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Justin Orwat appears in the Windham County Superior Court/Criminal Division, in Brattleboro, Vt., on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Amanda Sanderson on Oct. 26, 2017.

BRATTLEBORO — Although it’s been 1,505 days since Amanda Sanderson was shot and killed by Justin Orwat, every day is Oct. 26, 2017, for her mother.

“Every single day,” said Pam Lane during the sentencing hearing in Brattleboro on Friday. “When I see or hear something that reminds me of her, my heart stops for a second. ... I try to keep moving forward, but I can’t. ... No matter what happens or transpires in the future, one thing will never change. Amanda will always be dead and this person will always be her murderer.”

Lane described her daughter as beautiful, with an infectious laugh.

“She had a wonderful laugh and once she started laughing, everyone else who heard her would laugh too.”

Sanderson, 35, was shot and killed by Orwat, who fired a weapon toward her and Steven Lovely, 43, as they lay in a bed in a cabin in Townshend.

Lovely was also killed in the shooting. Following their deaths, Orwat set fire to the cabin and fled with his then wife, Tami Orwat. The murder weapon was never found.

Judge Michael Kainen accepted the plea agreement that sentenced Orwat to 15 years on one charge of involuntary manslaughter in Sanderson’s death. Once he has finished his state sentence, Orwat will be turned over to the federal government, and he will serve another seven-and-a-half years on firearms charges.

Deputy State’s Attorney Steven Brown told the court that Sanderson’s family was involved every step of the way during the plea negotiations.

“They don’t like it,” he said, “but I think they understand why it is we are doing what’s before the court.”

Orwat planned to argue at trial that he shot Steven Lovely in self defense, said Brown, who noted there were “significant differences” between the statements Tami Orwat gave investigators and the statements she gave during a deposition.

“Those differences did not favor the state,” he said.

Given those differences, Brown said it would have been “very difficult” for the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Orwat had not acted in self defense when he shot and killed Sanderson and Lovely.

“There were only three people present at the time Mr. Orwat murdered Amanda Sanderson and Steven Lovely,” said Brown. “Two of those people are dead.”

Any evidence that might have helped the state decipher what had occurred, he said, was destroyed by the fire.

Just the same, said Brown, “Orwat chose to engage Steven Lovely ... he chose to put Amanda Sanderson’s life at great risk.”

According to a description of the events that led up to the murders, before they were killed Sanderson, Lovely and Orwat had visited the Bellows Falls home of Christopher Paige, where a number of drugs were consumed. Paige testified that Lovely was “ranting and raving” during the visit about a stolen ring and that he was going to make an example of the people who had stolen it.

“It was obvious he was referring to the Orwats,” read Kainen from testimony given by Paige.

On the ride back to the cabin, Orwat attempted “to clear the air” between him and Lovely, but Lovely refused to speak. At the cabin, Lovely made several phone calls, asking someone to come to the house. Lovely also told Sanderson, “Don’t worry, I’ll get rid of them soon,” read Kainen.

Lovely also gave Orwat several bags of heroin, which he did not use because he feared they were “hot doses,” intended to kill him.

When he looked in the bedroom, Lovely fired a handgun at him, so Orwat shot back, killing both Lovely and Sanderson, read Kainen.

Curtis Sanderson, Amanda Sanderson’s father, told the court that though Amanda was a daughter, an aunt and a sister, most importantly, she was a mother to a son who was 12 when she was killed.

“All the important things a mother and son can share have been stolen from Tyler by this act,” he said. “Amanda will never be sharing Tyler’s graduation, his wedding. Tyler will never, ever be able to hand his child to a grandmother.”

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Kristina Sanderson told the court that his sister’s killer was getting off “far too easy” for a choice he did not have to make.

“He sits here today claiming self defense for a heinous crime,” she said. “He had a choice to leave the residence, even if he says he was protecting himself. ... He could’ve hopped in his car and he could’ve left.”

Kristina Sanderson described her sister “as the most caring person and he was lucky enough to meet her, and yet he has absolutely no remorse for taking her life. He deserves to rot ... he is a disgrace to the human race and he deserves nothing but absolute terror for the rest of his days.”

Lane said her daughter was a recovering drug addict when she met Lovely and was living and working in Brattleboro.

“She called me every single day, even if it was just to say I love you, momma,” said Lane.

Her introduction to Lovely was “the beginning of the end,” said Lane.

“He was a loser in every sense of the word,” she said. “He was a thug and he hung around thugs. He allowed them to come from Massachusetts to Vermont to stay with him and one of them was this defendant.”

Orwat’s criminal history stretches back to when he was a juvenile, said Lane.

“This is someone who does not deserve an opportunity to become a member of society again,” she said.

When it came time for Orwat to speak, he apologized to the Sanderson family and to the Lovely family, which was not present during the sentencing.

“I am sorry for the lifestyle I led that brought me to that tragic night,” he said, glancing between his written statement and Sanderson’s family, saying his actions “weigh heavily on my soul.”

“I can’t know the grief or the sorrow you must feel,” said Orwat, 50. “And the anger you have and the hatred towards me is justified.”

Orwat also apologized to his mother for letting her down and bringing shame on to her.

Both Kristina Sanderson and Lane expressed anger that Kainen presided over the hearing remotely from a courthouse in Windsor County.

Kainen explained due to a scheduling conflict, his presence was required in Windsor.

“There’s nothing I can do to bring Amanda back,” said Kainen. “I wish there was something I could say to make it better. ... Those of us who haven’t lost someone that close, I don’t think can ever imagine what it’s like to lose someone, particularly in this violent and tragic way.”

Orwat was originally charged in state court with two counts of aggravated murder and one count of arson.

Brown thanked Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Michael Notte and Captain Scott Dunlap for their work on the case.

According to his federal plea agreement, Orwat has felony convictions for manslaughter in 1998 in Hampden (Mass.) Superior Court and an assault and battery on a family or household member in 2015 in Springfield (Mass.) District Court.

Orwat, a former Neta Gang member, was also sentenced to serve a 10- to 15-year sentence for manslaughter in connection with the February 1995 fatal shooting of a member of a rival gang known as La Familia, Massachusetts Parole records show.

Following the deaths of Lovely and Sanderson, nearly 10 people were swept up in a drug investigation, including Paige, who was arrested about three weeks after the killings. He was sentenced in October 2019 to 102 months in federal prison on one count of possessing with intent to distribute more than 40 grams of a substance containing fentanyl and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Also swept up in the drug busts was Lovely’s nephew, Brenden A. Fournier, who was sentenced in 2019 to five years in federal prison after admitting to continuing his uncle’s drug dealing following the shootings.

Fournier, Jonathan Resto, and Anthony Casiano, who all attended high school together in the Holyoke, Mass., area, were arrested in Manchester in late 2017, in possession of almost 1,100 bags of fentanyl. Resto was sentenced to three years and Casiano received a 15-month sentence.

According to court documents, they were responsible for distributing an estimated 6,000 bags of heroin a week before they were arrested.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.