DOVER, N.H. (AP) – A congressional candidate seeking attention for his flagging campaign fled from the scene of a car crash then spent hours soaking his feet in cold water while searchers looked for him in snowy woods, a prosecutor charged Tuesday.

Gary Dodds claimed he waded across an icy river and spent the night in woods after crashing his car in a snowstorm in April 2006, but physical and medical evidence shows otherwise, acting County Attorney Thomas Velardi said in his opening statement at Dodds’ trial.

“Gary Dodds says he is the victim here. He says he’s a survivor, he survived a huge ordeal. This was supposed to be a hero story. Instead when state police and other agencies began to pick away at it, it turned into this criminal case,” Velardi said. “The hero story that was supposed to gain publicity for a failing campaign failed.”

Defense lawyer J.P. Nadeau said the claim “defies all common sense.”

“This is a case about a man wrongfully accused of something so absurd a genius couldn’t plan it,” Nadeau said.

Prosecutors say Dodds’ daylong disappearance was faked and was devised to bring attention to his campaign for the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District. Dodds is charged with falsifying evidence, a felony, and misdemeanor charges of leaving the scene of an accident and causing false public alarm. He could be sentenced to seven years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge.

Nadeau, who has accused prosecutors of watching too many television crime shows, countered that authorities bungled the search and brought charges to cover themselves.

“The state’s going to parade before you every bit of circumstantial evidence they can to try to get you off the facts of the case because they can’t justify their conduct,” he said.

Nadeau also argued that a woman who lives near the crash site and who pushed investigators to bring criminal charges in the case was motivated by her own political ambitions. On the witness stand, Caren Peloso acknowledged that she ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state Legislature as a Republican but denied she had been following Dodds’ campaign.

“I had never heard of Mr. Dodds,” said Peloso, who didn’t start her campaign until two months after the crash.

Earlier, a state trooper testified that an agitated Peloso called him a few days after the crash to say she didn’t believe Dodds’ explanation and that she “didn’t want to see this get washed over.”

Peloso also told a reporter that if police dropped the case, she would make it her “life mission” to pursue it. But she said those strong feelings didn’t compromise her testimony about what she saw: an empty car when she ran to the crash site after hearing the impact and an empty river a few minutes later as she stood on her deck overlooking the water.

“It just didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “To go and cross the river when there were homes around and then after you cross the river, wandering for a mile … none of it added up to me.”

Dodds, 43, a businessman, vaulted over a highway guardrail in Dover the evening of April 5, 2006. He said later that he swerved to avoid hitting a deer and that he crossed the river and wandered in a forest during a chilly night.

Dodds was found the next night, a mile from the crash scene under a pile of leaves, fading in and out of consciousness and missing a shoe. He led the jury to the scene Monday afternoon in preparation for the trial.

Dodds was treated at Portsmouth Regional Hospital for what was described then as hypothermia, a concussion and frostbite. A hospital official said Dodds had “situational amnesia” and significant nerve damage to his feet.

Velardi told jurors that Dodds had “severe cold-related injury to his feet,” but neither frostbite nor hypothermia. Paramedics and doctors who treated Dodds noticed a clear line across his ankles with wet, purple, shriveled skin below, and warm, pink, dry skin above, Velardi said.

“Mr. Dodds had extremely clear lines of demarcation above his ankles almost as if he were wearing socks,” he said.

He also said Dodds’ temperature was 96.8 when he was rescued and rose to a normal 98.6 within 25 minutes.

“That temperature is nowhere near low enough to match what Mr. Dodds said happened,” Velardi said.

But Nadeau argued that Dodds’ rescuers waited an hour to take his temperature, after he had been wrapped in blankets. He said the details of how authorities mismanaged the search would leave jurors scared about what would happen to them if they got ever lost.

“It is going to frighten you to the core,” he said.

Nadeau tried to make that point in cross-examining several of the state’s first witnesses. He suggested that one state trooper who responded to the crash ignored a Dover firefighter who reported seeing footprints leading into the woods as well as toured the guardrail. And he pressed another trooper to explain why he denied a request from Dodds’ wife to bring in search dogs the night of the crash.

Authorities estimate they spent $18,000 searching for Dodds with teams assisted by dogs and a helicopter.

After a brief hospitalization and time off to recuperate, Dodds resumed campaigning, limping and walking with a cane. Never considered a contender, he placed third in the four-way Democratic primary, losing to Carol Shea-Porter, who defeated Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley in the general election.

Judge Peter Fauver said Tuesday he may reconsider letting prosecutors introduce allegations he was having an affair at the time. Defense attorneys entered a motion Monday seeking to have the allegations barred from the court. Prosecutors say he may have spent part of the day he was missing with the woman, who is expected to testify Wednesday.

In his ruling, Fauver said the woman can testify, but not about the alleged affair, pending further arguments on the issue.

AP-ES-01-29-08 1735EST


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