April 04, 2020

Trooper’s attacker on trial in N.J. > FBI profiler links two brutal crimes as ritualistic attacks, one ending in death

More than 5 1/2 years after Steven Fortin brutally attacked Maine State Trooper Vicki Gardner during a routine arrest on Interstate 95 in Pittsfield, he is on trial in New Brunswick, N.J., for the brutal murder of a woman there.

New Jersey prosecutors are asking for the death penalty for Fortin, 35, who was extradited to New Jersey after he pleaded guilty to attacking, raping and choking Gardner, a 16-year veteran of the Maine State Police. The New Jersey trial began Nov. 2 and has included testimony from Maine detectives, Gardner, and FBI ritual-killing experts.

According to a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, if Fortin is found guilty, a second jury will be impaneled to decide if he should be sentenced to death.

That is because the first jury is hearing testimony about the Maine attack, and the information has been determined to be too prejudicial to be heard by jurors deciding the issue of the death penalty.

Neither jury is hearing evidence that Fortin was convicted of stabbing his brother to death in New Jersey in 1983. He served less than three years in prison for that killing.

The case against Fortin – which began in April 1995 when he was living with his parents in Newport and attacked Gardner in Pittsfield – is layered with legal twists and turns, including testimony from an FBI profiler, one of only six in the country. Robert R. Hazelwood claims that “linkage analysis” proves that the same person who attacked Gardner attacked and killed Melissa Padilla, a mother of four, eight months earlier.

Fortin’s attorneys sought to block the testimony of Hazelwood, an FBI expert in ritualistic crimes, and fought all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court before the court ruled that Hazelwood’s testimony could be allowed. Evidence of Fortin’s Maine crime was also ruled admissible. The court did rule, however, that “linkage analysis” could not be called a science during the trial.

Hazelwood’s testimony indicated that Fortin is not considered a serial killer, but a ritualistic killer, and the “signature” left by Fortin in Maine is so similar to that left in the New Jersey murder that the possibility that two separate people did these crimes is nil.

The testimony, according to Middlesex County Assistant Prosecutor Thomas Kapsak, is key because the state does not have any fingerprints, blood, hair, fiber or DNA to link Fortin to the New Jersey woman’s death.

What they do have is a pattern, according to Hazelwood; a pattern that includes 15 ritualistic aspects that are identical in the two cases. After a review of more than 7,000 crimes, Hazelwood testified that he saw these unique ritualistic behaviors in no other crimes except the murder of Padilla and the attack on Gardner.

Part of the ritual, Hazelwood testified, involved biting. A dentist who had testified in the case of serial killer Theodore Bundy, Lowell Levine, testified earlier in November that bite marks on both Padilla’s body and on Gardner’s body and face after the attack were identical, and were consistent with Fortin’s teeth. Levine testified that the Padilla and Gardner cases are the only ones of hundreds he has reviewed where the victims were both bitten on the chin during an attack.

According to court documents, however, Fortin’s defense attorneys have argued that there are 16 differences in the two crimes. During opening arguments, defense lawyer Robert Obler said that “my client committed a horrendous, horrible act in the state of Maine” but that he was not involved in Padilla’s murder.

In Maine, shortly after his attack on Gardner, Fortin was sentenced to 20 years in jail. It was only after Maine detectives began piecing together their case and notified New Jersey authorities, where Fortin had been living, did the similarities surface between the two attacks.

Gardner, who since the attack has returned to active duty as a trooper, was off-duty on April 3, 1995, when she came upon a vehicle stopped on the shoulder of Interstate 95, facing the wrong way. She began processing Fortin, who had been driving the car, for operating under the influence and had called for an on-duty officer to complete the arrest.

While sealing the results of one of the sobriety tests, Gardner testified on Nov. 8 in New Jersey, “he grabbed me and he banged my head against the door post. I thought I was having a nightmare. When I actually came to, where I knew what was going on, he had both his hands around my throat and was choking me.”

Gardner was choked into unconsciousness, sexually assaulted and beaten brutally about the face. Fortin attempted to flee in Gardner’s cruiser when a back-up trooper arrived but crashed a few miles away. Gardner managed to roll out of the car. He later was captured hiding in the Pittsfield rest area.

Gardner testified that her injuries were so severe that Maine surgeons had to “stitch my nose back on my face.”

As a result, Fortin was charged with kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault, assault on an officer, attempted gross sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact, and criminal operation of a motor vehicle under the influence of intoxicants. He pleaded guilty and on Nov. 29, 1995, was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

In New Jersey, Fortin is charged with murder, felony murder, robbery and aggravated assault of Padilla, 25. On Aug. 11, 1994, Padilla was walking along a dirt path, heading back to her room at a motel in Avenel, N.J., with two bags of groceries for her four children, ages 5, 4, 3 and 2, when she was attacked and killed.

Her body was found inside an 8-foot-long concrete sewer pipe near the path, according to Kapsak. “Steven Fortin beat, robbed, sexually assaulted and murdered Melissa Padilla by putting his hands around her throat and squeezing until she was dead,” said Kapsak.

According to New Jersey prosecutor Robert W. Gluck, Maine’s conviction would take priority over any future conviction in New Jersey. Gluck said that after his trial in New Jersey, Fortin would be returned to Maine to serve his time for the Gardner conviction and, if convicted of Padilla’s murder, would return to New Jersey only after the completion of Maine’s 20-year sentence.

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