Jury hears opening statements in Jeremy Vann trial

ADA Dan Johnson and Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia during opening statements of the Jeremy Vann trial. Photo by Jolene Almendarez/The Ithaca Voice

This story was written by Ithaca Voice reporters Alyvia Covert and Jolene Almendarez. 

ITHACA, N.Y. — The trial for accused Tompkins County Deputy Jeremy Vann began early Friday morning in Tompkins County Court with the prosecution laying out the details of a ‘volatile’ relationship between him and a woman that allegedly ended with physical violence.

Nearly two years ago, Vann was accused of attacking a woman he knew during a domestic dispute, allegedly preventing her from calling 911, tampering with evidence and damaging property, among other accusations. He now faces a 14-count indictment.

In the meantime, Vann, who has been on paid leave since spring 2015, has rejected two plea deals offered to him by the District Attorney’s Office. Neither plea required jail time for Vann.

A jury was finalized on Thursday afternoon and opening statements for Vann’s trial began around 11 a.m. Friday morning, after pre-trial motions.

Prosecution: “Their relationship was volatile.”

“This is a case about a police officer who exploited his knowledge of the system to hide his own criminal conduct,” Assistant District Attorney Dan Johnson said. “He knows the importance of credibility – you will see, as you hear the evidence, his constant effort to control the narrative.”

Johnson continued by saying that the woman suffered from significant mental health issues and has dealt with severe depression, sometimes engaging in self-harm.

In his opening statement, Johnson said Vann was married at the time he began dating the woman in the summer of 2014., saying that the relationship was “chaotic.”

“Their relationship was volatile,” he said. “They would go from screaming fights, which sometimes became physical, and then it would become intimate.”

Johnson said the indictment covers charges beginning in Dec. 2014 through April 2015. He described a series of events throughout the “on-again, off-again” relationship with the victim, which often resulted in physical altercations between the two.

He described a series of events throughout the “on-again, off-again” relationship with the woman, which often resulted in physical altercations between the two.

He described multiple incidents where Vann allegedly stole the victim’s phone and took her purse and credit cards out of her car at one point. The relationship continued until March, while Vann began an “intimate relationship” with another woman.

“He was lying to each of them about the other and the nature of their relationship,” Johnson said. “It gets tricky to juggle all of this – through the month of March he’s doing everything he can to prevent these two worlds from colliding.”

According to Johnson, the victim reached out to Vann following an argument they had on March 27, 2015. He said the victim went to Vann’s house in the middle of the night, suspecting he was with another woman.

Johnson said Vann came out of his house and allegedly threw the victim to the ground, forcibly putting her in the back of his truck to take her home. After Vann left, he reportedly received a text message from the victim with a picture of a gun and the text message: “You shouldn’t have left me here with this.”

Johnson said that despite being trained as an officer on how to help someone threatening to harm themselves, Vann wouldn’t do anything with the message for two days, when they met up again.

Johnson said that when they reconciled, the two engaged in another physical altercation at the victim’s home. She then locked herself in the bathroom, and Vann allegedly broke the door down. The woman was eventually able to flee the home and hide in the back of a truck on the property. Johnson said the bathroom door mold and a coffee table had been destroyed due to the fight. The victim came back to her house to find Vann putting the destroyed items into his vehicle.

Johnson said the bathroom door and frame, along with the coffee table had been destroyed due to the fight. The woman then came back to her house to find Vann putting the destroyed items into his vehicle.

At this point, Vann made a call to the non-emergency dispatch call center, eventually prompting the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department and New York State Police to arrive at the scene.

Defense: “The rest of the story”

“So much of what you’ve heard is simply not true. It’s simply not true,” Defense Attorney Ray Schlather said during opening statements Friday. “And I don’t know what I must say to show you that.”

He said he knows his client is not mature and, in many ways, unlikable. Vann was separated but still married when he was in a relationship with two women.

“He’s not my best friend. I wouldn’t want him as my best friend. I don’t like people who cheat in relationships…..but that doesn’t mean that he is somehow evil or criminal or bad. That’s not why we are here,” he said.

Instead, he said the jury will have to listen to the testimony of the witnesses and analyze the evidence presented to figure out “the rest of the story.”

For instance, Johnson said Vann didn’t try to formally intervene as a trained officer when she texted him a photo of a gun insinuating that she would hurt herself.

“And then he goes on to say…that he did nothing about that — somehow that he was calloused,” Schlather said. “Deputy Vann immediately sent her a text that said, ‘Stop. Don’t do this.’ And then he got in his vehicle and he drove there (to her home) and she said she didn’t want to see him. That’s the rest of the story.”

He also pointed to the prosecution’s insinuation that the young woman’s parent’s opposed to the relationship between them.

In fact, Schlather said, the woman’s parents seemed happy that Vann was dating their daughter because he offered stability to a woman he says was fraught with mental health issues and who physically attacked him multiple times. Schlather says that the woman’s grandmother even recommended that Vann stay away from the woman.

“But there he was trying because he loved this woman. He was trying because he thought he could help her and he was trying because the family asked him to.”

Schlather said that selectively telling the story of Vann’s relationship with the woman is the prosecution’s strategy.

“That, folks, is the tone of this case,” he said, and that carries over to the night where Vann is accused of attacking the woman on March 29-30, 2015.

Schlather said there is a myriad of inaccuracies and misrepresentations with what the prosecution says happened that night. Vann did break down a bathroom door, but he did so to keep the woman from self-harming, the defense says. Vann did accidently break a coffee table, and he loaded it in his truck so he could fix it at his home and bring it back — he wasn’t trying to hide evidence, Schlather said.

But the most important aspect of March 30 is the time frame that the prosecution says everything happened.

“We will show you that there is a 19 minute period when everything that they’re claiming happened to the extent that it happened,” Schlather said.

Texts and phone calls will show, he said, that the events didn’t happen the way the prosecution lays out.

“You will be able to say that this man is not guilty,” Schlather said.