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Trial begins for former St. Paul’s student Ben Baker, accused of sexual assaults in 1970s

  • Ben Baker, 64, faces trial on four counts of felonious sexual assault accusing him of abusing a former St. Paul’s student. Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/13/2020 7:21:11 PM

When Ben Baker received a phone call in December 2017 from a former faculty member’s son at St. Paul’s School for the first time in 40 years, he sounded excited to hear from him.

Baker used to babysit the man as a boy and visit his house regularly when and after Baker was a student at the elite boarding school in the 1970s. On the phone, Baker wished him a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and asked about his family.

The man told Baker he was glad that he remembered him. Baker responded with an enthusiastic, “Absolutely.”

However, when the man told Baker he had more to discuss, the tone of the conversation changed.

“I wanted to talk about some of the stuff that happened between you and me when I was younger,” the man said.

“You probably should talk to someone else,” Baker said back to him, without asking the man what he was referring to. “It’s a conversation that I don’t want to get into and I’m sure that it’s important to you, but you need to talk to someone who can deal with that.”

During the five- and a half minute conversation played for jurors Monday, Baker repeatedly told the man that he should speak to someone else, and that he couldn’t help him. His once-jovial voice became sharper.

“This is a conversation I can’t have and don’t want to have,” Baker said, stammering.

Baker didn’t question what the man wanted to discuss until right before he hung up. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.

The phone conversation, which had been taped by police as part of a sexual assault investigation, was part of the evidence presented to jurors Monday at the start of Baker’s trial on sexual assault charges at Merrimack County Superior Court.

Baker, 64, of Falls Church, Va., is accused of inappropriately touching the man as far back as 1975 on the campus of St. Paul’s. The victim was between the ages of 13 and 16. Baker faces four counts of felonious sexual assault.

Deputy County Attorney George Waldron pointed to contradictions in Baker’s phone conversation with the victim and his later interactions with police.

When Baker first began his phone conversation with the victim, he spoke to him like an old friend, Waldron said.

Eight months after that phone call, in August 2018, when former Concord Police Detective Julie Curtin came to visit Baker at his apartment complex in Virginia, Baker said he didn’t remember who the man was.

“He clearly knew what the victim was talking about, and never indicated until the end of the conversation that he did not know,” Waldron said.

Curtin said Baker ignored the detectives’ calls and tried to evade them when he saw them in his apartment building during their trip to Virginia. Curtin said Baker appeared nervous and avoided making eye contact with investigators.

Both Baker, the victim and the victim’s father were present in court Monday. The victim and his father and Curtin testified before the jury.

The victim’s father, who worked at St. Paul’s for decades and lived on campus with his family, said the family had a close relationship with Baker after he became Baker’s advisor.

During his time at the school, Baker would babysit his advisor’s children and attend cookouts and birthday celebrations at their house. The victim’s father said he attended Baker’s wrestling meets. The family’s support for Baker continued after his graduation in 1974, when he would come back to St. Paul’s to visit them.

“He was always welcomed there, and we considered him a member of our family,” the victim’s father said.

The victim, now 57 years old, broke down in tears after recounting the first time he said Baker assaulted him 40 years ago, when Baker was visiting his family on a break from college.

It was 1975, and the victim was in eighth-grade. His parents and siblings were all asleep and he was with Baker in the family room of their house.

He said Baker sexually assaulted him in front of the fireplace.

“I was terrified,” he recalled. “I was scared because I was worried that we would be discovered, that my father would come downstairs and that he would be angry with me.”

He described another incident the following year, when Baker was visiting campus again and the victim was in his first year at St. Paul’s as a student. The victim said Baker came into his dorm room and began assaulting him.

At one point, the victim became so emotional telling his story that the court had to take a recess.

Baker’s face was blank after hearing the victim’s testimony as he took a sip of water from a paper cup in front of him.

Defense attorney Christine List asked the victim why he didn’t come forward before the summer of 2017, when he told St. Paul’s School officials and Concord police. He said it was because he was ashamed.

The victim said he was seeing a therapist regularly in 2013. During that time, he was working up the courage to speak to his father and brother about what happened between him and Baker.

He said it took him three years and multiple failed attempts to tell his father what happened because he was so nervous.

Several other high-profile sexual assault cases involving St. Paul’s, some from around the same time as the victim and Baker were students, came to light around the same time, List said.

List mentioned two letters the victim had received as an alumnus from then-rector Michael Hirschfeld during the spring and summer of 2016, around the time the victim finally told his father about the assault.

Baker’s defense attorney questioned the victim about why he didn’t contact the school after receiving a letter from Hirschfeld imploring victims to come forward so that they could be offered resources and begin healing. In the letter, Hirschfeld stated that the school had a “zero-tolerance policy” for sexual abuse.

“When (the victim) tells about why he waited until June of 2017, listen for the context,” List told the jury in her opening statements. “Listen to what’s going on in the few years leading up to June of 2017. Because before he ever went to police, and before he ever went to the school, he phoned a lawyer. Listen for the context.”

Waldron said that it is disingenuous to say that the victim came forward for any other reason than for closure. He said the victim’s family cared for Baker for many years, and that he had deceived them all.

“How did the defendant repay this kindness and affection?” Waldron said. “He betrayed their trust and kindness by sexually assaulting their oldest son and taking away his child hood by exploiting him for sex.”

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