BRATTLEBORO -- Salahdin Trowell, convicted of a kidnapping last year in Brattleboro and bearing a criminal record that stretches back to the late 1990s in New Jersey, stood in court here Friday morning and declared that "I am a changed man."
Those words carried enough weight with Judge David Suntag that the judge lowered the minimum sentence he had considered imposing for the 31-year-old's convictions on two felony counts -- kidnapping as well as assault and robbery.
But as he sentenced Trowell to serve five to 20 years in prison, Suntag also indicated that Trowell still has much work to do before he can leave his criminal record and his prison cell behind.
"You're doing this too long," Suntag said. "This is it.
Friday's sentencing hearing in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division marked the end of a case that involved four suspects and started on May 23, 2013.
That day, police said, two women were abducted from the Flat Street entrance of the Brattleboro Transportation Center. Trowell was accused of orchestrating that kidnapping in an attempt to find a man who owed him a drug debt.
The women escaped, unharmed, a short time later when the Cadillac Escalade they were riding in was stopped by police on Western Avenue.
The driver of the Escalade was charged, but that case later was dismissed. Two men who were in the SUV -- James Manning of Jersey City, N.J.
Koritz in April pleaded guilty to aiding in commission of a felony, burglary and unlawful mischief, and he was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison. Manning pleaded to aiding in commission of a felony and unlawful trespass; he is on probation and was called as a prosecution witness in Trowell's trial earlier this year.
On March 1, a jury convicted Trowell on the two felony counts, and he has remained in prison without bail. Earlier in July, during the first portion of his sentencing hearing, prosecutors requested a 10- to 35-year penalty while a defense attorney asked for three to six years.
That proceeding included testimony from two New Jersey police officers who offered evidence that Trowell has been affiliated with the Bloods street gang and, in fact, had been a local leader in that criminal organization.
While there was no evidence of gang influence in the Brattleboro case, Windham County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Brown argued that Trowell's past showed that "he has the power and the ability to influence what people do. He brought the same culture that he learned in New Jersey to Vermont."
Defense attorney Robert Sussman, however, questioned the credibility of gang evidence and also called Trowell's girlfriend, Jolene Belair, to the stand. She testified that Trowell had been a father figure to her son and had come to Vermont to change his life.
That was a theme Trowell returned to Friday morning when his sentencing hearing resumed. He told Suntag about a childhood spent on dangerous streets -- "a war zone, and every day struggling, wondering if I was going to die" -- and he talked about family members falling prey to those same streets.
"It's been hard and scary for me all my life," he said.
Trowell said he tried to escape from that life, in part by obtaining his high school diploma and getting into body-building and training.
"Today, I'm a changed man -- closer to my God and closer to my family," he said. "I'm 31 years of age, and I'm tired."
As for the past, "I'm not the child I was years ago," Trowell said. "We all make mistakes as children."
Trowell told the judge that he felt "remorse" that the victims in last year's incident felt fear. "It was never my intention to cause them any harm," he said.
But he stopped short of admitting his role in the kidnapping and did not apologize directly for his actions. Suntag took note of those omissions.
"You didn't acknowledge what you've done to others in your statement," the judge said. "Much has happened to you, but also, you've done much to others. And you didn't talk about that."
Suntag also pointed out that it was too late to consider arguments that Trowell is innocent.
"You had a fair trial. Whether you accept that or not is up to you," Suntag said, adding that "the only logical conclusion to take from the jury's verdict is that you were directing the activities that led to these crimes."
The judge made reference to the long list of crimes on Trowell's record including convictions for drug offenses, simple assault and aggravated assault.
"You have a lengthy history since you were about 13 or 14 years old, right up until these events, in which you have repeatedly engaged in violent activity," Suntag said.
Nonetheless, Suntag said he appreciated Trowell's decision to speak. The judge acknowledged that he had started the day intending to impose a 10-year minimum sentence but reconsidered after listening to Trowell.
"I needed to hear from you -- not your lawyers, not from anybody else," Suntag said. "I needed to hear from you."
Suntag imposed five to 20 years in prison for the kidnapping charge, with credit for time served. Running concurrently is a five- to 10-year sentence for assault and robbery, also with credit.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.