Victim testifies about attack atop Maiden Cliff

By Juliette Laaka | Jul 17, 2014
Photo by: Juliette Laaka Charles Black walks into the Knox County Superior Courtroom on the first day of his trial July 15. In the background, from left, is District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau and Black's defense attorney Walt McKee.

Rockland — In the second day of the Charles Black trial July 16, the reported victim testified about her marriage to the defendant, the attack atop Maiden Cliff, and the harrowing struggle to reach the bottom of the mountain to seek help.

Black, 71, is accused of hitting his now ex-wife, Lisa Zahn, 55, on the head three times, then dragging her body off Maiden Cliff in an attempt to kill her in April 2011. The defendant has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder, elevated aggravated assault and aggravated assault.

The state contends Black wanted his former wife dead because of an affair he was having and because she had inherited a large sum of money totaling nearly $4 million.

The defense asserts Black knew he would not inherit money if his wife died, and that the injuries Black suffered do not corroborate the claim he was the perpetrator.

Zahn testified the force of the blows knocked her to the ground. Black then grabbed her wrist and began to drag her off the mountain. "I thought, I have about eight seconds left on this earth, and I didn't get a chance to say goodbye," she testified. Black's eyes were vacant as he dragged her closer to cliff edge, she said.

The victim said she tried to bite Black in an attempt to free herself, but was forced off the cliff and fell about 10 feet down to a ledge, where she considered playing dead. When she heard rustling above her, she said she knew she had to get down the mountain.

Black at one point tumbled beyond her in what she described as a horrifying sight, his body akin to a pinball, hitting trees and rocks. Zahn said he yelled to her as she was going down the mountain, asking her to help him down the mountain, and pleading that she not leave him. She said she told him she was not certain she could make it down herself, as she had lost a lot of blood and was feeling weak. Zahn also told the court she was scared to go near him.

When Zahn reached the bottom of the mountain and flagged help, she said she told medical personnel where her husband was, because although he hurt her, she had a conscience and still cared for him.

"It was still surreal, and we were married," she said.

Both Zahn and Black were taken by LifeFlight to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Zahn had a broken sternum, broken ribs, a punctured lung, and three deep lacerations on her head; one wound went down to her skull.

Zahn said she met Black through a bicycle club, and that they were acquaintances for about six years until they became romantically involved. Nine days after their first date, Black asked Zahn to marry him. Four months later, they were married.

Zahn said the marriage was happy at first, and she described Black as charismatic and adventurous.

When the couple relocated to Maine, in 2010, everything changed, Zahn said. Black checked out of the marriage emotionally and physically, and was short tempered, she said.

Zahn testified that moving to Maine was Black's dream, whereas she felt isolated and was unhappy to have left Kansas during her daughter's last year of high school and move away from lifelong friends. Zahn, a fourth-grade award-winning teacher, said she would also have prefered to teach for another year, but Black persuaded her to retire. Black, also a teacher, had already retired.

In February 2011, Zahn found emails detailing an inappropriate correspondence between Black and another woman. Zahn said the communication was clearly more than friendly, and testified she knew Black was in love with the other woman from what she read in emails.

The couple eventually went to counseling to repair the marriage after the affair, but Black did not stop communicating with the mistress, said Zahn.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Fernald also asked Zahn about her financial situation before and after an inheritance she received after her father's death in January 2010. A trust was established for Zahn and her brother, and only Zahn had permission to request money from her financial adviser. Black did not have access to the account, but requested via email $20,000 from the account and signed the email with Lisa's name, as well as his own. Zahn testified he did not have permission to request the money. Black also is accused of stealing gold coins from a safe deposit box he and Zahn shared. The coins were not to be sold, but were kept as an investment for use in hard times, Zahn said. Four tubes of coins were taken, and a letter Black wrote to Zahn's brother discussed the coins, although the contents of the letter were not read aloud in court.

Former Maine State Police Detective Dean Jackson testified about four or five people collected evidence at the scene of Maiden Cliff. A rock climber was used to collect evidence in a crevice near the site. Dean testified there was a trail of blood from a spot where the couple had eaten lunch to the spot where Black had forced Zahn over the cliff.

Not all blood stains were documented and sampled, he said. Defense attorney Walt McKee asked then, if it was possible the blood at the scene that was not documented could be somebody else's, which Dean said was possible.

Cross examination of Zahn by McKee will begin July 17.

In the prosecution's opening statement, delivered by District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau July 15, he said Zahn begged for her life as she was dragged to the lip of Maiden Cliff.

Zahn told medical professionals thinking of her two daughters forced her to reach the bottom of the mountain, seek help, and escape her husband.

Five witnesses for the state said Zahn repeatedly told them Black tried to kill her. Medical professionals said she was fearful and distraught, with blood flowing from her head and coagulating in her hair.

Two women who were driving home from work together, Bonnie Bowden and Denise Pearse, were the first to see Zahn after she climbed down the mountain. They stopped to help her after they noticed she was injured and covered in blood. Both women testified the first thing Zahn said to them was that her husband tried to kill her.

District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said Zahn is alive today because she landed on a ledge after Black threw her from Maiden Cliff. Rushlau said Zahn feared Black would pursue her when he discovered she had not been killed, and she began to descend down the mountain although she was injured.

Defense attorney Walt McKee said the physical evidence does not corroborate Zahn's claims Black struck her in the head and dragged her to the cliff face before throwing her over the edge. He said if this story was true, there would be more blood on the clothing Black was wearing, as the injuries Zahn sustained to her head were deep lacerations. He contended her injuries and the amount of blood on the top of the cliff were consistent with a fall from the mountain, not from her former husband smashing her with a rock.

Rushlau said blood found at the scene proves Zahn was injured and bleeding before she was thrown from the mountain.

McKee said July 15 in opening arguments although his client was having an online affair, the infidelity was not a motive for his client to kill his wife, but rather, a betrayal that could have angered Zahn and, coupled with the fact she did not want to live in Maine, spurred her to anger.

"Who had more of a motive?" McKee asked jurors.

In an affidavit filed in court by police, Zahn said there were several other incidents involving her husband that made her feel as if he had been trying to kill her. According to the affidavit, a couple of weeks prior to the Maiden Cliff incident, Black climbed a ladder to the attic and, while she was at the bottom of the ladder, he fell down on top of her. Black told his wife he passed out, according to the court documents.

Black is not allowed to stay in Camden during the trial. A motion to amend his bail to allow him to stay in Camden with a friend was denied June 24 by Justice Jeffrey Hjelm in Knox County Superior Court.

Justice Joyce Wheeler is presiding over the case. A jury of 13 women and two men have been selected to decide the case.

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 or by email at jlaaka@villagesoup.com.

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Juliette Laaka
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Juliette primarily covers the cops and courts beat for The Courier-Gazette.

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