(Submitted photo)
(Submitted photo)

BRATTLEBORO -- Robert Paul Johnston apologized to a stunned clerk after he snatched money from a Brattleboro convenience store's cash register last year.

And on Thursday morning, the 27-year-old apologized again as he returned to Brattleboro to be sentenced for that crime. He blamed a heroin addiction and said he wants a chance to be a father to his two children.

But Judge David Suntag, while noting Johnston's contrition and his lack of assaultive behavior, imposed a sentence of 25 months to 10 years in prison for one count of larceny from a person.

"There's still a line you can't cross, and you crossed it," Suntag said in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.

Brattleboro police said Johnston, of Rutland, lingered for a while inside the Shell station store at 429 Canal St. on April 29.

He apparently was waiting for the right moment to approach the register. At Thursday's sentencing hearing, Brattleboro police Detective Jon Griffus read text messages sent between Johnston and a friend as he walked around the store.

"This is too perfect, but people keep coming in," Johnston wrote, according to Thursday's testimony.

"Just do it," the friend replied.

"I am, but not with all these people in here," Johnston wrote.

After complaining about a "dude walking the dogs" and an older woman at the counter, Johnston finally swung into action at these words: "Get ready."

The friend with whom Johnston had been texting was not charged, Griffus said.

Johnston's robbery method was not conventional. Rather than displaying a weapon or threatening the clerk, police say, Johnston approached the counter with merchandise and handed the cashier a $5 bill.

When she opened the cash register, Johnston reached in and took $10 and $20 bills. He ran from the station, eventually circling back to Elliot Street.

Johnston later told police that he escaped with $150, using $100 to buy heroin and spending the remainder on beer, gas and cigarettes.

Police quickly distributed a surveillance photo of the robber wearing a black Monster energy drink sweatshirt and a Fox Racing baseball cap. Johnston was arrested without incident the next day at America's Best Inn in Brattleboro.

Johnston had been held without bail since his arrest. Because of his criminal record -- which includes a prior larceny from a person conviction in Bennington County -- he was charged as a habitual offender.

That meant he faced a potential life sentence. But as part of Johnston's plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to not seek more than 10 years in prison.

At Thursday's sentencing hearing, Windham County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Brown requested five to 10 years of incarceration to be imposed consecutively to the sentence Johnston already is serving.

A state Department of Corrections official said Johnston is serving 10 to 12 months for escape from furlough, with his minimum sentence expiring next month.

"You can't ignore the fact that this is his second offense for the exact same conduct," Brown said.

"We are very, very, very fortunate that nobody got hurt in this case," Brown said. "And that is, from the state's perspective, one of the reasons why we're not seeking a longer punitive sentence."

Brown added that he had spoken with the victim in the case -- the clerk at the gas station.

"She was scared," Brown said. "It frightened her a great deal to be a part of this."

Brown added that the victim "is in fact very concerned about Mr. Johnston's sobriety and getting Mr. Johnston help, which is what we all want to see. Because an untreated Mr. Johnston is a dangerous Mr. Johnston."

Johnston himself acknowledged that, telling the court that "the person that I am when I am under the influence is not the person I am."

Johnston said he has "a lot of remorse" and has been clean since his arrest. He also noted that he has two children.

"I want to do something different," he said. "I want to get out and at least try to be the father that I know I can be."

Defense attorney James Valente argued that the "best possible outcome would be a sentence that gets him into treatment quickly." That treatment could happen outside prison walls under furlough status, Valente said, noting that his client already had served nearly nine months in prison since his arrest.

Johnston's defense also included testimony from his mother, who called into the court from her home in Texas. She said Johnston had a rough childhood, including witnessing domestic violence and eventually living with his abusive father.

While there has been much attention paid recently to Vermont's heroin crisis, Valente said there is an essential element of that discussion that often is omitted.

"There's been close to no focus on the reality that, oftentimes, if you really try to get to the root of the problem, there's domestic violence," he said.

Suntag also noted familiar patterns in Johnston's case, including familial violence, substance abuse and young parents unprepared to meet their obligations.

"This case presents a picture that we see far too often," he said.

The judge said he could not, given Johnston's past behavior, order him released directly onto furlough supervision.

"There's nothing left that hasn't been tried on the outside," Suntag said. "And you've caused harm to others by not being in control of your life."

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