Steven D. Bourgoin was sentenced Monday to 30 years to life in prison for killing five Central Vermont teens in a horrific wrong-way fiery crash on Interstate 89 in Williston almost three years ago.
Vermont Superior Court Judge Kevin Griffin said he fashioned the sentence to give some hope to Bourgoin that he could eventually get out of prison and return to society, but also wanted to ensure there was proper punishment.
The judge also said he wants Bourgoin, who was raised in Rutland, under the authority of the Vermont Corrections Department for the remainder of his life.
Before imposing the sentence, Griffin said he was touched by all the statements from the victims’ families, but admitted he was moved by one parent offering forgiveness for killing his daughter. Daniel Harris, father of Mary Harris, provided it while looking directly at Bourgoin, who nodded in acknowledgment.
“I don’t think I have ever witnessed anything as powerful,” Griffin said.
Daniel and his wife, Elizabeth Harris, said after the sentencing they believe their daughter would have forgiven Bourgoin because that was her style.
“To live in the grace that my daughter Mary lived in, I just think it’s just important to kind of live like that and kind of move forward and not carry that load,” Dan Harris said.
“She was a forgiver,” his wife told reporters.
The defense had maintained during the trial Bourgoin was criminally insane when he drove his northbound 2012 Toyota Tacoma into a southbound 2004 Volkswagen Jetta on I-89 in Williston at about 11:55 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2016.
Killed were the driver, Cyrus Zschau, 16, of Moretown, and his passengers Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury, Janie Chase Cozzi, 15, of Fayston, Liam Hale, 16, of Fayston and Mary Harris, 16, of Moretown. They were returning home from a concert in South Burlington. Their car rolled over in the median and burst into flames after the crash.
Bourgoin, who was wearing a seatbelt, later stole a Williston Police cruiser, fled south on I-89, made a U-turn, and returned to the scene. Bourgoin crashed the cruiser into the wreckage of the first crash and was ejected.
Investigation showed six hours after the crash Bourgoin still had 10 nanograms of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — in his system, the official drug report showed. Any level of THC in a driver in Vermont is against the law. Bourgoin also had lower amounts of other drugs, including fentanyl, norfentanyl and midazolam, the report said.
Bourgoin, 38, spoke publicly for the first time Monday, offering an apology to the families of the victims and others. He never took the witness stand during his 11-day trial in May.
Sentence and appeal
Prosecutors had requested a 40-years-to-life penalty during the five-hour sentencing hearing, which included emotional victim impact statements from four of the five families.
The defense proposed a 20-year-to-life sentence with all but possibly 15 years to serve and the rest on probation.
Griffin said Monday he considered the two crashes separate crimes and noted the final sentence would reflect it. He imposed 26 years to life for each of the five deaths and said those five sentences would run concurrently.
For stealing the police cruiser the judge imposed 4-5 years, and added it to the homicide sentence. Griffin also levied a concurrent 1-2 year term for gross negligent operation of the cruiser, providing an extra 5 years beyond the maximum life sentence in the five homicides.
Griffin said Bourgoin will get credit for almost 3 years in prison since his October 2016 arrest.
Bourgoin receives an automatic appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court because of the life sentence.
“Obviously Mr. Bourgoin is disappointed with the length of the sentence,” said defense lawyer Robert W. Katims. He said it appeared Griffin took into consideration Bourgoin’s mental health issues the night of the crash.
Katims said he believes there are several strong appeal issues for the high court to consider besides the insanity issue. Among them is the failure of the judge to grant a mistrial midway through the trial when the prosecution failed to turn over some evidence, said Katims, who was assisted by Sara Pols.
Katims said another strong appeal issue is the judge meeting privately with the jury after the trial, but then being asked to rule on a post-trial motion that raised issues about whether all 12 jurors were impartial. Two jurors had asked the court about getting counseling.
Griffin had rejected both issues in earlier rulings.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, who picked up the case from her predecessor T.J. Donovan, declined to criticize the sentence. She said she thought the evidence supported 40 years, but also credited the judge with explaining his thinking.
She noted “it is a significant sentence.” George said the 30 years is twice as long as each teen victim lived.
Bourgoin must remain in prison until he is 66 years old, George said. He will be ineligible for furloughs or early release for good behavior, said George who handled the trial with veteran deputy prosecutor Susan Hardin.
“I think he regrets what happened,” George said about Bourgoin. But she questioned whether his apology was sincere for the families.
George said she plans to pass the case to a deputy in her office that has handled appeals for 30 years. George said she is not as skilled and informed about appeals. Katims, who was appointed to defend Bourgoin, also will punt the case — to the Defender General’s Office, which handles appeals.
Remembering lives lost
Cyrus Zschau was an honor student at Harwood Union, where he also played both varsity soccer and baseball. He worked at the Round Barn Inn and the Canteen Creemee Co. During the winter, he loved to ski and hang out in the Mount Ellen lodge with his closest friends.
Liam Hale participated on the track and field team for multiple events at Harwood Union. During his middle school years, he also played soccer and lacrosse. He also began skiing at an early age, loved mountain biking and more recently golf. He worked at Sugarbush Resort.
Mary Harris was an honor student in her junior year at Harwood Union, where she was involved in numerous activities, including soccer, basketball, and lacrosse. She also loved skiing at Sugarbush and Mad River Glen. She also worked at The Bridges and at Vermont North Ski Shop.
Eli Brookens was a junior at Harwood Union, where he devoted himself to soccer, skiing, music. He enjoyed Capital Soccer Club and Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports.
Janie Chase Cozzi was a sophomore at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., where she made the varsity soccer team as a freshman. She was involved with Mad River Valley Soccer, Vermont Elite Futbol Club and Capital Soccer Club. She was a counselor for the KUA Girls Leadership Camp.