Defense and prosecution provide differing accounts of night that on-duty Lawrence officer is accused of having raped woman

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Ex-police officer Jonathan Gardner is pictured at his rape trial on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, in Douglas County District Court.

Story updated at 6:24 p.m. Tuesday, May 23:

A trial got underway Tuesday for a former Lawrence police officer accused of raping a woman when he gave her a ride home after she’d been drinking at a downtown bar — with jurors hearing differing accounts of what transpired that winter night six years ago.

The ex-officer, Jonathan Mark Gardner, 42, of Tonganoxie, is charged in Douglas County District Court with one count of rape, 17 felony counts of unlawful use of computers and 17 misdemeanor counts of officer misconduct. The charges relate to an incident in the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, 2017, as the Journal-World has reported.

In opening arguments, District Attorney Suzanne Valdez said that the state had two theories about what happened that night. Gardner took the woman home and sexually assaulted her, and the woman did not consent either because she was too drunk to consent or because she was too afraid of Gardner and he forced himself on her.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez is pictured at the rape trial of Jonathan Gardner on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, in Douglas County District Court.

Valdez said that the woman was drinking at the now-closed Tonic bar and became separated from her friends. Valdez said the woman also lost her purse and phone before connecting with a group of people who were walking to a hotel by the river. Valdez said that’s where the woman asked Gardner, who was on duty, for a ride.

Gardner gave two people a ride home that night: a man, who was dropped off first, then the woman, but something happened between the time Gardner dropped off the man and when the woman finally made it home, Valdez said.

Somewhere near the intersection of Peterson Road and Kasold Drive, Gardner’s patrol vehicle stopped recording GPS data and Gardner went out of radio contact with dispatch for approximately 25 minutes. Valdez said it was in this period that the woman believes she was sexually assaulted.

When Gardner remade contact with dispatch, he reported that he was leaving the woman at her grandma’s house and that another officer needed to pick her up. That officer arrived and took only five minutes to take the woman from her grandmother’s house across town to her mother’s house, Valdez said.

The woman went inside her mother’s house and immediately told her mom that she had been assaulted by an officer and that she didn’t want to talk about it, Valdez said. The woman later told her therapist and a few friends about the incident, but she could not remember the officer’s name.

More than four years later, in April of 2021, the woman was with a friend making a police report about an unrelated matter. It was Gardner taking that report, and after he asked the woman if she remembered him, that’s when she made the connection between Gardner and her assault all those years ago.

Valdez said that in the years between the incident and the time the woman reported it in October 2021, Gardner used police computers 17 times to review the woman’s personal information and to look at photographs of the woman kept in the database.

Gardner’s defense attorney, John DeMarco, told the jury that despite the woman having told her mother, therapist and friends right after the alleged assault, it still took her 1,764 days before she reported the incident to police.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Defense attorney John DeMarco is pictured at his client Jonathan Gardner’s rape trial on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, in Douglas County District Court.

DeMarco said that even when she did report the incident, she told multiple officers in different interviews that she wasn’t sure if she was the one who initiated physical contact with Gardner. He said the woman also told police that she didn’t want to press charges and that she only wanted the information to be on Gardner’s record, DeMarco said.

The woman’s story has changed depending on whom she told the story to, DeMarco said; one of her friends was told that she had to push Gardner off of her, and another said that the woman claimed that the assault happened during a pat down.

DeMarco said Gardner left the woman at her grandma’s house for another officer to pick her up because Gardner had just spent the better part of an hour listening to the woman explain where she lived, only for the woman to not have keys for the house that he took her to. Gardner called for another officer to handle her because he couldn’t leave her outside as it was around 25 degrees that night, DeMarco said.

DeMarco said that police use the computer database to search for people all the time and that just by searching for the woman Gardner did not commit any sort of crime.

The state then presented a recorded audio interview conducted by Lawrence Police Lt. Mark Unruh in which the woman first told her story to police in detail on Nov. 1, 2021. In that interview she said that Gardner had violated her while they were driving to her grandmother’s house and they only stopped once they had arrived there.

The woman said in the interview that Gardner reached over the center console while they were driving and put his fingers inside her. She said she was pretty drunk, and when she and Gardner talked about whether her grandmother was at home that maybe they had also talked about going inside to have sex, but the woman didn’t have keys.

Unruh asked in the interview whether the woman thought at the time of the incident that what Gardner had done was wrong or whether she realized it later after thinking about the situation. The woman said she knew right away because she remembers telling her mother about it when she finally did get home after another officer drove her. She told Unruh she didn’t initially report it because she was on probation and was worried about getting in more trouble.

In the afternoon, jurors saw two videos of Gardner being interviewed by Kansas Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Crystal Hornseth. Hornseth led the investigation into Gardner after Unruh determined that the investigation was a criminal matter and could no longer be investigated internally.

The first interview was on Nov. 5, 2021, at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, where Gardner first learned of the allegations against him.

In the video, Gardner denied making any sexual contact with the woman but said that the woman had twice taken his hand. The first time, he said, was in his patrol vehicle; he said she took his hand and placed it in her lap, and then he pulled away. He said the second time was while he was dropping the woman off at her grandmother’s house; she again tried to hold his hand and he again pulled away, he said.

Hornseth said in the video that when she mentioned the woman’s name at the start of the interview, Gardner recognized it. She asked why he remembered the woman, and he said it was because she had been flirting with him, which was uncommon.

“It was somewhat flattering,” he said in the video. “I’ve got some young thing in my car and she’s grabbing my hand.”

Gardner also told Hornseth during this interview that he didn’t know why the GPS had cut out during their ride and that she should ask IT staff about it. She asked Gardner why the in-car cameras had been manually turned off around the same time that the GPS cut out; Gardner said he didn’t know, but that those cameras frequently malfunctioned.

Gardner also said the reason it took so long to take the woman home was that the woman was unsure of where she wanted to go until she eventually gave the address of her grandmother’s house.

Gardner told Hornseth he remembered meeting the woman in April 2021, when the woman’s friend was giving a report to police. He said again that he remembered her because she had flirted with him, and that he thought nothing of it when he told her he remembered her from that night.

“She did have a weird look on her face when I said that,” Gardner said.

Gardner said in the interview that what the woman had alleged was physically possible — that he was close enough to her to have assaulted her — but he denied that anything happened other than the woman placing his hand in her lap.

In a second interview on Nov. 18, 2021, Hornseth asked Gardner about the multiple searches he made for the woman using Lawrence police databases and the statewide database. Gardner said the searches were conducted for “law enforcement purposes.” When Hornseth asked for a more specific reason, Gardner said “you know, law enforcement purposes.” When pressed further, Gardner said he had thought about writing an informational report about the woman and had looked her up for that report. He also told Hornseth that if he wanted to find the woman, he would not have needed the databases, because she worked near his house and he saw her occasionally but did not interact with her.

“If I wanted to see her, I could have,” Gardner told Hornseth.

In court on Tuesday, Hornseth testified that she was never able to find any report written about the woman in police records.

Testimony concluded for the day at around 4 p.m. after a juror asked the court to be let out early so he could attend a recognition ceremony at his child’s school.

During the course of the trial, a woman who was a voting juror was dismissed. The reason was not immediately clear, but Judge Sally Pokorny announced that a male alternate juror would become a voting juror, and the woman who was dismissed did not return to the courtroom.

The jury, including the 12 voting jurors and an alternate, now consists of eight men and five women, meaning a majority of the voting members of the jury are men.

The trial will resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday and is scheduled to last through Friday. Gardner is currently free on a $50,000 own-recognizance bond, meaning he was not required to put up any money to be released from jail but may be charged that amount if he fails to appear in court.

Gardner’s case had gone to criminal mediation by agreement of the parties, as the Journal-World reported, and Gardner was offered a plea deal — to enter a no contest or guilty plea to a midlevel aggravated sexual battery charge and three counts of the felony unlawful use of a computer charge — but he rejected the offer.

Gardner was sworn in as an LPD officer in June 2013 and left the department shortly after his arrest in March 2022.

In January, a judge denied Gardner’s request to be tried in a different venue.