If federal prosecutors had gotten their way, all of Washington might today be familiar with a device known as the Erostek ET-302R.
As they prepped for a blockbuster conspiracy trial over the death of D.C. lawyer Robert Wone—soon entering its fourth week in the courtroom of Judge Lynn Leibovitz—authorities planned to show off sexual gadgetry they’d found in the million-dollar Swann Street NW home of defendants Joseph R. Price, Victor J. Zaborsky, and Dylan M. Ward. Stuff like arm restraints, black hoods, collars, and gags.
District cops even had a sex-toy expert on the payroll to help sort it all out for the court. Sgt. James Plante was to testify based on his “more than a decade of experience with gay sado/masochistic practices,” according to court papers.
Take Item 24, for instance, which Plante describes in court papers as “a pair of chrome plated ‘O’ rings in graduating sizes from large to small attached to a black leather strap—largest ring worn over base of penis and behind scrotal sack while other rings enclose the penal shaft known as ‘the gates of hell’ due to discomfort created when penis is erect.”
In a preliminary hearing in December 2008, prosecutor Glenn Kirschner weighed in on the Erostek machine himself. The ET-302R, he explained, is capable of producing “electric ejaculation of a person who is under anesthetic or otherwise incapacitated.”
Court papers indicate the housemates had all sorts of attachments for the machine: “Flesh colored butt plug with conducting surfaces for anal insertion while attached to the Erostek ET302R,” “[b]lack adjustable cock ring with white and red connector for use with Erostek ET302R or similar device,” “[b]lack adjustable cock ring with white and red connector for use with Erostek ET302R or similar device.”
In the prosecution’s version of events, the type of sexual play associated with those items was a short leap from a sexual assault ending in murder. Their theory: Wone was drugged and then forced to ejaculate via “e-stim.” Sometime toward the end of that sexual assault, Wone was stabbed with a kitchen knife and left to die.
Over a “prolonged period of time—and when I say prolonged[,] an hour, perhaps, [Wone] was tortured, was incapacitated, was sexually suffocated, was sexually abused, had eight needle puncture marks on his body,” Kirschner said. There “was an ejaculation that occurred and the government has now, courtesy of experts, learned a lot more about electro-ejaculation than frankly this counsel ever knew.”
The defense argued that the ejaculate proves nothing, because “seminal fluid and urine are commonly secreted by men as part of the postmortem process.”
More important, the attorneys demanded that Leibovitz disallow the sex toys from even being submitted as courtroom exhibits. The defense cited a lack of evidence that Wone was restrained with any of the Erostek accessories—and argued that unrelated lifestyle details might prejudice a jury. “With no evidence that the alleged uncharged crimes occurred and no legal basis for their admission, the government should be precluded from placing them before the jury,” attorneys argued.
On May 5, Leibovitz agreed, rejecting the sex toys as an “invitation to wild speculation.” Thus was the courtroom throng kept in the dark about the ET-302R.
All the same, the Wone trial remains heavy with sociological baggage.
Even before they got to the sex toys, authorities leaned heavily on raciness. Here’s Det. David Wagner, in a transcript of an interrogation, hypothesizing about how Wone, a married attorney, wound up dead in the home of a three-man family that included one of his old college buddies.
“I’ve got three homosexuals in a house,” Wagner said, trying to coax a confession out of Price. “And I’ve got one straight guy. What’s he doing over there?” Add a little alcohol to the mix and the picture becomes somewhat clearer, at least in the detective’s own mind. Wagner put himself inside the suspect’s mind to hypothesize. “I think we were all drinking wine,” he said. “You know what’s going to happen tonight, you’re coming to Jesus tonight. That’s what’s going on.”
Early on, the cops figured out the three housemates were, in fact, a “trouple”: Zaborsky and Price had been together for about six years and were committed enough to decide to have children together via an arrangement with a lesbian couple. Meanwhile, Price and Ward were also together, and had been since 2003.
For the prosecution, bringing up the men’s relationship statuses wasn’t meant to evoke prejudice. It speaks to motivation. “They did it to protect the family,” Kirschner said in his opening arguments. He accused Price, Ward, and Zaborsky of having conspired to clean-up the crime scene—and perhaps even substitute a second knife in place of the actual murder weapon—in a desperate attempt to confuse investigators and thereby keep their unconventional domestic partnership intact.
For the defense, though, the focus on family speaks to police bias. “[Police] decided they were guilty within hours of the murder,” defense attorney David Schertler said in his own opening statement. He asserted that the cops had accused the threesome of trying to “gay [Wone] up”—though prosecutors noted that this phrase is found nowhere in the hours of videotaped police interrogations that have been replayed during the trial.
The extensive footage does show investigators aggressively questioning the suspects about their own possible sexual interest in Wone. “No, no, none,” Price answered. “Even if I had, I’m not sure what difference it would make, but I just—I don’t find Robert physically attractive.”
So what did happen? The defendants maintain that an unknown intruder broke into their house and stabbed Wone—a scenario that investigators have dismissed as unlikely, citing a lack of evidence. The defense claims the investigation wasn’t thorough enough. “As crazy as it sounds, someone came in our house and did this,” Price said. Alas, as witnesses, the housemates have been next to useless. They didn’t see much, except maybe that the back door was unlocked. And besides a series of grunts that allegedly startled Price and Zaborsky awake, they didn’t hear much, either.
Prosecutors say it was the defendants’ behavior on the night of the murder—not their sex toys—that led them to start treating the trio as suspects. Yet even government testimony about said behavior comes loaded with identity-politics significance. Take the repeated official descriptions of the men’s attire: Police witnesses noted that all three men were dressed in white terry-cloth robes when the cops showed up. Bathrobes may not seem so odd for many people, but they start to seem very interesting indeed if your case involves conjuring an image of late-night S&M.
In the absence of the Erostek, prosecutors have had to make do with the anecdotal testimony of various detectives, medical examiners, and neighbors, friends, and relatives of the victim, as well as the forensic analysis of former O.J. Simpson trial expert Douglas Deedrick. Deedrick ran experiments meant to recreate the circumstances in which Wone was killed. In one, he draped a T-shirt across a pork loin, and then repeatedly stabbed it in order to ascertain what kind of fibers would be left behind on the knife. Deedrick also used horse blood to simulate a blood pattern left on the knife that could be the murder weapon.
But because none of the sex toys the trouple owned will make it into the courtroom, we’ll never know what sort of experiments Deedrick might have come up with for the Erostek ET-302R.
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