Matthew Webster entered the Vermont Superior Court in St. Albans crying Thursday. The 30-year-old from Swanton pleaded not guilty to shooting and killing Anna Alger, 31, of Highgate.
The shooting happened Wednesday on North Main Street. Police say Webster ran a red light and nearly hit Alger's car. Both pulled over and got out of their vehicles. Police say when Alger confronted Webster, he shot her to death in the middle of the street.
"This was an unpredictable, erratic act, committed with great intent and violence," Franklin County Deputy Prosecutor John Lavoie said.
Webster told police he had abused prescription drugs in the past and Wednesday morning he abused an anti-anxiety medication that has a side effect of creating suicidal thoughts.
Amber Johnson dated Webster on and off for five years and has known him since she was 12. Johnson says Webster did have a temper, but wasn't himself lately and needed help.
"He had a pancreatic situation where he had to be on narcotics for pain levels," Johnson said. "Being on narcotics, he was not using them properly."
Police say Webster's wife was driving a short distance behind him in another car Wednesday. The two were fighting. Webster told police he was going to kill himself with a 9 mm handgun but couldn't do it. When he exited the car to confront Alger, he realized he was still holding the gun.
Webster says he shot because he thought it was the only way to stop her.
Friends and family of Alger gasped in horror when the prosecutor stated there were six gunshot wounds found in the victim, and Webster had three firearms on him.
"She was a sweet woman," said Sherri Gebo, who knew Alger. "She loved everyone. She loved her daughter to death."
Alger was driving with her new fiancé at the time of the incident. They both exited the car, but according to Webster's statement, the gun didn't go off when he pointed it at his own head, and then at Alger's fiancé.
"Stuff like that isn't supposed to happen here," Gebo said. "Maybe in big cities, but we're just a little hick town."
Alger has a 9-year-old daughter.
"Every little girl needs her mother, no matter what they always need her mother," Gebo said.
Alger's friends and family did not want to speak on camera Thursday, but they told us Anna had just gotten engaged and it was the happiest she had been in her entire life.
Webster was ordered held without bail.
WITNESSES TRY TO PROCESS WHAT THEY SAW
A typical day at the gym became a nightmare for Caroline Manahan.
"I've seen a lot of TV shows and watched a lot of movies and it doesn't really compare to seeing it in real life. It's like nothing I've ever seen before," she said.
Manahan was working out in the front of Fitness Zone in downtown St. Albans Wednesday evening when she heard screaming.
"I hear six shots and the woman was on the ground and the man was walking away as calm as could be with the gun still in his hand," Manahan said.
A deadly road rage incident-- right outside. Other gym members say they can't believe this could have happened in their tight-knit community.
"It was horrific," Manahan said. "I couldn't fall asleep last night. It's been on my mind all day. I just keep replaying it."
"I think we're just a little shocked now and we're overwhelmed and a lot of people have conflicting feelings about this and it's not something we're used to handling," said Beth Hayford of the Fitness Zone.
But it turns out a gym instructor is used to handling emergencies. Eric Patno was teaching a class when he heard a gunshot and jumped into action. Patno is also a Vermont State trooper.
"Most people panic, that causes more chaos and people get hurt. But when someone is properly trained to control the situation, told people what to do, locked the facility down, make the call," said Michael Lucier, who owns the Fitness Zone.
Witnesses say Patno immediately put the gym in lockdown and ran out to the scene in his workout clothes to confront the suspect before police arrived. Gym members say they consider Patno a hero.
"Very calm, cool and collected when it comes to these things, but lives the lifestyle. They're on 24-7. These guys never have a chance to shut off," Lucier said.
An off-duty trooper in the right place at the right time.
Vermont State Police declined our request to speak to Trooper Patno or to comment on his actions.
POLICE: IF YOU ENCOUNTER TROUBLE ON THE ROAD, GET HELP
Police immediately characterized the incident leading to the shooting as road rage.
They were careful not to place blame on the victim of the shooting, but they say Alger's actions-- following Webster and getting out of her car to confront him-- played a role in the deadly outcome.
Police say drivers who encounter trouble on the road need to turn to authorities for help.
"Well, number one, people should remain calm instead of becoming angry at other drivers, first and foremost. And then if they are finding themselves in a confrontation, the best thing to do is proceed to the local police department or call 911 and notify police so that we can intervene in it," St. Albans Police Lt. Ron Hoague said.
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