Five Questions – Part 3

Parts of this post were used in Aggravated. This is the third post of five questions/items that were part of a chapter in Aggravated. In that chapter I answered and/or explained all five in just a few paragraphs, so these are just more detailed breakdowns of the reasoning behind those answers. If you’ve already read the book you can just skip these posts unless you want the extra detail. If you missed the earlier posts, and want to read them in order, start with, When Was the Rodeo? Here’s the third question.

Did Rhonda Already Know Who Steve Was?

Why is This Question Important? This should be simple to answer, but a comparison of Rhonda’s answers to Hanna’s still might not clear things up entirely.

During Trial #1, Elmer Ross asked Rhonda Bresnick how she knew Steve. She said, “A friend of the Belisle family.” He asked her if she had ever been to Steve’s house. She said, “No.” He asked her how she knew that Hanna knew Steve. Rhonda said, “She came to our house every day after school, and they mentioned him on several occasions.” When Ross asked her who “they” was, Rhonda said, “Hanna and her brother, Aaron.”

[According to Rhonda, Hanna and Aaron were at her house every day after school, and they mentioned Steve’s name. Did she say the same thing in the next trial?]

In Trial #2, Ross asked Hanna if Rhonda had ever met Steve before the night of the rodeo. Hanna said, “She met him very few times. He had come over to her house, where I was spending most of my time, and picked us up to take us out to his house.”

[When Hanna said that Rhonda met Steve when he picked “us” up at Rhonda’s and took “us” to his house, what impression did that give the jury? What person is missing from Hanna’s statement?]

When Rhonda’s turn came in Trial #2, Ross asked her how she knew the defendant. She again said, “He’s a friend of the Belisle family.” He asked her if she had ever been to Steve’s. She again said, “No.” He asked her how she knew he was a friend of Hanna’s family. Rhonda said, “He came to pick Hanna up from my house several times.” He asked her if she remembered when that happened. She said, “Not exactly.” He gave her a range of dates, “Would this have been one, two, three, four, five years ago?” She answered, “Probably around three years ago, three or four.” Establishing a baseline for the dates, he said, “So, sometime in 2003, 2004, in that area?” Rhonda agreed, saying, “Yes.” Ross then asked her how many times she had seen Steve before he took them home from the rodeo. Rhonda said, “Two or three.” He asked her, “And where had you seen him before?” She answered, “I had seen him at my house picking Hanna up.” He said, “You had only seen him in connection with picking up Hanna?” Rhonda said, “Yes, sir.”

[Ross tried to give Rhonda enough space to say Steve had been at her house as early as 2001, but she gave him “2003, 2004” instead. Did you notice the big change in Rhonda’s story from Trial #1 to Trial #2, though, and who was still missing from both Rhonda’s and Hanna’s stories?]

Maybe Steve can clear that up. Here’s part of a 2016 phone conversation. When I told him what Hanna and Rhonda had said above, he said, “There’s only one time that I ever went anywhere near Rhonda’s house besides the night that I dropped her off.” I asked him if he was picking Hanna and Aaron up. He said, “Yes. And it was me and Robin.” I asked him why both he and Robin were picking them up. Steve said, “I don’t remember if Darla had us pick her up. That would have been unusual too. If anything, we might have been going somewhere and dropping her off [at Rhonda’s]. You know, I don’t really remember. If we were going somewhere, the kids would have been with us.” I pushed for a little more information. “But Rhonda says that you came there to pick Hanna up.” Steve replied, “I might have, Mike, but I just don’t know. Unless me and Robin just happened to be in town, and were going somewhere, you know, but as far as us being together from work, we go separately to work, so that wouldn’t have been it. We were both there, so it was either Darla caused us to go pick her up, or we dropped her off to get rid of her, one of the two.”

[Rhonda said he had been to her house two or three times before the rodeo. Steve said it was only once before then, but Rhonda did know that Steve was a friend of the Belisle/Penderfield family. Let’s see who they left out of the equation.]

Analysis: According to Rhonda, when Steve arrived at the rodeo to pick them up, she did know who he was. In Trial #1, Rhonda said that Hanna and Aaron were at her house “every day after school, and they mentioned” Steve “on several occasions.” Hanna said that Rhonda “met him very few times,” but added, “He had come over to her house, where I was spending most of my time, and picked us up to take us out to his house.” If the Trial #2 jury didn’t know that Aaron was there too (and I don’t know how they would from Hanna’s testimony), they could easily have interpreted that statement to mean that Steve brought Hanna and Rhonda to his house, not Hanna and Aaron. Steve’s lawyer did clarify that statement later, but why didn’t Henry Ross do it right then? He should have known that Hanna meant her and Aaron, not her and Rhonda. Allowing the jury to believe that Steve had picked the two girls up and taken them to his house, would have been far more damaging to Steve than letting the jury think that Rhonda had only seen him a few times.

What Steve told me wasn’t heard by either jury. While Hanna and Rhonda both said that Steve had been to Rhonda’s house “two or three” times, Steve said that it had only been once before the night of the rodeo, and Robin was with him. He said that “either Darla caused us to go pick her up, or we dropped her off to get rid of her, one of the two.” If that seems a little cruel, it was just Steve expressing himself honestly. From everything I’ve heard, Hanna was a handful, always wanting to be the center of attention, sometimes whining and petulant, having constant arguments with her mother, not very pleasant to be around. Maybe they dropped her off at Rhonda’s because Darla wasn’t home yet, but Steve doesn’t remember.

One of the odd things in Rhonda’s note is that Steve’s name isn’t used in it once. She simply referred to him as “the man who picked us up,” and then just as “he.” Not “Mr. Sirois,” or “your mom’s friend, Steve,” just “the man.” She testified that she had already met him by the time of the rodeo, and said that Hanna and Aaron had talked about him, and said that she knew he was a family friend. Why not identify him in the note? Were Hanna, Rhonda and Darla that unsure of how the note would be received when it was being composed? Yes, I still believe it was possible that Rhonda may not have written the note herself. The main point, though, is that Rhonda had seen Steve at least once, but not much more than that. In the trials, Hanna tried to make it seem like they had met each other often, planting as many seeds of doubt about Steve’s intentions as she could.

Throw enough mud at a wall and some of it will stick.

 Conclusion: Rhonda already knew who Steve was, but hadn’t met him as many times as Hanna had claimed. Steve was a person whose name Rhonda had heard “mentioned,” and she had seen him once when he and Robin either dropped Hanna and Aaron off at her house or picked them up. Tracing the differences in Hanna’s and Rhonda’s stories shows how poorly they coordinated their tales, and that at least one of them likely was lying. Steve gave them a ride that night because Darla asked him to. Darla and Steve might still be friends today if Hanna hadn’t accused him of this. Of course, if Hanna hadn’t named Steve as her abuser, a whole host of other circumstances in Steve’s life, and his family’s, would be drastically different. Yes, Rhonda knew who Steve was, but just barely.

Michael Sirois

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