By Matt Ward
A man charged with sexually assaulting one of his best friend’s daughters when she was about 11 years old walked out of jail a free man almost a year to the day after he was arrested.
A jury of eight women and four men on Friday found Keith Thoene, 53, not guilty of two category A felonies — sex assault of a minor under 14 and lewdness with a minor under 14.
Thoene, a former employee of Nye County HAZMAT, faced considerable prison time if convicted of either charge. Instead of prison, Thoene was released from the Nye County Detention Center and promptly left the state.
Thoene was arrested on Aug. 3, 2011 after a then-16-year-old girl’s family called police to report a sexual assault that allegedly occurred either in 2005 or 2006. The victim had visited Thoene’s home in Pahrump on several occasions as a young girl.
On one of the occasions, she testified, this close family friend allegedly forced himself onto her.
The victim had withheld the information from her family because, she told the court last week, she felt she couldn’t trust any of them.
Despite not saying anything about the alleged assault for five or six years, two witnesses testified that they could tell something was wrong with the victim in the years afterward — she seemed suddenly more distant, suddenly less able to be warm around others, especially males.
The witnesses, both women, said they often wanted to ask the victim if she’d ever been hurt by anyone.
One of the women testified that she finally got the chance when the young victim, years later, was caught with a bag of marijuana. This family friend and the girl’s family organized an intervention. At this intervention, the subject of molestation was finally broached. The victim, according to testimony in the case, was shocked and began panicking during the confrontation, rocking back and forth and holding her head — outside the courtroom the same witness told this newspaper that the victim actually urinated on herself the pain of the memory was so great.
The witness even knew who the suspect was and asked the victim to confirm it — the young girl indeed named Thoene as her attacker.
Six years after the assault, there was no medical exam of the girl to determine whether her attacker left any long-term damage to her body — one detective pointed out that had a medical exam been done and its results inconclusive, the defense would’ve seized on that as well. Police collected little physical evidence apart from some clothing from the suspect. Police had very little, actually, except for the victim’s statement and the subsequent interrogation of the suspect.
Thoene’s defense attorney seized on the lack of medical exam, lack of physical evidence as well as tactics used during the police interrogation to sway jurors. The suspect didn’t take the stand and no defense witnesses were called.
The defense worked.
Jurors deliberated just over two hours before reaching a not guilty verdict in the case.
Sally Murphy, who served as the jury’s foreperson, said after court that prosecutors just couldn’t prove their case.
“We just felt the state didn’t prove the case, that there was a lack of evidence on the state’s part. What was bad about it was that it happened about six years ago and they didn’t have a definite timeline, you know. There were a lot of things that went into play,” she said.
Murphy said the only compelling testimony was regarding the victim’s change in attitude as a child. But that wasn’t enough since any number of experiences could’ve caused that.
“They talked about how (the victim) had a change of attitude, but they talked about her parents going through a divorce; that could have been a factor in her having a change of attitude. They brought up the point that at the time this was brought out that she was doing drugs; that could have a change in her attitude. With children, teenagers, from the time they are 10 to the time they are 17, there are a lot of things going on,” the juror said.
Murphy said the lack of a medical exam left jurors with even less to go on.
“She was at the time a 10- or 11-year-old girl and she was a virgin and only 100 pounds. If it happened as bad as she said, there could have been some scarring. There could’ve been something. But they didn’t do any medical whatsoever. They didn’t even have a doctor up there to give an opinion. They just didn’t have any evidence really,” she said.
Beyond the lack of evidence, Thoene’s attorney Harry Kuehn seized upon his client’s hours-long interrogation at the hands of Det. David Boruchowitz to sway jurors. Instead of calling any witnesses of his own, Kuehn merely questioned Boruchowitz on the stand about the interrogation techniques and then played the long tapes to jurors. On the tapes, Boruchowitz can be heard saying the f-word 350 times — Kuehn counted them — to Thoene. Also, the detective tells Thoene all kinds of lies, from wanting to sleep with the victim himself, to guessing that the victim’s father was molesting her too, to the most outrageous falsehood of all, that the detective barely made it into the police profession after having to admit he slept with an 11-year-old when he was 17. The detective also told Thoene that the girl passed a polygraph, though she hadn’t taken one. Also, when Thoene asked to take a polygraph, he wasn’t given one, Kuehn told jurors.
Kuehn said the detective spent 90 percent of the time talking during the interrogation — his client spent the rest denying the victim’s allegations. One court watcher whose hobby is spending every day watching local court proceedings walked out in disgust while the interrogation tapes were played for jurors.
Boruchowitz is said to be the lead teacher of interrogation techniques at the Nye County Sheriff’s academy.
Asked whether jurors considered the interrogation tapes in their deliberations, Murphy suggested that they did not play a major role.
“Personally, I don’t think I would interrogate people like that. I guess that’s the way they do it. But that didn’t have anything to do with it. The evidence just wasn’t there. The state didn’t prove their case. … There just wasn’t enough evidence.
“It could have happened. It could have happened, but when you have a doubt, when it says reasonable doubt, we had doubt.”
The lead prosecutor in the case, Ross Armstrong, who was conducting his first jury trial on behalf of the DA’s office, said he put on the best case he could based on the evidence.
“We respect the decision of the jury. These cases are always a heavy lift, but a worthy lift to do. Physical evidence is always a challenge and we put forward the best case we could,” he said after the trial.
The victim’s father and two witnesses consoled the tearful victim in the courthouse lobby after the verdict was read.
Stunned and saddened by the verdict, her father could muster only one word when asked for his reaction — “disappointed.”