Published June 09. 2009 4:00AM
Did Charlie Buck's "raging infatuation" with a younger woman motivate him to murder his wife of 20 years? Or, was Leslie Buck even murdered at all?
A New London judge listened to closing arguments from attorneys for the state and Buck Monday as a probable-cause hearing concluded in New London Superior Court. Buck, a 62-year-old electrical contractor, is charged with killing his wife on May 4, 2002, the day her lifeless body was discovered at the bottom of a staircase in their Mystic home.
During a hearing that began in late April and took place over seven non-consecutive days, prosecutors have attempted to convince Judge Susan B. Handy that there is enough evidence to prosecute Buck for his wife's death. Handy said she would review some 70 pages of notes before structuring her decision and reading it from the bench on July 2.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Lawrence J. Tytla pointed to Buck's "raging infatuation" with bartender Carol Perez (now Carol Stephens) and Buck's behavior before and after his wife's death seven years ago as a motive for murder.
Defense attorney Hubert J. Santos contended there is no proof that a murder even occurred. He hypothesized that Leslie Buck fell down the stairs after being weakened by being kidnapped two days earlier.
Stonington police arrested Buck in January, nearly seven years after his schoolteacher wife died and long after his relationship with Perez came to an end.
The state has an admittedly circumstantial case against Buck, since the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said it could not determine the manner of her death.
Dr. Malka Shah, a now-retired medical examiner, conducted an autopsy and said Leslie Buck suffered a fatal head injury, but added that the manner of her death could not be determined. The state never recovered a murder weapon, though police contend that Charles Buck struck his wife on the forehead with a heavy length of electrical wire, causing her to fall on the stairs and suffer the fatal injury.
The state presented evidence that Buck spent well over $250,000 on Perez, who was a bartender at the DrawBridge Inne in downtown Mystic. Buck showered Perez with gifts, including two cars, and after his wife's death purchased her a $15,000 diamond engagement ring and a $235,000 home.
"This was excess beyond excess," Tytla said.
Witnesses testified they had heard Buck talking about leaving his wife and running away with Perez. Buck also allegedly talked to restaurant employee Ralph Hill about having Perez's former boyfriend killed.
Perez cooperated with the police investigation as they tried to coax a confession out of him in the days after Leslie Buck's death. During their taped phone conversations, Buck urged Perez to downplay the extent of their relationship but denied any wrongdoing with respect to his wife's death.
The state chronicled Buck's whereabouts on the day of his wife's death and contends that he killed her at about 2 p.m. after the two returned from a visit to her mother's house. Buck said he went to his office to do paperwork at 2:05, but a police search turned up no ledger entries or checks made out for that day.
The next time Buck was seen was after 3 p.m., when he stopped at the Quiambaug Fire Department, where he served as a volunteer. Witnesses said they saw Buck at the True Value hardware store at about 4:06 p.m. and at the DrawBridge Inne at about 5 p.m. He called 911 from his home at 5:38 p.m. to report that he had found his wife "ice cold" at the bottom of the stairs. He seemed reluctant when a dispatcher suggested he perform CPR.
"What I heard was someone who knew his wife was dead ... but doesn't say it," Tytla said. Also, he said, Buck had left a message on the home answering machine at 3:30 p.m. containing information that his wife would already know.
"I contend the intended recipient of the message was not Leslie Buck," Tytla said. "It was for whoever responded to investigate her death."
The defense said the police "from the get-go" considered Buck a suspect because Leslie Buck had allegedly been kidnapped two days earlier by Russell Kirby, a longtime acquaintance and sometime employee of Charles Buck. Kirby, whose kidnapping conviction was overturned, is in prison awaiting a retrial. If Buck had anything to do with the kidnapping, Kirby could get a "get-out-of-jail-free" card within hours by telling authorities, Santos said.
Santos said the police tried to circumvent the state medical examiner's findings by talking to another top medical examiner, but even that doctor could not make a finding that Leslie Buck had been murdered. He said the autopsy showed she had a heart condition and that she complained of chest pains after she had been kidnapped. He said she died of a heart condition "on the top or middle or bottom of the stairs."
"She got dizzy on the stairs," Santos said. "She fell down. She got back up. She fell down again."
Santos said that Buck, like many married people, was attracted to somebody else but loved his wife. He asked the judge to dismiss the murder charge.
"This gentleman has been locked up since January on a $2.5 million bond on a case where it's in serious doubt whether a crime has been committed," Santos said.
In rendering a decision, Handy must determine whether there is probable cause that the crime was committed and probable cause that Buck was the perpetrator. If she finds there is probable cause, Buck may opt for a trial, at which the state would have the higher burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.