Ridin' High owner John Van Hazinga, jailed for dealing pot from his Burlington skate shop, was released this week over concerns about the coronavirus outbreak at the prison where he was confined.
Van Hazinga was awaiting sentencing on a federal drug charge at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans when signs of outbreak emerged on April 1. He asked a federal judge to release him pending sentencing the following day.
As Seven Days reported, a federal judge granted his request on April 9, just hours before prison-wide testing revealed that more than 50 inmates and staff were already infected.
But Van Hazinga, who had not tested positive, remained incarcerated at Northwest on a warrant from the Vermont Parole Board. His federal charges had also constituted a violation of state parole from an earlier conviction.
At a preliminary hearing on April 21, parole board chair Dean George decided to grant Van Hazinga's release, according to board director Mary Jane Ainsworth. He will remain out until his federal sentencing, which is currently set for June 26.
Inmates and pre-trial detainees have flooded the courts with similar requests in recent weeks, many of which are still pending. Van Hazinga had a few factors working in his favor: His crime was nonviolent, he faces a federal sentence of just a few more months in prison, and he claimed reduced lung capacity from a severe skateboarding accident and years of smoking marijuana.
"I am so happy to be out of the COVID-19 factory," he said Friday when reached by phone.
Van Hazinga told Seven Days that he was living in a cell with one roommate for the first few days of full lockdown at Northwest. After that, he was alone in his cell, leaving just a few times a day to pick up food at the entrance to his pod, take medication or make hot water.
His attorney, Paul Volk, previously told Seven Days he had no indication that the outbreak had entered his client's pod.
Other inmates affected by the prison outbreak haven't fared as well as "Big John." Michael Hayes, detained on gun charges related to a homicide investigation, was transferred to Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury after testing positive. He had also asked to be released.
The same day "Big John" returned home, a federal judge denied Hayes' request.
During a Thursday press briefing, Department of Corrections officials expressed optimism that the outbreak at Northwest was no longer spreading inside the facility. No one has tested positive following the initial round of mass testing, which occurred more than two weeks ago, interim Commissioner Jim Baker said. The department plans to retest inmates and staff this weekend to be sure.
None of the inmates who tested positive have shown symptoms, Baker said. He clarified upon questioning that coughing alone might not be considered a symptom.