Published April 29. 2009 10:42AM
Charles F. Buck's shoulders twitched at the defense table.
A group of women in the courtroom gallery began to weep.
They were listening to a recording in New London Superior Court Tuesday afternoon of 14 phone calls placed to the Buck home at 77 Masons Island Road in Mystic on May 4, 2002, the day that popular schoolteacher Leslie Buck was allegedly murdered by her husband.
The recording came into evidence on the first day of a probable-cause hearing for Buck, 62, who is accused of clubbing his wife in the head with a 20-inch length of thick electrical wire, causing her to fall down a flight of stairs and suffer a fatal head injury.
Senior state's attorneys Lawrence J. Tytla and Paul J. Narducci and inspector Rhett D'Amico are trying to persuade Judge Susan B. Handy that there is enough evidence to prosecute Buck for murder.
The state's team spent the day setting the scene for the judge while prominent Hartford defense attorneys Hubert J. Santos and Hope C. Seeley cross-examined the witnesses in an effort to derail the state's case.
Most of the calls to the Buck residence on that Saturday afternoon nearly seven years ago came from Leslie Buck's friends, who were worried about her in the aftermath of her kidnapping two days earlier, allegedly at the hands of Russell Kirby, a friend of her husband. Leslie Buck had escaped from the kidnapper only to die an apparently violent death two days later.
Her friends and former colleagues from the Deans Mill School in Stonington have remembered Buck each year with memorial events, and a group of women have faithfully attended all of the court proceedings involving Buck and Kirby. A few of them cried when listening to the loving messages they had left for her that day.
Leslie Buck's elderly mother also checked in by phone that afternoon, not knowing that her daughter lay dead at the bottom of a staircase. Two people called Charles Buck about a fire department banquet. And at 3:30 that afternoon, Charles Buck, who said he was working at his nearby office, left a message asking if his wife needed anything. Later, police found two cans of pepper spray on the kitchen table that Buck said he had purchased for his wife that day at her request.
The prosecutors also played a muffled recording of the 911 call Buck placed at 5:38 p.m. after he said he had discovered his "ice cold" wife at the bottom of the staircase.
Stonington police Sgt. Louis Diamanti testified he was in the police department dispatch center when the call came in. He recognized Buck's voice because, he said, he knew Buck, an electrical contractor, from when Buck had been the department's electrician.
"Charlie?" the sergeant asked in the recording.
Talking fast, Buck told the sergeant his wife had fallen down a flight of stairs.
"I think she's dead," Buck said on the recording, which was barely audible. He went on to say that he had just come home and that his wife felt "ice cold." He described "a big red mark on her face where she must have hit something."
Diamanti transferred the call to Groton fire dispatch but stayed on the line. As the call continued, Buck, a volunteer firefighter, told the dispatcher his wife had no pulse and appeared to have been there "a while."
The next witness, retired patrolman Eric Johnson, described how he and an emergency medical technician arrived at the Buck home about a minute after the call came in. They had been in the area searching for a possible drowning victim.
"I observed who I knew to be Mrs. Buck laying at the bottom of the stairs," Johnson testified. "There was a fairly significant amount of blood and (it was) matted in her hair." He said her chest was not moving and her skin was discolored.
The state introduced photographs of the crime scene. At the request of the defense, and with no objection from the state, Judge Handy ordered the pictures sealed after reviewing them and deeming them "quite graphic."
Johnson said that he immediately considered Leslie Buck's death suspicious and sealed the house. He said he knew she had been kidnapped two days earlier and was unaware of any medical problems that might have caused her death.
Paramedic Jeffrey Gray, who "presumed" Leslie Buck dead at 6:05 p.m., testified that based on the condition of her body, which had rigor mortis and lividity, he thought she had been dead for three to four hours.
Edward Gookin and Richard Bedard, then members of the state police Eastern District Major Crime Squad, described how they had documented the scene and processed it for evidence. Gookin said Leslie Buck was lying on her back at the bottom of the staircase, her feet on the bottom step, when he arrived. He said there were no signs of forced entry or a struggle in the house.
Bedard said he went over the staircase and surrounding areas with a high-intensity light, looking for blood stains, hair fibers or other evidence. He said he did not find any, nor did he find a murder weapon. Under cross-examination, he said detectives had not dusted the area for fingerprints. He did not recall why there was no fingerprint dusting.
As the investigation got under way, patrolman Timothy Thornton questioned Charles Buck in the front seat of Thornton's cruiser, then took him to the police department, where Buck complied with a request to write down everything he had done in the past 24 hours. Thornton testified that he had stopped by the Buck house the day before to check on Leslie Buck in the wake of the kidnapping.
The state will continue to present its case Thursday. The hearing will then resume Monday, and again on May 11, if necessary.
Buck has been incarcerated since he was arrested in January. He has mortgaged four Stonington properties, including his home and business, to pay for his defense.