK: "I was so shocked and I thought to myself. Who is this? It just blew me away."
KECK: I talk to Dave Wolk, Jack's stepdad. Jack's mom won't talk about the journal.
TAPE KECK: "In the journal, he alternates between some pretty chilling rage and then some pretty gut wrenching heartache about his family. What did you make of that?
DAVE WOLK: "Well one of the pages was from the diary a day or two after Thanksgiving and we had a wonderful Thanksgiving with everybody home and we had a great time. And that particular entry talked about how….well he sort of apologized to his family, but that he couldn't help having these thoughts. And that was pretty shocking."
KECK: That entry Dave Wolk is talking about is from November 28, 2017. It starts out "Dear Mom, Dave, Dad and family, I'm so utterly sorry"... He writes, "I've been suffering badly and I just can't deal with it any longer"...near the end of the page he writes, "Just know that I needed to do this... I love you all so much more than might be apparent. I'm sorry. Love, Jack." He signs his name with a smiley face.
But the very next day, his tone changes when he talks about moving up the date of his planned shooting. It's detailed and specific. We decided not to include that material in this episode.
There's also a shopping list of things he needs to buy, like a $50 tactical vest and a $13 rifle sling.
Perhaps the most chilling entry comes on on December 29th, Jack writes, "I've been working on this craft of mine for as long as I can remember now. The biggest con I've ever done. Making things seem like they're all right when in reality they're not. And people believe me." He goes on, "I'm just good at lying and making things seem okay."
I ask Jack's stepdad Dave about it.
TAPE KECK: Do you ever worry that you're being conned by Jack?
DAVE WOLK: "Yes"
TAPE KECK: Do you remember reading that passage?
DAVE WOLK: "I do. I read all of it. So it gives me great pause in terms of what you can trust."
ANGELA MCDEVITT: "I threw up halfway through the journal like literally like I'm not like people are like oh I got sick like no. I threw up I couldn't read through the first time like it made me really really upset."
ELDER-CONNORS: This is Jack's friend Angela McDevitt, again. Looking back, she thinks Jack could have gone through with it.
ANGELA MCDEVITT: "I don't I don't think that he was just someone making empty threats. That makes sense just because of everything they found about it and also like I said like Jack even like good things like if Jack had his mind set to do something he always did it."
ELDER-CONNORS: But if you rewind a bit, before Jack's journal was public, before he even bought the shotgun, Angela McDevitt had no idea. She had no idea Jack wanted to shoot up his old high school. She had no idea he had gone off his mental health medications, that he had moved back to Vermont and was living out of his car, that he was eating only ramen and crackers, saving money for weapons.
That's because Angela had fallen out of touch with Jack. She'd gotten into a fight with her parents and they'd taken her iPhone away for several months. She didn't get it back until February of this year.
MCDEVITT: "He texts me, he's like where the frick have you been? And there were also texts that he had sent me like from like throughout the months. [fade under]
ELDER-CONNORS: Jack tells Angela, he's dropped out of community college.
MCDEVITT: "And I was just like WHY you have such a great future."
ELDER-CONNORS: And then, ever so casually, Jack says something startling.
MCDEVITT: "And that's when everything came up with like how he didn't really want a future anyway cuz just a couple days ago he was planning to shoot up his old school."
ELDER-CONNORS: Just a few days ago, Jack tells Angela, he was planning on shooting up his old school.
Angela's worried, but at first, she doesn't know what to do. Then, two days later, the school shooting in Parkland, Florida happens.
MCDEVITT: "Because I knew I was like wow this is an opportunity where I could bring up, like, the harm that one person causes. So that's why, I didn't even think about texting him I just texted him that like, this happened."
ELDER-CONNORS:Jack hadn't heard about the shooting. When Angela tells him about it, he types back quote, "That's fantastic, 100 percent support it."
MCDEVITT: "I remember staring at my phone just being like Oh My God. I was so in shock. You can't say that people are dead. And he just started going off on a tangent about natural selection and we're all dumb and how if someone is smart enough or like, superior enough to hurt people than that's their fault cause they're not ‘fit."
ELDER-CONNORS: Jack writes it's getting rid of dumb people, quote -- "Making it so only the ones who actually can get out and survive get put on top. It's just natural selection taken up a notch."
MCDEVITT: "And that's when I kinda was like I KNOW I need to tell someone IMMEDIATELY."
MCDEVITT: "Something holding me back was like,Jack is my friend, I didn't want to do this to him. But, like, how sick would I feel, if I turned on the TV and what legal trouble could I get in if I turned on the TV and found out that the school was shot up by Jack and I didn't say anything.
KECK: On the next episode -- the consequences of Angela's decision.
RUTLAND STATE'S ATTORNEY ROSE KENNEDY: "Ultimately, I believed his intent, and I believed I had to act."
VERMONT SUPREME COURT JUSTICE HAROLD EATON JR: "So is it your position that no crime was committed here at all? And if the police had come up with all of this information and the proper response is to do nothing?"
JARED CARTER: "In this country, typically, we criminalize acts, not thoughts."
KECK: Jolted is reported and produced by Liam Elder Connors and me 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
ELDER-CONNORS: John Van Hoesen is VPR's Chief Content Officer
Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons
Engineering support is from Chris Albertine
We had digital support from Jonathan Butler, Noah Villamarin-Cutter and Meg Malone
Support for JOLTED comes from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from Primmer Piper Eggleston and Cramer, PC.