DANVERSE — Robert Vandenbulcke told a Salem District Court jury on Tuesday that the three Essex Tech students who accused him of inappropriate physical contact with them were either lying or deceiving themselves.
Asked specifically if he had twice touched the front of a student’s pants, on his genitals, with the back of his hand, Vandenbulcke, 65, conceded: “It’s possible,” but said he had no recollection of any physical contact with the then 16-year-old boy.
But he was adamant that if it happened it was an accident in a school kitchen in Danvers, where, he said (and the boy later disputed), a trolley was partially blocking the area near the stove where he and the teenager were standing.
“At any time, did you ever intentionally touch (the student’s) penis?” asked defense attorney Gerard LaFlamme.
“No, I didn’t,” Vandenbulcke replied.
Hours later, the jury of four men and two women agreed, finding Vandenbulcke, 65, of Salisbury, not guilty of two counts of indecent assault and assault on the boy.
LaFlamme, Vandenbulcke’s attorney, said the speed with which the jury reached its verdict – just over half an hour after deliberating – “says a lot about the charges and the evidence. I think they made the right choice.”
Vandenbulcke was not charged in connection with the charges of three other students, two of whom testified that he touched their bottoms.
As the jury delivered the verdict shortly after 4:30 p.m., the former student clutched the back of the bench in front of him, and appeared visibly upset, his face flushed. He and his parents left the courtroom.
But even with Judge Randy Chapman warning the jurors, they could only consider the testimony of other students in deciding whether they thought the contact with the boy was intentional or accidental, the prior charges – and the fact that the school did not report them to the police until after the boy made the report – was a central theme of the district attorney’s case.
Prosecutor Gabrielle Foote repeatedly pressed a defense witness, Vandenbulcke’s former supervisor, Don Ducharme, about his failure to take notes of his interviews with the students or to inform the police or the agent of the school resources.
It was only after the boy’s father called the police that the school disclosed the other students’ complaints – and they had set up meetings between Vandenbulcke and the students to ‘talk about it’.
But Chapman warned jurors to only consider what allegedly happened between the boy and Vandenbulcke on November 12, 2019.
Vandenbulcke, a former chef, restaurateur and instructor, called that day “the worst day of my life” at least twice while on the witness stand in his own defense.
Later, in his closing argument before the jury, LaFlamme argued that the boy’s account made no sense.
“If he was molested once and got word from his friends that something happened to them, why in God’s name would you go back… there when he’s alone, to make a sauce?” LaFlamme asked the jurors in his closing argument. “Why would you do that? It goes against common sense. A 16-year-old kid who’s just been shot and feels disgusted, he feels violated, he’s not going to go back.”
LaFlamme also suggested the boy could have called his father, who was planning to visit the school at lunchtime, or went to the school resource officer.
He suggested that other details the boy testified to were details “matching his account”.
Foote argued that at the time of the allegations about the boy, however, Vandenbulcke was on notice, having been brought into the office to hear other students’ complaints a week earlier.
“He wasn’t oblivious to the fact that he made people feel uncomfortable,” Foote explained. “He didn’t care.”
She suggested the boy’s account was consistent with the kind of “shock” a teenager would feel after such an event, raising her voice to tell the jury: “It’s normal. Everything (he) did was normal, but what the defendant did was not,” Foote explained.
“It was no accident,” Foote explained. “Accidents don’t happen to one person twice in five minutes and they don’t happen to multiple people in the same way.”
Vandenbulcke testified that he is now retired from teaching. He surrendered his teaching license after his arrest and in recent years has worked at various times for the businesses of his adult children.