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Jury finds Charles Black guilty of trying to kill wife on Camden’s Maiden Cliff

Charles Black, left, speaks with his attorney Walter McKee before closing arguments are made in Black's trial Monday in Knox County Superior Court.
Stephen Betts | BDN
Charles Black, left, speaks with his attorney Walter McKee before closing arguments are made in Black's trial Monday in Knox County Superior Court. Buy Photo
Posted July 21, 2014, at 5 p.m.
Last modified July 21, 2014, at 6:25 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — A 71-year-old man faces up to 30 years in prison after a jury convicted him of trying to kill his wife by pushing her off Maiden Cliff in Camden in order to have her money and be with his former high school girlfriend.

The 11-woman, one-man Knox County jury deliberated for 90 minutes before convicting Charles Reed Black of all charges, including attempted murder. Justice Joyce Wheeler ordered Black held without bail until sentencing is held.

No date for sentencing has been scheduled.

The victim was in the courtroom, surrounded her two daughters and friends, when the verdict was read. She began sobbing and hugged lead Detective Dean Jackson and District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau.

Rushlau said he will be seeking a prison term of multiple years which, at Black’s age, could amount to a life sentence. Rushlau said that is entirely appropriate in this case, though he was not ready to say specifically how many years he would seek.

“It’s an absolute miracle that she’s alive,” the prosecutor said.

He praised the work of his prosecutorial team, which included Assistant District Attorney Christopher Fernald, who Rushlau said put in hundreds of hours of work to organize the case to be presented to jurors.

Defense attorney Walter McKee said he does not know whether he will appeal.

“I am disappointed in the verdict. I believe there was significant reasonable doubt but unfortunately the jury found otherwise,” McKee said.

The defense rested its case Monday morning, calling no witnesses in the case against Charles Black, who was accused of trying to kill his wife by pushing her off the cliff on April 7, 2011.

Black told Justice Wheeler Monday he decided not to testify. Wheeler told Black she would instruct the jurors — who were not in the courtroom during this discussion — not to make any inferences by his decision not to testify.

Black repeatedly said, “Yes, your honor” when asked by Wheeler whether he had given consideration to testifying and whether he consulted with his attorney Walter McKee on the matter.

Rushlau said in his closing statements Monday that all the evidence taken together leaves no reasonable doubt Black was guilty of attempted murder, elevated aggravated assault and assault.

Defense attorney Walter McKee said, however, there were 10 points of reasonable doubt, any one of which should result in an acquittal of his client.

The jury was given the case late morning and decided to take a lunch break before returning to begin deliberations at 2:20 p.m. in Knox County Superior Court.

The state wrapped up its case with its first witness on Monday with Dr. David Burke, a trauma surgeon at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor who treated Charles Black and his then-wife, Lisa Black. Both Blacks suffered head injuries, broken ribs, cuts and bruises, and a collapsed lung.

Burke said the injuries to Lisa Black, now Lisa Zahn, were life-threatening because she had blood and air in her chest cavity.

Both were hospitalized for eight days before they were released. Charles Black was arrested upon his release from the hospital.

Rushlau told jurors during his closing statement Monday that Black acted as though his wife’s money was his money and that he also was obsessed with his former high school girlfriend from 50 years ago and wanted to be with her. He pointed out to jurors a high school book with her signature on it was in his nightstand next to his bed.

McKee said, however, the lack of blood on Black’s pants, the slight amount of blood on the mountaintop, the absence of the rock allegedly used to strike the woman all raised reasonable doubt. The defense attorney also said Black thought all his wife’s money would go to her two daughters if something happened to her.

The prosecutor disputed that claim in his final statements to the jury, saying Black knew the daughters would not receive the money.

Lisa Zahn and Black met when they lived in the Kansas City, Kansas, area. They were members of a bicycling group. They married in 2004 and, according to Zahn, got into debt by living beyond their means.

Her father died in January 2010 and left Zahn nearly $4 million. Stephen Bahr, a Kansas attorney who specializes in estate planning, told jurors Friday that Black accompanied his now ex-wife Lisa Zahn at each session she attended concerning her father’s estate. He said “Reed (the name that Charles Reed Black went by) was much more active in the meetings than Lisa.”

Zahn said Black wanted to move to Maine, saying it was his dream, but he changed, shutting her off physically and emotionally, once they moved here.

Candice Carter, a high school girlfriend of Charles Black from 50 years ago, testified Thursday she found him online via Facebook in 2010, and they began an online affair that turned into a rendezvous in her hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona, in early 2011.

Carter testified that, in January 2011, Black informed her his wife was in the hospital after a fall on ice. She said Black told her in a telephone conversation that, if his wife “didn’t make it, it might be the easy way out.”

She said she has had no contact with Black since the April 7, 2011, incident on Maiden Cliff.

Zahn told jurors she learned about the online affair early in 2011. She said, however, she was hopeful she and Black could make the marriage work, and the two went out to dinner on the night before the Maiden Cliff attack.

Zahn testified Black suggested a picnic on top of Maiden Cliff on the afternoon of April 7. Once there, she said, everything was going well; but she recalled Black placing two large rocks next to himself. She stood up and was looking at Megunticook Lake when she felt herself struck three times on the back of the head.

Black then grabbed her by the wrist, pulled her to the edge of the cliff and threw her over the side, Zahn said. She landed on a ledge 10 feet below the top and, after initially considering playing dead, decided to descend the mountain because she feared Black would kill her if she tried to climb back to the top.

She heard rustling she believed was Black coming after her. She then climbed to a sheer part of the cliff and held onto a tree root before she decided the only way to escape was to let go.

After landing about 35 feet below, she continued her descent, then saw her husband, about 90 feet away, plummeting off the cliff. She eventually found where he was and asked for his cellphone to call for help, but he said he did not know where it was.

He then asked her to help him and repeatedly begged her not to leave him.

She went down the mountain and managed to flag down the third car that passed, she said. Her rescue occurred at about 3 p.m. Searchers then went looking for Black. Wardens Michelle Merrifield and Dave Simmons and Merrifield’s K-9 Duchess located him at 5:30 p.m.

There is an 800-foot sheer drop at Maiden Cliff that has a large cross erected at the top and is a popular hiking destination. The cross was erected in memory of a young girl who fell to her death in the 1800s.

State police interviewed Black in his hospital room at EMMC in Bangor the day after the incident, as well as April 15. In those audiotaped interviews, Black said he does not recall striking his then wife and pushing her off the mountain. He said in the second interview he gathered the two rocks and was thinking of asking her to join him in throwing them off the cliff as symbols of their getting rid of their baggage — his being the affair with Carter.

Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled before the start of the trial that a Missouri woman, who said she overheard Black and another woman talk about an earlier attempt at killing Zahn, would not be heard by the jury. The prosecution argued the information was relevant.

That woman said she overheard a conversation the defendant had with another woman in July or August 2012, in which they said if they had the correct dosage — referring to injecting Valium into a wine cork and giving the wine to Charles’ wife — the defendant would not be in the trouble he was in now.

The document also states Lisa Zahn told police there were several incidents in which Charles Black may have given her poison or drugs, including once in 2010, when the woman named by the potential witness came to be a house sitter when the Blacks were planning a trip to Italy.

The jury also did not hear testimony from Zahn whether she suspected Black of trying to kill her a couple weeks of weeks before the Maiden Cliff incident. She told police Black had climbed a ladder to the attic. She was standing at the bottom of the ladder when he fell down on top of her. Black told her he passed out, according to a police affidavit filed at the time of his arrest.

The assault charge in that matter was separated from this current trial.

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