Saturday, March 8, 2014
By DOUG HARLOW Morning Sentinel
FARMINGTON – The man who Juan Contreras told investigators slipped him other drugs in a marijuana cigarette the night Grace Burton was murdered testified Wednesday that he did not lace the joint with anything.
James Benjamin Sweenhart, 39, of Wilton was given federal and state immunity from prosecution for his testimony Wednesday.
He said he met Contreras at the Front Street Tavern the night last year Burton, 81, was stabbed 35 times as she slept in a recliner in her Farmington apartment.
Sweenhart, with long, bushy black hair and a black beard, said in court under oath that he grows marijuana indoors at his home and denied that he added synthetic hallucinogenic drugs, such as bath salts, to the marijuana.
"I'm not completely ignorant that it exists, it's just not part of my world," Sweenhart said.
Contreras told state police detectives he smoked the marijuana and later blacked out because it had been spiked with a mind-altering drug.
He has pleaded not guilty to murder.
Wednesday's session in Franklin County Superior Court was delayed nearly three hours as prosecutors met with Burton's family and friends and the defense met with Contreras' mother and stepfather in an apparent bid to plea bargain.
A deal did not materialize and the state called its first witnesses of the day, Contreras' former wife, Amanda Pressey, and former father-in-law, Vern Pressey.
Vern Pressey, 47, now of Pittsfield, testified that he and his daughter became suspicious of Contreras after seeing a cut on his hand when they all lived together in June 2011 in Farmington.
Vern Pressey said as he heard more about Burton's death, he decided to confront his son-in-law. "We wondered if he was telling us the truth about how he cut his hand. If it was true," Pressey told Justice Michaela Murphy in the jury-waived trial. "I went back to the apartment and straight out asked him if he killed Grace Burton."
Contreras said he cut his hand while whittling, a pastime he enjoyed, according to Pressey.
"He lied to me and said no," he said.
Amanda Pressey told the court that her husband was a heavy drinker but never was known to black out or lose his memory and didn't appear any more intoxicated that night than on many other ones.
She said Contreras was drunk much of the time, but never hit her or was violent.
Contreras, 27, has acknowledged being inside Burton's apartment June 21, 2011, but has never described the attack or why it happened.
Although seriously injured, Burton called police and described her attacker. She died later that morning at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.
Police investigators said they have linked Contreras' DNA to a trail of blood from the rear window of Burton's apartment.
The defense team of David Sanders and Chris Berryment is trying to show that Contreras was given a drug that night and may have had a psychotic episode as a result.
"I didn't know what I was doing," Contreras told state police investigators in a recorded interview, which was played in Franklin County Superior Court on Tuesday.
Assistant Attorney General Deborah Cashman, one of two prosecutors in the case, told Murphy that Contreras concocted the story of being slipped a bad drug.
The trial is scheduled to continue today.
Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at: