Child rape case against former cop moves toward trial after 30-year delay
Vermont prosecutors, who for decades allowed an alleged child rapist to avoid court through claims that he was dying, now say they are determined to put him on trial as soon as possible, following a USA TODAY Network investigation of the case.
The investigation published in November detailed how Leonard Forte, a retired New York detective, has delayed his trial on felony sexual abuse charges by claiming since the mid-1990s that he needed a heart transplant, had less than a year to live and had been referred to end-of-life hospice care, precluding him from traveling from his home in LaBelle, Florida to face trial.
The report showed that Forte, now 78, had spent those decades collecting boats and taking vacations, traveling several times to within a couple of hundred miles of the Vermont courthouse he was avoiding.
At a Dec. 9 status conference in the case following the publication of the article, a newly assigned prosecutor asked to proceed with the case quickly, prompting a judge to schedule a jury draw in April.
"We believe that Mr. Forte should be able to fly here to Vermont and that this trial should go forward as soon as possible," said the prosecutor, John Campbell. He said that there would be "further developments" he planned to present to the court in a hearing next month, and added, “Just to make it very, very clear: We have no intention of dismissing this case or the charges,”
In an interview Tuesday, Michele Dinko, Forte’s alleged victim, said that she remains ready to testify that he repeatedly raped her during a 1987 skiing trip, when she was 12.
“I was always scared but now I want to look at him face-to-face,” said Dinko, now a 45-year-old registered nurse and mother to her own teenagers. “I want to show my daughter and my son how you stick up for yourself and be strong, and when people try to hurt you or call you a liar, you keep going.”
Following the publication of the USA TODAY Network report, Dinko retained the firm of a New York-based attorney, Bruce Barket, that has been in contact with Vermont prosecutors.
“If I’m Mr. Forte, I prepare for that trial date,” Barket said of the scheduled jury draw this spring. “Because we’re certainly going to prepare and get our client ready. We hope this case moves forward. It's been delayed long enough.”
During the status conference, Forte, who appeared by phone from Florida, asked that the case be dismissed – a plea he has repeatedly made and that has been denied – and asserted his innocence.
"Recently, I’ve been getting knocks on the door, reports published in the media regarding all kinds of accusations which I know nothing about and I’m innocent of," Forte said. "All they’re doing is trying to dig up more stuff that I’m innocent of, I’ve never done."
Forte was initially convicted in 1988 and faced 60 years in prison, but a judge ordered a new trial after ruling that the female prosecutor who argued the case was overly emotional and displayed “a fury seldom seen this side of hell.”
That ruling, which prosecutors decried as sexist, led to a three-decade odyssey of medical ailments that Forte claimed made him physically incapable of returning to Vermont to stand trial.
In an interview last week, prosecutor Campbell said new information has come to light that will help the court determine whether Forte can make the trip. He declined to go into detail, but said of the USA TODAY Network report, "I believe the story was extremely informative, and it certainly provided some information that we did not have at the time."
According to Dinko’s attorneys, there is more fallout to come concerning Forte.
Barket and Aida Leisenring, attorneys in a firm that approached Dinko to represent her after the publication of the USA TODAY Network article, said that they are preparing a lawsuit in New York, where the statute of limitations in civil sex abuse cases have been temporarily removed in order to allow new claims regardless of how old the allegations are.
Barket said that in addition to suing Forte , his firm was exploring whether to sue authorities that may have had a hand in stymieing a grand jury probe in New York, where Dinko claimed one of the incidents of rape had occurred.
The Suffolk County, New York, police detectives who initially investigated Dinko’s allegations have told the USA TODAY Network that they felt their investigation was thwarted because of Forte's connections in the local district attorney’s office where he had been a detective.
Barket also said that his firm is investigating whether Forte had other alleged victims. The USA TODAY Network has reported that a second woman, Kristine McGuire, said that Forte fondled her when she was a child but that after sharing her account with detectives, she was not called to testify before a grand jury.
“It’s our view that what this individual did was obviously egregious and despicable and individuals both in Vermont and in New York may have enabled him,” Barket said.
When a USA TODAY Network reporter called a number associated with Forte this week seeking comment, an apparent male voice said that Forte was “in rehab” and stated: "What are you after? It was 35 years ago. I read the article. You’re not being fair to him.”
Forte has for years represented himself during court proceedings, and in the Dec. 9 conference he said he did not have the money for a lawyer, a claim that prosecutors have refuted in the past. He also said that following his last phoned-in court conference, he was “rushed to the hospital” with a “heart episode.”
“These things are going to kill me,” he said of the court proceedings.
But Judge John Valente told Forte that his arguments “do not satisfy a threshold for me to postpone the case."
He ended the court conference by hanging up on Forte mid-speech. "The record will reflect that I thought Mr. Forte was done," the judge said.