Josiah Leach, 19, leaves the federal court in Burlington after pleading guilty to making threats against students and teachers at South Burlington High School. File photo by Morgan True / VTDigger

[R]UTLAND — A former South Burlington high school student who admitted making threats against fellow students and teachers apologized Tuesday, telling a judge recent news reports of the school shooting in Florida that killed 17 people nearly brought him to tears.

“It almost made me cry,” Josiah Leach, 19, said during his sentencing hearing in federal court in Rutland. “I just can’t believe that 17 people died.”

Judge Geoffrey Crawford sentenced Leach on Monday to five years of probation, a sentence jointly recommended by prosecutors and Leach’s attorney.

Leach said that seeing the recent news reports helped him realize why others are taking his own case so seriously, though he added he never intended to harm anyone.

“I’d like to apologize for my actions,” Leach said in court. “I wasn’t right in my head when I made the threats.”

The attorneys on both sides said that while Leach spread fear throughout the school community through his threats, they had not found any indication that he planned to act on them.

“There is no evidence that Josiah Leach ever intended to carry through on his threats,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia Cowles said in court. “His only goal was to spread fear … his only weapon was his laptop.”

Leach was arrested last April following a series of threats sent through a web of email accounts, Facebook and an internet voiceover. The threats led to three days of lockdowns at the high school and for one day, the cancellation of classes districtwide.

“It’s not an overstatement to say that for a week in April 2017 Josiah Leach terrorized the South Burlington School District,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Drescher wrote in a sentence memo filed in the case. “Using various media, Leach delivered not less than eight threats to kill or harm members of that community.”

In addition to spreading fear, the threats were costly financially to the community, according to the filing.

“The episode also consumed all of the local police department’s resources, resulting in overtime and other costs,” Drescher wrote. “The school district estimates financial losses in excess of $300,0000. By any measure, this was a serious crime.”

Leach’s sentencing comes on heels of a Poultney teenager accused last week of allegedly plotting to cause “mass casualties” by shooting up Fair Haven Union High School.

Jack Sawyer, 18, could spend the rest of his life behind bars if convicted of the four felony charges against him. Those offenses include counts of attempted aggravated murder and attempted first-degree murder.

Sawyer is being held without bail.

Jack Sawyer
Jack Sawyer, 18, appears in Vermont Superior Court in Rutland on Friday. Pool photo by Ryan Mercer/Burlington Free Press

Prosecutors in Sawyer’s case said in court filings that he had taken demonstrable steps to carry out the shooting, including purchasing a firearm and buying ammunition. Sawyer also told police of a notebook he kept where he wrote down his preparations for carrying out his plot, titled, “The Journal of an Active Shooter.”

Police said they learned of Sawyer’s threat only hours after last week’s shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Leach pleaded guilty in October to a federal charge of transmitting threats in interstate commerce. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of five years probation.

However, Leach was ordered held in custody in November for violating the conditions of his release, pending the sentencing hearing Tuesday.

The violation involved being kicked out of counseling program he was required to enroll in as part of his release conditions. According to prosecutors, Leach was kicked out of a program at the Howard Center for repeatedly setting off stink bombs.

Leach was also jailed briefly in May for going online, which his conditions at that time prohibited.

In total, Leach served more than three months behind bars.

Josiah Leach
A photo of Josiah Leach from his public Facebook page. The South Burlington High School student is charged with making a series of escalating threats against the lives of fellow students and teachers.

Elizabeth Quinn, Leach’s attorney, said in court Tuesday that her client had a difficult upbringing, suffering abuse at the hands of his father, racial taunts at school and in the community, and poverty at home.

Quinn said Leach suffers from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Leach, standing next to her, later told the judge that he understood how important it is for him to continue mental health treatment. He added that he envisioned a future in which he gets a high school diploma, attends college and becomes a graphic designer or animator. He also talked of possibly working in a trade, such as a welder or electrician.

“Basically, I just want to go to school and get a job,” Leach said.

Federal sentencing guidelines recommended at least 24 months in prison. However, Judge Crawford agreed to depart from the those guidelines and impose the sentence of five years probation, which was agreed to by Leach’s attorney and prosecutors.

Leach told the judge that he had learned a great deal from his time in jail from November until Tuesday. He talked about being the youngest person in the unit where he was held. Some prisoners, he said, saw him as a “target” because of his youth, while others offered him advice on avoiding a life behind bars.

“That scared me a lot,” he said of his period of incarceration. “That’s not how I want to live my life.”

Judge Crawford included several conditions of Leach’s probation, including that he not use a computer unless a plan has been approved by his probation officer ahead of time. Leach also must stay away from South Burlington High School and take part in mental health counseling.

In addition, the judge said he wanted Leach to check in with him once every six months at the federal courthouse in Burlington.

“We’ll talk in a positive, friendly way,” the judge said, adding that he hoped to hear of the accomplishments Leach would be making to turn his life around.

“There’s no reason you can’t do this,” Crawford told Leach.

VTDigger's criminal justice reporter.