Friday May 31, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Given a "last chance" to rehabilitate himself in January, Zach McAllister was kicked out of drug treatment after less than a week and then ran from authorities for more than a month.

So when the admitted burglar returned to Windham Superior Court Criminal Division Thursday, there was not much doubt that he was facing significant time behind bars.

"He understands now that his reservoir of last chances has run dry," said McAllister’s Brattleboro-based defense attorney, William Kraham. "He can no longer run. He’s got to face the crime’s he’s committed."

That came just before Judge David Suntag sentenced McAllister, 22, to serve 27 months to five years in prison for burglarizing a Newfane business in 2011.

If McAllister gets into trouble again, that maximum sentence could be extended by up to five years based on a suspended prison sentence Suntag ordered in an unrelated drug case.

The judge made reference to McAllister’s troubled past when he warned the Westminster man to steer clear of any more legal entanglements.

"You can make changes," Suntag said. "In your case, you’ve had a rough beginning. And a lot of that was not your fault. But at this point, the choices are yours."

McAllister was arrested last year as authorities probed a multistate burglary ring. He eventually pleaded guilty to burglarizing one business -- WW Building Supply in Newfane in December 2011.


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McAllister also entered guilty pleas to giving false information to Brattleboro police, selling hallucinogenic mushrooms in Westminster and possessing cocaine in Bellows Falls.

All of those pleas came on Jan. 9, and they came with a deal: McAllister’s sentencing would be delayed for about six months while he received addiction treatment through the RISE program administered by Phoenix House in Brattleboro.

All involved told McAllister that his eventual sentence would be influenced heavily by his progress in the RISE program.

What happened next was summed up in court Thursday by Gary Stevens, a probation/parole officer with Vermont Department of Corrections.

"He lasted approximately one week, at which point in time he absconded," Stevens said.

McAllister told the judge that he was kicked out of the program for taking a heartburn pill. But Suntag reminded him that taking any medications was against the program’s rules.

McAllister remained on the run until Feb. 28, when Bellows Falls police found him in the basement of a Front Street apartment building owned by his parents.

Bellows Falls Officer Mario Checchi, testifying during the first portion of McAllister’s sentencing earlier this week, said police had tracked footprints left in the snow to that building.

They found McAllister on a bed.

"We gave him multiple verbal commands to show us his hands," Checchi said. "He did not."

Checchi said he eventually used a Taser to stun McAllister because officers feared he was armed. Police found a knife nearby after arresting McAllister, Checchi testified.

Kraham, in questioning Checchi, asked whether police had heard that his client was a "runner."

"At times, he has run, yeah," the officer replied.

That reputation led Stevens to declare on Thursday that "at this point in time, we don’t believe (McAllister) would be an appropriate candidate for probation."

There also had been testimony about McAllister’s numerous citations for disciplinary infractions while behind bars.

Based on McAllister’s history, Windham County Deputy State’s Attorney Ashley Harriman said, probation is "simply not an option. It’s not realistic."

Harriman asked for a prison sentence of three to 10 years to serve.

However, Stevens also had noted during his testimony that McAllister has committed no recent disciplinary violations in prison. And McAllister has "expressed a desire to better himself," Stevens said.

McAllister reiterated that desire when addressing Suntag directly.

"I definitely don’t want to sit in jail for the rest of my life," McAllister said. "I definitely want to better myself and show people I can make it in the community."

Kraham said he feared that a lengthy prison sentence would cause his client to "lose all hope that he has any chance to address his issues."

Those issues, Kraham argued, must be addressed by more-structured addiction treatment.

"At age 22, he’s had a substance-abuse problem for half his life," Kraham said, while also making reference to McAllister’s struggles with anxiety, depression and a difficult childhood.

Suntag said McAllister should be "thankful" for Kraham’s extensive work on his behalf.

"I have seldom seen an attorney work harder for a client than Mr. Kraham has been working for you, despite your apparent efforts to undo everything he was trying to accomplish," the judge said.

Suntag said he crafted his sentence to give McAllister a chance to get into an in-prison treatment program called Discovery, then to receive more supervision -- through an indefinite probationary term -- and treatment when he gets out of jail.

There could be hang-ups in that plan, including the fact that McAllister still faces charges in both Vermont and New Hampshire. But Suntag said McAllister has a chance to turn his life around.

"Everybody here wants to see you succeed. Nobody wants you committing crimes," Suntag said. "Nobody wants you going in and out of jail the rest of your life. Nobody wants you hurting anybody else."

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