Gilford police investigate the scene at the end of the Gilford Bypass, where Stephen Price of Belmont was found in a Ford Focus. He was pronounced dead at Lakes Region General Hospital. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
Stephen Price, 66, of Belmont went missing on final day of trial, found in Gilford swamp
By BEA LEWIS, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The rape trial of a Belmont man took a tragic twist when the defendant failed to return to the courthouse after lunch and was later found dead.
Reliable sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Stephen Price, 66, has been identified as the victim of a fatal motor vehicle accident at the Route 3 end of the Gilford Bypass, that was reported at 1:06 p.m. The circumstances surrounding the crash remain under investigation.
Price's death came at the end of testimony on charges he had sexually assaulted a now 34-year-old woman when she was between 13 and 17 years old. Her allegations came to light after she was charged with stealing jewelry valued at $13,700 from a safe in Price's bedroom. On the day she was to plead guilty to the felony theft, the woman disclosed the alleged abuse to her attorney, sparking the investigation. She was given immunity for the criminal charges so she could testify against Price. The crux of the defense's case was that the woman made up the allegations to avoid jail.
Price had attended all seven days of testimony at Belknap County Superior Court, including Thursday morning, but never came back after the proceedings recessed at 11:15 a.m. and were to resume at 1 p.m.
Three minutes after Price was due back in court, Belmont Police advised their counterparts in Gilford that an officer had been trying to stop a green 2005 Ford Focus SUV that was being driven recklessly through a construction zone on Route 3/11 Bypass. Traveling northbound, the driver left the bypass at the Gilford Avenue then immediately re-entered it by way of the northbound on-ramp. As he approached the hairpin curve at the end of the bypass at high speed, he drove through the reflective barriers and a chain link fence, then over an embankment, before coming to a stop. The Belmont officer abandoned his pursuit, switching off his emergency lights and siren, about a half-mile from where the Ford Focus crashed.
Finding Price in critical condition, emergency personnel from the Gilford Fire Department requested the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team. The helicopter arrived at approximately 1:58 p.m., but was forestalled from assisting further by adverse weather conditions. Price was taken by ambulance to Lakes Region General Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
Back at the Belknap County Superior Court, the jury was kept waiting for about 45 minutes Thursday before the prosecutor and the defense attorney met with the judge behind closed doors to discuss Price's absence. The judge then decided to allow closing arguments and said the jury would begin its deliberations despite the missing man.
Defense attorney Jim Moir said he has never had a client go missing during a trial. Moir had earlier rested his case, after calling just two witnesses.
At the close of his case, Moir argued outside the earshot of the jury that one of the indictments should be dismissed maintaining the alleged victim failed to testify in sufficient detail that sexual penetration had occurred.
Moir also argued for all four of the charges to be dismissed, as the prosecutor did not ask the alleged victim whether she was ever married to the defendant.
After asking whether the alleged victim was available to be recalled to the witness stand, the judge told the jury they could take a leisurely lunch and return in an hour and 45 minutes. Price never returned, and his cell phone had been left in his wife's car. Once notified of Price's death, the jury was dismissed.
Gilford police and the Belknap Regional Accident Investigation Team are investigating the incident and additional details are being withheld until their investigation is complete.
– Michael Kitch also contributed to this story.
The vehicle crashed through this gate and left few marks. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
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