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Trial of Tilton man accused of sexual assault of disabled man under his care gets underway on Tuesday

LACONIA — After 16 months of legal wrangling, a jury was selected yesterday in Belknap County Superior Court in the case of Thomas Gardner — a Tilton man who stands accused of sexually abusing a disabled young man who was in his care in January of 2013.

From the start, the Gardner case has seen a number of twists and turns including one that involve the credibility of the two men who initially lodged the complaint against Gardner with the Tilton Police on January 16 and the second that involves one of the detectives who investigated the alleged crime.

The file that's available from the court is peppered with sealed documents that may refer to the personnel file of former Tilton Det. Cpl. Matt Dawson who has opted to evoke his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination rather than serve as a witness in this trial because of a matter that could criminally involve him in a different matter.

Gardner's defense team, attorneys Wade Harwood and Amy Ashworth has asked for Dawson, who is now a patrol officer with the Tilton Police, to take the stand, saying that Gardner has a right to face all of his accusers.

Dawson's attorney objected saying that his client has a right against self incrimination and he fears the defense is trying to use Dawson to impugn the credibility of the entire Tilton Police Department.

So far Judge James O'Neill has ruled that Dawson needn't take the stand, however, Harwood and Ashworth have asked him to reconsider his ruling.

Other issues that have arisen revolve around the two men — Joseph Ernst and Mark Corente – who allegedly saw Gardner engaging in oral sex with the victim, who is non-verbal and is not able to testify.

Ernst and Corente told police that they were at the former Sherryland (mobile home) Park on School Street looking for used trailers to purchase when they said they saw Gardner and his ward.

One of them told police her approached Gardner's car to asked him about the trailers and that's when he said he saw the alleged sex act.

Gardner has never said he wasn't there. He told police he and the child had taken a ride to see if their home on Sanborn Road was visible after a large swath of timber was harvested between their home and the land where the park is. He says Corenti and Ernst made up the allegations against him to detract police from their real purpose for being there.

In his initial encounter with police, according to affidavits obtained from the 6th Circuit Court, Franklin Division, said Gardner asked them what would happen to the two men if it was later determined they made up the story.

George Hast, the former owner of the park, has told The Daily Sun he never had any used trailers to sell and that it is his opinion the Ernst and Corente were there to steal from him.

Three days after they reported the alleged rape, Hast said his caretaker reported seeing the Ernst and Corente on the property and later discovered that two industrial batteries were missing.

Hast said police were notified about seeing the two back on the property and they responded to the call. There is no report of a theft included in the second report, however Hast said police told Ernst and Corente not to return to the park.

Hast and the caretaker are expected to testify at Gardner's trial.

Corente, according to pleadings, has been convicted of two felony counts of driving after being deemed a habitual offender, one conviction for theft, one conviction for possession of heroin and one conviction for bail jumping.

According to Concord Police, he was arrested on February 10, 2014 on a warrant for a B felony violation of the controlled drug act. He is free on $15,000 personal recognizance bail.

Ernst was convicted of simple assault, second degree assault, endangering the welfare of a child and a parole/probation violation in 2012 said a representative at the N.H. Circuit Court call center.

According to the rules of evidence, none of the above convictions except for possibly Corente's theft conviction can be presented to the jury because only convictions that have a bearing on someone's ability to tell the truth, like theft, are allowed at trial to discredit a witness.

The case is being prosecuted by Deputy Assistant Attorney Carley Ahern.

The defense and the prosecution were in court yesterday afternoon for a hearing on three pending motions however, the arguments were heard by O'Neill at the bench and audible to onlookers.

The trial is scheduled to begin today at 1:30 p.m. with a scheduled viewing of Sherryland Park and the spot where the alleged rape occurred.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 June 2014 12:08

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County jail fix figures to be hot issue in coming political campaigns

LACONIA — Concerns over the projected cost of a new Belknap County Jail dominated the discussion at a public input session held by the Belknap County Convention Tuesday night where it was argued that the jail project will become a campaign issue this summer and fall.
Virtually all who spoke, including members of the Belknap County Convention, argued against following the lead of the Belknap County Jail Planning Committee, which next month will ask the convention to approve a $2.96 million bond issue for improvements and schematic design work for a new facility, and said the county should go back to the drawing board in designing a new facility.
Hunter Taylor of Alton said that the current facility is beyond the point of no return and must be replaced, but said that the committee is looking at a $30 million facility for 180 inmates whose cost per square foot are one and a half times the national average. He maintained that the county should instead be looking at a $10-$12 million price tag and cited Wilkes County, North Carolina, as an example of what the county should be looking at.
He said that Wilkes County is nearing completion of a 52,000 square foot jail which will hold 256 inmates and will be built at a guaranteed price tag of $10.63 million
''Look at what a $30 million bond issue would do to Laconia's tax cap. We should start over and do it right this time. Don't waste any more money on the Ricci Greene plan,'' said Taylor, citing the New York firm which the county hired to help develop a prison concept.
''We're about to have a referendum on this kind of spending,'' he added, referencing the challenges being made to incumbent County commissioners. Commission Chairman John Thomas (R-Belmont) will face opposition in the Republican primary from Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) and Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) will be challenged by businessman Dave Devoy, a Sanbornton Republican whom Philpot defeated in 2012.

DeVoy said he disagreed with Taylor's assessment that a new facility is needed. ''Bring the women (currently held in the county correctional facility) over here (the Belknap County complex where last night's meeting took place). Ten years down the road we'll be cutting back on the number of people sent to prison. The war on drugs is a complete failure and we'll be changing our policies. Don't spend more money on a new facility,'' said DeVoy, who later in the meeting said it wouldn't make sense to spend money to advance a new project which would be opposed by new county commissioners should he and Burchell prevail in November.
Burchell, whom has said he thinks a new facility can be built for $12 million, said that there was a ''disconnect'' between the Bennett report, which was the initial report developed by the jail planning committee, and the Ricci Greene study which developed a conceptual plan for a new prison.
He said that the Bennett report called for a better understanding of the criminal justice component of the corrections system and maintained that such a study had never been done or done properly and that it should be done before plans for a new facility are finalized.

Corrections Superintendent Dan Ward said that the Ricci Greene report covered that issue, but Burchell disagreed.

Ward was questioned by Peter Mulcahy of Gilmanton about the composition of the inmate population and how that affected the space needs of the jail and later asked Ward how much additional space he needed. Ward said that 80,000 square feet, which is double the size of the current facility, would meet his needs.

Mulcahy said he wouldn't favor ''throwing good money after bad'' and favored going back to the drawing table rather than working with plans currently under consideration.

Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) said he couldn't understand why Ricci Greene wouldn't consider a 1987 plan to add a wing to the jail as part of a proposed solution. ''No one has explained why it was not feasible,'' said Tilton.''Why are we going to build a palace. Why can't we look at that as an alternative?''

But Wad said that it wasn't as easy as dusting off a 30-year-old blueprint. ''You have to look at what our needs were then and what they are now,'' pointing out that adding a wing now would only mean that the women prisoners could be moved out of the gymnasium and wouldn't deal with other issues.

''We can't just pile them in and warehouse them. We need programs that help them stay out,'' said Ward.

Colette Worsman, chair of the County Convention, said that building a new facility for $30 million would also mean doubling the operating costs to $6.6 million a year and questioned why the county should spend that amount each year when it could have all of its prisoners housed outside the county for half that cost.

Rep. Dave Huot (D-Laconia) said that the discussion being held was largely speculation as no definitive plan has been submitted to the convention. ''I don't see any reason to sit here and speculate. There has been talk of people suing the county in federal court over conditions at the jail. If that happens how much will it cost to defend the county in a lawsuit we're bound to lose.''

He also questioned the wisdom of trying to work with the existing facility, noting that any changes would require that all of the existing facilities used be brought up to current codes.

Worsman said that the convention will meet again on June 9 to hear a request from the Jail Study Committee for a $2.96 million bond issue, $1.6 million of which would be used for renting a temporary housing facility for three years for 48 inmates, $1 million for redoing the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system at the current jail and $360,000 for a schematic design plan for a new facility.

She said a public hearing will be held and she anticipates a vote on the bond issue, which would require a two-thirds majority, will be held following the hearing.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 June 2014 11:54

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Gilford officially welcomes new police chief; Bean Burpee comes from Kennebunk

GILFORD — Police Chief Anthony Bean Burpee was sworn in last night at a specially convened meeting of the Selectboard that was followed by a meet-and-greet session for the general public.

Bean Burpee, who officially started yesterday, said job one is to meet with every member of his department and get to know each employee individually. As part of his transition he has conferred with Lts. Kris Kelley and James Leach.

"I want to learn each of their talents and expectations," said Bean Burpee after his swearing in ceremony.

He also said he is very excited about his upcoming role in the construction of the $1.2 million expansion of the Police Department facility.

He said he been on a few tours and "it seems like we're pretty crowded in there."

As for his new department, Bean Burpee said one of his priorities will be to actively work with his team and area departments on the use of heroin and other illegal drugs in Gilford.

As a lieutenant in Kennebunk, Maine, Bean Burpee said he has had years of experience dealing with drug use and abuse however, he said the major opiate problems in southern Maine are with prescription opiates.

"I will be getting up to speed very quickly on the heroin problems," he said.

He said he is also some what of a fitness freak and said from what he's seen, Gilford officers are very physically capable of doing their jobs, but he will continue to work with them to keep the fitness levels as high as they currently are.

Bean Burpee compared Gilford to Kennebunk in that both of them are vacation communities with populations that swell in the summer. He said demographically the two communities are similar.

He said both seem like nice, quiet rural communities, which they both are, however both unfortunately have more than their share of crime.

Kennebunk Police Chief Robert MacKenzie was at Bean Burpee's ceremony and said it was a "bittersweet" moment. He said his community was loosing a very valuable member of its police community but said Gilford was gaining a top notch police officer and administrator.

"I'm thrilled to see him achieve his goal of being a chief," MacKenzie said.

Bean Burpee will spend the summer in "training" so he can get to know Gilford and the members of his department. In September he will attend the N.H. Police Standards and Training for his "law package" or a review of New Hampshire laws for certified police officers from other states.

The new chief was accompanied last night by many of his friends and family including his sons, his husband, and a number of Maine officers and friends.

 

CAPTION: Gilford Police Chief Anthony Bean Burpee chats with Gilford resident Chan Eddy at a meet-and-greet held for him by the Gilford Selectmen after his swearing in ceremony last night. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Gail Ober)

Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 June 2014 01:40

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In Gilford, 'arrogant' meets 'disrespectul'; new policy under study

GILFORD — The School Board received proposed changes last evening to policies dealing with objectionable course materials at a meeting during which board members were accused of arrogance and one board member countering that critics have been disrespectful.
The dispute came during the public comment period which preceded the overview of the so-called "opt in" proposal which would require that parents give explicit advance permission allowing their children to read or view fictional works assigned as part of course. In the past parents could "opt out," meaning parents notified the school only if they objected to their child read certain material.
The controversy over the suitability of course material erupted last month when William Baer, the father of a Gilford High School freshman protested the use the Jodi Picoult book "Nineteen Minutes" being assigned to his daughter's honors English class. Baer was upset the school had assigned the book which contained a graphic sex scene between two teenagers.
Baer was arrested during the May 8 meeting after he talked out of turn and would not stop when asked.
On Monday School Board member Kurt Webber, speaking before the public comment period, said the May 8 meeting was "excellent civics lesson" in how local government works.
Webber said that no one's free speech rights were denied during the May meeting in which School Board Chairman Sue Allen limited speakers to two minutes
"The right to free speech is not absolute," Webber said, noting that a member of the public has no right to interrupt a court proceeding or a session of the Legislature. "The School Board meeting is not an open forum to have an argument," he added. Webber said that when members of the public fail to obey the rules of order one appropriate recourse is to have them arrested.
But resident and conservative blogger Skip Murphy chastised Webber and the board for failing to show respect to Baer and his views. "The morality (that underscored Baer's objections) was important to him, but not to you," he said, adding the board exhibited a "condescending attitude toward parents."
Baer was present at Monday's meeting but did not speak.
Offering a differing point of view, Joe Wernig, defended the school system and added, "Most parents feel you have done well."

It was Wernig who was speaking of May 8 when Baer interrupted.
In explaining the proposed policy changes Superintendent Kent Hemingway said that all the fictional books and films which will be used during in various English courses will be posted on the School District website along with links for reviews of those works for anyone to see. In addition at the beginning of each school term every student will be given a sheet which will include the books which are being assigned for that particular course. Parents will have to sign their approval for their children to read those books. Parents who fail to sign the sheet, indicating their approval or disapproval, will be contacted by the school. Parents who object to any material will meet with the teacher and other school officials to arrange for a suitable substitute.
Under the proposal parents, however, would not be able to appeal the school's decision to the School Board. That prompted Murphy to object saying it prohibited parents from taking concerns to their elected representatives.
The proposed policies would also allow any Gilford resident to object to the content of course material as well as to books and other material in the school's media center.
The objection would be reviewed by a committee which would be comprised of teachers, other school officials and a parent.
Murphy urged the board to name Baer as the parent representative on that committee.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 June 2014 01:36

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