Eyewitness in attempted murder trial describes seeing assault, dangers of being a ‘rat’ in Portland neighborhood
PORTLAND, Maine — An eyewitness on Wednesday was the first to testify in the trial of Scarborough man Eric Gwaro that she saw a suspect punching, kicking and stomping on assault victim Sherri York on the night of Aug. 30, 2012.
Previous witnesses called to the stand in the Gwaro trial, including two taxi drivers Wednesday morning, said they heard screaming, saw the victim or saw a black male carrying the victim in the area of the Montgomery Street crime scene. But then-Montgomery Street resident Megan Lichterman — now going under the married name Townsend — was the first to testify that she saw the brutal assault take place.
Townsend offered jurors a chilling description of the attack and her neighborhood near the base of Munjoy Hill, where she said people who cooperate with police can face violent repercussions. Townsend said she, her then-fiance, brother and his girlfriend all initially refused to give sworn statements to police after the crime because of concerns they’d be labeled “rats.”
“I’ve been told that things happen and sometimes bodies disappear,” she told defense attorney Daniel Lilley during cross examination Wednesday.
Gwaro, 28, faces charges of attempted murder, elevated aggravated assault, aggravated assault and violating conditions of release for what prosecutors allege took place in the early morning hours of Aug. 30, 2012.
Gwaro, of Scarborough, is accused of severely beating York on Montgomery Street. His defense attorneys, Lilley and Tina Nadeau, have argued that Gwaro may be guilty of class B aggravated assault and class E violation of staying out beyond a 7 p.m. curfew set as bail violations after his initial arrest.
The second day of the trial Wednesday ended with the jury watching more than an hour of video footage showing a Portland police investigator interrogating Gwaro the night of the crime.
The defense attorneys argued during the first day of the trial that York offered Gwaro sex for money, then stole $20 from his vehicle when he refused, causing the defendant to become “enraged” and confront her. Lilley said he disputes the class A charges of attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault.
York’s criminal history includes a 2011 arrest for engaging in prostitution.
Prosecutors presented witnesses during the first day of the trial Tuesday who testified to hearing screams on the night of the crime, as well as bystanders and police who found York’s unconscious bloodied body in a nearby alleyway. Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam also showed jurors surveillance camera video from the Big Apple convenience store on the corner of Cumberland and Washington avenues showing York apparently being dragged by the hair by a black male through and away from the store parking lot.
On Wednesday, two Portland cab drivers started the day’s testimony.
One, Brock Mantle, said he saw York, “upset” and with a “puffy” face, trying to hail him as he passed through the aforementioned intersection. He told prosecutors he knew York because on previous occasions, she’d offered sex in exchange for rides, and that he’d accepted the offers.
Mantle said he passed by her on the night of the crime, however, because he had been called to pick up another fare elsewhere in the city.
Another taxi driver, Able Britten, said he later saw a black man carrying a white woman “not lovingly” away from the intersection. Britten said the woman was “screaming and kicking,” and the man was yelling, “I want my money — give me my money.”
Neither taxi driver — nor any other witnesses who testified before Townsend — reported seeing the male striking, kicking or stomping the victim, as he is accused of doing, under cross examination by Lilley and Nadeau.
Townsend said she was in a Montgomery Street apartment with her then-fiance, brother, and his girlfriend — as well as three children — on the night of the crime. She said she was awakened by her now-husband, then looked out her bedroom window to see a black male standing over and punching another person in the road.
Townsend said the victim’s body was initially obscured by the body of the assailant, but she was able to recognize the victim as a white female after the black male changed position to alter his course of attack.
“As he sidestepped to deliver what was a football kick, I saw her long hair,” Townsend. “I saw direct stomps onto her head, drawing his knee high into the air and putting his foot directly down onto her head.”
She said the assailant then hoisted the victim over his shoulder and fled with her “lifeless” body.
Townsend said she resisted giving sworn police statements until after visiting York in the hospital, where she found the victim unconscious and unresponsive, and “found the strength to do the right thing.”
Lilley questioned Townsend’s credibility during cross examination, noting during a sometimes heated exchange with the witness that she did not reference the “kicking and stomping” during a pretrial court testimony. Lilley also brought up the witness’ criminal history.
Prosecutors have argued that the kicking and stomping were in part where Gwaro crossed the line from an assault to an attempted murder, while defense attorneys have argued that he never tried to kill her. Townsend told Lilley that during the pretrial testimony in question, she was never given the chance by attorneys to continue describing the scene beyond the punches.
“You’ve been accused of a crime of dishonesty, correct?” Lilley asked Townsend.
“Yes. A misdemeanor. Negotiating a worthless instrument,” she answered.
“Are you being honest here today?” Lilley followed up.
“Yes,” Townsend answered.
During the day-ending interrogation video, Gwaro maintained he was innocent and was chasing after the real assailant when police detained him on the night of the crime. The investigator, Officer Scott Dunham, tells Gwaro in the video that police “know what you’ve told us isn’t exactly true,” and gives the suspect a second chance to “come clean.”
Since the trial began, Lilley has acknowledged that Gwaro’s initial story of mistaken identities was false and that his client had an altercation with the victim, but that the two class B charges are “over the top” because Gwaro never intended to kill York during the attack.
Another dispute between the two sides in the case is whether Gwaro was intoxicated on the night of the crime, with defense attorneys insisting he was and that it clouded his judgment. Prosecutors have countered that he was not drunk when the assault occurred.
One Portland resident, Charles Bunting, testified Wednesday that he accompanied Gwaro to several bars during the hours before the incident and that he saw the defendant consume a few drinks, but that he “seemed fine” when they parted ways after 1 a.m.
Several investigating police officers have also testified that they did not believe Gwaro to be impaired during their interactions with him.
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