Crime and Justice

AG shelves prosecutor on sex case pending for 30 years

Leonard Forte mugshot
Leonard Forte is accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Bennington County in 1987. This mugshot is from a shoplifting charge in 2016 in Florida. Lee County Sheriffs photo

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan announced Friday he is assigning a special team to prosecute a sexual assault case that has been pending for more than 30 years. The case has been delayed over claims by the defendant, a former police detective, that he was dying. 

In response to media scrutiny, Donovan is dumping the lead prosecutor who has been on the case for the past 25 years and spent most of that time working for the Attorney General’s Office before shifting to the state Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs. 

The move comes about two months after a USA Today expose highlighted decades of foot-dragging in getting the case resolved. 

Donovan said in a statement Friday afternoon that the new prosecution team will include two former justices of the Vermont Supreme Court.

Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy will lead the prosecution of Leonard Forte of LaBelle, Florida, who is facing charges from 1987 that he repeatedly sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl in Bennington County, according to the statement.

Joining Purdy will be Jeffrey Amestoy, a former Vermont attorney general and Vermont Supreme Court chief justice, and Brian Burgess, a former deputy attorney general and Vermont Supreme Court associate justice. 

TJ Donovan
Attorney General TJ Donovan. Photo by Jacob Dawson/VTDigger

In making that decision, Donovan is pushing aside the longtime lead prosecutor on the case, David Tartter.  

Tartter was handed the case in the mid-1990s when he was an assistant attorney general and kept it when he moved to his current role in the state Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.

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Donovan said Friday that although Tartter may be listed as an assistant attorney general in court filings in the case, he hasn’t had that job for several years. 

“When he started prosecuting this case it was as an attorney general’s case,” Donovan said. “My understanding is at some point in time he left the Attorney General’s Office, he went to the Department of State’s Attorneys, and he took the case with him.”

Donovan added, “I’m assuming that in a notice of appearance with the court it has an assistant attorney general; I don’t know, that’s what I’m assuming because the case has always been at least on paper an AG’s case.”

Donovan said he first became aware of the case and its long delays from a press report in November.


“I wasn’t aware of it, it was out of my office,” Donovan said. “The first I heard about it was in the USA Today article.” 

In that report, Tartter is identified as an assistant attorney general. 

 “He never worked for me,” said Donovan, who took office as Vermont’s attorney general in 2017.

Donovan said his special team will work “collaboratively” with the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys. 

Tartter was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment. 

John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys, said Friday that Tartter moved over to his office around 2016 and kept the Forte case on his docket, in which he also specializes in appeal litigation. 

John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s, Sheriff’s and Special Investigative Units. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Campbell, who supported the AG’s move to appoint a special team to prosecute the case, laid the blame for the delays on Forte, and his doctor’s notes that stated he was on “death’s bed.” 

Campbell added, “The only way to actually keep this case alive was to actually say, ‘OK, fine, we’ll continue on until we feel confident that we can show that you are capable of having a trial and come back to Vermont.’”

The alternative, Campbell said, would risk having the case dismissed outright.   

Campbell said, the USA Today report revealed that Forte didn’t appear as ill as portrayed. 

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That investigation by USA Today, Naples Daily News and the Burlington Free Press brought to light the extraordinary delays, in large part due to Forte, now 78, claiming for years that he was dying and that the stress of a trial would hasten his death.

However, USA Today reported that despite his dire health claims, Forte, a former detective with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in New York, was living in Florida. 

According to the USA Today report, a jury in 1988 convicted Forte of three counts of sexual assault. However, Judge Theodore Mandeville threw out the convictions, finding that the prosecutor during the closing argument had been overly emotional. 

Mandeville stated that prosecutor displayed “a fury seldom seen this side of hell,” USA Today reported.

Jeffrey Amestoy
Jeffrey Amestoy, former Vermont attorney general and chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Courtesy photo

That has led to the decades-long path to a retrial.

Donovan said Friday that Amestoy and Burgess approached him about joining the prosecution team in Forte’s case in light of the USA Today article. 

Both Amestoy and Burgess, according to Donovan’s release, “led the State’s initial effort to end delay and reinstate Mr. Forte’s previous conviction” back when they both worked in the Attorney General’s Office. 

“We’re happy to have them,” Donovan said. 

Forte, who in the past has represented himself, is now represented by Susan Keane McManus, a public defender, according to court filings. McManus could not immediately be reached Friday for comment. 

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, reached late Friday afternoon, declined comment on the move by the AG’s office.

“I’ll comment generally, that really old cases are really hard to prove because they’re really old cases with really old evidence,” Valerio said. 

Donovan said he made his decision to appoint the special prosecution team because he viewed it as the best way to try to bring justice to the victim, who is now 45. 

However, that may prove to be a difficult task for the prosecution as the USA Today article stated that “Vermont officials have destroyed materials key to the prosecution of Forte, including most of the original trial record.”

Donovan’s announcement Friday comes ahead of a status conference set for Monday in Forte’s case in Bennington County criminal court. 

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Gary G. Shattuck

“Vermont officials have destroyed materials key to the prosecution of Forte, including most of the original trial record.”

This is unforgivable. We have seen this played out on a large scale in the EB-5 matter, in many other files from the courts, including the Supreme Court, and I recently ran into the problem when researching the death of a state trooper. The custodians of our records are either destroying them or interposing ridiculous obstacles via the PRA. One of my recent requests was denied by DPS on the basis of “common law executive privilege.” I am an attorney and, while I can guess what this means, really, what the hell does that have to do with anything? Access to the public’s records, in essence, means nothing anymore, unless one is willing to go to court and fight for it.

Vermont government transparency is being repeatedly called into called into question in ways it never thought possible. Just ask Jim Condos.

Legislature, you got a problem. Are you listening?

Tim White

How about an apology to the 12-year-old (now 42) child who was allegedly raped by a police officer and then ignored by the State of VT for 30 years? How about terminating the employment of a state official who clearly failed in his duties to prosecute the case? How about something better than, “He never worked for me.” from Mr. Donovan?

On the surface at least, it appears as though the rights of a so-called sickly police detective were given priority over the rights of a child victimized by rape. For 30 years.

I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened. But it appears as though the case would have been completely forgotten had the press not exposed it. Even then, it took 2 months to address the issue. This sort of thing is happening too often in our state government, and I would like to see some accountability.

A 12-year-old girl was repeatedly raped.

Charlie Morse

This 12 old has experienced unbounded judicial discretion. This travesty highlights the lack of attention Vermont’s judiciary receives. Lawmaker oversight does not exist. The judges, who are not elected, write their own laws through case precedent because our legislatures(elected lawmakers) do not. Rather than doing their job, legislature John Rodgers pens up a law preventing 21 y.o’s. from using cell phones he himself says he would not vote for. All to grandstand the gun issue. I encouraged VT Digger to continue to shine a light on Vermont judiciary. You will continue to find a systemic condition of neglect and unchecked prerogative.

William Workman

I have in my possession a book called “Vintage Vermont Villainies,” by JS Bellamy. It details a dozen noteworthy crimes in Vermont in the 19th century. One striking feature is how quickly these criminals were brought to justice. One pair of murderers were tried and sentenced less than a year after the murder. That’s an extreme example, but I wonder if we’ve gone too far in the other direction. It takes us three years to deport a drunk-driving illegal immigrant, 20 years (and counting) to execute a person who killed for kicks, and now 30+ years for child rape. And why, because the prosecutor was “too emotional?”
On balance the benefit of the doubt has to go to the defendant, but we are letting the defendants drive the bus, and they don’t want it to arrive at its destination. Can’t we recognize that justice 30 years later is the same as justice never?

Vic Noble

For the fact that TJ now apparently has two ears on the one side of his head is it just his attempt to make it look like he is listening to Vermonters.

Candy Moot

Brian Burgess and Jeff Amestoy? You couldn’t find two better choices … both men with brains, experience, and honor.

Jenny Kingsbury

Justice delayed is justice denied.

Paul Drayman

Leonard Forte, was a Detective with the Suffolk County, N.Y. at the time he was charged there in this case. The two investigators claim both pressure from a Judge to and from the Prosecutor’s Office. One prosecutor said “that a judge had ordered her to water down her presentation.” One investigator claims “a prosecutor who warned him to tread carefully”. From a second investigator, Prosecutors “thwarted us every inch of the way,”. The case never made it to trial there. Vermont Prosecutors picked up the case. Forte was charged and convicted here where the then 12 year old Ms. Dinko was allegedly raped. The judge here overturned the conviction, claiming that the prosecutor, during closing, “had been overly emotional”. Forte, who moved to Florida, has avoided retrial for the past 25 years claiming he is on his death bed. Now 78, Forte’s recent Florida shoplifting mugshot, looks like he cleans up pretty well. Something has been rotten about this from day one. Read the USA Today article.

 

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