Parkland Helped Raise Alarm On Vermont Teen's School Shooting Plan In 2018, Jack Sawyer told police he wanted to set a new record: highest death count for a school shooter. He was arrested, but the courts had to decide whether Sawyer's plan was even a crime.
NPR logo

This Teen Planned A School Shooting. But Did He Break The Law?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/724347494/727666445" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
This Teen Planned A School Shooting. But Did He Break The Law?

This Teen Planned A School Shooting. But Did He Break The Law?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/724347494/727666445" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We often hear about school shootings, and now we're going to hear about a school shooting that never happened. In the 20 years since the Columbine tragedy, the National Police Foundation has found 76 incidents in which a school shooting was apparently averted. One of them involved a young man in Vermont. He allegedly had plans to shoot people at his former high school, plans that were foiled because the system worked. He was arrested before anything happened. And the story doesn't end there, as Vermont Public Radio's Liam Elder-Connors and Nina Keck report.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: On February 13, 2018, 18-year-old Jack Sawyer walked out of Dick's Sporting Goods in Rutland, Vt., with a brand-new pump-action Maverick 88 shotgun and four boxes of ammunition. The next day, in Parkland, Fla., a 19-year-old shot and killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM ANDERSON: Good afternoon, everyone. Tom Anderson - I'm commissioner of public safety.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: Two days later, Vermont learned it may have narrowly missed a similar massacre.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON: This has been a very sad, disturbing and tragic week for the United States and Vermont.

ELDER-CONNORS: Authorities had arrested Sawyer. Police said he was threatening to cause mass casualties at his former high school in Fair Haven, a small town near the New York border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON: Let me tell you that because someone heard something disturbing and said something - that Vermont school officials and law enforcement were able to thwart the kind of tragedy now gripping Parkland, Fla.

KECK: Fair Haven did not join Parkland or Columbine or any of the schools that have become tragically well-known. But what happened next would play out a fundamental tension at the heart of our criminal justice system - the balance between personal liberty and public safety. Sawyer let police search his car, where they found the shotgun and ammunition he'd legally purchased. Police also found a diary titled "The Journal Of An Active Shooter." But how did police even find out about Jack Sawyer?

ELDER-CONNORS: It was because people spoke up. First, the mother of one of Sawyer's former schoolmates - she put the young man on police radar after she heard Sawyer had bought a gun. Then a friend, Angela McDevitt, spoke up. In one of his messages to McDevitt, Sawyer told her he'd been planning to shoot up his old school. McDevitt was shocked and scared. She wasn't sure what to do. Then came the shooting in Parkland. She messaged Sawyer about it.

ANGELA MCDEVITT: I just texted him that, like, this happened.

ELDER-CONNORS: Sawyer responded, quote, "That's fantastic - 100% support it."

MCDEVITT: I remember, like, staring at my phone, like, just being, like, oh, my God. Like, are you - like, I was so in shock. Like, I was just like, you can't say that. Like, people are dead. And that's when I kind of was just like, I know I need to tell someone, like, immediately.

ELDER-CONNORS: The next morning, McDevitt showed her phone to authorities in New York State, where she lives. By early afternoon, Jack Sawyer was in police custody. In an interview with detectives, he said he wanted to set a new record - highest death count for a school shooter.

KECK: He was held without bail and charged with attempted aggravated murder, attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, among the most severe charges in the state's criminal code.

KELLY GREEN: Huge charges - huge.

KECK: This is Kelly Green, Jack Sawyer's public defender.

GREEN: 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.

KECK: She felt there was a better option.

GREEN: Get that kid to the hospital. There's a statute about it. It's on the books.

KECK: Green said the state should've sought civil commitment for Sawyer, who had struggled with mental health issues for years. Advocates argue people with severe mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Still, when you talk to Sawyer's family and friends, they bring up his mental illness over and over. His former classmates say in high school, Sawyer was funny and nice, but he began to withdraw. He posted troubling things on Facebook and wrote a term paper on Columbine. In 10th grade, he dropped out and became suicidal. His mom, Lyn Wolk, says finding help wasn't easy.

LYN WOLK: We knew what we needed. We knew what he needed. We knew what would appeal to him. But there was nothing like that in our area.

KECK: She's sitting up straight in her home office. It's clearly hard for her to talk about this.

WOLK: It's a very overwhelming experience to figure out, A, what your child needs; B, where to go to find that; and C, how to put it all together while everything around you is moving at a very high speed.

KECK: By the time he turned 17, Sawyer had spent time in four different mental health facilities. Detectives and prosecutors didn't know all that. What they did know was he bought a shotgun and made a plan, and they arrested him before anyone might have gotten hurt.

ELDER-CONNORS: As it has so many times since Columbine, the system worked. The students at Fair Haven Union were safe, a potential tragedy averted. But the story didn't end there. And the legal questions about what to do with someone who's made a threat, but hasn't acted on it, remain.

For NPR News, I'm Liam Elder-Connors in Colchester, Vt.

KECK: And I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vt.

SHAPIRO: And this story was adapted from Vermont Public Radio's "JOLTED" podcast. Tomorrow, we'll pick up with this question. At what point does a thought or even a plan become a crime?

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.