July 24, 2013

Witnesses describe screams, stomping in Gwaro case

His attorney concedes Eric Gwaro hit Sherri York, but he says he was provoked and wasn't trying to kill her.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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."

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Opening arguments were presented Tuesday at the trial of Eric Gwaro, 28, who is accused of aggravated assault and attempted murder.

Photo by Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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The first witness for the prosecution, Craig McKenzie, points to the area where his apartment is located near the scene of the alleged crimes that occurred on the block bordered by Cumberland Avenue, Washington Avenue, Congress Street and Montgomery Street.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Eric Gwaro's attorney, Daniel Lilley, tells the jury that his client is guilty of aggravated assault but not elevated aggravated assault and attempted murder.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam presents the prosecution's case in opening arguments at the trial of Eric Gwaro on Tuesday morning in Cumberland County Unified Court.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer


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