Published May 12. 2009 4:00AM
He called her "Sweetheart." She called him "Honey." He bought her a car, a house and a diamond ring, but she insisted they were "just friends."
Carol Stevens, the younger woman who police say motivated Charles F. Buck to allegedly murder his wife seven years ago, testified in New London Superior Court Monday that she did not believe Buck killed his wife, Leslie. She said she still considers him a friend and has written to him in prison.
Stevens, who was known as Carol Perez when she tended bar at the Drawbridge Inn in Mystic in 2002, spent six hours on the witness stand as a probable cause hearing continued in the Leslie Buck murder case. She mostly avoided looking at Buck, who sat at the defense table with his attorneys. She spoke so softly the judge told her several times to speak up, and she sprinkled her testimony with "ums" and "I don't recalls."
Buck, 62, is charged with clubbing his wife in the head on May 4, 2002, causing her to fall down a flight of stairs and suffer a fatal head injury. A recurring theme in the case is the electrical contractor's generosity with the bartender, who, when asked Monday how old she was in 2002, answered "30-something."
Buck bought Stevens a laptop computer, digital camera and a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. He paid for the insurance. She traded in the car a few months later for an SUV, and Buck paid for that as well.
"How did you pay for that?" prosecutor Lawrence J. Tytla asked time after time.
"I didn't pay for it," Stevens responded. "Charlie did."
Buck purchased a PlayStation console for Stevens' children, and a bed. Three months after Leslie Buck died, he bought Stevens a $235,000 house in Westbrook. He paid for the furniture that she picked out at Ethan Allen. He presented her with necklaces, bracelets and rings, including a diamond. When she needed knee surgery for what she described as "a sports injury," Buck footed the bill.
"We had like a friendship relationship," Stevens said after describing how Buck would come into the bar, order a Diet Coke and talk to her. They would talk to each other about their day and sometimes, Stevens said, Buck would tell her about his wife.
"What did he tell you?" asked the prosecutor.
"She was mean to him sometimes," Stevens said. "She was just rude to him."
She said Buck told her "that in public they would seem happy, but they weren't really happy." One time, Buck had a cut on his hand and his wife told him "that she wished he would die or something," Stevens testified.
Stonington police suspected foul play immediately when Buck called them to his home at 77 Masons Island Road on that Saturday afternoon in May 2002. Leslie Buck, a popular schoolteacher who is memorialized with several events in town each year, had been kidnapped two days before her death. She had escaped from her alleged captor - a handyman who sometimes worked for her husband - only to die in her home of blunt trauma to the head.
Police quickly learned of Buck's obsession with Stevens and enlisted her to attempt to coax a murder confession out of Buck. They recorded at least two phone conversations between Stevens and Buck in the days after Leslie Buck's death and she wore a wire to his house in January 2003. Judge Susan B. Handy, who is hearing the case and will decide whether the state has enough evidence to prosecute Buck for murder, ordered all of the recordings sealed "until the case goes to trial" but allowed the recordings to be played in court.
Buck denied harming his wife in all of the conversations. He speculated that his wife had tripped over her own feet and fell. He told Stevens to downplay the gifts he had purchased and said he was just "helping her out" because she was having a rough time.
"I'm a friend, that's all," Buck said.
In another recording, Buck said he was on his way to meet with attorney Donald Beebe. Stevens asked Buck why he had said earlier that he was going to hurt himself.
"I'd rather be dead than spend the rest of my life in jail," Buck said. He had learned that somebody overheard him at the bar saying that he was going to liquidate his assets. He also had asked Stevens to run away with him.
"Why do you need a lawyer if you're innocent?" Stevens asked.
"Because if they charge me with something, then I'm in deep (expletive)," Buck responded.
He said he feared that Russell Kirby, the handyman who allegedly kidnapped his wife, might tell police that Buck had hired him to kill Leslie Buck if police told Kirby he could shorten his prison sentence.
Buck has been held on $2 million bond since he was arrested on Jan. 22. Kirby, whose conviction in the kidnapping was overturned, is still in prison awaiting a retrial.
The state plans to call three or four more witnesses when the probable cause hearing resumes on May 26 and May 28.