Defense suggests shallow police investigation as Tilton sexual assualt trial continues

LACONIA — The jury in the trial of a Tilton man accused of engaging in a sex act with a disabled man who was in his care heard testimony yesterday that one of the man's primary accusers has a previous criminal conviction for lying to police and falsely accusing someone of committing a crime.

The jury also heard that the alleged victim of Thomas Gardner is prone to seizures, is easily agitated, often has a hard time staying still, and is largely non-communicative. He has scoliosis and is short in stature.

Two of the alleged victim's physicians testified yesterday that he bites people. "His jaw just clamps down," said defense attorney Wade Harwood during his opening statement.

Gardner, formerly of Sanborn Road or Route 132, is accused of taking the disabled man to a scenic overlook at the former Sherryland (mobile home) Park off School Street and having him perform fellatio on him on January 17, 2013. He is charged with one count of aggravated felonious sexual assault (rape) and one count of indecent exposure.

Two men, Mark Corente who began his testimony yesterday, and Joseph Ernst who is scheduled to testify, say they saw Gardner in his car and saw the alleged victim sit up in the passenger side of his car.

The jury also heard Corente has three previous convictions for driving after being deemed a habitual offender and one conviction for possession of heroin.

Corente said they were looking for a place for Ernst to live at the time of the incident and wanted to see if there were any abandoned trailers in the park.

Corente said he called 9-1-1 to report what he and his friend saw but were bounced around and then disconnected. He said he saw Gardner's car in his driveway about one-half hour later and called Det. Nathan Buffington to report it.

Buffington spent most of his day testifying about his investigation, or as Gardner's defense team would contend, his lack of investigation.

Under direct examination from Deputy Belknap County Attorney Carley Ahern, Buffington said he and then Detective Cpl. Matt Dawson initially responded to the call.

He said he spoke separately to both Corente and Ernst at the Tilton Police Department. He also said he went to Gardner's house and tried to interview the alleged victim but found him to be unable to talk with him.

He said Gardner met him at his cruiser and was cooperative. He said he told Gardner why he was there.

Under cross examination, Buffington testified that Gardner offered to take a "polygraph thing" to show he hadn't done anything wrong. Buffington also said Gardner asked him what would happen to the people if the investigation determined that they made up the alleged rape.

Buffington said he went to Sherryland Park a few days after the alleged crime and took a series of photos that showed the road system, the location of the trailer Corente said Ernst checked out, and the place where Corente and Ernst said they saw Gardner and his alleged victim.

Under cross examination, Buffington said he spoke to Ernst for six minutes at the police station, to Corente for three minutes, and spend about five minutes at Sherryland Park taking pictures. He said he didn't knock on doors at any of the occupied trailers on the day he took the pictures at Sherryland Park because in his opinion, anyone who was in them was too far away to be useful.

He said Ernst told him he was looking for trailers that he saw advertized online but Buffington testified that he never looked online for any advertisement, never checked any newspapers for the advertisement, and never spoke to the property owner or the property manager about trailers for sale.

He also said he didn't do anything to document where Ernst and Corente said they were.

Buffington said Ernst told him he was on probation but said he didn't ask him why.

Buffington also testified that he swore out the affidavit to search Gardner' car, which he located at a repair shop in Belmont. He said he went to the shop and noticed the car had red seats — something he hadn't noticed when he went to Gardner's house on the day of the alleged rape but said he would have, implying the seats had once had seat covers.

He said there was one stain on the passenger seat that was old and was not tested for DNA or bodily fluids. He said there were no other stains to test and a black light didn't indicate any other bodily fluids.

Buffington said on the day he arrested Gardner, there was a one-page handwritten letter in his pocket explaining his version of the events that transpired that day.

When asked if he re-interviewed Corente or Ernst after reading Gardner's letter, he said he hadn't.

The trial continues this morning at 10 a.m. when Corente is scheduled to continue his testimony.