BURLINGTON — A Worcester woman, who was part of a major public fight involving two state prosecutors and the governor about the handling of an attempted first-degree murder case, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Tuesday afternoon to two federal felony charges.
Veronica Lewis, 36, admitted to possession of a stolen firearm and interfering with commence by committing a robbery on June 29, 2015.
The stolen firearm was used to shoot firearms instructor Darryl Montague of Westford twice in the jaw and once in the abdomen, State Police said. Lewis, who has had mental health challenges, was taking her second firearms training and safety class when she turned and fired, police said.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George initially charged Lewis with attempted first-degree murder, but later dropped the charge when Lewis indicated she planned to use the insanity defense. George said she believed she would be unable to overcome a finding that Lewis was insane and dismissed the charge. That would have left it to a private decision by Vermont mental health officials when Lewis would be returned to the community — not a public court.
George on the same day dismissed two murder charges and another attempted-murder charge in unrelated cases. The defense lawyers planned to use the insanity defense for their respective clients.
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, asked Attorney General T.J. Donovan, a Democrat, to take a look at the four charges fellow Democrat Sarah George dropped. Donovan refiled the attempted murder charge against Lewis and said he believed his office would be able to successfully fight the insanity claim as well.
Also, Donovan refiled a murder and attempted-murder charges in a second high-profile case. Aita Gurung is charged with killing his wife with a meat cleaver and attempting to kill his mother-in-law in Burlington’s Old North End. Both sides agreed last week to the competency of Gurung.
George took exception to Gov. Scott asking Donovan to look at the cases and questioned why the governor didn’t call her after she dropped them. Scott said he was “at a loss as to the logic” of George’s decision. When Donovan became attorney general in 2017, Scott passed over his chief deputy and appointed George as state’s attorney.
Donovan and George both have the same jurisdiction over the criminal cases.
The third case dropped by George — a homicide on Church Street in Burlington — remains in limbo.
As soon as George dropped the Lewis case, federal authorities went to work and a week later U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan filed felony gun charges against Lewis based on the investigation. Nolan said she believed her office would be able to overcome any insanity defense.
As of this week, Nolan and Donovan appeared to have delivered on their promises to seek convictions after George had said she could not.
George’s decision to drop three high-profile murder or attempted murder cases became public shortly after her office had fought off an attempt by a defendant, Steven Bourgoin, to use an insanity defense in the death of five Mad River Valley teens by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 89. George said she held off dropping the three cases until after the Bourgoin trial to avoid it becoming an issue.
Donovan said Tuesday that Lewis is set to admit on Thursday in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington to one count of attempted second degree murder. The felony charge stems from the same shooting of Montague, the operator of Vermont Target Sports in Westford.
After shooting Montague, Lewis left him on the side of the road and fled back to Washington County, where she was living at 100 Acres Homestead on Gould Hill Road in Worcester, Detective Sgt. Mike Kamerling reported. It is a Vermont licensed therapeutic community residence for people who are challenged with mental illness or struggling with life’s emotional stresses, state police said.
A Montague family member initially thought he had been struck by a car, but police later determined he had been shot three times.
The plea agreement with Donovan’s office calls for a sentence of 20 years to life in prison, all suspended but 10 years, officials said. They said once released, Lewis will be under state supervision for 40 years with special conditions including mental health treatment.
As part of her federal plea agreement with Nolan’s office, Lewis is expected to receive a 6-year sentence with no credit for any of the four years she was held in state custody before her federal arrest on June 12, 2019.
As part of her signed plea agreement, Lewis also agreed to waive any affirmative defense of insanity, officials said.
The federal sentence must run concurrently with any sentence imposed by the state. The federal sentence, if imposed, would functionally result in Lewis serving a 10-year sentence concurrent to the disposition of the Vermont Superior Court case.
Lewis would also serve a 3-year term of federal supervised release concurrent to any supervision imposed in the state proceeding.
It is believed Lewis will be sentenced first in federal court. That way she will serve time in a federal facility, which would have better mental health programs than the state of Vermont.
During the Tuesday federal court hearing, Lewis admitted that on June 29, 2015, she met with Montague, the firearm instructor, at his Westford business for her second shooting lesson. Montague provided Lewis with a Smith & Wesson .22 caliber revolver for use during the lesson. After receiving instruction from him, Lewis intentionally fired three rounds, striking Montague in the face and torso, police said.
After shooting him, Lewis fled the business with the gun, which was still loaded with three rounds of ammunition. Lewis also took six more rounds of ammo. Later that day, Lewis was apprehended outside her residence in Worcester with the stolen firearm, officials said.
During the plea hearing, the government noted in March, a forensic psychologist examined Lewis, and opined that the defendant was sane at the time of the offense. The ruling noted Lewis was able to appreciate the nature and quality and wrongfulness of her acts on June 29, 2015, prosecutors said.
The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives initially filed a criminal complaint against Lewis in federal court on June 11, 2019 for unlawfully possessing a firearm and possessing a stolen firearm on June 29, 2015, records show.
Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy ordered Lewis held pending trial. On November 14, 2019, the federal grand jury in Burlington returned a new indictment, charging Lewis with interference with commerce by robbery, discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, and possession of a stolen firearm.
On Dec. 11, 2019, Lewis was ordered evaluated by a forensic psychologist to determine her competency to stand trial, and whether she was sane at the time of the shooting. On May 4, 2020, after the examination by a federal Bureau of Prisons forensic psychologist appointed by the court, Lewis was found competent to stand trial.