RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) "By the grace of God and the bravery of a courageous young woman did we avert disaster," said Gov. Phil Scott, talking about a foiled plot to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School.
Police say the plot was concocted by Jack Sawyer, 18, of Poultney. Sawyer appeared in court Friday to face charges of aggravated attempted murder, attempted first-degree murder and attempted aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
The murderous plot took days to unravel. But most importantly, there was no attack and no one was hurt.
So what exactly lead police to Sawyer? It was thanks to a few concerned citizens who came forward to police. And police say it's lucky they did because they say Sawyer had already put together what he called "The Journal of an Active Shooter." In it, were lists of weapons he intended to buy, plans for how to carry out the shooting and a list of current and former students who he wanted to die.
Sawyer walked into Rutland court in camo and handcuffs Friday afternoon, charged with plotting to carry out a mass shooting at his former high school.
"There's been 18 school shootings since January 1. And you always think in my career like, this is Fair Haven. It's not going to happen here," Fair Haven Police Chief Bill Humphries said.
Humphries said they were first alerted to the threat Wednesday. Someone told police that Monday, they heard Sawyer was acting strangely and had made threats against Fair Haven Union High School. Then, they were told Sawyer had bought a shotgun at Dick's Sporting Goods in Rutland, along with ammo. But when police spoke to him on Wednesday, he told them it was for target practice and he said he hadn't made any threats against the school in the past two years.
"We had found no probable cause to make an arrest," Humphries said.
But that changed the next day when a juvenile from New York alerted police to disturbing text messages from Sawyer, reading in part, "Just a few days ago I was still plotting on shooting up my old high school..." And then, in response to the school shooting in Florida: "That's fantastic. I 100% support it... I think the human population sucks so I like to hear about cases of natural selection... It's just natural selection taken up a notch."
"This is a classic example of the person who came forward, from out of state, is the true hero out of this because they put aside everything else to say, 'I think there's a problem.' And based on that, it allowed law enforcement to intervene and avert a potential disaster," Humphries said.
During an interview with police, Sawyer allegedly confessed to his plot.
"He told detectives that he was planning from a couple of years ago to shoot up Fair Haven High School," said Maj. Glenn Hall of the Vermont State Police.
Sawyer told investigators he'd gone to the high school for his freshman and part of his sophomore year before running away and eventually being sent away for mental health treatment in Maine.
He also allegedly told police he was obsessed with the Columbine High School shootings and had researched them extensively. And police say he told them he bought the shotgun recently, as part of his plot to shoot up Fair Haven High School. Sawyer allegedly told police he planned to take out the school resource officer first and then use an AR-15 and other guns to kill as many students as he could before taking his own life. And he allegedly told police he wasn't sure when he was going to carry out the plan but he would no matter what.
"We have to go forward with our lives and just be strong, be vigilant and alert, and realize that things happen in a small town," Humphries said.
Sawyer pleaded not guilty Friday in court. He's being held without bail until an evidence hearing later this month.
VERMONTERS REACT TO ALLEGED PLOT
Vermonters were talking about this plot everywhere our WCAX News crews went Friday.
In Fair Haven, we spoke with two people in town. One of them graduated from Fair Haven Union High School.
"Growing up here my whole life, these things never happened," said Scott Ruest of Fair Haven. "You see what happened the other day in Florida, just seeing something like that in our small town is just, it's unbelievable."
Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: He's facing some pretty serious charges.
Mark Gutel/Fair Haven: Yes, and he should be. We can't mess around with that anymore. These kids are important and anyone who messes around with that, should face the consequences... It scares you, it scares you. We trust our kids to be safe when they go to school.
KEEPING VERMONT SCHOOLS SAFE
We also heard from state leaders Friday about this plot and to how avoid another one in the future.
Gov. Phil Scott said the shooting in Florida and the situation at Fair Haven High School "jolted" him, and he is ready to have an open and honest conversation about what can be done to prevent a tragedy here in Vermont.
"Are we doing everything we can to protect our kids?" the governor asked.
Scott and other state leaders reacted to the plot allegedly drawn up by 18-year-old Jack Sawyer to "shoot up" Fair Haven High School.
"This conversation can't be just about guns, but having said that, we need, I need to be open minded, objective and at least consider anything that will protect our kids," Scott said.
Rob Evans, Vermont's school safety liaison officer, said they have shared information with principals and superintendents on how to speak with students after a traumatic situation. He also urged the development of relationships between first responders and schools.
"These partnerships ensure key relationships have been developed, actionable plans are in place and strengths are used to fulfil their potential," Evans said.
Because of this plot, various state agencies will work with schools in March to ensure those connections are made. Evans also urges the public and students to speak out if they notice suspicious behavior.
"No piece of information is too small," Evans said. "If you feel it could potentially keep a violent act from taking place, we must share the concerns with school safety partners in our efforts to keep these tragedies from happening in the future."
The governor, who has protected Vermonters right to bear arms, says more conversation needs to happen to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
"I am committed to working with legislative leaders to identify policy chances that better ensure the safety of our children and all of Vermonters," he said.
Scott said he knows it won't be easy but protecting kids and the public is his top priority.
"I know these conversations will be passionate and solutions will not be easy, but they are important to our children, our communities and to ensuring we remain the safest state in the country," Scott said.
Scott says schools and state and local police will be reviewing their active shooter policies and procedures to ensure they are effective. Scott hopes to have that work done before students return from February vacation.
Meanwhile, Fair Haven school officials sent a letter to parents Friday saying there are no additional concerns from law enforcement about threats at the school.