A Florida man who has had sexual assault charges in Bennington pending against him for more than three decades faced a judge Wednesday on new charges alleging he has faked illness to avoid a trial.
According to documents made public Wednesday, prosecutors accuse 79-year-old Leonard Forte of submitting an old doctor’s note one stating he was too sick to testify and falsely claimed it was new.
Also, the filings stated, Forte falsely told a judge he was in hospice care when he wasn’t and had been traveling for months away from his home.
Forte, 79, appeared via telephone at a hearing in Bennington County Superior criminal court for an arraignment on two felony counts of obstructions of justice.
He did not speak during the hearing. His public defender, Susan McManus, was in the courtroom and entered not guilty pleas to the charges on her client’s behalf.
Deputy State’s Attorney Linda Purdy, one of the prosecutors in the case, did not seek cash bail for Forte. Instead, Forte was released on conditions including that he report within 30 days to the Hendry County Sheriff’s Department in LaBelle, Florida, for photographs and fingerprinting.
Forte, who previously worked for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in New York as a detective, now resides in LaBelle, Florida.
He was convicted in 1988 of three counts of rape of a 12-year-old girl in Bennington County. He was granted a new trial in 1989 after appealing those convictions.
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office later refiled the charges against him. However, the case has never gone to trial because Forte claimed he was too sick to take part and had been awaiting a heart transplant.
As a result, Forte had been required to provide a medical update every six months.
An investigation by USA Today, Naples Daily News and the Burlington Free Press in 2019 outlined the years of delays in resolving the case and called into question Forte’s claims about his health.
Vermont State Police then investigated Forte’s health claims, along with authorities in Florida, leading to the obstruction of justice charges and the arraignment on Wednesday.
One of the obstruction of justice counts against Forte accuses him of submitting a copy of the same letter to the court in 2016 from Dr. Shailaja Hegde in Florida again on June 21, 2019, with the date on the latter version blacked out.
According to an affidavit filed in the case by state police Detective Sgt. Henry Alberico, the letter read:
"To Whom it May Concern, Due to medical reasons and ongoing deteriorating health, Leonard Dean Forte has been referred to hospice. He is unable to travel or to go through the rigors of testifying. The severity of his condition also precludes him from accurately testifying. At this time, he is being referred for hospice care."
Special Agent John King of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement obtained a sworn statement for Hegde on Sept. 3, 2020. In that statement, according to the affidavit, Hegde said she had treated Forte in the past.
“When asked how she was able to recall Forte over all the other patients that she had seen in the past, Dr. Hegde replied that Forte’s daughter Lisa Forte used to work for her as her ‘medical assistant’ for a brief period,” the affidavit stated.
Also, according to the filing, Hegde stated that in 2012 Forte asked her for a “disability letter,” also telling her that he was a detective from Long Island, New York, and there was an old case in which he was being asked to testify.
Hegde said Forte never mentioned having to testify or appear in Vermont or that he was the person facing the charges, the affidavit stated.
Hegde was later shown the letter referenced from June 21, 2019, that had the “blacked out” date, according to the filing.
“After examining the ‘blacked-out-date’ letter and discussing the similarities to the January 7, 2016, letter,” the affidavit stated, “Dr. Hegde confirmed that she had not authored the "blacked-out-date" letter, and that she was not treating Forte in 2019.”
In fact, the filing stated, Hegde last examined Forte in November 2017, more than 18 months before the June 21, 2019, letter was presented to the court.
The second obstruction of justice count relates to Forte telling Judge William Cohen during a June 19, 2019, hearing that he was in hospice care requiring oxygen 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
However, a few months prior to that hearing, on March 14, 2019, according to the affidavit, Forte was notified his hospice service was being discontinued “due to his not having any measurable- decline and therefore, not meeting Medicare guidelines for hospice service.”
Forte also signed a document on March 13, 2019, acknowledging he understood he was being discharged from hospice, effective March 15, 2019, and that he could appeal, the affidavit stated.
“Hope Hospice confirmed that Forte was discharged from their program and that he was never readmitted into Hospice,” according to the filing.
Judge Cortland Corsones recently issued a decision that Forte has the physical capacity to stand trial in Vermont. Later this month, at the request of his attorney, Forte will undergo an exam to determine if he is mentally competent to stand trial.
The affidavit released Wednesday also stated Forte had made several other “false or misleading statements” regarding his health, treatment and ability to travel.
For example, according to the filing, on Sept. 28, 2016, the Hendry County Sheriff’s Department in Florida reported that Forte had contacted them because the city of LaBelle had cut off his water main due to a broken pipe and that he wouldn’t be back in town for a week or so.
Then, on Oct. 13, 2016, a day after Forte returned to his Florida home, he called the sheriff’s department complaining of vandalism at his residence, the affidavit stated.
Deputy Sheriff Christopher Norwood said he went to Forte’s home that day. There, according to the filing, Forte told him that on June 28, 2016, he left his residence and began traveling to New York City and that he was in New York when he was contacted about the broken water pipes at his home in Florida.
In another instance, the affidavit stated, Forte told Cohen during the court hearing in which he appeared by telephone that he was on “intravenous every day.” Eight days later, according to the filing, Forte renewed his Florida driver’s license and said nothing on his license application about being on “intravenous every day.”
The license application asks if a person has any “physical or mental disabilities” that could affect driving.
Forte, the filing stated, reported, “None.”
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.