Woman whose Vt. attempted murder case was dropped faces federal firearm charges

  • U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan speaks during a press conference in Newport last month. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Published: 6/12/2019 10:03:12 PM
Modified: 6/12/2019 10:03:03 PM

U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan has filed federal firearms charges against Veronica Lewis, a woman accused of shooting her firearms instructor in 2015.

State’s Attorney Sarah George announced last week that she was dropping the attempted murder charge against Lewis as the state was unable to rebut her planned insanity defense. George also dismissed two second degree murder cases against two men for the same reason.

Lewis is being charged in federal court for unlawfully possessing a stolen firearm and possessing a firearm after being found mentally defective. Both charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Lewis is accused of shooting firearms instructor Darryl Montague in Westford, Vt., during a lesson on June 29, 2015.

The federal charges stem from Lewis fleeing the scene in possession of one of Montague’s firearms, a Smith & Wesson Model K-22 caliber revolver, according to the affidavit in the case written by Eric Brimo, a special agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“The firearm utilized by Lewis was owned by Montague and was being used by him to provide the shooting instruction at the time,” Brimo wrote. “Lewis then took Montague’s firearm from that location and fled from the area.”

Montague’s firearm was found in Lewis’ backpack after her arrest. She also was observed placing six rounds of .22 caliber ammunition into a toilet paper roll while being held at the Vermont State Police Williston Barracks.

Lewis was determined to be mentally incapacitated in Queens, N.Y., in 2013, a finding that precludes Lewis for lawfully possessing firearms and ammunition under federal law. The finding of mental incapacitation led prosecutors in Queens to drop charges of jumping bail against Lewis.

An initial hearing was held Wednesday afternoon at federal court in Burlington. Lewis was read her rights and the charges against her, and Judge John Conroy set a hearing for Monday on the government’s motion to detain Lewis until trial.

Lewis is represented by Michael Desautels, the federal defender. Desautels declined to comment about the charges against Lewis following the hearing.

Nolan said after the hearing that Lewis’ release was “imminent” when she was arrested at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility on Wednesday morning. Nolan did not say why Lewis was at the jail and not at a mental health treatment facility, and a call seeking more information from the Department of Corrections was not immediately returned.

“We tried to move as quickly as we could because we didn’t want her to be released and for something tragic to happen,” Nolan said.

Nolan said that the federal charges were “totally different” from the state charges that had been dismissed by George. Under federal law, Lewis’ sanity would be considered for the two days she is alleged to have been illegally in possession firearms instead of the moment of the shooting, which Nolan said she believed had been considered in the state charges.

Nolan said the charges are meant to ensure public safety, and that there are more federal gun laws than state gun laws.

“We are trying to use our federal gun laws as much as we can in the interest of public safety,” Nolan said.

If Lewis is found not guilty by reason of insanity, she would continue to receive treatment, and the judge and both parties would be notified before she is released, Nolan said.

Nolan said the federal government wanted to avoid duplicating resources when Lewis was facing the attempted murder charges but took another look at the case when those charges were dismissed.

Brimo wrote that he spoke with Montague about the shooting on Monday. Montague told VTDigger last week that he was “frustrated beyond words” with George’s decision to drop the charges.

“I argued every way, shape, and form that I could possibly think of,” Montague said of his communications with George.

The two bullets that hit Montague in the face remain in his head as doctors told him removing them would cause more damage than leaving them in place, he said. Montague still has problems with balance and short-term memory and spent around a year after the shooting recovering at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Lewis was not found competent to stand trial until January 2018. Her attorneys notified George of their intent to use the insanity defense in March 2018. An expert for the defense, David Rosmarin, concluded Lewis was suffering from a schizoaffective disorder at the time of the offense and was legally insane.

The prosecution hired an expert, Jonathan Weker, who also determined that Lewis was insane at the time of the shooting.

“In light of the opinions of Dr. Rosmarin and Dr. Weker, Defense counsel has substantial admissible evidence to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant was insane at the time the crimes were committed and is therefore not criminally responsible,” George wrote in the filing dismissing the case.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced Tuesday he would review George’s decision in all three cases she dismissed due to the insanity defense after Gov. Phil Scott questioned the decisions and asked Donovan to review them.

Scott said Wednesday that he thought Nolan’s decision to file charges against Lewis was “good news” and commended Donovan for reviewing all three cases.

The two men whose charges were dismissed are Louis Fortier, accused of stabbing a man to death on Church Street in Burlington in March 2017, and Aita Gurung, accused of killing his wife in October 2017 with a meat cleaver in Burlington.

George did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Nolan’s decision, but has defended her decision to dismiss the cases.

“It’s my belief as an officer of the court and in my ethical obligations as a prosecutor, I can not go to trial on a case I know we do not have expert testimony to rebut the defense,” she said.

Nolan said that her office had taken another look at the other two cases George dismissed but did not see a basis for federal jurisdiction. But she said she respected George and her decision to bring the federal charges should not be seen as a judgment on George’s decision to dismiss the cases.

“This is not a critique of the decision … this is not a review of that decision,” Nolan said. “It’s not a critique of the state’s attorney.”

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