April 29, 2022 | VT Digger
Tiffany Tan, Reporter
WATERBURY, Vt. (VTDigger) – The woman who accused a former New York police officer in what is considered Vermont’s longest-lasting prosecution received an award Friday that recognized her “perseverance and courage” in pursuing child sexual assault charges dating from 1987.
Michele Dinko, 47, of New York received the survivor/activist award from the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services during the state agency’s annual awards event. Dinko’s award honors a survivor of crime who has used their experience to promote change and better outcomes for other survivors, according to event organizers.
Prosecutors who’ve worked on Dinko’s case in the last couple of years nominated her, commending her “refusal to give up” through more than three decades.
“Michele’s 35-year quest for justice will serve as an inspiration to other victims of violent crime,” Bennington County Deputy State’s Attorney Linda Purdy, the case’s lead prosecutor, said during the remote gathering on Friday morning.
“We now owe it to Michele and all victims to learn from the extreme injustices that occurred in her case and do better to improve victims’ participation in the process,” Purdy said.
As a 12-year-old, Dinko reported having been sexually assaulted by Leonard Forte – the father of a classmate – when she joined his family at their Landgrove vacation home in February 1987. Forte, then 45, was a retired police investigator in New York.
The following year, he was convicted by a Bennington County jury on three charges of sexual assault, each punishable by up to 20 years in prison. But the presiding judge, the late Theodore Mandeville, granted Forte’s request for a new trial in 1989, saying the female prosecutor had prejudiced the jury by being overly emotional.
After years of unsuccessfully appealing Mandeville’s decision, the state decided to recharge Forte in 1997. The case, however, remained in limbo for the next two decades while Forte continually claimed to be too sick to return to Vermont and stand trial.
Forte’s prosecution regained steam in 2020, after USA Today published an investigative piece that called into question his claims of a terminal illness. Vermont prosecutors also brought new felony charges of obstruction of justice, accusing Forte of having lied about his health condition.
All these years, Dinko maintained her willingness to testify again in court.
Last summer, the new presiding judge, Cortland Corsones, ruled that Forte was physically competent to undergo a new trial. The Bennington Superior Court provisionally scheduled a retrial for this spring — until news came in December that Forte died of natural causes at his home in Florida.
The judge dismissed Forte’s charges, but decided to keep the files open as a public record of Dinko’s experience with the criminal justice system and that of a “unique” case in Vermont’s legal history.
In a hearing before the judge issued his decision, Dinko asked that the case be kept unsealed so people can learn from past mistakes in the legal system. “This is my last fight for what is right,” she said from the witness stand.
After accepting the survivor/activist award on Friday, Dinko thanked the case’s previous and most recent prosecutors, her victim advocate Amy Farr, the USA Today reporter who refocused attention on her case as well as her family members.
“I hope this case can help other victims not to give up the fight and realize that they are important and need to be heard,” she said. “I know, somehow, the justice system will never let this happen again.”
An emergency room nurse, Dinko said she plans to become a sexual assault nurse examiner in a few years. Through this role, Dinko said in an interview, she hopes to make sexual assault victims “less scared” and “more comfortable” through the medical examination.
In an interview ahead of the Friday event, Dinko said she was surprised and touched to learn she would be receiving an award. She said word of it came bundled with another piece of good news: Forte’s attorneys decided not to appeal the judge’s decision to keep the case files open.
“I was very happy about that,” she said. “I liked that they had some kind of heart and cared and didn’t want to go on with this anymore.”
Another awardee was Bennington County victim advocate Tammy Loveland, who received the career achievement award.
A victim advocate with the local prosecutor’s office for 25 years, Loveland was described by Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage as a comforting physical presence, a fount of institutional knowledge and a fierce champion of crime victims.
“Tammy has listened to absolutely heart-wrenching situations that victims have been through,” Marthage said. “She has always worked tirelessly for victims even when sometimes they really don’t want to be involved with the court process.”
Loveland said hearing she has made a difference in the lives of victims is what has sustained her through a quarter-century in her role, as well as the support of colleagues throughout the state.
“Through very difficult days and times the years have flown by,” she said. “It’s been an honor to work in this county with victims.”
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