July 25, 2013

Witness says Gwaro brutally beat, kicked woman

The defendant denies the attack escalated to the level of attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Megan Townsend said Wednesday that she had decided not to cooperate with police by giving her eyewitness account of an attack on a woman last summer – until she went on her own to visit the victim in the hospital.

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During opening statements, defense attorney Daniel Lilley tries to convince the jury that his client is guilty of aggravated assault, but not elevated aggravated assault or attempted murder.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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Eric Gwaro, 28, is charged with attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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Townsend said she changed her mind after seeing Sherri York lying unconscious at Maine Medical Center. York remained in the hospital for about a month and a half after she was attacked on Aug. 12, 2012, in Portland.

Townsend testified Wednesday in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court during the second day of the trial of Scarborough firefighter Eric Gwaro. He is accused of attempted murder in the beating of York, who suffered permanent injuries in the attack.

"I needed something to give me strength to do the right thing," Townsend said of her hospital visit.

Townsend testified that she told police she had watched the attack from the bedroom window of her fourth-floor apartment on Montgomery Street in Portland's east end.

Townsend, who was Megan Lichterman at the time of the attack, said her now-husband Ryan Townsend woke her around 3 a.m. and told her to look out the window toward the intersection of Montgomery Street and Cumberland Avenue.

She said she saw a black man punch someone two to five times, but that she couldn't tell the person being attacked was a woman until after the man began kicking her.

"I saw when he sidestepped to deliver what I would call football kicks, I saw (the victim's) hair go back," Townsend said.

Townsend said the man kicked the woman at least five times before bringing his foot down repeatedly on the woman, who was lying on the ground.

"I saw him raise his knee up and stomp her in the head," Townsend said. "Her head was bouncing off the pavement."

At that point, Townsend said, she told her boyfriend to help the woman, and Ryan Townsend ran downstairs to the street while she watched from the window. She saw the man on the street pick up the woman and carry her away to a nearby alley.

"She was lifeless," Megan Townsend 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, but denies the attack reached the level of attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault, the two more serious charges against him. 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 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, each punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Gwaro, 28, had previously pleaded not guilty to all four counts against him.

In addition to Townsend, two other residents who lived in the same Montgomery Street apartment building testified about the attack. Townsend's sister-in-law, Wendy Townsend, also said she saw the man pick up the woman and carry her away. Wendy Townsend's boyfriend, Clifford Hethcoat, testified Tuesday that he saw the attack and yelled at the attacker.

Megan Townsend said everyone in her household was reluctant to speak to police because they didn't want to be "called a rat."

In a testy exchange with Lilley, Megan Townsend said that in her neighborhood, "rats" are looked down upon and that "bodies disappear" when someone rats on another person.

Another witness, taxi cab driver Able Britton, said he was driving in the area of the Big Apple store on Washington Avenue around 3 a.m. and saw a man carrying a woman when he turned onto Cumberland Avenue.

"She was screaming," said Britton, who works for ASAP Taxi. "It was definitely not a good thing. I actually called the police."

Britton said the man was yelling at the woman as he carried her, "I want my money. Give me my money."

Another cab driver, Brock Mantle, also testified on Wednesday that he had seen York earlier that night trying to flag down his cab, but he already had a fare. He said he learned what happened after returning to the Big Apple store after the attack.

Mantle said he knew from previous exchanges with York that she "sometimes worked as a prostitute" and that she had offered sex and drugs for rides in the past.

Jurors on Wednesday also heard from Charles Bunting, a Portland man who testified that he had met Gwaro in a bar earlier that night, they exchanged phone numbers and began bar hopping in the city's Old Port before separating at the end of the night.

"He was on the rocks with his wife, out on the town," Bunting said.

Bunting said he first went to the nightclub Styxx on Spring Street for a beer around 11 p.m. on Aug. 29 and met Gwaro. The two struck up a conversation.

"At one point, I did let him know that he was in an alternative bar," Bunting said. "He mentioned that he was primarily interested in women."

Bunting said Gwaro appeared to be in a good mood throughout the night. The two then went together for another beer at Asylum, a nightclub on Center Street, and continued on until last call at sports bar Binga's Stadium on Free Street.

"He came up the stairs having been downstairs for half an hour or so," Bunting said. "I saw him go to just about every woman in the crowd and say something."

Bunting said he then went home but continued to text Gwaro, receiving a final text message from him around 2 a.m.

Testimony concluded Wednesday with Portland police Detective Scott Dunham on the stand as jurors began watching a recorded video interview of Gwaro at police headquarters after his arrest. Dunham is expected to continue testimony Thursday as jurors are shown the rest of the two-hour video.

The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam, said she expects to call her final witnesses Thursday. Elam had listed York on a preliminary witness list, but has not yet called her to the stand.

Gwaro's attorneys, Lilley and Tina Nadeau, listed six witness they plan to call, including Gwaro.

Justice Joyce Wheeler is presiding over the trial.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@presherald.com

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