The trial of a 35-year-old man accused of sexually assaulting two teenagers took place in provincial court in St. John's Tuesday, with the girls telling the judge they recognized but didn't know the man when he approached them on a path, told them they had "sexy bums" and then touched them.
The girls testified individually, with one of them choosing a privacy screen to block her view of the courtroom and of the accused, Richard Rees, who is facing two counts each of sexual assault and sexual interference.
The girls, who were 13 and 14 at the time, said they had been walking on a path next to Sobeys on Ropewalk Lane late one afternoon in April, with plans to stop at Tim Hortons for lemonade before heading to a nearby skate park. As they were walking, they said they heard someone call out, "Hey!" from behind them.
"We thought it was a teenager so we yelled hi back," one of the girls said.
When the person got closer, they saw it was a much older man on a bicycle, whom they had previously seen around but had never met, they said.
The girls said the man — whom they both identified as Rees — offered them beer from a brown paper bag, but they declined it. He smelled like alcohol, they said, and seemed wobbly when he got off his bike and walked behind them.
"He made a few comments like, 'You're both really beautiful,' 'You have nice butts' and that we had big thighs and he thought it was hot," the younger girl said. "It was weird and we felt really uncomfortable."
The girls said they walked faster in an effort to ditch Rees, who kept walking his bike behind them, at times hopping on it to catch up.
"It was weird and we felt really uncomfortable." — One of the teenage victims
One of the girls told the court Rees had put his hand on her lower back, so she moved to walk on the other side of her friend. She said she saw Rees touch her friend's waist, thighs and bum, and at one point he appeared to be trying to put his hand down the top of her leggings.
The other girl told the court Rees had touched her bum twice, and had put two fingers down the waist of her leggings, after telling her and her friend that they had "nice, sexy bums" and were "beautiful ladies."
"I felt something touch me and it was very unpleasant," she said. "I turned around to see his hand on my butt, and his eyes were staring directly at my butt. I felt very uncomfortable and I tried to walk faster. Then I felt two fingers, which were his, sliding down the side of my pants. I took my sweater and I pulled it down."
The girl said that when she and her friend reached the end of the path, at the Sobeys parking lot, they saw a woman they knew, in her vehicle. The girl said she waved the woman over as her friend continued walking across the street to Tim Hortons.
"I told her, 'I need help, this man is touching me,'" the girl testified. "She said, 'Get in the car,' and she drove me to Tim’s.
"She got me out of there as fast as she could."
The younger girl testified she had also gotten into the vehicle for a ride to Tim Hortons.
Defence lawyer Derek Hogan questioned the teenagers on the statements they had given to police about the incident, pointing out they told an investigator the man had "tried to" touch them, but had never said he succeeded.
Hogan questioned the younger girl on her timing, pointing out she had told police the man had touched her for "a second," but had said "longer than a second, but not as long as 30" in court.
The woman who picked at least one of the girls up in her vehicle testified as a witness for the defence, telling the court only one of the teenagers had gotten into her car. She said the girl told her a man had been bothering her, but hadn't mentioned he had touched her or offered her beer and hadn't seemed upset.
"She said, 'He's bugging me.' With that, Richard walked across (the parking lot). I said, ‘Oh, that's Richard, he's harmless,’" the woman testified. "When I dropped her off, I gave her my number and I said, if anyone is bothering you, call me, but that's Richard, he's harmless, he's a good fellow. That's what I feel."
The woman said if the teenager had told her Rees had touched her, she would have gotten out of the vehicle and confronted him.
Upon cross-examination, prosecutor Robin Singleton pointed out the woman had initially refused to give police a statement, but changed her mind and spoke to investigators seven months later, after she was subpoenaed to testify.
"I didn't want to get involved," the woman said. "I still don't."
Singleton noted the woman's statement to police indicated the girl said Rees had offered her beer, despite the woman testifying otherwise.
The woman acknowledged she had spoken to Rees since he was charged, and he told her that he had no recollection of the incident. She told the court she doesn't believe the girls' allegations.
"I don't believe it, no. I've known him a long, long time and have never heard anything bad about him."
In his closing submissions, Hogan stressed the girls' inconsistencies when it came to their statements to police and on the stand, particularly when it came it to how many seconds one of the alleged assaults had lasted and whether or not Rees had actually touched the teenagers.
"We see an escalation of the allegations, from trying to touch to actually did touch," Hogan said, adding the woman in the vehicle — and her friend, who had also been in the car — had testified the eldest girl had told them only that Rees had been "bugging" her.
"There are reasons to doubt the complainants," Hogan said.
Singleton acknowledged the discrepancies in the girls' evidence, but said certain details Hogan was stressing, including the number of seconds an assault lasted, were more appropriate for adult witnesses, not children.
Singleton said the girls had no motive to make false allegations, and the woman's testimony about not believing the complainants even though she hadn't witnessed their interaction with Rees amounted to bias.
Singleton said it didn't matter whether Rees had touched the girls or tried to touch them.
"Given the comments made by Mr. Rees, in that context, even attempts at touching would make out the offence of sexual assault," Singleton said.
Judge Colin Flynn will return with his decision Feb. 22.