BRATTLEBORO -- When Gerald J. Clough walked into a Brattleboro courtroom Thursday morning, he knew he was facing at least five years in prison -- and potentially much more -- for robbing a Bellows Falls bank last year.
But the 31-year-old Swanzey, N.H., man also was asking for one more chance to turn around a life wrecked by addiction-driven crime. And two very different people -- his tearful mother and a veteran State Trooper -- took the stand to say they thought Clough had potential to change.
Judge David Suntag took note of that and imposed a sentence combining a six-year minimum prison term with a long probationary period and intensive addiction treatment.
"You've got a shot, which is what you asked for," Suntag said.
Clough had been charged in connection with the Feb. 28 robbery of a Peoples United Bank branch in Bellows Falls. He and an accomplice were accused of donning masks and demanding that a teller fill a plastic bag with cash.
They made off with more than $6,000, about $2,700 of which was in $1 bills.
The alleged accomplice, Chad Dustin of Keene, N.H., is facing trial. A Bellows Falls woman, Amber Monty, has been charged with aiding the robbers and also is facing trial.
But Clough pleaded guilty to grand larceny in October.
He also pleaded guilty to a false reports charge related to a 911 call claiming that three armed suspects were headed to Bellows Falls Union High School. Authorities have said that call, placed the afternoon of the robbery, was meant to divert police from the bank.
Additionally, Clough pleaded no contest to aiding in the commission of a felony in connection with a Feb. 26 robbery at a Canal Street Gulf station in Brattleboro. Monty, Clough's former girlfriend, has been charged with committing that robbery.
On Thursday in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, Suntag ordered Clough to serve five to 28 years in prison for the robbery and an additional one to two years for the false report, making for a total of six to 30 years behind bars for the Bellows Falls incidents.
Also, there is an 18- to 20-year suspended prison sentence for aiding in the gas station robbery.
That means Clough won't actually serve that time unless the court decides he should in the event of a probation violation. Probation associated with the gas-station case begins immediately.
Before that sentence was imposed, Clough's attorney, James Valente of Brattleboro, called the defendant's mother to the stand.
Maureen Waters, a Swanzey resident, painted a picture of a home fractured by drink, drugs and violence from the time her son was a toddler. She testified that she regularly was beaten by Clough's father, who was "hitting me everywhere except on the face, where it would show."
Waters testified that she turned to heavy drinking to cope and cycled in and out of rehabilitation programs. At one point, Water said, she attempted suicide by jumping from a bridge.
Clough eventually was taken into state custody but sometimes escaped to return to his mother, she said, adding that her son became involved in drug use.
Waters said she's been sober for 17 years, and she testified that she believes her only son can transform his life.
"He's got a soul. He's got a conscience. Addiction has taken that away," she told Suntag. "I know he's a person who loves life. He just needs that foundation."
She added: "You don't give up. There's a million miracles out there."
Valente next called Vermont State Police Sgt. John Merrigan, who testified that Clough confessed to the Bellows Falls bank robbery and provided other information when questioned at a New Hampshire prison, where he was being held on unrelated charges.
"We kind of established a rapport with each other," Merrigan said. "He was looking to make some fundamental changes in his life."
Merrigan said Clough's charges in New Hampshire were dropped as a result of his cooperation, but he said there were "no specific promises" made in relation to the Vermont charges.
Merrigan also said he thought Clough was honest about his desire to change his ways.
"I found a sincerity that was unusual with him," Merrigan said.
Both witnesses made an impression on Suntag, who said Merrigan is a veteran investigator who's "not easily fooled."
The judge also said Waters' testimony is "a remarkable story of what domestic violence does to a family."
"I think we can only describe that as hell," Suntag said.
Windham Deputy State's Attorney David Gartenstein acknowledged the "heartfelt" testimony of Clough's mother. But he also pointed out that Clough has a long criminal history.
"He's a habitual offender," Gartenstein said. "There are six previous felony convictions, including a bank robbery in New Hampshire."
Clough served several years in jail for that robbery but, when he was released in 2011, he again became involved in criminal activity "in a very short period of time," Gartenstein said.
Gartenstein spoke about the fake Bellows Falls school threat in the context of the rash of school violence in recent years.
And a victim advocate from the State's Attorney's office read a written statement from a People's United employee who described his lingering fears inside the bank: After the robbery, he wrote, even a door slamming made him uncomfortable.
The employee, in a reference to the robbers, also wrote that he felt sorrow for "anyone who has to stoop to this level."
Gartenstein asked Suntag to impose a minimum jail sentence of 10 years.
"We need to address, in the context of this sentencing, the harm the defendant caused the community," he said.
But Valente argued that there was no evidence that the robbers had a weapon or intended to hurt anyone. While the crimes were serious, they were "frankly sad crimes committed by people addicted to heroin," he said.
Clough, in a short address to the court, acknowledged that and apologized to the bank-robbery victims. He also noted his own criminal record.
"My life just seems like, lock this guy up forever," he said.
But Clough also said he is committed to sobriety and wants to help others who might be headed down the wrong path.
"I'll do whatever it takes to prove I'm ready to change," he said.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.