South Burlington Death Threat Suspect Released Pending Trial | Off Message

South Burlington Death Threat Suspect Released Pending Trial

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Josiah Leach, center, leaves court with attorney Elizabeth Quinn, left, and his mother, Joy McKenzie - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • Josiah Leach, center, leaves court with attorney Elizabeth Quinn, left, and his mother, Joy McKenzie
A South Burlington High School student accused of threatening to kill students and staff was released from prison Thursday and ordered to live with his mother as he awaits trial.

Josiah Leach, 18, will be confined to the South Burlington home at all times except for medical appointments, meetings with his lawyer or for legal proceedings, and if granted permission to leave by his probation officer, U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss ruled.

Leach, who faces a five-year maximum sentence on a charge of threatening by means of interstate commerce, must wear a GPS-monitored ankle bracelet and cannot have contact with any students, visit district schools, or use a computer.

During the federal court hearing in Burlington, Reiss rejected a prosecutor's argument that the teen is too dangerous to let live in the community. Though Leach is accused of threatening to kill his classmates and school staff, the judge noted that there is no evidence that he intended to carry out the threats.

"There was no intent to injure, or preparations to do so," Reiss said.

The hearing, meanwhile, provided a few more details about Leach's background and the investigation into his multiple threats — including a kill list he allegedly published online — that prompted days of school lockdowns and inflamed a community bitterly divided by a debate about the school's mascot.

Leach told authorities that he "felt his life was over" and felt "he had been treated as a joke and he wanted the community to feel as he felt," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Drescher told the court.

Leach does not have any criminal convictions, but did serve two stints on juvenile probation for undisclosed offenses. During the hearing, attorneys revealed that the teen had also been both a suspect and a victim in fights, recently pulled a fire alarm at school, and had run away from home several times.

Leach, who has spent his entire life in Burlington and South Burlington, suffers from anxiety, depression and other mental health woes, and had an abusive father, his attorney Elizabeth Quinn said during the hearing.

"Putting him in jail doesn't seem like it would help with that concern," Quinn said of her client's mental health struggles. "Mr. Leach is an 18-year-old kid. I understand he is a legal adult, but he is a kid, he is a student in that school."
Rebel banners at South Burlington High School - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Rebel banners at South Burlington High School
Drescher noted that Leach continued to issue threats — even as he personally witnessed the chaos his initial threats caused. He saw the panic he allegedly caused firsthand, Drescher said, and was inside a classroom where students were forced to urinate and defecate in a bucket because they were not allowed to visit the bathroom. The prosecutor said that he considered the entire South Burlington student body to be victims of Leach's threats.

"This was not a single, one-off mistake of a young teenage man," Drescher said. "This was fully contemplated, several steps in its execution, several steps of turning up threats."

Drescher also revealed new details about the bizarre video Leach allegedly posted online. The young man in the video has his face blurred but appears to be white. Leach is African American. A computer-generated voice read from a "murder list" that named specific students and school staff . The person claimed that the killings would be retribution for the school board's decision to drop the Rebel nickname.

Drescher said Leach pulled a video off YouTube and edited it with a voice over in an attempt to throw the police off his trail. After his arrest, Drescher said Leach claimed the video proved that he was not the culprit. He also allegedly put his own name on the kill list as part of the subterfuge.

Wearing a hunter green prison uniform, Leach showed no emotion during the hearing and did not look at his mother and brother, both of whom were watching from the gallery. After his release, Leach and his family members declined to comment as they left the downtown Burlington courthouse.

South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple, who attended the hearing, said afterwards that he was "disappointed" by the judge's decision to release Leach. But Whipple said he was not concerned for his community's safety.

"I have faith in those in charge of monitoring him," Whipple said. "I trust the system."

Leach is scheduled to return to court on May 12.


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