Published November 15. 2013 1:00PM Updated November 15. 2013 10:36PM
New London — Students sought out former Connecticut College cook Jose A. Lopez when they went into the main dining hall on campus, exchanging hugs, jokes and holiday cards.
He seemed like an uncle figure, and one student said she called him "Tio."
A Superior Court jury that will decide next week whether Lopez sexually touched two women in the Harris Dining Hall in 2012 learned a lot about the 46-year-old Waterford resident over the past week. Witnesses testified that Lopez has worked at the college since 2004, that his wife suffered from brain cancer and that he is prone to panic attacks.
On Friday, the jury heard from Lopez himself as he took the witness stand to testify on his own behalf. A tall, dark-haired man wearing eyeglasses and a business suit, Lopez asked that Spanish interpreters be "on standby" in case he needed them, but easily answered in English the questions that were posed by prosecutor Sarah E. Steere and defense attorney Pamala J. Favreau.
"That's not who I am," Lopez said when Favreau asked him if he had committed the crimes.
"I try to be respectful to everyone else. I got two sons. I taught them to respect women and to respect people. That's the way I am. I treat everyone the same."
The jury of six women will have to choose whether they believe Lopez or the alleged victims. Both of the young women broke down on the witness stand as they spoke of being groped by a man they had long thought of as a friend. One of them, a 2012 graduate of the college, said Lopez sat down next to her in a dining booth during Spring Break, pinned her down, made a lustful comment and touched her through her pants. The other testified that when she went to the dining hall to visit her mother, a co-worker of Lopez, he approached her from behind, reached down her yoga pants and made "skin-to-skin" contact.
The former student had testified that she hesitated to disclose the assault because she didn't want to end her senior year on a negative note, but that she felt unsafe on campus and had to continue eating at the Harris Dining Hall three times a day. The second victim came forward only after college officials who were investigating the first complaint noted that the alleged victim's mother had reported that Lopez made an off-color comment to the daughter in 2010.
The jury will have to consider the interpersonal dynamics at play. The second alleged victim testified that she had major back surgery and had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Through the defense attorney's aggressive cross examination, they learned that she became dependent on prescription drugs and was charged with attempting to obtain them fraudulently. They also learned the woman is estranged from the mother who worked with Lopez. The mother, they heard, had helped remove the woman's daughter from her custody because of the drug problem.
And on Friday, the jury learned the nature of the complaint that Lopez had filed against the mother, his co-worker, when the prosecutor read from a statement given by kitchen manager David Perkins.
"Jose brought forward a complaint that (the co-worker) was watching him," Perkins said in the statement. "I worked with them to resolve it."
The jury also heard that Lopez had a flower-shaped condom in his locker at the college, which he said had been handed out to everyone in the cafeteria during "Condom Week," and that several male students had sent him a greeting card with a message containing sexual humor.
Lopez's attorney alleges the college and New London police detective Frank Jarvis conducted a one-sided investigation. Through her questioning of the state's witnesses, she suggested the investigators failed to seek out all the people who may have witnessed the alleged incidents, ignored Lopez's denials of wrongdoing and made no effort to seize the first victim's clothing to test it for Touch DNA. She also alleged that the college illegally denied Lopez a copy of his personnel file, hindering the defense as it prepared for trial.
Favreau called a string of character witnesses who said that Lopez was a friendly and truthful man.
"He just talks to us, you know, with silly, joking words," testified Theresia Ortega, a co-worker from the dining hall.
On Monday, the attorneys are expected to sum up their cases in closing arguments to the jury. Judge Barbara Jongbloed Bailey will then instruct the jury on the pertinent laws before the panel begins deliberating.