ST. ALBANS — The Swanton man accused of fatally shooting Anna Alger, 31, of Highgate, pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in Franklin County District Court on Thursday.
Matthew Webster, 30, was represented by public defenders Rory Malone and Steve Dunham. He also entered not-guilty pleas to two misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment and careless and negligent vehicle operation.
Alger’s friends and family member filled the courtroom Thursday, and reacted emotionally when Deputy State’s Attorney John Lavoie described the incident. Lavoie stated that Webster had shot Alger six times following the confrontation between the two after Webster ran a red light, nearly hitting Alger’s car.
“This was an unpredictable, erratic act, committed with great intent and violence,” Lavoie said.
Alger’s family members declined to comment to the media after the brief arraignment Thursday.
Lavoie on Thursday told Judge Geoffrey Crawford that Webster confessed to shooting Alger to arresting officers on Wednesday evening. According to the police affidavit, Webster waived his Miranda Rights after he was taken into custody and brought to the St. Albans City Police Department.
According to the affidavit, Webster told police about the events leading up the shooting. Webster repeatedly mentioned suicidal thoughts and failed attempts to kill himself. He also told police he was abusing prescriptions for Oxycodone and Methadone and had also snorted Klonopin on Wednesday.
Webster also told police he was dealing with domestic issues. During the police interview, he described arguing with his wife, who had followed him in a separate car and witnessed Webster shooting Alger.
Accounts from both Webster and his wife in the police affidavit describe an extramarital affair Webster was having and attempting to end on the day of the shooting. Webster’s wife also told police of a woman stalking her husband, which led to Webster carrying his firearms with him and encouraging his wife to carry a gun as well.
After arresting Webster, police recovered both the 9 mm Ruger pistol he used to shoot Alger, as well as a Keltec .38 handgun. Officers also found a pellet gun and stun gun in Webster’s car, said St. Albans City Police Chief Gary Taylor.
In the affidavit, Webster’s wife told police that he has been battling depression for several years and takes medication to combat his depression. His wife also said Webster has been treated for depression at the Milton Family Practice.
Webster’s wife told police her husband also deals with pancreatitis, chronic anxiety, high blood pressure and “so many other things.” In the affidavit, she said her husband’s family members have a history of suicide attempts, and Webster had talked about committing suicide and had “gotten prepared for it.” Webster’s wife said he would leave his guns out and research ways to commit suicide online, but it had been years since the issue came up, police said in the affidavit.
Police wrote in the affidavit that Webster’s wife mentioned he had meetings for many unspecified issues with an unknown counselor, who ended the sessions because she was unable to help Webster.
As the usual crowd at the Fitness Zone exercised Wednesday evening, a sudden disturbance across the street disrupted everyone’s normal gym routine.
Brock Shunway, of Sheldon, was working out and when he and his fellow gym members heard the gunshots, he ran to the front window to see what was happening. As he witnessed Webster and his wife grappling with the gun still in the suspect’s hand, a fellow gym member sprung into action.
Eric Patno is one of many law enforcement officers who works out at Fitness Zone, Shunway said, and when the shots went off Wednesday, the off-duty Vermont State Police trooper ran to get in his cruiser and approach the suspect.
“He looked out the window, told everybody to get away from the window, then he locked the door and parked his cruiser in front of the victim,” Shunway said of Patno’s actions.
While the scene outside and in the gym was hectic, with people screaming and nobody knowing what exactly was happening, Shunway said Patno’s response was impressive. He said another off-duty trooper, who arrived at the scene shortly after Patno, was stuck in traffic.
“Before they even process it, they’re just going without hesitation,” Shunway said of the officers.
While unable to comment on Vermont State Police policy, Taylor said even off-duty police officers in his department are expected to uphold the oath they take. He said if an off-duty officer has a badge and firearm — which most keep on them at all times — they would be expected to respond to a crime scene in a similar fashion as Patno did.
“Our number one duty is preservation of human lives,” Taylor said. “That’s what I expect from my people.”
Within minutes, the blue lights of law enforcement vehicles filled the section of North Main Street around the scene of the shooting, Shunway said. Finding out the victim, Alger, was someone Shunway grew up with and seeing on the ground after the shooting was a “mind boggling” experience he said.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was just stunned.”
Crawford accepted Lavoie’s request to deny bail on the felony second-degree murder count and keep Webster in custody. The judge stated the violent nature of the crime and the amount of evidence provides enough cause to keep Webster from being released.
If convicted, Webster faces a possible life sentence without parole, or at least 20 years in prison.
On Facebook and media outlets’ comments sections, people questioned how Webster could plead not guilty with the number of witnesses, amount of evidence and his apparent confession. State’s Attorney Jim Hughes said “99.99 percent of the time, attorneys will have clients plead not guilty.”
People are always innocent until proven guilty Hughes said, and defense attorneys — in this case, public defenders — need to review all the evidence before their client can enter a guilty plea. Hughes said attorneys need to be diligent to make sure a client’s constitutional rights are protected.