Kidnapper Guilty, But How Did Leslie Buck Die?

The Hartford Courant

There was some sense of satisfaction among those close to Leslie Buck that the Ledyard handyman convicted Tuesday of kidnapping and beating her will pay for his role in the terrifying ordeal.

Russell Kirby, 66, whom Buck identified as her attacker in a dramatic 911 tape played for jurors during his trial, faces up to 21 years in prison for the May 2, 2002, abduction. He was found guilty of assault and kidnapping, and acquitted of lesser charges, including burglary.

But until someone is held accountable for Buck's death -- which occurred two days after she was kidnapped -- loved ones and police investigating the mysterious case say they won't rest.

"Leslie's mom and brother are grateful to the jury for their careful consideration of the evidence. They hope and expect that the police investigation will continue until the circumstances of Leslie's tragic death are fully understood,'' said Thomas J. Murphy, the attorney for Buck's brother, Richard Edmonston of Worcester.

Buck's husband, Charles, told police that he found his wife dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their Mystic home on May 4, 2002, two days after she was abducted. She died of head injuries. No one has been charged in her death, but Stonington Police Chief David P. Erskine has labeled it "suspicious.''

Erskine and other police officials were in court last week when Charles Buck cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions from Kirby's defense lawyer, Jeremiah Donovan, who asked Buck if he was responsible for his wife's kidnapping and her death.

Privately, police officials said they hoped Donovan could get a response from Buck, who has declined to answer questions in previous legal hearings. Donovan maintained that he was questioning Buck as a means to defend Kirby, though he noted that the prosecutor seemed to be on his side.

Donovan's questioning didn't add any pieces to a puzzle that has gripped this shoreline community for more than two years. Police have questioned Charles Buck in connection with his wife's death, but he has denied any involvement and has hired an attorney who has advised him not to answer questions.

"The reason this case has taken hold of many of the folks in Connecticut and Rhode Island is because it highlights our vulnerability and dependence upon our spouses,'' Donovan said. "It's also a mystery today and it looks as if it will continue to be a mystery forever.''

But Leslie Buck's friends and police don't think that's the case.

"One day at a time,'' said Norma Paradis of Mystic, Leslie Buck's neighbor.

One of those days was Tuesday.

Neither Buck's brother, Richard Edmonston, nor her mother, Catherine Edmonston, was in court Tuesday to hear the verdict against Kirby. Catherine Edmonston, who is 92, attended most of the trial.

But a handful of current and retired teachers -- people Buck's mother referred to as her daughter's "great legacy of friends'' -- were there for the outcome.

"Les was on our shoulder the whole time,'' an emotional Judy Barber of Westerly, R.I., said.

Barber testified during the trial that Leslie Buck went to work the day after the kidnapping, saying Buck wanted to be with her friends and her students instead of staying at home.

"But she's not with us,'' said another friend, Anna Greene of Stonington. "And that's the hard part.''

The jury of three men and three women deliberated for about 90 minutes Monday and about four hours on Tuesday before finding Kirby guilty of assault and kidnapping. The jury acquitted him of lesser charges; he had faced up to 61 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

The defense had argued that, as an employee of the Buck family hired to do odd jobs around their home, Kirby had permission to be in the Bucks' garage. It was in the garage, according to testimony, where Kirby and Leslie Buck confronted one another on the night of May 2, 2002.

Leslie Buck told police that Kirby shocked her with a stun gun, grabbed her by the neck, punched her in the stomach and pushed her to the ground. He tied her hands and feet and drove her to his house in her vehicle, according to her comments on the 911 tape. She said Kirby told her he needed $10,000.

A Stonington police officer testified that Kirby confessed to the kidnapping and said he did it because "he needed the money.''

Buck told authorities she escaped from Kirby when he stopped the car on I-95 and got out. She had an extra key for her car in her purse.

The prosecutor, State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane, showed jurors the contents of a satchel belonging to Kirby that police found inside the vehicle used for the abduction. Those items included stun guns, rope, gloves, and a .45-caliber handgun.

During the trial, Kirby told the jury that he needed the items in his satchel to fend off a surly dog that had been harassing him at a job site. On the night of May 2, 2002, Kirby said, he went to the Bucks' Mystic home looking for help after his pickup broke down about a mile from their house.

Leslie Buck was upset with her husband for paying Kirby nearly $800 from their personal bank account -- pay Charles Buck usually took from the account of his electrical contracting business, Kirby testified. Donovan argued that Leslie Buck's anger was intensified because she, a sophisticated, well-dressed woman who lived in an affluent area, was uncomfortable around Kirby, a loner whom she described to friends as "strange'' and "odd.''

Kirby claimed that Leslie Buck became hysterical when the two encountered each other, and that his actions, including using the stun gun and tying her hands, were taken in self-defense.

Kirby, who appeared in court with a long, graying beard, retired in 1996 from Electric Boat, where he worked as an inspector. Commercial diving, welding and vehicle mechanics are just a few of the areas he specialized in.

He did not react to Tuesday's verdict.

"He's demonstrated a good deal of grace under pressure,'' Donovan said. "He wasn't overly emotional about it.''

Donovan said Kirby was misunderstood in the Bucks' world.

"He's one of those fellows who keeps the world going, but who in the company of sophisticated and educated women, just wouldn't know what to say,'' Donovan said.

Detectives said they hope Kirby will help keep their investigation into Leslie Buck's death going. Kirby was in police custody at the time of Buck's death, but they believe he may know something about it. Though he has yet to say anything indicating he may have information about her death, investigators said they hope Tuesday's conviction may push Kirby, who has described himself as "the best friend'' of Charles Buck, to talk.

"At some point in time we will try to have a conversation with Mr. Kirby,'' Stonington Detective Sgt. David Knowles said after the verdict. "You can call this trial what you want, say chapter one, and say now that we're heading into the next chapter of this case. This is not a closed case. We're not going to rest. I'm not going to rest. I know there's more out there. We just have to find it.''

When contacted late Tuesday, jurors said they had made an agreement not to talk to the media about their deliberations.

Judge Stuart M. Schimelman is scheduled to sentence Kirby on Aug. 27.

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