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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.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 12:34

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Laconia schools seek to connect each & every student to Internet through like devices

LACONIA — The School Board got its first look at a proposed three-year technology plan Tuesday night that aspires to eventually provide each student with one-to-one access to an electronic device so they can work in the same operating system.

By using this strategy, the district hopes to remove the poverty barrier that often bars less affluent children from using capable electronic devices. The strategy will also allow students to have access to research, to publish their work, to share their work with other learners and to receive feedback from their peers and teachers.

To accomplish this, the district in 2015 plans on getting a baseline number of students who have their own devices and whose parents are willing to allow them to bring them to school.

By 2016, the district hopes to have district-owned devices in place for the students who can't otherwise provide them for themselves. These devices would stay at school.

By year three, or 2017, the district's goals is to have a classroom policy that welcomes and encourages electronic education aids to the extent such devises are integrated into all areas of study.

School Board members questioned liability issues surrounding students bringing in their own equipment. Asst. Superintendent Kirk Beitler said he would look into the liability question but acknowledged the technical support team would not be able to service privately owner computers.

The district also plans on improving wireless Internet access at the high school and evaluate the need for more online access at the middle and elementary levels.

In 2015, the plan is to upgrade the Internet system to accomplish this.

By 2016, the goal is to have the groundwork and wireless network "backbone" for the one-to-one ratio of student to device in place and by 2017 have at least a pilot program at the high school where every student has access to an up-to-date electronic device.

The technology plan also calls for upgrading 20 percent of schools' computer networks  annually and to continue to review the tech support staff capabilities to adhere to state guidelines.

Tracking student progress is an integral part of the district's proposed technology plan and the goal is to have the tracking tools necessary to do evaluations as soon as possible.

Another goal for the district is technology literacy, whereby students can master the competencies needed for creativity, communication and collaboration, research and information gathering, critical thinking, operations and digital citizenship.

These standards are set by the International Society for Technology Education Standards for Students (ITSE).

The three-year plan also aims to work on professional development for teachers and aid around the use of technology and to encourage community partners and parents to expand their own Internet communications with the school district.

The plan also calls for an 2014-2015 budget of $359,051 with $199,511 for salaries for technicians and the balance for a webmaster, software, new equipments, and contracted services.

School Board member Mike Persson said he would like to see more community input into the plan, suggesting meeting with various PTOs and local businesses for possible financial help and suggestions as well as the technology department at the Lakes Region Community College.

Chair Chris Guilmett said the district expects the updated 3-year technology plan should be in place by the beginning of the new school year in late August.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 12:28

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Planners adopt state's first building design scoring system

LACONIA — The Planning Board this week voted unanimously to add a schedule of architectural design standards, accompanied by a numerical scoring system, to its site plan regulations, becoming the first municipality in the state to take this step.

Since the design standards are an amendment to the site plan regulations, not to the zoning ordinance, they do not require approval by the City Council. The regulation will apply to the construction of all buildings and additions of more than 2,500-square-feet, excepting only one and two family residences.

The vote followed a public hearing at which only one person, Robert Sawyer of Sawyer's Jewelry, spoke. He voiced concern that the standards would prove "overly expensive and overly restrictive."

Planning Director Shanna Saunders stressed that the regulation is intended to supplement the current ordinances without vesting the Planning Board with more authority than it already possesses. She explained that the board already applies architectural criteria to its review of proposed projects, but noted "none of this is detailed, visible to the applicant, up front." The standards, she said, would make the planning process more transparent and predictable by informing builders and developers of what is expected before they invest time and money in designing a project.

The proposal consists of written and illustrated guidelines describing specific architectural goals such as entryways, landscaping, roofing, materials, lighting, windows and decoration. A score sheet, which awards, withholds and detracts points for an array of optional components, would be applied to the site plan, with a minimum of 50 points required for approval.

For example, a plan to place parking space at the rear of the building would gain four points while putting parking spaces at the front of a building would lose four points.

The standards would vary from one district to another in the city. Likewise, buildings within five feet of the average height in the neighborhood would earn between two and four points, while those more than five feet higher or lower would lose five points for each story they deviate from the norm. A design review sub-committee of the Planning Board will shepherd developers through the process.

The numeric score, although a strong predictor of the outcome of the planning process, would not bind the Planning Board, which may "use its judgment to either allow projects that do not strictly meet the numeric guideline due to extenuating circumstances." At the same time, the board "may also require further improvements to a proposal that meets the number requirement but does not meet the spirit of the regulation."

The standards were prepared by Hawk Planning Resources, LLC, Ironwood Design Group, LLC and SMP Architecture, Inc. Roger Hawk described the regulation as "an educational tool" that will "force developers to think more creatively about their sites." Eric Palson of SMP Architecture likened the regulation to a "pre-flight checklist."

"I don't know what the cost is," Sawyer told the board. "I haven't seen any information about the cost." He noted that as a founder member of the Main Street Program "this is not new to me" and recalled that he dressed the facade of his store, confessing that he used vinyl, which under the scoring system would have cost him five points.

Warren Hutchins, the chairman of the board, replied that currently major projects undergo a "conceptual design review" and said that the explicit standards will "save money on the front end." He assured Sawyer that "our objective is to lower costs."

Unconvinced, Sawyer countered that "it looks like a learning process on someone else's dollar."

Saunders repeated that the regulation "is not a new power. The Planning Board can require any of this right now."

Still skeptical Sawyer remarked that he feared "you'll have to be one of three drug store chains or else you can't afford to build here."

City Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) expressed concern about administering the point system. "A lot of what we're doing with the point scoring is subjective," he said. "Even though the intent is to make the process easier, to reduce the cost," he continued, "I want to hear that it is working in the Planning Department.

The process of preparing the standards began in 2010, when the plan to rebuild the McDonald's restaurant on Union Avenue highlighted the shortcomings of the existing regulations. The Planning Board balked at the "boxy" profile, blank walls and flat roof proposed only to be reminded that the ordinance prescribes that buildings be "compatible" with others in the neighborhood. "That was a wake up call," Saunders remarked at the time.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 02:15

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3-car fire lights up Laconia night

LACONIA — Fire destroyed one car, damaged two others and an apartment house, at Cleveland Place in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Firefighters dispatched at 3:21 a.m. arrived to find the engine compartments of two cars — a 2011 Chevrolet Malibu and 2004 GMC Envoy, facing one another, on fire, with flames licking at a 1997 Ford Ranger pick-up truck parked nearby. The intensity of the fire and proximity of the building prompted Lieutenant Lisa Baldini to report a structure fire, which drew crews from the Weirs Beach Station as well as Gilford and Belmont.

An attack line was stretched to the vehicles and a firefighter entered the building to determine if the fire had spread.

Residents of the closely knit neighborhood stood clustered around a young woman who wept as she said that she had just bought the car from a local dealer. She said the car was not insured since she spent all of her money to buy it. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she said, wiping tears from her cheeks.

Witnesses said they heard a loud pop which was attributed by police to the right front tire exploding. Others said they were awoken by the sounds of police and fire responding to the blaze and many were standing outside wrapped in blankets to protect themselves from the cool morning air.

One woman mentioned that at around 10 p.m. a young person had been going around the neighborhood seeing if he or she could set off car alarms. She said she had no idea if the earlier incidents and the fire were related.

Fire Chief Ken Erickson said that the fire originated in the engine compartment of the Malibu and spread to the other vehicles. He described the Malibu as a total loss and said that the SUV and the truck were also damaged. In addition the heat from the fire damaged the vinyl siding of the building at 14 Cleveland Place.

Erickson said that the cause of the fire is "undetermined," but noted that the Malibu had not been driven since 5 p.m. on Tuesday. The Laconia Police Department has asked anyone with information about the fire to contact the police at 524-5252.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 12:16

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