Thursday January 10, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Zachariah McAllister stood in a Brattleboro courtroom Wednesday and admitted to crimes including burglary, lying to police and selling drugs.

In exchange, the 22-year-old is getting what all involved are calling an unusual and "extraordinary" opportunity to address his substance-abuse problems before being sentenced for those crimes.

"I do trust him that he can make it this time," McAllister's attorney, William Kraham, told Judge David Suntag in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.

"He knows what's at stake," Kraham said. "This is his last chance."

McAllister had been charged in one burglary -- a Dec. 27, 2011 break-in at WW Building Supply in Newfane. But the case drew greater-than-usual attention because prosecutors have tied it to a string of burglaries in five states.

Another man charged in the Newfane break-in, Dillon Lange, is incarcerated in New Hampshire and eventually will face more than 20 counts of burglary in Windham County alone.

"The state will be seeking (Lange's) return to Vermont in connection with his pending charges here," said Steven Brown, Windham deputy state's attorney.

McAllister's court docket was much smaller. On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to the Newfane burglary and to supplying false information to law enforcement in Brattleboro.

He also pleaded guilty to selling hallucinogenic mushrooms on Aug. 12, 2011 in Westminster and to possessing cocaine on the same day in Bellows Falls.

Several other, lesser charges were dismissed. McAllister will face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

But that sentence won't be handed down for at least six months. And its severity will depend on how McAllister fares in addiction treatment.

On Wednesday, McAllister was released from prison and admitted to the RISE program, which is administered by Phoenix House. RISE stands for Recovery in an Independent, Sober Environment, and Kraham said his client will be subject to a curfew and will be required to get a job while undergoing counseling.

McAllister's plea agreement with the state allows him to complete two phases of the RISE program before returning to court for sentencing.

Brown said prosecutors reserve the right to ask for whatever sentence they see fit up to the 15-year maximum.

"That's going to depend on how the defendant responds to treatment between now and his next court date," Brown said, adding that "I think it's the right thing to do."

In court, Kraham said his client "realizes this is an extraordinary opportunity for him. It's quite unusual. I've never seen a case like this."

The unorthodox arrangement gave Suntag pause. The judge noted that McAllister had previous convictions and probation violations.

But Kraham pointed out that, without a plea, he would proceed with motion arguments that would delay the case's resolution for months -- during which time McAllister would be sitting in jail rather than receiving treatment.

Also, he pledged to remain in contact with McAllister.

"I'm going to require that he check in with me weekly," Kraham said.

Suntag eventually accepted the plea agreement while also warning McAllister that, if he violated the terms of his release, he risked returning to prison to await sentencing.

"The efforts that have been made for you . . . are in many ways extraordinary," Suntag said, using Kraham's work as an example.

"You don't want to disappoint him," Suntag said. "But beyond that, you don't want to disappoint me."

Outside the courtroom, as his client prepared for his release from prison, Kraham said drug treatment is more successful than incarceration alone. Addiction problems must be addressed, he said.

"We see a lot of these young men getting into trouble," Kraham said. "The root of it all is addiction."

Aside from his pending sentencing in the cases connected to Wednesday's guilty plea, McAllister still must deal with other legal issues.

He faces a domestic-assault charge in Windham County stemming from a November incident that allegedly occurred after he had been discharged early from a drug-treatment program due to insurance issues.

Also, authorities said McAllister faces a retail-theft charge in New Hampshire.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.