Accused child molester Shaun Bryer faced the possibility of life behind bars as he prepared for his trial in June.
Just last week, his lawyer asked Lamoille Superior Court for more money to finance DNA analysis.
And on Tuesday, in an abrupt turnaround, he pleaded guilty.
In a deal with the prosecution, Bryer agreed to plead guilty in exchange for just 12 years in prison, plus the rest of his life on probation.
Lamoille County State’s Attorney Joel Page said he offered the deal because it would have been difficult to win a conviction for the aggravated sexual assault, the most serious charge in the case.
The plea deal also spares Bryer’s two teenage victims from having to testify and relive their abuse in the courtroom, Page said.
Bryer, 29, who taught fifth grade at Morristown Elementary School and was chairman of the Morristown Select Board, pleaded guilty Tuesday to sexually assaulting two teenage boys over a few years. He also pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious contact with a third boy.
In all, Bryer pleaded guilty to 15 charges: One count of aggravated repeated sexual assault, five counts of sexual assault, six counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, two counts of furnishing indecent material to a minor, and one count of lewd and lascivious conduct.
Under the plea agreement, prosecutors will recommend that Bryer be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, with all but 12 years suspended, followed by at least 25 years on probation.
A sentencing hearing will take place within six to eight weeks, after a presentencing investigation is completed.
Details are vague
According to court records, Bryer brought the two teenage boys, one a former student in his classes, to his apartment, where he sexually molested them, showed them pornography, and bought them gifts afterward.
The boys reported the crimes to police in September 2009, after Bryer took a teaching job in Colchester. They told police they were concerned Bryer might prey on new victims.
Plea-bargain discussions began late last year, Page said.
The deal was made when prosecutors agreed this week to amend a charge of aggravated sexual assault against a minor, which carries a sentence of 25 years to life, to aggravated sexual assault, which carries a potential 10-year prison term.
Prosecutors said it’s clear to them that the sexual assaults occurred multiple times, but it would have been risky trying to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt, Page said.
Further, the plea agreement eliminates the risk of a split verdict, where Bryer could have been found guilty of some charges but not others, Page said.
“Trying to get any degree of specificity on what happened, and when, has been challenging for witnesses and prosecutors, and you need a level of specificity to prevail on this,” Page said.
It was difficult for the boys, who didn’t want to testify, to remember specific dates and times when the assaults took place, and that might have hurt the case, Page said.
Weighing the odds
Bryer faced a maximum sentence of life plus 181 years in prison, plus a $127,300 fine.
Prosecutors weighed several factors before recommending a 12-year prison sentence.
For one thing, Bryer had never been convicted of a crime, which likely would have meant a lighter sentence than the maximum even if the case went to trial, Page said.
Also, the sexual assaults did not involve kidnapping, violence, sexual penetration, or other acts usually associated with harsher sentences.
“Not to minimize it — it was bad stuff — but no one was killed; there was no physical injury,” Page said.
Based on other recent sex-crime cases in Vermont, “for someone with no prior record, a 12-year sentence is on the stiff side,” Page said. “Ten years ago (before Vermont’s sex-assault laws were toughened), you would have seen a two-year sentence.”
Bryer will have to complete a treatment program for sex offenders while he’s in prison, and will have to register as a sex offender once he’s released, Page said.
While on probation, he’ll have to follow a strict set of rules. He won’t be allowed to have unsupervised contact with anyone under age 18, or to visit parks, playgrounds and other places where children congregate.
He’ll have to submit to regular polygraph tests, and he won’t be allowed to possess or use any computer or Internet service.
If he violates any of those conditions, he could be put on parole, where even more stringent requirements would be imposed.
“I wouldn’t envision him ever not being under some type of supervision,” Page said.
The assault victims and their families support the plea agreement, Page said.
“The victims in this case did not want to testify,” Page said. “They did not want this to become a public spectacle. They felt it was a reasonable outcome.”
The plea agreement will help the victims move on with their lives; they’ll have the assurance that Bryer will be behind bars until 2023, Page said.
“When you get down to the nitty-gritty of a trial, there are risks,” Page said. “Then there are appeals that take years. All that time, the victims are left hanging on a hook.”
The Bryer case may hold the record for the largest number of convictions in a single sexual-assault case.
“I can’t recall anyone pleading guilty to as many counts,” Page said.
Bryer sat expressionless during the hearing Tuesday, taking notes and looking up briefly to acknowledge each guilty plea as Judge Dennis Pearson read the charges against him.
His victims sat in the back of the courtroom, flanked by about a dozen supporters.
The Bryer case was devastating to Morristown residents because Bryer played a prominent role in the community.
After leaving his teaching job in 2008, he became a school administrator, heading a literacy program until he resigned in April 2009.
He grew up in town and was senior class president at Peoples Academy in 1999. He had written and published a book about the town’s history before he graduated.
He also coached a softball team, organized the town’s Independence Day celebrations, provided technical services for a local public-access television station, and did other volunteer work.
He was one of the youngest people ever elected to the select board and was the board chairman when he was arrested.
Brian Kellogg, now the board chairman, said he hopes the guilty pleas will resolve the case, “and the town will be able move on.”
Prosecutors weighed the impact on the community when negotiating a plea agreement.
“The thing that separates this case is the public trust violation on top of everything else,” Page said. “The fact that he was a teacher involved in public life and politics and that he did this over a period of years is what makes this particularly heinous and offends the public.”
Page sums up the case with a single word: Tragic.
“It’s a tragic case,” Page said. “Tragic for the victims. Tragic for Shaun Bryer, who had so much potential and squandered the public trust in such a horrible way.”
The case hit the Lamoille South Supervisory Union and the Morristown School Board particularly hard.
Superintendent Tracy Wrend had met with Bryer in May and November 2008 to express concerns that he was acting inappropriately with students.
In November 2008, Wrend reported Bryer to the Vermont Department for Children and Families, citing inappropriate behavior with the two students. The department decided that wasn’t enough evidence to warrant an investigation.
Wrend wrote Bryer a letter on March 26, 2009, placing him on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted. Bryer resigned the following month, after Wrend and the Morristown School Board agreed to provide only positive comments if asked about his resignation, write him a letter of recommendation, and pay his salary and benefits through the end of the school year.
Parents were outraged when they learned the details of the Bryer case. Many asked if school officials could have done more.
Wrend said Wednesday she hopes Bryer’s admissions will help his victims continue to heal.
“I’m sure I speak for everyone in community when I say my thoughts go first to the individuals affected by this situation, and I hope they’re relieved and satisfied and this helps them take another step in the healing process,” Wrend said.
“It also reminds me of how deeply appreciative the school community has been of the work of our law-enforcement officials and how thoughtful and thorough that work has been.”
Wrend also expressed appreciation for community groups, such as the Clarina Howard Nichols Center and Central Vermont Community Action, for providing counseling, sex-abuse education and other services after Bryer’s arrest.
“They’re always there for us, but you realize how important they are when you face challenging circumstances,” Wrend said.
During the past few years, Vermont has adopted new laws strengthening sexual-abuse education and reporting, Wrend said.
Staff members in the Morristown schools have been attending training to increase their awareness of suspected abuse, and help them identify and report it, she said.
The Bryer case stresses the importance of communicating with children about healthy relationships with adults and appropriate boundaries, Wrend said.
“We’ve got to have hard conversations with each other,” Wrend said. “Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. I hope that that’s the lesson the broader community — not just the school community — learns from this, even after the consequences of this particular person’s crime have faded from our memories.”