AUGUSTA — A jury on Thursday cleared a former Oakland woman of two charges of unlawful sexual contact, and a judge declared a mistrial on the third charge of gross sexual assault on a child under 12.

The jury returned the two not guilty verdicts in the case against Sarah B. Conway, 28, formerly of Oakland and currently of Canaan, New Hampshire. The trial at the Capital Judicial Center began Tuesday afternoon and jurors indicated after deliberating Wednesday night and Thursday morning they were deadlocked on the most serious charge.

The investigation began when Conway, pregnant and living in a tent in her father’s backyard in New Hampshire, sent a text message saying her ex-fiance had sexually abused children in Maine.

That started a chain of events that led to the ex-fiance, Stephen R. Smith, pleading guilty to child sex abuse charges and serving a resulting 30-year prison term that starts with 18 years behind bars, and charges that Conway also sexually abused children.

After the jurors left the courtroom Thursday, Conway embraced a number of family members who had come to the courthouse to hear the verdicts. Justice Robert Mullen allowed Conway to remain free on bail, which prohibits her from contact with the children named as victims and permits only monthly supervised contact with a now-1-year-daughter she had with Smith.

Conway initially faced seven charges; however, she pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of a child under 16 prior to the jury trial — a charge that carries a maximum of 364 days in jail. The judge indicated the sentencing would be held later. During the trial, the judge acquitted Conway of two counts of visual sexual aggression.

That left the jury to decide the remaining three charges: one count of gross sexual assault on a child under 12 and two counts of unlawful sexual contact on a child under 12, all of which allegedly occurred between Dec. 1, 2014, and March 31, 2015, in Oakland.

They failed to reach a verdict Wednesday night after nearly four hours of deliberating, so they resumed Thursday morning until reporting the deadlock and telling Mullen they did not believe it was possible to agree on the one charge.

One juror, Debra Lamontagne, of Oakland, spoke afterward, saying jurors did not believe that Conway had committed the unlawful sexual contact offenses for her own sexual gratification, one of the elements needed to find someone guilty of that charge.

“We think she did it for (Smith’s) gratification,” Lamontagne said.

However, she said 11 of 12 jurors voted to find Conway guilty of the gross sexual assault charge, alleging a sex assault on a 3-year-old boy. The holdout, a woman, refused to budge.

“For seven hours we went over every detail with a person who had emotional baggage and couldn’t get over this,” Lamontagne said, adding that the lone juror believed Conway was guilty but refused to say she was criminally responsible for it and didn’t want Conway’s children to know it.

“I feel terrible,” Lamontagne said. “I hope they retry it.”

The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Paul Cavanaugh, said the gross sexual assault charge would be readdressed in March or April. A conviction on that charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

“We are going to retry that case,” District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said. “We are alleging that she is the person that did the gross sexual assault action, not that she was an observer.”

According to evidence presented at trial, Conway’s text message went to her future brother-in-law, who insisted she explain why she had broken off the relationship with Smith — who was staying in an adjacent tent in the family’s backyard in New Hampshire, — when her father and her stepmother seemed to like Smith so much.

Conway said she kept telling them they didn’t know what he was like.

When the parents saw the message to the brother-in-law, they all drove to her workplace and insisted she go to police immediately, or they would. It would look better for her if she did it, they said. Sgt. Ryan Porter, of the Canaan Police Department, who formerly worked as a deputy in the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office in Maine, took her statement and forwarded it to Maine police because the offenses against the young boy and girl occurred in Oakland.

Porter and Smith both testified at the trial, as did Conway. The prosecutor played excerpts of Conway’s interviews with police.

Conway said she went along with the abuse because she feared Smith, who had twice choked her during sex, and who had a rage disorder.

“He said that there was nowhere we could go that he couldn’t find us,” Conway testified. “So I did (it) because I was afraid of what he would do if I didn’t, because his whole demeanor was different. It was so forceful and so demanding.”

Under questioning by her attorney, Sherry Tash, Conway said she was reluctant to tell anyone about what happened, even the brother-in-law. “He really pulled it out of me,” Conway said. “I didn’t want to talk about it.”

Tash told jurors that Smith had abused Conway by choking her, slapping her, giving her a black eye and forcing her into the sex abuse.

“That can’t be voluntary if he forced it,” Tash said.

Cavanaugh questioned Conway about why she did not report the child sexual abuse until September 2015, apparently long after it stopped.

“At all times during relationship with Stephen, you had the ability and means to report this,” Cavanaugh said. “It was not until you didn’t want him to live in the tent next to you that you went to police.”

Conway said her family forced her to go to police, and she was concerned about statements Smith had made about abusing his yet unborn child.

In his closing argument, Cavanaugh revisited that issue, telling jurors, “She wasn’t under his control. She was making decisions. She had the phone. She had the job. She had the car.”

He also cited part of Conway’s text message to a girlfriend: “I’m a victim too and I need everyone to understand that.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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