Bemer sentenced to 10 years for sex trafficking; first civil case settles

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Danbury Superior Court Judge Robin Pavia on Monday sentenced Bruce Bemer, the Waterford-New London Speedbowl owner, to 10 years in prison, saying he had engaged in a detailed, manipulative, destructive and long-running sex-trafficking scheme that targeted drug-addicted and mentally ill men.

Bemer, 65, was placed in handcuffs as soon as the judge handed down the sentence, but was free a short time later after posting a $750,000 appeal bond that allows him to remain free while appealing his conviction. He will continue to be electronically monitored and will have a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew while his appeal is pending.

In addition to the Speedbowl, which has yet to open for the season, Bemer, a wealthy businessman, also owns Bemer Petroleum and four other businesses. He was found guilty in April of four counts of patronizing a trafficked person and one count of accessory to trafficking.

On the advice of his attorneys and still facing civil litigation, Bemer chose not to speak at his sentencing. He was required to put up $25 million in assets based on another judge's assessment of the strength of civil lawsuits brought against him by 14 men or their estates.

One of the cases, John Doe vs. Bruce Bemer, was resolved over the weekend in an undisclosed settlement.

"Number one is done," said attorney Joel Faxon, who represents nine of the plaintiffs who are suing Bemer. "Hopefully, that leads to resolution and compensation for all."

A jury had been selected in the John Doe case and evidence was scheduled to begin Tuesday in Bridgeport. The plaintiff was one of the four victims who had testified at Bemer's criminal trial. The plaintiff did not attend the sentencing hearing.

At the criminal trial, the four victims had testified that Robert King, who has pleaded guilty to trafficking and awaits sentencing, befriended them and took them into his Danbury mobile home. They said King provided them with drugs and kept a tab of their indebtedness. They said King drove them in groups to Bemer's Glastonbury office, hotels or other locations and sent them in to Bemer, one at a time, for paid sex. King then took a $50 cut from each victim.

One of the victims addressed the court Monday, saying that before he met Bemer and King, he was drug-free and had a job. He had testified at trial that King persuaded him to start using crack cocaine and took him into his trailer in Danbury. King provided him with drugs and kept a "tab" of his debt, then took him to Bemer to earn money to repay the debt.

Prosecutor Sharmese Hodge argued for a lengthy sentence, citing the damage to the victims and noting there were others who had died.

"Money does not absolve what the defendant did criminally. He can't buy his way out of these crimes," Hodge said.

Bemer's attorneys from the Manchester law firm of Barry, Barall & Spinella had filed a motion for judgment of acquittal and a motion for a new trial, both of which Pavia denied Monday. The defense claimed Pavia left out key language when she instructed the jury on the state trafficking law. Bemer had also brought with him to the trial esteemed appellate attorney Wes Horton, who had helped craft the instruction to the jury, and who told the judge Monday that he had not "sandbagged" her by allowing the language to be omitted.

Following the verdict, Bemer's legal team reached out to two other prominent Connecticut lawyers: Hubert Santos and retired Supreme Court justice Joette Katz. The legal team also provided to the court a letter from Yale law professor William N. Eskridge Jr., who wrote that it would be a miscarriage of justice to let the guilty verdict stand because the judge failed to instruct the jury that Bemer coerced the victims by threatening to "expose any secret."

The judge said Monday that the language had been included in an initial draft of her instructions but was removed at the request of the state and without objection from the defense.

Defense attorneys Anthony Spinella and Ryan Barry issued a news release Monday evening, saying that Bemer had been robbed of justice, appellate lawyers are working on an appeal and that they "fervently expect that justice will  eventually prevail."

"Today in court, Judge Pavia said that the jury heard the facts, and applied them to the law," they said in the statement. "The problem is, she didn't give the jury an essential element of the crime but nevertheless decided that the jury knew about it and found Bruce guilty based on it."

Bemer has admitted to patronizing prostitutes provided by King for more than 20 years but denies any involvement in trafficking. Pavia's sentencing remarks indicated that the jury had come to a different conclusion.

"This was a very detailed and very developed intent-driven scheme in which the defendant honed particular individuals, individuals he knew could not fend for themselves, individuals who were drug addicted, mentally ill," Pavia said. 

In arguing that Bemer be allowed to post an appeal bond, Spinella said he had told Bemer he would face a huge sentence if convicted, and that Bemer had not missed any of his court dates. In taking the case to trial, Bemer had turned down an offer from a judge to plead guilty to a felony crime in exchange for a sentence of probation.

There was some discussion of whether Bemer should be allowed to operate his four helicopters or two-seat plane. Pavia told him he is prohibited from leaving the state without prior authorization.

Bemer's full sentence is 20 years in prison, suspended after 10 years served, followed by five years' probation. He will be required to register as a sex offender.

His longtime boyfriend spoke at the sentencing, saying he and Bemer have been together for 20 years and that they are "regular people" who go home at night, watch television and go to sleep.

Though Bemer's lawyers noted that his 100 employees would suffer if he were to be incarcerated for a long period, the prosecutor said that he does have a business partner, his sister, who has been inactive but who could be called upon to take over.

Several other alleged victims or their survivors had attended the sentencing with the hope of addressing the court. The defense objected, and Pavia limited testimony to those who had testified at the trial.

Linda Marino, mother of the late Samuel Marino, had hoped to testify. Her son died at age 26 after leading police in a car chase, but years later, a suicide note and a shrine to Marino were found in King's trailer.

"Human trafficking is a crime that deprived my son Sam of his most basic freedoms: the right to determine his own life, present and future," said her statement, in part. "Yet Bruce Bemer hired powerful attorneys to find loopholes in victims' stories and to invalidate their testimony, and to pretend he had no idea how victims like my son Sam were forced to service his heinous sexual depravity."

Of the 15 victims identified by investigators, two are dead. Bemer was charged with patronizing seven victims, but the jury ended up being asked only to consider the testimony of the four who were able to testify.

The case was the first of its kind in Connecticut and was investigated by now-retired detective Dan Trompetta and FBI agent Kurt Siuzdak, both of whom watched Monday's sentencing hearing.

k.florin@theday.com

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