UPDATE: A jury of eight women and four men found 53-year-old Keith Thoene not guilty late Friday of two category A felony charges related to a rape allegation made against the man in 2011 by a 17-year-old. The teenager brought the allegations five years after she says she was assaulted. (See story below for her testimony). Jurors deliberated for just over two hours. Jury foreperson Sally Murphy told the Pahrump Valley Times that the state didn’t have the evidence to prove their case and that testimony from two witnesses and the victim didn’t rise to the level of erasing any doubts about Thoene’s guilt. Prosecutors said after the verdict was read that they put on the best case they could with the available evidence and that they respected the jury’s decision. Friends and relatives of the victim sat in stunned silence when the verdict was read. Thoene has been in a Nye County jail since his arrest in August 2011; he is expected to be released soon. He reacted to the verdict, bending over the defense table, a shudder running through his body, visibly relieved that the ordeal was finished. Look for more details about this trial in Wednesday’s PVT.
By Matt Ward
An intervention held to scare a teenage girl away from drugs instead led to her confessing a dark secret — a family friend had raped her when she was a child.
That tearful scene — dread and pain salted with relief — occurred in March 2011. It was relived in District Court on Thursday.
The man accused of raping the young woman years before sat at the table with his lawyer, sometimes shaking his head, sometimes weeping.
Keith Thoene, 53, was arrested Aug. 3, 2011 after police caught up with him in Las Vegas. He’s been in a Nye County jail ever since, charged with two category A felonies, lewdness with a child under age 14 and sexual assault of a child under 14.
During opening arguments Wednesday evening, the prosecution and defense statements contrasted starkly.
The prosecution argued that they’d present a simple case — a man had an opportunity to have sex with a young, vulnerable child alone in his home and took it. The defense would argue that the girl was influenced by nightmares she was having, that the police lied so outrageously during their interrogation of their suspect, that nothing they say can be believed, and finally that the circumstances of the case make the teenage girl’s testimony automatically suspect.
Ross Armstrong, the county’s lead prosecutor on the case, started the trial off by calling the young victim.
The PVT doesn’t identify victims or publish material that could lead to a victim’s being easily identified and so will keep the person’s name, as well as the names of some witnesses, anonymous. The crime occurred in Pahrump, but the young woman and her family, as well as some witnesses live outside of Nye County.
The young girl, a child advocate seated nearby for support, took the witness stand and courageously recounted the events leading up to her assault as well as the confession years later that would have her face her attacker in court.
She recounted that the man was a longtime family friend. She recalled how another family member would drive her to an area near the county line so that she could go with Thoene to a Pahrump veterinary clinic, where she volunteered during the summertime.
The girl recounted how after 10 weekends of traveling to and from Thoene’s Pahrump home, she spent that last night there, curled up in a ball on the floor, having just been sexually assaulted by a man her family knew for more than 20 years. He started by groping her breasts and buttocks. When she slid to the floor from the futon she was sleeping on in his living room, he slid down there, too. As she lay on her stomach, arms crossed underneath her tiny body, he wedged his knees into the tops of her legs, forcing them to spread.
She testified that he pulled her basketball shorts and underwear down and then stole from her a childhood.
She left Pahrump the next day sharing barely a word with the man. She spent the next six years keeping her secret. Asked why she didn’t tell anyone when she got home, she said she couldn’t.
“I didn’t trust anybody. A lot of family conflict, so I didn’t trust anybody to tell them anything,” she said.
The young woman testified later about how her secret got out. It seemed to support the notion that life was already a bit unstable for her as a child.
When she turned 16 in December 2010, for example, her biological mother gave her a bag of marijuana as a present. Using the drug, and exhibiting the signs of a teen in trouble, caused family friends to recognize that the young girl needed some help.
One family friend in particular, an attendance clerk at a small-town school and a witness for the prosecution, testified how the victim had exhibited signs for several years that something was wrong — this friend suspected molestation but didn’t know how to ask. When the drug use was discovered and intervention held, this friend decided that it was time to ask, “did someone hurt you? You know you can tell us.”
“Was it Keith?” the family friend said she intuitively asked.
The victim told the court she was shocked when her friend asked her, that she even knew who it was.
“I was surprised that someone else knew when I didn’t tell anybody,” the young woman said.
Police were called. An investigation started.
Thoene was arrested by Det. David Boruchowitz, who has handled a number of high-profile cases in Nye County, months later. His interrogation of Thoene is turning out to be a centerpiece of the suspect’s defense. The detective taped almost two hours of interviews with the suspect, who repeatedly denied touching the girl.
Jurors heard about half of the interviews Thursday, with testimony set to resume today.
Boruchowitz’s use of deception in order to coax a confession from Thoene is also on trial, as per the defense’s strategy. The detective indeed is on tape saying some strange things to the suspect, including recounting his own made-up sexual tryst at 17 with an 11-year-old girl.
“We’re human, we f*** up, we do. You and me. It doesn’t matter, OK, when I had sex with some girl as a teenager and she’s 11 and I’m 17, I f***ed up. But you know what I did on my polygraph when they asked have you ever gotten out of anything you haven’t been caught for? I said I f***ed up as a kid. I had sex, I was a teenager, I had sex with a really young girl, I didn’t know. She looked older. I took the consequences and I moved on,” the detective is heard saying.
Boruchowitz’s deception is protected by the U.S. Supreme Court, but could be difficult for some jurors to understand.
Thoene’s attorney Harry Kuehn had this exchange with the detective on the stand:
Kuehn: “Could you tell me, philosophically or tactfully, why a person or you yourself would say you had sex with an 11-year-old?”
Boruchowitz: “Yes, during the interview with your client, unlike most, he seemed to be very familiar with the consequences of the allegations that we were investigating. And he was obviously concerned with being a sex offender or being sent to prison, and I used it as a technique to show him that there was the potential that even though he admitted to these things that he might be able not to go to prison based on his belief that he was going to go to prison.”
Kuehn: “So you thought by telling him you had sex with an 11-year-old that might somehow give Keith an idea that there was a light at the end of the tunnel?”
After court concluded, Kuehn responded to some questions about the defense’s questions. One answer he gave summed up what he hoped to achieve for Thoene.
“These tapes were being played after Boruchowitz indicated that my client admitted that he was lying. Boruchowitz said he was deceptive. He said a couple of other things, too, so the tapes speak louder than Boruchowitz,” the attorney said.
Also under the defense’s sleeve are several other facts about the case that could give jurors obstacles to finding Thoene guilty. Among those is that the victim testified several times that the suspect’s penis was never erect during the sexual assault, which raises questions of how then the man was able to consummate the attack. Also at issue for the prosecution is the timing in the assault — no one, witnesses or victim, can give a reliable date for the assault, only that it occurred in either 2005 or 2006. Another issue to weigh is the possibility, however slight, that the victim dreamt the attack. She testified that she’d had nightmares from age 10 on of talking bears, biting and throwing people around in her sleep.
Asked at one point by Armstrong during re-cross if her rape was a dream, the victim straightened up in her chair on the stand and defiantly answered that it was not.
Thoene stands to spend a long time in prison if convicted. Kuehn said he suspects jurors will get the case by the end of the day today.
Staff writers Selwyn Harris and Kelsey Givens contributed to this report.