In 1995, Leonard Forte was due in a Vermont courtroom to face charges that he’d repeatedly raped and molested his daughter’s 12-year-old friend.
Instead, he started dying.
Forte, then a 54-year-old former detective with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in New York, told the Vermont court his heart had failed and that he was on a transplant list. He said his doctors had given him a grim diagnosis: Without a new heart, he’d be dead within a year.
A Vermont prosecutor agreed to delay the case until Forte was healthy enough to stand trial – unless his terminal condition made prosecuting him a moot point.
Forte never received a heart transplant. But he also didn’t die.
Instead, he has been living as a retiree in Florida, collecting boats, taking vacations and successfully fending off his trial by professing for more than two decades that he’s on the verge of death.
USA TODAY Network reporters used police records and social media posts to show that in the past decade he has taken at least 11 extended trips, including RV jaunts to New York within 200 miles of the Vermont courthouse where he has said he is too ill to travel.
Meanwhile, in dozens of filings and phone calls to the Vermont court, Forte has stalled his case, typically by claiming end-of-life conditions that then don’t come to fruition. In 2012, he said he’d been removed from the transplant list because his situation was so dire. In 2014, he said he was undergoing a surgical procedure with up to an 85-percent likelihood of death. In 2017, he said he’d been referred to hospice care and had six months to live.
“I’ve been dying for 25 years, your honor,” he stated in a phoned-in court appearance to a Vermont judge that year. “I’m sorry I’m still alive.”
The 12-year-old girl who accused him of rape in 1987 is now a 45-year-old mother to her own teenagers. She has spent nearly three-quarters of her life waiting for him to appear in a Vermont courtroom.
However, the prospect of a trial seems increasingly unlikely, and not just because Forte is now 78. The USA TODAY Network found that Vermont officials have destroyed materials key to the prosecution of Forte, including most of the original trial record. The mistaken destruction of transcripts and court audio recordings appears to be due to the unprecedented age of the case, by far the oldest open prosecution in Vermont and certainly one of the oldest in the country where the defendant is not a fugitive.
A Vermont jury initially convicted Forte in 1988 of three counts of sexual assault, which could have meant a 60-year prison sentence. But Judge Theodore S. Mandeville tossed out the verdict on grounds that prosecutors would decry as sexist, ruling that the female prosecutor in the case had prejudiced the jury by being overly emotional.
Tartter, who is still the prosecutor assigned to the case, agreed to be interviewed for this story but later said by email that after “further reflection” he had decided public comment might hinder his “core responsibility, which is to ensure that this case stays prosecutable.”
Another status update on the case is scheduled for Dec. 9. Forte, who has not physically appeared at a Vermont courthouse in decades, is expected to phone in.
Reporters could not reach Forte by phone and he did not respond to a letter delivered to his address. During his most recent court conference, in June of this year, Forte stated via phone that he is “not strong enough to defend myself, but I am not guilty of these charges.” He also advised the court that he “can’t function” and is “on oxygen 24/7.”
A USA TODAY Network photographer in September documented Forte puttering around his yard in LaBelle, Fla., and repositioning a car in the driveway. There was no oxygen tank in sight. When a reporter later attempted to interview Forte at the same home, his wife said he didn’t live there. Property records show that he claims it as his primary residence.
Over the years, Forte has provided to the court letters or records describing serious health issues, and in some cases the opinion of doctors that he is medically unfit for the stress of traveling and withstanding a trial. But Forte has been unable or unwilling to fulfill the court’s request that he produce a medical professional willing to testify under oath.
If Forte was accurately diagnosed with the severe heart failure outlined in the records he provided to the court, it would be “extraordinarily rare” for him to be alive so many years later, said Dr. Mary Norine Walsh, past president of the American College of Cardiology and medical director of an Indianapolis heart center.
Court recordings and filings show that Vermont judges and court officials have for years expressed skepticism and impatience concerning Forte’s claims. They have sent sarcastic congratulations to each other for inheriting the case, pretended to keel over on the bench during Forte’s proceedings and yelled over his self-pitying diatribes.
In 1996, Tartter documented how Forte – who had claimed he was financially devastated by the court case and medically unable to fly to Vermont – was leading a lifestyle many retirees would envy, complete with boats docked outside of his waterfront home, at least seven vehicles registered in his name and regular flights to New York.
Yet Vermont authorities have failed to order Forte back to the state to face trial, which the prosecutor has estimated would last two days.
Michele Dinko, the alleged victim, said in a recent interview that Tartter has expressed to her that he has little hope left of prosecuting Forte. Dinko said Tartter also told her privately that having the case loom over Forte for so many decades is its own kind of punishment.
It’s meant that she has had to live with the same punishment, she said. Forte has dismissed her in court as a “disturbed child” and claimed, “she has no interest in pursuing this matter.” As has been the case with some of Forte’s other court pronouncements, the opposite is true.
Over the decades, Dinko said she has received only sporadic contact from Tartter, who at times has asked her if she still wants to go forward with the case.
To Dinko, a registered nurse, the answer is obvious.
“If it was his child, he wouldn’t let it slide,” she said of Tartter. “He wouldn’t stop.”
A stalled grand jury
The investigation into Forte began in early 1987 after Dinko revealed her story to a friend in the bathroom of her middle school in affluent Wading River, on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. The account she gave was one she would spend the next two years repeating to detectives, attorneys and courthouse audiences.
Though her trial testimony has been destroyed, police records and depositions document the account of a girl who knew so little about sex that she struggled to describe what she said Forte had done to her.
“Have you ever seen a man or a boy’s private parts?” an attorney asked her at one point.
No,” Dinko responded. “Except his.”
Dinko claimed that during a February 1987 trip to Landgrove, Vermont, with her friend, the youngest of Forte’s three daughters, Forte raped or attempted to rape her on three consecutive nights. Shortly after they had returned to New York, she said he again raped her when she was at a sleepover with her friend at his home.
Dinko said that Forte warned her that she would get into trouble if she said anything. “They wouldn’t understand our love,” she said he told her.
Detectives Carmine Macedonio and Carolyn “Cookie” Wimmer, sex crimes investigators in the Suffolk County Police Department, also interviewed Kristine McGuire, another classmate of Forte’s daughter, who said that he had fondled her twice, including on a vacation to Florida. Police suspected Forte was a “pedophiliac,” court records show.
The detectives focused on Dinko’s allegations for potential criminal charges, but they claim to have been stymied from the outset.
Forte had been a detective-investigator for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office until 1985, when he retired on a disability pension because of facial injuries suffered after skidding his work car into a tree. Macedonio and Wimmer said Forte maintained close relationships with prosecutors and at least one powerful judge. Macedonio recalled being beckoned to the dugout of a ballfield at midnight by a prosecutor who warned him to tread carefully. And Macedonio said that the prosecutor who presented Dinko’s allegations to a grand jury for potential sexual abuse and attempted rape charges informed him that a judge had ordered her to water down her presentation.
Court records show that the grand jury declined to indict Forte. Prosecutors “thwarted us every inch of the way,” Macedonio’s partner, Wimmer, said in a recent interview.
Dinko’s mother, Rosalie Salemme, sent a letter in 1988 to various New York officials in which she said Forte had been given a free pass because of his law enforcement ties. “If my daughter was pulled into a bush and raped by an assailant and he was caught, there would be some kind of punishment,” Salemme wrote. “Yet, because she was raped by a person who appears to be a respectable citizen we are still going through this nightmare.”
McGuire, Dinko’s friend who alleged Forte had fondled her, never heard about the case again after sharing her account with the detectives. “I felt that what had happened to me was not important, and that I was not important,” she said in a recent interview.
Macedonio said he ignored his supervisor’s order to leave the case alone and instead brought it to the Vermont State Police for them to investigate Dinko’s allegations, since much of the alleged abuse occurred there.
Macedonio believes his pursuit of Forte cost him professionally. When he later asked to be transferred to the homicide squad, he was denied the coveted assignment despite 23 years on the job. He retired from the department out of frustration and moved to Florida, where he got a $6-an-hour security job at a racetrack before joining the Port Richey Police Department, ultimately becoming its police chief. According to personnel records, his career in both departments was unblemished.
“I knew what the reason was,” Macedonio said of being denied the transfer to homicide. “It was my reputation on the Lenny Forte case. I guess I couldn’t be trusted.”
After risking his career to bring the case to Vermont, he’s watched it languish there in unprecedented fashion. “It’s just too late, it’s no good, it’s an injustice right there,” Macedonio said recently, adding of Forte, “He’s going to have to answer to God, that’s who he’s going to have to answer to.”
The dying begins
Vermont police in June 1987 attempted to bolster Dinko’s claims by having her place a recorded phone call to Forte.
Though he did not admit anything during the conversation, jurors later cited the call as strong evidence of Forte’s guilt. “You had a great time,” Forte told her at one point. “I treated you like gold.”
The resulting trial in December 1988 was a “credibility contest,” as Vermont District Court Judge Theodore Mandeville later described it, between the testimony of Dinko and Forte.
Forte characterized Dinko as a liar attempting to destroy him because of a petty rift with his daughter. But the jury believed the testimony and evidence against Forte and convicted him. He faced 20 years for each of the three sexual assault counts.
In October 1989, before he could be sentenced, Mandeville gave Forte a surprising reprieve. The judge took issue with prosecutor Theresa St. Helaire’s “emotional involvement” in the case, stating that her trial demeanor “can only be described as a fury seldom seen this side of hell.”
Mandeville said that the prosecutor’s cross-examination of Forte’s daughter – a key witness since she was in the room when much of the alleged abuse would have occurred – was “unnecessarily vicious and brutal,” causing the court reporter to leave the proceedings in tears.
Mandeville ordered a new trial. In a legal brief, Assistant Attorney General Tartter, who had taken over the case by 1990, argued that Mandeville’s decision was “grounded in gender bias.”
After seven years of legal back-and-forth in an attempt to get the conviction reinstated by higher courts, Tartter’s office decided to give up on the original conviction and retry Forte.
Forte, who had moved his family to Southwest Florida, bemoaned in court filings that the prosecution had caused his “total financial ruin” and that his failing health was a “direct and proximate result of the State’s ‘witch hunt’” against him.
He had suffered a major heart attack in 1992, had an anxiety disorder and was terrified of flying, he claimed. His New York-based heart doctor stated that Forte was a “cardiac cripple with tremendous functional limitations” whose health could be further harmed by “any level of stress or anxiety,” including boarding an airplane or going on trial.
But court records show that the Vermont Attorney General’s Office contradicted many of Forte’s claims. Forte had joined an airline’s frequent flier club and had taken multiple trips to New York City. And though Forte had been assigned a Vermont public defender after listing a total income of $18,000 a year and claimed to live in a mobile home, investigators found evidence to the contrary.
In 1996, Tartter detailed in court filings the four-bedroom waterfront home in Marco Island, Florida, that Forte listed as his primary residence, citing real estate listings to describe his pool, spa, 20-foot vaulted ceilings and “lovely long water views.” The filings also note a 31-foot boat – Lady Irene, named after his wife – docked outside the home, along with seven other boats Forte had registered since 1988. The court filings also show several other vehicles registered in Forte’s name, including a late-model Chevy pickup, a Ford convertible and a motorcycle.
In filings in response to the Vermont prosecutors, Forte said that he purchased the vehicles and boats on behalf of his family members, and that his trips to New York were to see doctors. Tartter was attempting to pressure him “into the grave,” he said, and the stress of the open case was “literally killing” him.
“The only thing of value I have is my word and reputation in my community,” Forte wrote.
A regrettable agreement
Despite Tartter’s own court statements that Forte could not be trusted, in December 1996 the prosecutor agreed to a stipulation that, he admitted later, would ultimately haunt him.
Forte had been placed on a heart transplant list and claimed that if he did not receive a donor organ within a year, he would die. A Vermont physician who Tartter asked to review Forte’s records stated that his “prospects for improvement are nil,” that “the rigors of a re-trial could worsen his condition” and that “his ability to withstand incarceration would be very poor.”
Tartter agreed to delay prosecution of the case until Forte was “medically able to withstand a trial.” He required Forte to provide health updates every six months, but documents show that Forte violated those terms from the outset. He went more than a year without providing medical records, bounced between mailing addresses without updating the court and instructed doctors not to provide anything to Vermont authorities. Forte later explained he withheld information because he worried that he would be removed from the transplant list if the accusations against him became widely known.
Forte, who was no longer represented by an attorney after the delay, sent Vermont officials bitter, hand-scribbled missives to complain when the court asked for updates. His phone calls to court detailed a litany of terminal ailments that then never came to fruition.
He insisted 17 years ago that his heart condition had reached the “end-stage.” He wrote in 2005: “I am innocent of the charges and have spent the last 19 years trying to clear my good name before I die.” In 2012, he said it had been determined that his health was so poor a donor heart would be wasted on him.
Forte offered an explanation for his miraculous longevity in 2017. “The fact that I’m alive after 22 years is just because of my determination,” he told the court.
Tartter acknowledged that year that relying on Forte’s medical records alone was a mistake. “I regret now that 22 years ago I didn’t have him physically examined,” the prosecutor said.
Forte appears to have been living a much better life than the one he has documented in court filings. On at least 11 occasions since 2009, records with his local Hendry County Sheriff’s Office show he and his wife requested extra patrols around their property while they took extended trips away. In some cases, those trips coincided with social media posts by his wife detailing their RV trips to New York or jaunts to Disney World and Epcot in Orlando.
In 2010, the heat on their motor home went out at a New York campsite, according to one of his wife’s posts. But Forte – who was at the time demanding that prosecutors dismiss the charges against him due to “the severity of my conditions” – apparently came to the rescue. “My poor husband was out at 2am trying to work out the problem,” his wife wrote.
Police records also show that in March 2016, Forte and his wife were arrested for allegedly stealing a leopard purse, a bike lock, socks, slippers and a low-carb cookbook from a local Goodwill. Because of the charity’s policies involving not pursuing charges against the elderly, the Fortes were not prosecuted.
“I am wondering if he is immortal”
In February 2017, a Vermont judge noted that the case against Forte was “alarmingly old” and that he wanted one of Forte’s doctors to testify or he would appoint a “medical master” to reach a conclusion on his ability to stand trial.
But Tartter said that he saw “no harm or prejudice to (Forte) from continuing the present status quo,” which he described as a win-win.
“If the defendant is right about his medical condition, this case will resolve itself in the not-too-distant future,” Tartter wrote. “If he is wrong, and he has asserted since June 28, 1995, over twenty-two years ago, that he is dealing with a terminal medical condition, then dismissal of the case at this time would work an injustice.”
Three months later, Forte filed records stating that he had been referred to end-of-life hospice care and would be dead by the end of the year, effectively ending the effort to conclude his case. In emails to Dinko at the time, Tartter wrote, “I don’t believe anything he says,” of Forte’s hospice claims, stating, “At this point, I am wondering if he is immortal.”
But he suggested that the window to prosecute Forte had closed: “It is hard to argue that maybe somehow we could try him someday.”
Dinko drafted a response to Tartter in which she lambasted what she said was Vermont’s inattentive handling of the case. “Sadly you let a man who raped a little girl get away with it,” Dinko wrote, but then didn’t send the letter because she didn’t want Tartter to stop updating her on the case.
Dinko, now a soft-spoken single mom with straight black hair and weary eyes, said she’s spent the past three-plus decades reckoning with the alleged sexual abuse. Ever since the week in Vermont in which Forte drove her around in his yellow Corvette and bought her dinners, movie tickets and gifts, she said she doesn’t trust anybody, particularly nice men who want to do something for her. She gets in fights with her teenage daughter because she won’t allow her to go to sleepovers.
“It took me a long time to believe that it wasn’t my fault,” Dinko said, adding that she now mostly tries to forget it happened.
“I kind of just put it in a box in my head, you know, and lock the box,” she said.
But when asked if she would be willing to testify nearly 33 years after the alleged abuse, Dinko didn’t hesitate. “I would definitely do it, just because, how dare you, and everybody else?” she said. “All these years that we’ve let go by, and you lived your life like nothing happened.”