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The Brutal 1981 Crime 
That Spawned Woodside

Sunday, February 22, 2015
On a cold, drizzly Friday afternoon in May 1981, two 12-year-old girls from the village of Essex Junction, Vt., set out on their walk home from school. After leaving Lawton Middle School, Melissa Walbridge and Meghan O’Rourke headed toward a narrow path through the woods — a shortcut that Essex Junction schoolchildren had used for years.

Louie Hamlin, 16, and Jamie Savage, 15, didn’t know the girls, but spotted them from across Maple Street Park, where they had spent part of the afternoon hunting squirrels with pellet guns. As the rain continued to fall, Hamlin and Savage hid in the woods. They waited for the two unsuspecting sixth-graders to pass them on the trail, before rushing out from the trees and grabbing them from behind.

The girls were raped, tortured and stabbed. Hamlin and Savage left them for dead. But with dusk settling in, a bloodied O’Rourke stumbled out of the woods, where she was spotted by a passing railroad worker.

As part of its response to the brutal attacks, the state opened a 30-bed facility in Essex in the mid-1980s that became known as Vermont’s youth prison. Thirty years later, the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center remains the state’s only locked facility for youths under age 18. D eath of Innocence, a 1985 book by Peter Meyer, a New York investigative journalist, provides an in-depth look at that case, which led to the overhaul of Vermont’s juvenile justice system.

The break in the case came when O’Rourke was able to give police a detailed description from her hospital bed of the two teenagers who had attacked her, and stabbed to death her best friend.

Until O’Rourke described the attackers, the police investigation had focused on adult suspects. In Vermont, it was hard to imagine that adolescents could be capable of such heinous crimes.

Hamlin and Savage, who grew up together in Burlington’s hardscrabble North End, were caught a week later.

But only Hamlin would stand trial. Because Savage was not yet 16, he couldn’t be charged with a crime. Under Vermont law at the time, anyone 15 and under had to be treated as a juvenile, no matter what the offense.

The law that prevented juveniles from being tried in criminal court had passed in 1968, “at the height of a national outpouring of sympathy for young offenders,” wrote Meyer.

As a result of the 1968 law, the most the state could do to those under 16 was to rule them delinquent and place them in the custody of the state’s social services department. When they reached 18, they had to be released.

Savage spent three years in an out-of-state facility for juveniles, before Vermont was required to set him free. He’s believed to have moved to another state — possibly Arizona — under a new name. Meanwhile, Hamlin, now 50, is serving a 45-year-to-life sentence in federal prison.

In the summer of 1981, a special session of the Vermont Legislature was convened. Legislators and then-Gov. Richard Snelling quickly approved changing Vermont’s juvenile laws so anyone 10 and older could be tried as an adult for certain crimes.

“So much of Vermont’s juvenile law flows from that single case,” said Marshall Pahl, a lawyer with the state’s Defender General’s Office who handles juvenile cases.

Along with overhauling Vermont’s juvenile justice laws, the Legislature soon provided money to build Woodside. Vermont had been without a juvenile detention center since the late 1970s, when the 105-year-old Weeks School in Vergennes was closed. Troubled youths were moved into foster care, group homes and in some cases to out-of-state facilities. A small detention center was opened adjacent to the state mental hospital in Waterbury for high-risk kids.

Then in the spring of 1981, a “brutal crime beyond normal comprehension,” drastically changed the way that Vermont treated youthful offenders accused of serious crimes, wrote Meyer.

And up sprang Woodside, located just four miles from the scene of the crime that spawned it.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com or 603-727-3212




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