Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Suspended trooper found not guilty

Gula could return to restricted duty today

March 20. 2014 11:30PM

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WILKES-BARRE — Five times the words rang out: “Not guilty.”

After more than five hours of deliberations, a Luzerne County jury on Thursday afternoon acquitted suspended state trooper Carrie Ann Gula of all five counts she had been facing in a bitter domestic dispute with an ex-boyfriend nearly two years ago, causing some at the back of the courtroom to let out jubilant cheers.

Gula, grateful yet subdued, had few words for reporters as she left court, expressing a desire to pick up where her career left off in 2012.

“I just had a jury of 12 of my peers find me not guilty. I’m happy for that,” she said. “I’m looking to get back to work as soon as possible. I’m just happy it’s over.”

That could come as early as today, a state police spokeswoman said Thursday night.

“She will return on restricted duty, possibly tomorrow,” state police Press Secretary Maria A. Finn wrote in an e-mail.

Gula, 36, of West Pittston, stood accused of illegally accessing then-boyfriend Eric Thomas’ My Verizon Internet account as their relationship was spiralling toward its close, then fabricating a story about Thomas assaulting her to tell state police who were investigating the case.

The charges against her were unlawful use of a computer, criminal use of a communication facility, false reports (falsely incriminating another), false reports (reported offense did not occur) and unsworn falsification to authorities.

“The Commonwealth felt that it had a strong case, and we are obviously disappointed with the outcome, but we respect the decision of the jury,” Assistant District Attorney Jenny Roberts told reporters.

Gula was represented by attorney Joseph Nocito, and the three-day proceeding was held before county Judge Lesa Gelb.


Under testimony, it emerged that the on-again, off-again relationship between Gula and Thomas had been dogged by Gula’s concerns that Thomas was still seeing other women, and her desire that Thomas not maintain his friendship with an individual who was known to have drug ties.

At the same time, Thomas frequently spoke of “not wanting any trouble,” suggesting that confrontation and arguments also were a factor. For example, Thomas said he inexplicably found his own handwritten password memo notes in Gula’s home, but quietly took them back without telling her, “to keep the peace.”

Nocito, in his opening statement Tuesday, termed the pair “two rather immature people” who didn’t belong in a relationship, but urged jurors to look past the Commonwealth’s anticipated strategy of portraying Gula as “the crazy jealous girlfriend.”

Roberts, meanwhile, advised jurors that “there were trust issues in this relationship,” using Gula’s own phrase. Those trust issues exploded after Thomas accused Gula of “playing with my account” on Aug. 1, 2012. and changed his Verizon password, the prosecutor said.

“She liked to check up on him. When she couldn’t, she freaked out,” Roberts said, pointing out during cross-examination of Gula how she had called her boyfriend more than a dozen times the day after a scuffle that Gula said left her shaken, humiliated and vowing that Thomas would never “put a finger” on her again.

Another key point: Thomas testified he changed the password himself, after receiving an e-mail from Verizon to a work account, which he believed was an indication his various accounts had been “linked” or otherwise changed. Nocito pointed out this e-mail was just an advertisement.

And Thomas admitted he lied to Gula about changing his own password, and initially did not tell police that he had changed it himself.

Gula testified that prior to Aug. 1, 2012, she had “complete access to his account,” with Thomas’ blessing, an arrangement he previously agreed to as a means of building trust after they reunited following a break-up.

“Why would I change a password I already have?” asked Gula, who said that she never accessed the account without Thomas’ knowledge after the change on Aug. 1 — save for what Gula believed was an accidental failed log-in attempt when the account was already called up on her browser following an earlier conversation about the matter at Thomas’ home.

The scuffle

What happened at Thomas’ Exeter home the night of Aug. 1, 2012, was the other major focus of the case.

Gula, who was then assigned to the state police Fern Ridge barracks in Blakeslee, said she requested two hours’ leave from work that night, ostensibly for family matters, but instead headed to Thomas’ house, where she intended to pick up personal items. Gula, who had a key, let herself in while Thomas was in the shower. She testified she went into the bathroom and talked about the password issue, and that when Thomas thought he was touching her phone he lept out of the shower and began chasing her, an incident that ended with him manhandling her and spitting on her uniform. She said she kicked him to get away.

Thomas maintains he heard a noise, came down to his kitchen to find Gula trying to leave with his phone, and when he tried to take it back she began attacking him.

Roberts underscored not just the differences between those two stories, but inconsistencies between Gula’s account in court and what three other law enforcement officers — her supervisor, the investigating trooper and a Luzerne County investigator to whom she turned for advice — said Gula told them. None mentioned the fight starting in the bathroom, Roberts pointed out. Gula said she didn’t think that aspect relevant at the time.

The investigation

State police determined that Gula’s story was not supported by their investigation, which included interviews with her and Thomas and a visit to Thomas’ home.

Nocito at trial homed in on questions of Thomas’ credibility, noting he was not honest with state police about changing his password, waited nearly a month to submit a written statement and made other changes to the Verizon account while the investigation was underway.

Thomas maintained that Gula spoke with him after the incident, told him she might be pregnant and told him that nothing would happen if he did not make a statement. He also said he did not want to get her in trouble, especially if she was pregnant with his child.

Gula said she never told Thomas to lie.

Trooper Lisa Brogan, with the criminal investigation unit at state police Troop P in Wyoming, testified Thomas told her he did not change his password, saying she believed he was not lying but confused about questions related to the account.

It was Gula who would face charges, not Thomas. She was placed on restricted duty on Aug. 9, 2012, then arrested in December 2012, since which time Gula has been suspended without pay.

Nocito’s defense suggested the charges were predicated on incorrect statements Thomas told police, notably his false denial about changing the Verizon password himself. Nocito also focused on what he suggested was a significant use of police and court resources to prosecute what he termed a “he said, she said” dispute between lovers that did not belong in criminal court.

Roberts disagreed, in her opening and closing statements and in speaking to reporters after trial.

“It is always necessary for law enforcement to spend time on allegations of domestic violence,” Roberts said, adding that “The Commonwealth is confident that the investigators in this case did a superb job” throughout the entire investigation.

‘Back to work’

Deliberations began at about 11:45 a.m. Thursday. Jurors returned to the courtroom twice, requesting to review Gula’s statement to Brogan; as well as to seek clarification about the charges and guidance on assessing the defendant’s credibility. The verdict was read shortly after 5 p.m.

Thomas, who sat through most of the trial after serving as the opening prosecution witness, declined to speak to a reporter when approached on Tuesday, and did not speak to the media when leaving court after Thursday’s verdict.

“I’m very happy for Carrie,” Nocito said as he stood next to his client outside court. “All she wants to do is get this behind her and close out this period of her life.”

“Hopefully, she will be able to get back to work soon,” he said.

While Gula acknowledged the jury’s role, her mother gave thanks to a higher power as crowds streamed out of the courtroom.

“God answered our prayers, believe me he did,” Mary Lou Gula said. “He knew the truth.”

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