LEWISTON — A Lewiston Town Court justice reversed himself Tuesday afternoon and ordered Niagara County prosecutors to provide him with the mental health records of two of four teenage girls who say they were sexually assaulted by a Lewiston teen during alcohol-fueled parties at a Mountainview Drive home in 2017 and 2018.
Justice Hugh Gee, after first denying a request by attorneys for three adults facing child endangerment and other charges for allegedly “providing and permitting” alcohol to be served and consumed at the teen parties, changed his mind mid-sentence.
“I would like to see the (mental health) records for complainant number one and number two and I’ll determine the timeframe (of any mental health diagnoses) and what issues there are,” Gee said.
Gee instructed First Assistant District Attorney Holly Sloma to have mental health counselors send the records directly to him.
“They are not to go to you or (defense counsel),” Gee warned.
It was the second time that lawyers for Tricia Vacanti, Gary Sullo and Jessica Long had asked Gee to review the mental health records of the two rape victims. In June, Gee denied the review request, made by defense attorney Joel Daniels, who suggested that the victim identified as complainant number one may have confided to a counselor or therapist that she regularly drinks even though she is underage.
“The court has no interest in looking at the mental health records of a minor,” Gee said then.
But on Tuesday, defense attorney Brian Melber disclosed that complaint number one, in a text message with another victim, forensically extracted from their cell phones, claimed that she “used alcohol to the point of being blackout drunk.” Melber said that could make her an unreliable witness at a trial for the three adult defendants.
“That would have a crucial importance for a witness’ ability to accurately report what happened,” Melber said. “As far as theses two witnesses are concerned, their testimony will be critical.”
Vacanti, 47, and Sullo, 53, are facing multiple counts of unlawfully dealing with a minor and endangering the welfare of a child. Long, 39, a friend of the family, has been charged with single counts of unlawfully dealing with a minor and endangering the welfare of a child.
The cases against the adults had been companions to a criminal indictment against Vacanti’s now 18-year-old son Christopher Belter who pleaded guilty in late June to felony charges of third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse and two misdemeanor charges of second-degree sexual abuse for encounters with four teenaged girls that occurred during parties at the family’s home in 2017 and 2018.
He was was placed on two years of interim probation during a sentencing hearing on Aug. 28. Since he was accused of committing the crimes when he was 16 and was first charged in the case when he was 17, Belter remains eligible to be sentenced as a youthful offender, have his records in the case sealed and not have to register as a sex offender.
Belter still faces a sentence of either eight years in prison or 10 years probation or a combination of the two depending on his behavior while he is on interim probation.
Sloma vigorously opposed the defense request. She told Gee whatever mental health diagnoses the two victims had, they did not rise to the level of impacting their credibility.
“There was mental health treatment (for complainant number one),” Sloma said, “but there’s no indication that that that would have any bearing on that witnesses reality or credibility.”
The prosecutor said that complainant number two has had “no formal health treatment.” Sloma said the girl’s parents provided her office with the information on their children’s medical care.
“That door (to review mental heath records) is only opened in the event that the psychiatric history has a bearing on the ability to recall the event and the ability to accurately perceive the incident,” Sloma said.
Sloma told Gee that complainant number one had a mental health diagnosis in December of 2017 and, again, in late July.
“This court was not interested in reviewing the mental health records of girls who are 15 and 16-years-old,” Gee said. “There is very little that has swayed me to change that opinion.”
But Melber, interrupting the judge, disputed that the mental health issues, at least for complainant number one, pre-dated the house parties.
Reading from a transcript of a text message, Melber quoted complainant number one telling complaint number two that she had had three mental health diagnoses by the time she was in eighth grade.
Gee immediately pivoted.
“I’m going to veer from my decision here,” the justice said.
Sloma said she would prepare judicial subpoenas for the records. Melber and Daniels both said the judicial review of the records could take a couple months.