Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Eric Searles - Repeat Sex Offender - Habitual

Eric Searles, who is charged with sexually assaulting a woman at a Concord laundry last week, has moved through New Hampshire courts, jails and homeless shelters since he left a Vermont prison in 1995.

Searles, 45, is being held at the Merrimack County jail on $100,000 cash bail, and he faces multiple charges, including rape, sexual assault, simple assault, false imprisonment, possession of a narcotic and failing to register as a sex offender.

But his prosecution could be complicated. A doctor recently found Searles incompetent to stand trial, which hamstrung prosecutors seeking to keep him in jail and led some to drop charges against him.

If the competency evaluation stands, the criminal charges against Searles will be suspended until he receives treatment to render him competent. If he cannot be found competent within 12 months, the charges cannot continue, and unless Searles is committed to a mental health institution, he'll return to the streets, said Charles Temple, director of Franklin Pierce Law Center's Criminal Practice Clinic.

"When you start dealing with mental illness, there's holes in the system," he said. "We're not equipped really well to deal with mental illness when it involves crime."

A troubled past

Searles's troubles with the police date back to at least 1989, when he was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl he met in Barre, Vt., according to court records.

Searles was with two other men when he met the girl in August 1989. The men asked her if she knew the whereabouts of a party. She said she did and joined them.

Searles drove with the girl and one of his friends to Marshfield Dam, where both men forced her to have sex with them, according to court records. Afterward, they later drove her to a friend's house, and during the ride, the girl took a pen from the dashboard and wrote the car's license plate number on her arm. She reported the incident to the police the next day.

A Vermont jury found Searles guilty of sexual assault, and he was sentenced to 6 to 10 years in prison. He was paroled in June of 1995, and his parole expired in 1998, according to a Vermont corrections official.

Since then, Searles has been arrested for theft, assault, and drug and weapons possession, said Concord City Prosecutor Scott Murray, who rattled off a long list of arrests during Searles's arraignment Monday.

Searles has been convicted on several charges, including felon in possession of a weapon, simple assault and possession of marijuana. In many cases, his sentence was suspended or deferred. He served three months in jail in Manchester after he pleaded no contest to two counts of simple assault; his sentence was 12 months with nine months suspended.

In 2005, the Hillsborough County attorney charged Searles with failing to register as a sex offender, a felony punishable by 3½ to 7 years in prison, said Michael Valentine, an assistant Hillsborough County attorney. Before Searles went to trial for the matter, he was arrested in Bedford on two counts of simple assault.

In June 2007, Dr. James Adams, the state's chief forensic examiner who performs most of the state's competency evaluations, found Searles incompetent to stand trial. Adams did, however, find that Searles was "restorable," meaning he could face the charges if he were treated and found competent within 12 months.

Prosecutors dropped the charges in Bedford in September, but Valentine put his case on hold pending a second evaluation by Adams.

In the meantime, Searles has been arrested twice for sexually assaulting two homeless women.

'Unlikely' prosecution

Searles's family, including his brother, his ex-wife and his children, live in Manchester, according to the public defender representing him, Robin Wight. But he has most recently stayed in hotels and homeless shelters, including New Horizons, a Manchester shelter where he met a woman who accused him of rape in November.

The woman told the police that she and Searles became friends at the shelter and, after spending a day together, booked a room at the Hooksett Kozy Seven Motel on Londonderry Turnpike, according to a police affidavit.

The woman told the police that she took a shower and fell asleep, according to a police affidavit. She awoke to find Searles on top of her. Searles told the police that the act was consensual, an account the woman denied.

The police charged him with aggravated felonious sexual assault and possession of crack cocaine. He was ordered held on $7,000 cash bail, but it was reduced to personal recognizance bail Dec. 12, soon after his lawyer raised the issue of competency, according to court records.

Before his release in December, Searles informed the Hooksett District Court that he lived at Welch Farms in Goffstown, where he had lived for 11 years and worked for 12. When asked about his previous criminal history, Searles said he "could not remember," according to a pretrial release questionnaire.

Searles was told to report to the court for a hearing Feb. 4.

When the court sent him a notice informing him that records of his competency assessment would be released to prosecutors, the letter was returned. A handwritten note on the envelope says, "Eric Searles doesn't live at this address and never did. Please note."

Hooksett Police Chief Stephen Agrafiotis said he could not comment on the case as the charges are still pending.

Wight, who represented Searles for the charges in Hooksett, said in court that it is "unlikely" prosecutors will go forward with the charges.

Fred Robinson, director of New Horizons for New Hampshire, said registered sex offenders are not permitted to stay at the shelter for more than a few nights. Anyone who stays for more than two nights must meet with a caseworker who will check the sex offender registry. The shelter houses about 80 people each night, including women and children, which makes it an "inappropriate" place for someone accused of a sex crime to stay, Robinson said.

Open shelter

But at Concord's winter shelter at First Congregational Church, no criminal check is performed, and so long as the person isn't violent or does not drink alcohol while on church property, he or she can stay, said the Rev. Jean O'Bresky, who directs the shelter.

"The credo of our shelter is that everyone deserves a warm and safe place to stay at night," she said.

Searles met a woman at the Concord shelter who said he assaulted her at Suds Appeal Laundromat on Washington Street two weeks ago.

The woman and a homeless man had volunteered to do the shelter's laundry and went to the laundry about 9 a.m. Jan. 4., according to a police affidavit. Within minutes of their arrival, Searles entered the laundry. He had no clothes with him, according to the affidavit.

Searles pinned the woman up against a wall near the dryers and forced her to kiss him, according to the affidavit. He told her he wanted to have sex with her. The woman, who is small, said no and tried to push away Searles, who is 6-foot-1 and weighs 235 pounds.

The woman eventually freed herself and moved toward the washers, according to the affidavit. Searles pursued her, pushed her against a wall and fondled her; he continued to tell her he wanted to have sex, the affidavit said. The woman said no and tried to push him away again, but she was overpowered, according to the affidavit.

The other homeless man looked over and saw what was happening. He stood up "in a confrontational manner," according to the police affidavit. Searles left.

At Searles's arraignment in Concord District Court, Murray asked Judge Gerald Boyle to hold Searles on $25,000 cash bail on each of four misdemeanor charges: sexual assault, simple assault, false imprisonment and breach of bail.

Wight asked Boyle for a low-cash bail, calling the laundry incident a "miscommunication." She said Searles was staying at the Concord shelter to be nearer to her office so they could work on his cases.

She said Searles worked part time for a tree service in Manchester and also worked odd jobs, shoveling snow off of roofs. He needs to work in order to pay child support to his children, she said. He is also receiving drug-and-alcohol counseling.

Searles, who was arraigned via video, told Boyle that he saw it was snowing outside and he had customers who depend on him. He said he was "in a situation right now that I didn't do, but . . . it's pretty hard to get myself out of this."

Boyle took Murray's recommendation and set bail at $100,000 cash, citing concerns with the number of charges against Searles.

Officer Jim Mull, who interviewed Searles on Monday for Merrimack County Pretrial Services, wrote that he could not complete the interview, because "I did not trust this client with my own safety," according to his report.

Mull declined to discuss the interview, and Roger Amadon, the director of the pretrial services program, said he could not comment on Searles.

A trial management conference for Searles is scheduled for Feb. 20.

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