|Gary Dodds said after a crash that he nearly drowned before his rescue 27 hours later from snowy woods. A jury did not believe him. (Mike Ross/Associated Press)|
Candidate faked disappearance, jury finds
Incident staged to boost campaign, prosecutors said
DOVER, N.H. - A Rye businessman was convicted yesterday of faking his disappearance after a car crash two years ago to draw attention to his long-shot congressional campaign.
A jury convicted Gary Dodds of falsifying evidence, causing a false public alarm, and leaving the scene of the April 2006 crash. He showed no emotion as the verdicts were read in Strafford County Superior Court after one day of deliberations and a 15-day trial.
Though Dodds faces up to seven years in prison for what County Attorney Thomas Velardi called "one of the biggest frauds of 2006," whether he lands in prison is somewhat beside the point, the prosecutor said.
"He stole money essentially from the people of New Hampshire, and we seek to recoup that money," Velardi said.
Dodds, 43, said he injured his head in a crash on the Spaulding Turnpike and nearly drowned in a river before being rescued 27 hours later from the snowy woods. Prosecutors say he spent part of that time soaking his feet in cold water to make it appear that he spent the night outdoors, all to boost his faltering campaign.
"He had a story that he was going to stick to," Velardi said during closing arguments Friday. "It would have been a heroic story. It would have been a great story - all the people who hadn't heard of him before . . . really would have known who he was."
Except for his shoes and socks, Dodds' clothing was dry when he was rescued. His feet were purple and wrinkled, but the rest of his skin was pink and dry. An expert in cold weather injuries testified that must have resulted from Dodds soaking his feet in cold water for a prolonged period.
Prosecutors allege that Dodds was desperate for money after having spent nearly double the amount his wife had agreed to and taking out two mortgages on their home to finance his campaign. But defense lawyers said bank records show the mortgages were used to pay for property renovations and there was no reason for Dodds to stage the crash.
"What the state has done is they've taken innocent facts and infused them with dark and sinister meanings," defense lawyer J.P. Nadeau told jurors Friday.
Nadeau said he was disappointed in the verdict and would consider an appeal.
Under instructions from his lawyers, Dodds left the courthouse quickly without comment. But on the witness stand, he insisted he could remember almost nothing of his ordeal - including about 40 minutes before the crash - other than crossing the river, walking up a hill, and then covering himself with leaves on the ground.
Velardi said one of the difficulties of the case was that Dodds's story raised so many questions that he and his co-prosecutor were unable to answer.
"If you had to be reliant on Gary Dodds for the answers to some of these questions, we were pretty confident that those questions would never be answered, at least not truthfully," he said. "If I had to guess I would say this jury was not impressed with . . . [Dodds's] own testimony."
During the trial, defense lawyers argued that police brought charges against Dodds to cover up their bungled investigation. Aside from a few officers who searched the night of the crash, authorities did not launch a large-scale search until the next morning.
Dodds remains free on bail until his sentencing, in about 45 days. Velardi said he wasn't sure what he will recommend, but pointed out that Dodds earlier rejected a plea deal in which he would have avoided prison time if he had pleaded guilty to the least serious crime - leaving the scene - apologized, and repaid the state the $20,000 it spent on the search.
Velardi said a restitution-only sentence might no longer be appropriate, given the lengthy trial "in which a reasonable person can conclude that members of the defense witness list did not testify truthfully."
Dodds continued campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the First Congressional District after the crash but came in third in the four-way primary.