Jury finds Gardner not guilty of Tilton sex crime against disabled man

LACONIA — After a five day trial, a jury of four men and eight women took two hours yesterday to determine a former Tilton man was not guilty of rape and indecent exposure.

Thomas Gardner, 58, fought back tears as he spoke with his attorney Amy Ashworth following the verdict. Gardner did not want to speak to the media.

"This is the right result of the case,"Ashworth said. "He is overwhelmed with emotion. I'm overwhelmed with emotion. It's been a long ride."

Gardner had been accused of having oral sex with a 22-year-old disabled man who he had known since the man was 5-years-old. The man's mother, who testified for the prosecution, said that Gardner was like a father to her son and often took him for rides to local stores, bought him treats, and cared for him when she was in school or sick.

On the Thursday in question, January 17, 2013, Gardner had taken the man to his home because the mother was ill. He took the man for a ride in his Volkswagen to a spot atop School Street in Sherryland (mobile home) Park to see if their Sanborn Road house was visible after a recent logging operation.

While at the park Gardner and his ward encountered two men — Mark Corente and Joseph Ernst — who accused the Gardner of engaging in fellatio with what they said was a child with dark hair.

They both testified that they were there looking at trailers they had seen advertized online.

The accusation triggered a police investigation that was conducted by two Tilton Police detectives — former Det. Crp. Matthew Dawson and Det. Nathan Buffington. Buffington was the only Tilton Police officer to testify.

Dawson evaded under oath testimony in the case by evoking his Fifth Amendment right to protect himself from self incrimination with regard to unrelated police matter.

Buffington's role in the investigation was limited to two interviews with Gardner's accusers in the police station and at Sherryland Park and one visit to a Belmont repair shop to check his car for bodily fluids. The tests were negative.

The state's other witnesses were mostly medical professionals who described the victim as restless, inattentive and small in stature. They testified he had a seizure disorder as well as bad feet and scoliosis of the spine.

Gardner's defense team called two witnesses — the former owner of Sherryland Park and his park manager who testified that there were never any trailers advertised for sale which directly contradicted what Ernst and Corente told the jury.