hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News  April 2018



Shooting plot sparks statehouse action


A teenager’s alleged plot to carry out a killing spree at Fair Haven Union High School has upended Vermont’s politics in recent weeks, prompting lawmakers to move rapidly toward new restrictions on the sale of guns.

Police arrested a former Fair Haven student on Feb. 15, the day after a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed. The former student, 18-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney, became the focus of an investigation after authorities said he exchanged Facebook messages with a girl in Dutchess County, N.Y., in which he described the Florida killings as “natural selection” and discussed his desire to “shoot up my own school.”

The Rutland Herald reported that a journal allegedly written by Sawyer, and entered into court records, described an evolving plan to carry out an attack in Fair Haven – with the goal of killing as many as possible of his former classmates.

The spiral-bound journal, which police said they found in Sawyer’s car, was labeled “The Journal of an Active Shooter” and contained dated entries beginning in October as well as lists of weapons and supplies needed for the attack and notes about possible dates this spring for carrying it out.

An entry from late November read: “I’ve realized the huge importance of being able to kill the kids I actually know vs. waiting a year or so until they’re all gone.”

The Herald reported that Sawyer attended Fair Haven for his freshman and sophomore years, but his parents subsequently sent him to a residential school in Maine where they hoped he would get treatment for anxiety and depression.

Fair Haven school officials have said they conducted a threat assessment of Sawyer after some teachers and students raised “red flags” about his behavior in 2016, including his apparent fascination with the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. The assessment concluded Sawyer was a threat, but the process ended when he didn’t return to the school.
Sawyer bought a 12-guage shotgun two days before his arrest, and police say he planned to acquire an AR-15 assault rifle and a Glock 9mm handgun. He allegedly told police he planned to emulate the Columbine massacre and exceed the death toll of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which killed 33.

The Fair Haven case, coming on the heels of the Florida killings, suddenly thrust gun control to the front of the legislative agenda in Montpelier. Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who had contended in his 2016 campaign that Vermont didn’t need new gun laws, promptly issued a five-page memo calling for gun legislation and school security measures.

By the last day of February, the state Senate had unanimously approved a bill that would allow police to take away guns from anyone deemed by a court to be an “extreme risk” to themselves or others. The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told the Burlington weekly Seven Days that “Vermont’s not immune” to school violence.

“I think we knew that before Fair Haven,” Sears said. “But I think Fair Haven jolted us all.”
In late March, the House voted 89-54 in favor of more sweeping legislation that would require universal background checks for gun purchases, raise the minimum age for gun buyers to 21, and ban “bump stocks” and high-capacity magazines.

Representatives from Bennington and Rutland counties were about evenly split in the final vote on that bill, which the Senate was expected to take up on March 30. Notably, the two representatives from Fair Haven, Republicans William Canfield and Robert Helm, both voted no.
As of late March, Sawyer was being held without bail pending a trial on charges of attempted murder and attempted aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The Herald reported that a judge rejected a defense argument that merely planning for an attack did not rise to the threshold required for an attempted murder charge.

In other news from around the region in February and March:

Judge offers last hope for opponents of art sale
A March 20 hearing before a justice of the state’s highest court offered the last hope for opponents of the Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell up to 40 works of art from its collection.
In early February, the state attorney general’s office, which had gone to court last fall to block the planned art sale, said it now agreed with the museum’s trustees that the sale is necessary to raise $55 million in cash to keep the museum afloat.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that the museum and the attorney general’s office announced an agreement Feb. 9 in which most famous of the works to be sold, Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” would be purchased by an unidentified nonprofit museum that would allow the work to be displayed for up to two years at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
But the deal requires approval from the state Supreme Judicial Court, and Justice David A. Lowy held a March 20 hearing to consider objections raised by two groups of citizens who filed “friend of the court” briefs opposing the sale. Lowy had not ruled on the case by March 29.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley


A newsroom for local history: the library


Maury Thompson


Arthur P. Irving, who was publisher of The Post-Star and Glens Falls Times from 1958 until 1971, used to say, “There are only two places I’ve ever wanted to live – and both of them are in Glens Falls.”

Parroting his line of thought, I have two favorite travel destinations, and both of them are at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls: the library’s microfilm collection and its Folklife Center archives.

Since I retired from The Post-Star in September after a 21-year career covering government and business, these are the places I now work the beat, metaphorically speaking, in my “encore career” as a freelance writer. My focus now is on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.

This year’s celebration of the 125th anniversary of Crandall Public Library has reminded me of how public libraries have been special places throughout my life.

Frayser Public Library in North Memphis, Tenn., is the earliest public library I remember from my childhood. My older sisters and I would walk to the library and stop at Ben Franklin five and dime on the way home to buy penny candy.

Frayser Public Library was the first place we saw a photocopy machine. We were so fascinated with the technology that we would put a coin in and photocopy our hands.

The Nanty Glo Public Library, in Nanty Glo, Pa., where I lived in junior high school, was a much smaller building than the library in Memphis. By this time I was old enough to walk to the library by myself, and I did so frequently to check out Hardy Boys books and other teen mystery series books.

My later teenage years were spent in Greensburg, Pa., where the public library was a good mile or more walk from home. I would make an excursion of it, and stop after the library at the G.C. Murphy five and dime to buy a quarter- or half-pound of gumdrop and soft candy mix.

My newspaper route provided a ready supply of cash. The clerk at the five and ten would use a metal scoop to remove the candy from a bin in a glass case, weigh the candy, and then pour it into a white paper bag. The sweet treat, consumed a piece or two at a time, would last for most of the week until the next Saturday trip to the library.

The Black Watch Memorial Library in Ticonderoga was the public library of my young adult years.
Mildred Kenney, the librarian, was almost like an extended family member. My children loved visiting with her at the library, where they frequently checked out “Frog and Toad” and “A Zoo for Mr. Muster” by Arnold Lobel and “The Summerfolk” by Doris Burn.

When I enrolled in college at age 28, I brought my freshman year essays by the library for Mrs. Kenney to review. She offered welcome encouragement.

This brings me to Crandall Public Library, where I have been a patron for more than two decades now. At a health-conscious stage of life, I don’t usually stop for candy on my now almost daily trips to the library, but I sometimes stop at one of the downtown eateries for a cup of tea or a bowl of soup.

I admire the financial stewardship of 19th century lumber baron and real estate investor Henry Crandall, who, more than a century after his death, still contributes more than $80,000 annually to the library that bears his name.

Crandall, when he died, left everything he owned to a charitable trust, which makes an annual payment to the library.

I also admire Sherman Williams, the Glens Falls school superintendent who convinced Crandall that Glens Falls needed a public library.

You can learn more about Williams and others instrumental in the library’s history at a new exhibit, running through the end of the year, at the library’s Folklife Center Gallery.


Maury Thompson of Glens Falls is a freelance writer who focuses on the history of the region’s politics, labor and media. He previously was a reporter for 21 years at The Post-Star of Glens Falls.