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Leniart convicted of murdering missing girl

A guilty verdict in the capital murder trial of George M. Leniart brought some comfort Tuesday to the parents of a teenage girl who went missing from her Montville home 14 years ago.

Walter and Hazel Pennington know now that Leniart, a 44-year-old repeat sex offender, will be spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison. The 12-member jury convicted him on three capital-felony counts and one count of murder, so there is no doubt Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed will sentence Leniart to life in prison without the possibility of parole on April 27.

But the parents of April Dawn Pennington, who sneaked out a basement window after they had gone to bed on May 29, 1996, would like to know exactly what happened to their 15-year-old daughter that night. They never saw her again.

"I still have plenty of questions, and he (Leniart) is still not talking," Hazel Pennington said in a phone interview from Pleasant Garden, N.C.

Leniart had bragged that state police would never find April's body and would, therefore, never charge him with murder, according to jailhouse informants who testified at the trial. He fished commercially out of Point Judith, R.I., in a boat he had named after his own young daughter, and told a fellow prisoner he had dismembered April's body and put it in lobster pots. Others said Leniart told them April's body was "in the mud" in the Thames River, in Long Island Sound or in a well.

Despite his bravado, the Eastern District Major Crime Squad did charge Leniart in April 2008 after prosecutors agreed to take on the murder case without a body or other physical evidence. They relied heavily on jailhouse witnesses, whom Leniart's attorney called "snitches" and repeatedly attempted to discredit at the trial.

The state had another key witness, however, whose testimony the jury listened to a second time Tuesday before announcing the verdict. A 28-year-old Norwich woman had described being sexually assaulted by Leniart just six months before April Pennington disappeared.

The woman said she is pleased Leniart is locked away.

"I think that he is where he should be, and April's family can have a little closure," she said. "May April rest in peace with the angels."

Leniart, who opted not to testify on his own behalf, shook his head slightly but did not change his facial expression when the jury foreman announced the verdicts. Somebody whispered "Yeah!" from the back of the courtroom.

Prosecutors John P. Gravalec-Pannone and Stephen M. Carney were "psyched."

"We're grateful on behalf of the Pennington family and for the jury's hard work in this difficult task they had," Pannone said as well-wishers congregated in the state's attorney's office.

State troopers who investigated the case hugged and high-fived each other in the courthouse hallway.

"I'm thankful for the state's attorney's office for having the courage to prosecute what was a difficult case, and thankful to the jury for seeing George for what he is," said Sgt. William Bundy, who had supervised the investigation for the past five years.

"I'm proud of all the guys who have investigated this case over the years," Bundy added. "It goes back many, many years."

Bundy said that if April's body is out there to be found, the detectives want to find it.

Defense attorney Norman A. Pattis spoke to Leniart in a holding cell following the verdict and left the courthouse without taking a pile of dress clothes he had provided his client. He could not be reached to comment later in the day, but is expected to be heard at Leniart's sentencing.

The jurors also left quickly after Jongbloed thanked them for their service. Reached later by phone, the foreman said he had no comment.

Walter Pennington, a retired Navy sailor who was stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton when his daughter disappeared, flew from North Carolina to testify on the first day of the trial and caught a return flight the same day. Hazel Pennington has been ill and was advised by a doctor not to attend the trial.

The family, who moved back to their hometown of Pleasant Garden in late 1996, has been reading on the Internet of the graphic testimony about the last hours of their daughter's life.

Patrick "PJ" Allain, a friend of April, testified he and Leniart picked her up and raped her that night in May 1996. Allain said Leniart dropped him off at home first and told him the next day that he had killed the girl and disposed of her body.

Hazel Pennington said she would like to have seen Allain prosecuted, though she knows the statute of limitations for rape has expired.

"He's the one who lured April out that night," she said. "April never knew Leniart. She met him that night, and PJ lured her out knowing he was putting her life in danger."

Allain, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for an unrelated sexual assault, is hoping to have his sentence reduced in exchange for cooperating with the state.

The testimony of the woman who, at age 13, was raped by Leniart had also bolstered the state's case. The judge had ruled the damaging testimony admissible because of similarities between the two cases. The rape victim told the jury she sneaked out to meet her 15-year-old boyfriend, Allain, in November 1995. Leniart, who was 30, picked her up, she said, and they went back to a camper behind Leniart's parents' home on Massapeag Side Road to wait for Allain.

She said Allain never showed up, and when she tried to leave Leniart locked her in and forced her to have sex with him. She said Leniart choked her until she passed out, and that she woke up the next morning and ran for her life when he left to make a phone call.

Leniart was free on bond, awaiting trial for that case, when April Pennington disappeared. He later pleaded guilty in the first matter and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Thomas A. "Tad" DiBiase, a former federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia who tracks "no-body" murder cases, lists two other such convictions in Connecticut on a Web site devoted to the issue.

In the infamous "woodchipper murder," Richard Crafts was convicted in 1989 of killing his wife, Helle, even though Crafts had put her remains through a woodchipper and only fragments were recovered.

In October 2003, Miguel Estrella of Meriden was found guilty of murdering a rival gang member. He suffocated Juan Disla, then dismembered his body with a chain saw and dissolved it in acid.

"It's amazing the lengths some people will go through to dispose of a body," DiBiase said in a phone interview Tuesday.

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