Police honor work in Pennington case

Trooper First Class John Patterson, right, representing Troop E detectives, shakes hands with Lt. Col. Chris Arciero, commanding officer of the Office of Administrative Services, Tuesday at the State Police Academy in Meriden.
Trooper First Class John Patterson, right, representing Troop E detectives, shakes hands with Lt. Col. Chris Arciero, commanding officer of the Office of Administrative Services, Tuesday at the State Police Academy in Meriden. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

State police Detective Bill Blanchette was literally fishing for information three years ago when he met a Montville sex offender at Norwich harbor with a fishing pole and a dozen eels.

Hoping George M. Leniart would incriminate himself in the 1996 disappearance of 15-year-old April Dawn Pennington while the two fished for striped bass and "talked like men," Blanchette carried a tape recorder in his shorts pocket. He had a .38 revolver in the other pocket, just in case.

Sgt. Bill Bundy and Detective Jay Masson watched from the top of a nearby parking garage and Detective Mike Hoagland stood about 100 yards away from Blanchette and Leniart, disguised in a baseball cap.

The August 2007 fishing trip, in which Leniart attempted unsuccessfully to implicate another man in the teenager's murder, and ultimately gave up no useful information, is just one example of the tireless effort the Eastern District Major Crime Squad put into the case. The unit's work paid off in March, when a jury convicted Leniart of kidnapping, raping and murdering April Pennington, even though her body has not been recovered.

On Tuesday, the state police honored the Troop E detectives and the New London State's Attorney's office at a ceremony in Meriden that began and ended with bagpipe music and prayer and featured salutes, handshakes and stories of heroic acts by troopers and civilians from around the state. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane and other dignitaries attended.

"Neither time nor lack of a body prevented them from proving that this predator was responsible for this murder," Lt. J. Paul Vance said as the assembly broke into applause.

The troopers suspected Leniart early on, but without physical evidence, a confession or incriminating witness statements, they had a hard time making a case. They kept a close watch on Leniart, who was in and out of prison, and continued to investigate.

Detective John Patterson once drove around for hours with an ex-girlfriend of Leniart's, hoping she would lead him to the place where Leniart dumped April's body. The troopers searched wells and waterways, put cadaver dogs on the trail of the body and went into prisons to interview and reinterview witnesses. The case kept them awake at night, and their families became all too familiar with the details.

Eventually, they obtained statements from jailhouse informants who said Leniart had bragged of getting away with the crime. They convinced the New London State's Attorney's office to take a chance on the case, despite the girl's body never having been recovered. Senior Assistant State's Attorney John P. Gravalec-Pannone, who had prosecuted Leniart in other brutal sex assaults and considered him a threat to public safety, talked it over with his superiors. He signed the warrant in late March 2008, and Leniart was charged on the first day of April.

Leniart opted for a trial, and this February, Gravalec-Pannone, prosecutor Stephen M. Carney and inspector Thomas Pedersen went to battle in a New London courtroom against Norman A. Pattis, a skilled, aggressive defense attorney who was appointed as a special public defender.

The crime-squad detectives followed the trial, losing more sleep as the jury began its deliberations. On March 2, many of them were in the courtroom when the jury foreman announced the panel had found Leniart guilty of murder and three counts of capital felony. The verdict insured Leniart would spend life in prison without the possibility of release. The troopers high-fived and hugged each other and celebrated the win with Gravalec-Pannone, Carney and Pedersen in the state's attorney's office. Sentencing is set for June 22, and the detectives are planning to attend.

Recognized Tuesday for their "exceptional collective effort" were Bundy, who supervises the detective unit, Blanchette, who has since been promoted to sergeant and became a resident trooper supervisor in East Lyme, Hoagland, Masson and Patterson, who is now serving as resident trooper of Sprague; and Gravalec-Pannone, Carney and Pedersen from the state's attorney's office.

Bundy said last week that the Pennington murder was a "once-in-a-lifetime case," but that the crime squad detectives do quality work day in and day out.

State police Col. Thomas Davoren, who once commanded the Eastern District Major Crime Squad, said at Tuesday's ceremony that resolving a murder case without a body is "a very hard thing to do." He also noted that "troopers don't get up each day and say, 'I think I'll earn an award today.' ''

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