Crime and Justice

Wilder man pleads guilty in homemade explosives case

Hartford police and Vermont State Police search William Hillard's Wilder home in April 2022. File photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

This story by John Lippman was first published in the Valley News on Aug. 27.

BURLINGTON — A Wilder man whose long fascination with explosives once led him to blow off his fingers in a college dormitory room pleaded guilty to making bombs at the Perkins Place home he shared with his mother, assuring the judge during a court hearing on Friday that he was “never out to hurt anyone or anything like that.”

William Hillard pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully possessing a destructive device in federal court in Burlington on Friday, a charge that stemmed from a search by police, acting upon an informant’s tip, of Hillard’s Wilder home in April. Officers recovered explosive materials and devices along with an AR-15 assault-style weapon that Hillard is prohibited from owning because of prior felony convictions.

Hillard, 52, appearing via video from prison where he has been held since his arrest, sought leniency and understanding when asked by the judge if he had any questions about the process of the day’s hearing.

“I just hope you will kind of help me out,” he said. “I’m not a bad person. … I live with my mom. My dad passed away. I had to protect her. … I liked making some things for the Fourth of July, one of my favorite times, but I was not trying to hurt anyone.”

Judge Christina Reiss set a sentencing date of Dec. 27. The offense to which Hillard pleaded guilty carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Hillard was charged and indicted in April on one count of illegally owning a firearm and a second count of possessing an unregistered explosive device. Neither the federal prosecutor nor Hillard’s federal public defender said anything in open court about the status of the illegal firearm charge.

Hartford police, a state bomb squad unit, FBI and ATF agents descended upon Hillard’s residence at 110 Perkins Place on April 13 after they had been told by an informant that Hillard was making “pipe bombs” in a workshop in the basement of the home where he lived with his mother.

The informant told police that Hillard had recently voiced threats of killing Black people, Democrats and neighbors and “wants to start a revolution in our country as he is unhappy with the current government,” according to a criminal complaint filed by special agent Scott Murray with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Police officers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Vermont State Police Bomb Squad assist Hartford Police with an investigation into explosives and hazardous materials at William Hillard's Wilder residence in April. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

When authorities arrived at Hillard’s residence and questioned him, he waived his Miranda rights and agreed to speak with investigators and denied he had plans to hurt anyone, explaining that “he had made the explosive devices to protect himself and his residence from Antifa” and “Democrat-affiliated extremist groups” because he feared “societal unrest,” according to the criminal complaint.

Hillard told investigators that he purchased bomb-making materials online and had set off about 50 explosive devices in recent years, some of which he packed with shrapnel such as BBs and screws, the complaint said.

But when investigators searched Hillard’s home they also discovered an AR-15 assault-style weapon along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Affixed to the AR-15 were two stickers, each of which said “white power,” and inside Hillard’s room were “numerous Nazi and white supremacy-related emblems and stickers on various items, including jackets, ammunition magazines, a knife and gun case,” according to the complaint.

Hillard was prohibited from possessing a firearm because he had two prior felony convictions in New Hampshire Superior Court in 1996, one for possessing a bomb or explosive and one for possessing controlled drugs.

Hillard, an accomplished hockey player at Hartford High School who graduated from Vermont Academy in 1990 and later was considered a standout on the varsity lacrosse team at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, was 24 years old and in his senior year at NEC when he blew off three fingers from his left hand while making a bomb in his dorm room, according to news coverage at the time.

Police also found an assault rifle and a handgun in Hillard’s dorm room, media stories reported.

Suspended from NEC, Hillard was hospitalized at both Concord Hospital and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center but never returned to college. On Friday, he told the judge he had “one class left” to complete a degree.

At the time of his arrest in April, Hillard worked at a restaurant and had previously worked as a carpenter. Neighbors described him as friendly although mostly someone who kept to himself.

Earlier in June, in petitioning for Hillard’s release from Cheshire County Correctional Facility, Sara Puls, Hillard’s federal public defender, argued that her client “does not pose any potential risk to public safety” because the firearm and explosive devices had been seized by authorities.

Moreover, Puls contended, the government’s informant — the sole source of information cited in the complaint alleging Hillard’s purported intentions — lacked credibility.

“The alleged threats by Mr. Hillard cited in the government’s detention motion are from a single individual and were made in the context of an investigation into the same individual by the DEA for drug related activity in New Hampshire,” Puls wrote. “The credibility of this witness is questionable at best,” she said, noting that the witness was a suspect in other criminal conduct and thus “had something to gain either by providing helpful information or deflecting suspicion away from himself.”

The government prosecutor, in opposing the defense’s petition, said that releasing Hillard on bail posed an unacceptable risk to public safety because Hillard “appears to be a competent bomb-maker and can lawfully gather the materials needed to make new bombs if he so desires.”

Judge Reiss said sentencing will happen after the court receives the presentence report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office.

Reiss promised Hillard, who appeared contrite during Friday's change of plea, that December’s hearing would weigh multiple “factors and facts” in crafting his sentence.

“We’re going to have an exhaustive process where we know about your childhood, your criminal history, your education, your finances, just about anything you can imagine. I usually will have questions,” the judge said. “You don’t have to answer them. But I’m interested to know how we got here.”

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