BELFAST, Maine — Lance El-Hajj, 48, walked into Belfast District Court Tuesday morning in shackles, but he left a free man after being found not guilty of domestic violence stalking and two other related charges.
Judge Patricia Worth presided over the bench trial of the two-term member of the SAD 22 school board and stay-at-home dad of four. El-Hajj, who has residences in Winterport and Swanville, had spent more than a month in custody without bail at Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset after his former girlfriend filed a complaint in October that he had violated the terms of a protection from abuse order she had filed earlier this year. The order stemmed from harassment complaints made by the woman and El-Hajj’s subsequent arraignment on charges of criminal trespass and harassment.
“I would not let it be thought that I take a charge of domestic violence stalking lightly,” Worth said before handing down the verdict. “The state has not proved charges of domestic violence stalking.”
El-Hajj’s criminal trial lasted for much of the day and included testimony from him, his ex-girlfriend — an employee of SAD 22 — and her 14-year-old son. While he will not return to Lincoln County Jail, he still needs to stay out of trouble until the middle of June, according to defense attorney Marvin Glazier of Bangor. That will mark the end of El-Hajj’s 10-month deferred sentence, which he received this summer in exchange for pleading guilty to harassment. If El-Hajj keeps a clean record and stays away from the woman, he can withdraw his guilty plea and have the harassment charge dismissed.
Under the provisions of the agreement, El-Hajj can only have contact with the woman at school in regard to school activities in which his daughters are involved.
On Tuesday, Waldo County Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker argued that El-Hajj had violated the conditions of the agreement. He said El-Hajj had inconvenienced and intimidated his ex-girlfriend by repeatedly driving past her Winterport home, by quizzing her 14-year-old son about her new relationship and by getting too close to her physically at school and sporting events.
“Mr. El-Hajj just would not let go of the relationship,” Walker said. “There is a conduct that would cause a normal person to suffer intimidation or inconvenience. That is exactly what [the woman] suffered.”
The woman told the judge she felt compelled to seek police assistance in October after El-Hajj had made a complaint about her to the school district superintendent and the principal of the school where she works.
“That was when I took all the records I had and called the DA’s office,” the woman said in court.
At times during her testimony she grew emotional, especially when she described how she and El-Hajj had been in a long-term live-in relationship which blended their two families, with a total of six children. She said despite their break-up and the court conditions imposed on El-Hajj, her two children remained close to him.
One of those children took the stand, describing how he had called El-Hajj for a ride one day after school when he missed the bus.
“Did he ever ask you questions about your family?” Walker asked.
The teenage boy said El-Hajj mostly asked questions about where his mother’s new boyfriend’s children were sleeping when they stayed in the house. El-Hajj also asked if a family photograph of the woman’s and El-Hajj’s children posing with chickens on their laps was still on display in the house. The teen said he loved El-Hajj and thought of him as a father.
When El-Hajj took the stand, he said he never once asked the boy about his mother’s new boyfriend, but instead wanted to know how he and his brother were doing.
He said he had made a complaint about the woman to the principal because one of his four daughters told him she witnessed the woman being rough with her son one day.
Although Walker objected to this line of conversation, Worth found it relevant.
“I think he ought to be allowed to explain why he took an action,” she said.
During Walker’s cross-examination of El-Hajj, he asked the man why he had put himself in places where he was likely to see the woman, including cross-country track meets that involved one of his daughters.
“Did you realize you were playing with fire?” Walker asked.
“I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” El-Hajj replied.
Ultimately, Worth found that El-Hajj was not guilty of domestic violence stalking, violation of a protection from abuse order and violation of his conditions of release.
“Obviously we are pleased with the result,” Glazier said.
According to Walker, it was a fair verdict.
“Looking back on it, I believe we did not meet our burden of proof. I think it was the right decision. I think it was a reasonable decision,” he said. “There are some cases where you go in and try the case, hope for the best, and it doesn’t go your way.”
After the verdict, El-Hajj had to wait in the courthouse for a jail official to come and let him out of his wrist and leg shackles. He embraced his college-aged daughter and said he was looking forward to seeing his other, younger children, who had been staying with their aunt while he was in jail. Their own mother died more than 10 years ago, he said.
“Forty-one days of my life,” he said of his stint in jail while waiting for the trial.