BANGOR, Maine — A Bangor jury on Friday found a 64-year-old Nebraska man guilty of sexually assaulting his young niece in Maine more than two decades ago.
Clarence Cote of Nemaha, Neb., was on trial facing charges that he sexually assaulted his then-8-year-old niece in 1990. The jury deliberated for three hours and found there was enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Cote sexually assaulted the girl on two separate occasions.
Cote, leaning back in his chair, showed no emotion as a juror read the verdict. The victim sat at the back of the courtroom, clutching a tissue.
The Bangor Daily News does not normally identify victims of sexual crimes, but the woman who was assaulted, Tina Dionne, 31, of East Millinocket, agreed to speak with the media after the trial concluded.
“I’m glad that I’m getting justice, and I’m glad that he can’t hurt anyone else,” Dionne told reporters outside the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.
She also encouraged anyone who experiences a sexual assault to come forward with the information early and not keep it to themselves. By doing that early on, she might have avoided having to pursue justice more than 20 years later, she said.
“I know, it’s scary,” she said.
“It came down to a he-said-she-said,” Michael Roberts, deputy district attorney for Penobscot County, said of the trial. There was little physical evidence presented in the case. Prosecutors relied mostly on Dionne’s testimony and recollections of a tape recording of a police interview with the then-11-year-old girl.
Police lost that tape at some point, which is why it could not be presented at trial, according to Stephen Smith, Cote’s defense attorney.
Roberts said that Dionne’s persistence in pursuing justice over many years likely influenced the jury’s decision to convict Cote.
Smith said after the trial that he planned to appeal the verdict. The fact that the state lost evidence, allowed such a long time to pass before tracking down Cote, and Dionne’s testimony about the sexual assaults in court differed from the accounts she gave 20 years earlier should have hindered the state’s ability to prove its case, he argued.
“The jury obviously disagreed,” Smith said.
Smith asked the judge on two separate occasions, including on Friday before the jury heard closing arguments, to dismiss the case, in part because of how long ago the events took place and how foggy memories would be after such a long stretch of time.
Cote’s sentencing is scheduled to occur sometime in late February.
He remains incarcerated at the Penobscot County Jail, where he has been held for more than a year, unable to post $50,000 cash bail set Dec. 14, 2012.
During the trial, Dionne said that Cote engaged in various sexual acts with her including forcing her to perform oral sex on him in his truck when she went with him to deliver scrap metal in the Bangor area.
Cote lived next door to Dionne’s family in Lincoln before her parents divorced and she moved to Millinocket to begin second grade. She said she was close to Cote and his wife and visited their trailer so often, she had her own bedroom there.
She testified that she often spent the night there between first and second grade. When she did, she said Cote would wake her and take her from her bed to his own after his wife left for work.
“He told me I would get in trouble if I told anyone,” she said.
Dionne said she had little contact with Cote after she moved and no contact with him after he moved to Arizona in 1992 or 1993. Cote later moved to Nebraska.
Cote said that after he moved to Arizona, Dionne called him and wrote him several letters. He said that the communication between the two came to an end before October 1996, after she asked if she could live with him in Arizona because she wasn’t getting along well with her mother.
In his opening statement at the trial Thursday, Smith said that Dionne thought the defendant might be her father. She wrote him until he cut off contact a few years later.
She denies contacting Cote after he moved. Smith said that Cote did not keep the letters because he didn’t yet know about the accusations Dionne had made.
The case came to the attention of Millinocket police in 1994 after the girl told her mother what had happened in the summer of 1990, Roberts said in his opening statement. Somehow, an older brother heard the story, which he told to a school counselor, who was required by law to report suspected abuse.
In 1996, Dionne penned a letter to then-Gov. Angus King asking him to help her “get justice,” Roberts told jurors. King forwarded the letter to the Maine State Police, but they were unable to locate Cote who had moved from Arizona, the last address family members had for him, to Nebraska.
Smith said that in the following years, police in Maine made little effort to track down Cote, who would have been easy to find because he had a commercial driver’s licenses in Arizona and Nebraska.
“He made no attempts to hide,” Smith said.
Cote came to the attention of law enforcement in that state in April 2012, the prosecutor told the jury. Police in Nebraska noticed the 18-year-old warrant and let the Maine State Police know he was in custody. When a detective called Dionne to tell her Cote was in custody, she cried, Roberts said.
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this report.
To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.