Gomes, Welch

During her closing argument, District Attorney Ashely Welch stood near Gomez, who wore headphones so the trial procedures could be translated into his native language.

Luis Gomez will spend the next 23-42 years behind bars.

The saga of the serial rapist came to an end when a jury, following a week-long trial, decided he was guilty of two counts of forcible rape, one count of forcible sex offense and three counts of sexual activity by a custodian. 

Gomez worked as a certified nursing assistant at the Brian Center in Waynesville during the time the offenses occurred.

The trial began Monday morning with Gomez represented by Asheville attorney Joel Schechet, while District Attorney Welch and Jeff Jones represented the state. Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope of Buncombe County presided over the trial.

The state’s first witness was the first victim to come forward. Because of the victim’s Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), she entered the courtroom in a wheelchair. She said things with Gomez got out of hand quickly.

“He purchased a cologne of some type and gave it to me, and then he gave me what people call a French kiss,” she said, later adding that his advances became more frequent and aggressive. “I tried pushing him away, but he would not go away.”

Then, she claimed that, one night, Gomez had told her she should go to the bathroom so she wouldn’t have to go later while in bed. When she got to the toilet and lifted her nightgown, he shut the door behind her, pulled down her underwear and assaulted her.

“He said, ‘we have to hurry up,’” she said.

Other state’s witnesses, including investigating officers and medical professionals helped outline the series of events.

Krista Shalda was the nurse who called 911 on the victim’s behalf. She said two days after the incident, she saw the victim crying, and when she asked what was wrong, the victim, “said something to the effect that she’d heard Luis would be at work that day.”

“In my mind, I was thinking I don’t know if Luis Gomez did this or not, because I frankly like Luis Gomez,” Shalda admitted.

She said she called 911 because she knew the police would do a better job investigating the claim than the Brian Center could.

The first officer to respond was Waynesville Police Sergeant Dee Parton, who quickly called on-duty detective, Paige Shell.

“I received a call from Dee Parton saying the victim was already en route to Haywood County Regional Medical Center emergency room,” Shell testified, adding that she went to the emergency room and sought out the victim right away.

Shell said she took notes as the victim relayed her harrowing story, notes she would reference throughout the rest of the investigation.

“Her story throughout the whole investigation was consistent every time we talked with her,” Shell said.

Dr. Stephanie Trowbridge was the emergency physician who, along with the sexual assault nurse examiner, examined the victim. She noted that, along with there being evidence of trauma, the victim was clearly shaken up.

“She was upset,” Trowbridge said. “She had difficulty speaking because she was tearful and in pain.”

The defense’s cross-examination of witnesses related to the first case questioned the victim’s credibility, beginning with asking her how her memory is.

“I take it to be pretty good,” the victim answered, when pushed by Schechet.

He asked her how her bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders affect her behavior and memory. Her answers were candid.

“When manic, I’m, like, high on nothing,” she said. “I walk fast, I talk fast, and I get a lot of people mad at me when I do that.”

“When I have anxiety, my mind goes backward,” she added.

Schechet told the jury that at the time of the assault, the victim was on multiple narcotics for pain, including morphine, and he questioned how that would affect her memory.

“I seem to be doing fine now, and I’m on those medications,” she said, although slurring slightly.

Perhaps the greatest inconsistency with the victim’s story Schechet pointed out was her telling investigators she’d heard him unzip his pants just prior to assaulting her. However, cross-examination made it clear Gomez would have been wearing scrubs, which are clothes worn by medical professionals with no buttons or zippers.

Schechet eventually tried to get the victim to admit that her story was a fabrication.

“You would find a way to get quite a lot of attention, wouldn’t you agree?” he said.

Later that same afternoon, the second victim, who also needed a wheelchair and oxygen, took the stand, tearing up as she relived the night she was assaulted.

“He pulled his breeches down and he got up behind me. He started trying to put his penis in me, but he couldn’t,” she said, adding that once he was done assaulting her, he got her a couple wash cloths and told her to clean up so she “wouldn’t stink.”

Like the first victim who testified, the second said Gomez had acted inappropriately for some time prior to the assault.

“He’d say things like, ‘I want some of that,’” she said.

Welch asked the victim why it took her a couple weeks to come forward after the assault.

“I felt like he was doing it to just me, and others were safe,” she said, adding that once she realized there was at least one other victim, she felt that she had to come forward. She added, “I don’t think too much of myself.”

To ensure the two victims’ cases remained separate in the jurors’ minds, some of the same witnesses involved with the first case took the stand to speak about the second victim’s case too. Shalda, the nurse who called 911 on the first victim’s behalf, was also approached by the second victim.

“She was crying and she said that she wanted to tell us something that had happened with her and Mr. Gomez,” she said.

Parton, who was the first responder to the first victim’s 911 call, also responded to the call for the second assault allegation. She said the victim’s room was dimly lit and the victim was quiet and nervous.

“She was sitting on the edge of the bed with her head down,” Parton testified.

Instead of having Det. Shell take the stand, this time, the state called on Lt. Chris Chandler, Shell’s supervisor, to take the stand. Chandler noted that Shell had called him from the hospital after she interviewed the first victim and she called him again the following day to tell him about the second victim. He and Shell went to the Brian Center together to interview her.

“She was honestly very timid and scared,” Chandler said.

He said she was scared to come forward because he had actually been acting inappropriately for quite some time, and she was afraid to tell anyone about it.

“She told me that every time he came into the room where she was at, he would find a way to touch her,” he said.

Like with the first victim, during cross examination, the defense tried to discredit the second victim. Schechet pushed her to try to recall specific dates, which she was unable to do.

“All I can tell you is it was during second shift,” she said.

Although she had previously told investigators Gomez’s inappropriate behavior began a few weeks prior to the assault, she told the court that it was “sometime after Christmas.” Additionally, Schechet highlighted the fact that the victim is filing a civil suit and alleged that she has even bragged about how much money she would make from suing the Brian Center. As Schechet pushed her, she became so emotional that Judge Pope had to call a recess to allow her to regain her composure.

When she came back, Schechet continued asking her about her own mental health issues, which include bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder, before circling back to questioning her memory.

Schechet also pursued the same line of questioning with other state’s witnesses he cross-examined. He asked Chandler what she had told him during their initial interview. Although he confirmed she told him that the advances had begun a few weeks prior, he added that forgetfulness is not abnormal in similar cases, per his experience.

“I think it’s actually very common with children and the elderly,” he said.

After the state rested its case, due to a failure to elicit adequate evidence from the first victim’s testimony, the state decided to voluntarily dismiss two of the charges relating to her case, meaning, going forward, Gomez would face six charges instead of eight. Additionally, Judge Pope dismissed one of the four aggravating factors with each victim, meaning the jury would try the case with only three aggravating factors moving forward. Aggravating factors, if determined to be applicable by the jury, allow the judge to impose a harsher sentence.

The defense’s opening argument, like the state’s, was a rough outline of the arguments Schechet was planning to make, many of which worked to discredit the state’s key witnesses, and, as promised, many of those witnesses who were called to the stand spoke to the victim’s relationship with the truth.

Wendy Perez, whose job it is to distribute medication at the Brian Center, said both women had issues telling the truth.

“I don’t believe she’s very truthful,” she said of one victim.

Velvet Conard was a CNA at the Brian Center at the time of the assault.

“She was very untruthful,” she said of the other victim.

Things got a bit heated with one of the defense’s witnesses, Teresa McClure, who supervised the staff in the wing where the assault happened. McClure said she had told her supervisor, Gail Roberts, about the assault, but didn’t call 911. As Welch confronted McClure for being complacent and complicit, she kept responding that she was “following protocol.”

“You went home, and you got to go into your own bed, didn’t you?” Welch asked McClure, adding that she took the next day off while Gomez went back into work, even after the original allegation.

The most damaging witness the defense brought to the stand was the first witness’s roommate, who was apparently outside smoking at the time of the assault. The roommate claimed that Gomez was with her while she smoked at the time the victim claimed the assault happened, providing the defense with a valuable alibi.

However, as Jones cross-examined the witness, it became clear she had serious issues with her recollection of facts, dating all the way back to January of this year when he, Chandler and Shell went to interview her. Her biggest discrepancy was brought forth when the state asked her on which date the alleged incident occurred, to which she answered October of 2015, over four months before the victims alleged the assaults had occurred.

After the defense rested its case, the state recalled Chandler back to the stand, asking him to provide details regarding his interview with the roommate. He confirmed that she had said during their interview that the time she was thinking of was back in October 2015.

“She told me she was on morphine the entire time,” he said. “She said she never experienced pain from her cancer while she was there because of the morphine.”

After breaking for evening, the courtroom was abuzz Friday morning as the attorneys readied themselves for their closing statements. The gallery was more populated than it had been for the entire trial. Along with the two Waynesville police officers and a couple attorneys who had been there the whole time, the victims and their families showed up.

Jones led things off with a statement that was less of an argument and more of an attempt to translate the jury instructions for the lay person. His sole intent was making sure the jury had no confusion regarding their duties and responsibilities.

Next up was Schechet. Like during the trial, he spent much of his time attempting to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the jurors. He had a board which graphically outlined the standard of “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“Who we never heard from was an eyewitness … we never heard anything from law enforcement that corroborates this … we never heard any scientific evidence that supports this,” he said.

He also doubted other elements of the victims’ stories, including the length of time the inappropriate contact had occurred and the fact that Gomez never took any precautions when assaulting the women.

“Is it fathomable that this could have gone on for two and a half months and no one saw anything?” he asked the jury.

Once he was done, Welch got the last word. In a truly incendiary piece of oratory, Welch managed to break some jurors’ poker faces, faces which had been stoic and still for a week up to that point.

“There’s a lot to say,” she began. “And I’ve been waiting over a year to get to say what I’m going to say to you.”

She spoke about those in our society who rely on the care of others to survive, especially elderly people who once thrived on their own, highlighting the extreme vulnerability they feel. Then she moved on to the nature of sexual predators and the crimes they commit, a direct rebuttal to Schechet’s closing statement.

“They don’t happen in front of other people,” she said. “They don’t happen in the hallway. They don’t happen in the well of this courtroom. And they’re not happening in broad daylight in front of the court. That’s not how that works. It happens in private. It happens behind closed doors. And it happens when there’s a predator that sees an opportunity.”

“It only takes a few seconds to define the rest of someone’s existence,” she added. “[The victims] will never ever, ever be the same. Ever. Because somebody decided that he was going to take advantage of the trust that we put in people who take care of the people that can’t take care of themselves.”

She further defined the nature of a predator.

“Being a CNA is hard, thankless work,” she said. “It’s not easy, you don’t get paid well. It’s incredibly difficult. But every now and then somebody sneaks into that role, kind of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Every profession that is noble has a few. How convenient if you have a perversion and you’re a predator … These women depend on you.”

At one point, she walked over to Gomez, standing less than five feet from him.

“If you’re a CNA at the Brian Center, you have access to a myriad of perfect victims. You’ve got access to women who rely on you and need you … and don’t have a lot of visitors and their days run into each other and they cry and who is it that we trusted to take care of these two women? This man,” she exclaimed, pointing at the defendant.

She went on to implicate not only Gomez, but the entire Brian Center. She spoke about all the people who had the chance to step in and do the right thing, but refused to because “they said it was protocol,” and she spoke about the one who finally called 911.

“It wasn’t her protocol either, but she did what was right, and you heard what happened to her,” she said. “Fired, two days later. Because let’s keep it quiet. We might get sued. That’s the mentality of the Brian Center in 2016, from the top-down. They’re trying to protect themselves.”

She added that many of the defense’s witnesses who were called to the stand and testified favorably regarding Gomez and the Brian Center were still employees of the institution.

“Do you believe all the people he paraded up here yesterday?” she asked the jury. “I’m going to talk about what you didn’t hear. Some of them still work at the Brian Center. The Brian Center is responsible for their paychecks.”

She even called out Schechet for stating that the victims seemed to be enjoying the attention they were getting. She walked into the gallery and stood beside the victims.

“Do these women look they’re having a good time to you?” she asked the jury as she stood beside the women and their families, all of whom were crying.

She finished her closing remark in a somewhat unorthodox way. She stood silently next to Gomez for 30 seconds. The only sounds that could be heard were coughing and crying.

“Thirty seconds in a court room where everybody’s safe felt like an eternity,” she said. “What’s it feel like if you’re getting pushed onto your own wheelchair, treated inhumanely? Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Everyone. And in our society, there are people that need protection more than others. People in assisted living deserve our protection. The Brian Center failed. They failed. Teresa McClure, the nurse, she failed too. She didn’t report it because it’s not her protocol. But ultimately the person who failed is this man right here. (The victims) did everything right. It’s time for y’all to do right.”

When she finished, Judge Pope delivered his instructions to the jury, and sent them off to deliberate.

Not long after lunch, the jury came back with its unanimous verdict. Superior Court Clerk Melissa Boyd delivered the verdict solemnly. Guilty on all counts with all aggravating factors applying.

After the Judge Pope had a few minutes alone with the jury, he returned to the courtroom and awaited arguments regarding sentencing.

Welch went down the list of other victims who had either passed away or didn’t want to bring the case to court. The existence of these complainants was inadmissible in court, but Welch could talk about it for sentencing.

During this time, the first victim to come forward had some words for Gomez. The judge allowed her to face the man who victimized her as she spoke.

“You know what you did was wrong,” she said as she sobbed. “The good book says that I must love you, even though you did me wrong. And I do. I love you. And I pray that the others work to forgive you and love you as I have. May you go in peace.”

“What [the victim] just said should serve as a prime example of how vulnerable this subset of our population is,” Welch said. “And the state is going to ask that you give him a maximum … sentence.”

Schechet argued in favor of Gomez’s lack of a criminal record and character, but Judge Pope sided with the state and gave Gomez a maximum sentence.

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