COLUMBIA CITY — Whitley County Prosecutor Matthew Rentschler put both hands on the table and slid his chair back.
The defense team had concluded questioning accused child molester Dustin Shenberger and it was the state’s turn to cross-examine the suspect.
Shenberger, 36, of Mercersburg, Pa., is accused of child molestation and sexual misconduct with a minor in connection with incidents that allegedly happened between him and a local woman, now 19, when she was 13 and 14 years old.
The trial began Tuesday morning and was expected to wrap up today with closing arguments scheduled for 9 a.m. this morning.
The woman testified that her relationship with Shenberger, who was a relative at the time, became physical and ultimately sexual while she was between the ages of 13 and 15.
The most compelling testimony in the case has been that of the woman’s step-grandparents, hostile toward the alleged victim, who testified seeing the girl and Shenberger lying on a couch in a “romantic” position.
It was this alleged incident that gave Rentschler an opening when the defense chose to put the accused man on the stand.
Aside from the step-grandparents, one other witness testified to seeing the couch incident. The testimony of the step-grandparents had Shenberger and the girl lying on the couch, face to face, with the girl’s head on his chest.
The third witness said the girl was lying on her back, with Shenberger also on his back. All three witnesses said they thought the display was “inappropriate.”
The man and girl, according to her testimony, continued a physical relationship until their alleged final incident at the 2006 Whitley County 4-H Fair.
It was Shenberger’s account of that day that would leave the door open for Rentschler to question his credibility.
An independent witness who was a 4-H leader at the time testified to seeing Shenberger and the alleged victim walking shoulder to shoulder around the fairgrounds. He also commented on the appearance of the contact and cited the obvious age difference between the two.
Shenberger’s account of that day, as he spoke to his own attorneys in the initial testimony, was filled with names and other specifics about times, locations and even the weather.
He testified to going to the fair as a visitor, with visiting the alleged victim as a secondary reason for going.
As he continued, he said he met a friend there and that the two later traveled to Fort Wayne, eating lunch at a downtown hot dog restaurant. He provided intricate details of the restaurant and the day he spent with his friend.
During Rentschler’s cross-examination, the county prosecutor became visibly annoyed at Shenberger’s sudden lack of attention to detail.
The victim’s step-grandfather had testified to counseling Shenberger after the couch incident, claiming he told the man that the contact with the girl was “inappropriate.”
Rentschler asked Shenberger about the alleged couch incident and received several responses of “I don’t recall” from the accused.
Rentschler responded by reminding Shenberger of his thorough recollection of minute details regarding the visit to the fair and his lunch in Fort Wayne with a friend.
“But that was a very unique situation,” Shenberger responded.
“And having a 13-year-old girl’s head on your chest in not unique?” Rentschler said in response.
Shenberger’s now ex-wife, Christine Barnes, who was married to the accused at the time of the alleged incidents testified that Shenberger and the girl spent a great deal of time alone and described his relationship to the teenager as “territorial.”
“I know there’s been a lot of testimony about how I treated (her) differently,” said Shenberger in response to his ex-wife’s testimony.
“But they (the alleged victim and her younger sister) were a package deal. (The younger sister) was welcome to go with me anytime she wanted.”
Shenberger was referring to short business trips that he and the alleged victim had made while the two girls visited the Shenberger’s Pennsylvania home.
When Rentschler asked Shenberger about his ex-wife’s testimony, the defendant came just short of calling her a liar.
“Do you think Christine was lying here in court today?” Rentschler asked.
“I just think she recalled things differently,” Shenberger said.
Shenberger’s response was different about the testimony of the accused, saying the woman is lying.
“No sir, I never touched her anywhere, other than hugging her and kissing her goodnight,” he said.
Rentschler ended his cross-examination by giving Shenberger an opportunity to reveal a motive for the alleged victim to make up the affair.
“What possible reason could she have for making this up?” asked Rentschler.
“I have been asking myself that question for the past two and a half years,” said Shenberger.
“She gains nothing by this,” responded the prosecutor.