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Michele Dinko remembers that week in 1987 like it was yesterday.

“It changed my life completely. I was 12 years old when this happened. It changed my perspective forever on how I felt about myself,” Dinko said Monday. Dinko survived the sexual abuse of Leonard Forte, who died last week at his Florida home while awaiting extradition to Vermont to face charges.

Dinko was an innocent preteen living in New York’s Long Island when she was invited by her best friend, Dina Forte, to visit the Landgrove vacation home of Forte and his family for a week’s stay in the Vermont countryside.

That week changed Dinko into someone completely different, she said.

“I didn’t trust anybody for a long time after that,” Dinko said. “I chose bad people in my life for a long time after. I think that was a result of how I felt about myself afterward, like I wasn’t worthy of being happy. I struggled through my high school years. It was just these bad people that I was drawn to, who weren’t nice to me. I didn’t want someone to be nice to me, because [Forte] had always treated me so nicely, and then I got that in return.”

Dinko said she still struggles “with being worthy of life, of being happy. That never went away completely, never disappeared from me, even to this day.”

Now a trauma nurse, Dinko, 47, is married to her best friend, with two beautiful teenage children and a wonderful life. But the pain she suffered has stayed with her all these years, from the 13-year-old who testified at the trial in 1988, through the conviction and ultimate dismissal of a jury verdict, and through three decades of false hopes, delays, distortions, sketchy legal maneuvers, and finally, Forte’s death, that moved justice forever out of reach.

Forte, 80, died last week in his Florida home, where he evaded for decades being sent back to Vermont to stand trial once again on three counts of sexual assault against Dinko.

Forte fought a 30-plus-year battle against extradition from Florida, using his alleged failing health for deceptive purposes during that time. He was originally found guilty on all counts in the 1988 trial. Still, a judge dismissed that verdict after siding with a defense motion that the female prosecutor in the case, Theresa DiMauro, was “excessively emotional” during the trial.

“I do remember testifying at that trial,” Dinko said. “I was so scared. I don’t remember all of it, but I remember when I was explaining the details of what happened to me, and I looked right at him, and I just lost it. I started crying and shaking, and they had to pause the trial for a while. I don’t remember much of what happened afterward. I think my mother tried as best she could to shield me from all the aftermath of the trial.”

Dinko’s mother passed away about four years ago. When she was dying, she gave Dinko letters she’d sent to the courts and to prominent people to try to get something done, but most people just ignored the efforts.

“I didn’t understand what happened when the case was dismissed. I knew he was guilty from the trial, and my mom told me what happened afterward, but I didn’t understand what that meant until years later,” Dinko recalled.

The story of what happened to Dinko follows the script of so many others who suffered sexual abuse at a young age.

“My best friend, Kristine, was the first person I told. It was so embarrassing and scary to talk about this to anyone. But I told her what happened, and she reported it to someone in the school. That’s when my mom found out, and we went to the police in Suffolk County, the same police that Forte did investigative police work for. Many of those cops back then, they didn’t believe me.”

A grand jury in New York was convened in the case, but no charges were ever filed.

“A couple of the detectives that believed my story reached out to us afterward and led my mom in the right direction, to Vermont. The incidents took place there, so that’s when the case was finally taken seriously. I was so happy that people believed me.”

Then, just four years after Forte was found guilty in Vermont, the judge dismissed all of the charges.

“He had to live with it, that judge making that call dismissing the case,” Dinko said. “I was told that, after the case was dismissed, the jurors themselves wrote letters to the judge asking that the verdict be reinstated, that they firmly believed that he was guilty, but to no avail.”

Dinko said that she is still sad that the charges were dismissed, but she’s very grateful to those that tried to seek justice in the case.

She thanked former prosecutor Theresa DiMauro and then-Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy “and the team of people who tried to do the right thing, the police officers down in Florida. Anyone who tried to help me, I am very grateful to all of them,” Dinko said.

“I still believe in the justice system. I know how many good people were trying to rectify what happened back then, and I appreciate what they did,” said Dinko.

To those who failed that 12-year-old girl and the woman she became, Dinko said they’ll have to live with it, and that “it’s not going to stop me from living my life.”

By all accounts, as a trauma nurse, mother and friend, Dinko is a person who goes out of her way to help others. But that’s not how she saw herself during those tough years when she was a young woman.

“I know I always was kind and caring, but I always had such low self-esteem then. I felt worthless,” Dinko said.

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That started to change when her mother got sick with cancer. Slowly, the caretaker part of her personality began to emerge, the part that wanted to become a nurse, but it took a long while.

“You have to remember, I always thought it was my fault. I would go to church and just pray and pray that I would somehow heal. I remember I went to church one day, and it hit me, right there as I sat in the pew. I knew I had to somehow forgive him. I felt like if I could forgive him, I could begin to live my life again, so I did. I forgave him. That started the healing process.”

“You don’t ever forget it. It’s a trauma. It’s hard to explain, like getting into a car accident. You never forget that feeling. It just doesn’t go away. You want it to go away, you don’t want to remember anything, but it remains there,” Dinko said.

She said the trauma was tucked away for a long time, until the case against Forte reopened several years ago.

“I wanted it to go forward. I wanted him to be found guilty. I wanted him to acknowledge what happened finally. It all seemed possible. Then it wasn’t anymore,” Dinko said, referring to his death last week.

When she heard that Forte died, Dinko said she felt a mix of emotions. One thing is clear to her, however: “I’m upset I didn’t get my trial. I know that sounds terrible, but I am. I’m angry. I’m angry that he died. I’m angry, now that people are listening, that it took so long for all of this. And all of the lies he told, all those status conferences and delays, all those medical records stating that he was too sick to go to trial,” Dinko said.

Being a nurse, Dinko asked for Forte’s medical records.

“I knew it was all [expletive]. I mean, how can you be on a heart transplant list and then come off? It was all lies. I was so infuriating. I don’t understand how you can get away with that,” Dinko said.

Dinko took a long pause when asked what she might have said to him, if given the opportunity.

“I think to look him in the face and ask, ‘Why, why would you lie? Why would you do that to somebody? Why would you do that to a little girl?’”

Dinko told the Banner she thought the prospects of Forte ever seeing the inside of a prison cell were slim.

“He was 80 years old. He would have never made it to jail, but I wanted for him to say that he was guilty. I wanted this to never happen to anyone else ever again,” Dinko said.

Dinko is the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, the same age that she was when the case against Forte was dismissed. Does she sometimes looks at her daughter and remember what it felt like to be that age and to hold the truth about what happened to her? Dinko quickly responded, “I do.”

“We have a very open relationship. I didn’t tell her for a long time. Recently I was able to tell both of [my children] what happened to me when I was 12. I didn’t want to, but I felt like I had to, that it would eventually come out, and I didn’t want them to hear it from someone else,” said Dinko.

The trauma nurse said it was hard to tell her children about the abuse, the conviction, the dismissal and the effort to get Forte convicted for a second time.

Dinko said her daughter is a “very strong” person.

“I tell her to never let anyone talk to her in a certain way, [to] talk loudly and stick up for herself. I’ve been scared her whole life of something happening. There weren’t any sleepovers at other people’s houses, only at my house,” Dinko said. “I trust her; it’s the other people. I know I have to let that go soon, but it’s hard to do that.”

Dinko became quiet when asked about closure, saying that it will take time to return to a place of forgiveness.

“I have to get back to that place again. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of me thinking about him all of the time, thinking about what he did to me. I just have to keep looking forward and get on with my life,” Dinko said.

Forgiveness in situations like these takes an enormous amount of time and effort, said Dinko, but she knows it can lead to healing.

“I have to learn to forgive him in my heart, or I’m never going to be able to live,” she said. “I’m trying to forgive, again, for the second time, but I thought for sure I would have my day in court, but that never happened. It’s hard to forgive the second time around.”

Dinko has simple and forthright advice for young people who might find themselves in a similar situation.

“Go to an adult. Tell your parents. You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t keep it a secret. Let people know,” Dinko said. Most important, she said, “Don’t be afraid.”


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