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.
Click here for the rest of the USA Today story.