PORTLAND — Clifford Hethcoat said he awoke one night last summer in his Montgomery Street apartment to hear a woman’s voice yelling from the street outside: “Somebody help me; he’s going to kill me.”
Hethcoat testified Tuesday as an eyewitness in the trial of Eric Gwaro, a Scarborough firefighter who is accused of attempted murder for allegedly beating a woman in Portland on Aug. 30, 2012, with such severity that it left her with permanent mental and physical impairments.
“I jumped up and looked out the window. I seen what appeared to me to be a man, a dark man, assaulting a woman,” Hethcoat said, testifying at the end of the first day of Gwaro’s trial in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court.
Hethcoat said he opened a fourth-floor window overlooking Cumberland Avenue after seeing the man punch and stomp the woman multiple times in her upper body.
“At the time, I yelled out, ‘What the eff are you doing?’ He yelled back, ‘Don’t worry. She’s just drunk. I’m helping her out,'” Hethcoat testified.
Hethcoat said he ran down the stairs from his apartment to the street after seeing the man pick the woman up and carry her away. On the street, another witness, Craig McKenzie, asked him to come down a nearby alley where the woman had been left.
“Her face, it just looked a mess,” Hethcoat said.
McKenzie, who also lives on Montgomery Street, testified earlier in the day that he called 911 after he also was awakened in the night and remained on the phone with the dispatcher until he found the woman unconscious and bloodied in the alley.
The woman, later identified as Sherri York, suffered “traumatic brain injury” in the attack. York, who was 25 at the time of the attack, remained under treatment at Maine Medical Center for a month and a half before being transferred to New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland, where she had to relearn how to walk, feed herself and dress herself, Justice Joyce Wheeler told the jury, reading a statement agreed upon by Gwaro, his attorneys and a prosecutor.
York was then transferred to RiverRidge Center in Kennebunk for further rehabilitation before finally being discharged to her parents’ care on May 23, the judge said.
One of Gwaro’s attorneys, Daniel Lilley, conceded in his opening statement at the start of the trial Tuesday morning that his client struck York but denies he tried to kill her.
Lilley said Gwaro accepts responsibility for two of the four charges against him for attacking York, but denies the attack reached the level prosecutors allege in the two most serious charges against Gwaro, attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault.
“There is a whale of a difference between attempting to murder someone and aggravated assault,” Lilley said.
Lilley said Gwaro is not contesting the two lesser charges of aggravated assault and violation of a condition of his release on bail for a curfew violation. He said Gwaro struck York after she had gotten into his vehicle and propositioned him, offering sex for money and then stealing money that Gwaro kept on a center console in his vehicle.
Aggravated assault is a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault are Class A felonies punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Gwaro, 28, had previously pleaded not guilty to all four counts against him.
Lilley challenged Hethcoat’s credibility as an eyewitness during cross-examination, asking him, “You didn’t see anything, did you?”
Hethcoat, an ex-convict who has served time in federal prison, insisted he was telling the truth, though he never wanted to be involved in the case.
The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam, said in her opening statement that evidence at the trial would show Gwaro dragged York down the street from the Big Apple store at the intersection of Cumberland Avenue and Washington Avenue and beat her until she was unconscious.
“He kicked her and stomped her until she was lifeless and then hid her body,” Elam said.
Gwaro’s trial is expected to last about a week. The prosecution had listed 31 potential witnesses, including 15 police officers and 16 civilians, including York herself.
York, identified in court papers as a prostitute and drug user, had been in a coma immediately after the attack. Though York has partially recovered from her injuries, Elam said she remains mentally and physically impaired as a result of the attack.
Elam called seven witnesses on Tuesday, including the first two police officers to arrive at the scene and another officer who had spoken to Gwaro at a traffic stop about an hour before the alleged attack and Gwaro’s subsequent arrest.
Hannah Emery, who was working at the Preble Street Resource Center on the night of Aug. 29 and 30, testified that she confronted Gwaro around 2 a.m. that night after she saw him get out of his car, stumbling, and walk around the center, which provides services for Portland’s needy, and return zipping up the fly of his jeans.
Gwaro drove off after Emery confronted him, but she called police because Gwaro appeared “really drunk,” she testified.
Portland police pulled over Gwaro’s vehicle shortly afterward on Cumberland Avenue, but Officer Michael Galietta testified that Gwaro didn’t seem intoxicated to him and that he was wearing a different color shirt than Emery had described to the police dispatcher.
Galietta also arrived at the scene of York’s attack about an hour later and recognized Gwaro as the man police arrested after a foot chase.
Video surveillance taken from the Big Apple store on Washington Avenue shows York at the store around 2 a.m. Prosecutors showed video taken from store cameras while a store worker, Michael Clark, was testifying.
The video shows the woman come into the store, then leave and get into the passenger side of a vehicle in the parking lot afterward. The video then shows her returning to the store around 2:30 a.m.
Clark testified that when she returned, her face was red and puffy and that she had a bloody $20 bill.
York then left the store again. Surveillance video shows her getting dragged by her hair through the store parking lot by a man shortly before 3 a.m.
The jury is made up of eight women and five men, including an alternate.
Gwaro’s attorneys, Lilley and Tina Nadeau, have six people on their potential witness list, including Gwaro.
At a hearing before Wheeler in December, Gwaro’s wife unsuccessfully sought to have him released on bail so that he could return home and help her raise their two young sons.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at: 791-6304 or at: