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Opening statements in Briard case: Prosecution tells woman's story, defense moves to discredit her

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In a messy case that looks like it's going to get uglier, opening statements were heard Wednesday in the Robert Briard sexual abuse case in Becker County District Court.

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Briard, 62, of rural Frazee is charged with felony first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly molesting a relative on two occasions. Once when she was eight and again when she was 14.

In their statements to the jury, Becker County Attorney Mike Fritz laid out the allegations behind the charges, while St. Paul attorney Earl P. Gray built the foundation for discrediting the woman.

The victim, now a married woman in her early 30s with children of her own, lived with an unhappy family secret for years, Fritz told the jury:

On her eighth birthday, Briard had come in from doing chores, joined her on the couch and put a hand down her pants, touching her private parts, then moved his hand lower and penetrated her with a finger.

Briard stopped when his wife, Virginia, came towards the living room.

(Virginia Briard has been subpoenaed to testify and has been charged with felony contempt of court for failing to appear. She had not yet been located by authorities as of Wednesday afternoon)

The incident "made (the victim) feel icky," Fritz told the jury. When she was 14, something similar happened, though it did not go as far, when Briard visited her bedroom several times in one night after he had been at WE Fest.

"These are the things she had kept buried until March 6, 2006," Fritz said.

On that evening, the victim, her mother and other women in the family had gathered for a get-together where they drank some wine and talked. As some painful and very personal secrets were shared, the victim "got an uneasy feeling," Fritz said. She got up, walked around, sat down again, and found herself starting to shake -- "the secret was coming out," he said. She pulled her sweatshirt up over her knees and the others asked her what was wrong. "Did something happen to you?" they asked. She said "yes, it did happen," at the hands of Robert Briard.

Soon after that, she confronted Briard. "Robert Briard was upset, he was crying," Fritz said. "He apologized to her. He said he was sorry and hoped they could have a relationship again some time." She said she hoped so, too.

But a meeting between her, Briard and a minister a week or so later did not work out as the woman had hoped.

"He didn't admit it or say anything," Fritz said. The next day the woman was angry and confronted Briard. "He doesn't admit or deny, he sits there -- nothing was resolved, and obviously she reported it to law enforcement," Fritz said.

Becker County Sheriff's Department investigator John Sieling went out to the hog farm to talk to Briard, Fritz said. "Briard admitted he had inappropriately touched (the victim) when she was 8," Fritz said. When questioned about the incident when she was 14, he told Sieling he could not remember.

"What I did to (her) is nothing compared to what," other sexual assault victims have gone through, Briard allegedly said.

In his opening statement, Gray made it clear that he intends to discredit the victim, who is also the state's key witness.

The charges are old -- dating to 1983 and 1989 -- he told the jury.

"Nothing was said about either of these two incidents until 2006," he said. "This is not a cold case or a repressed memory case," he said. Because it happened so long ago, "there is no physical evidence, no sexual assault kits, no alibi, no DNA evidence. The only testimony of an importance is from (the alleged victim)," he said.

Gray told the jury about Briard's history -- he grew up on a farm near Gaylord, Minn. He was married as age 18 to his current wife, Virginia, and they have eight grown children.

The alleged victim, he said, quit school at age 17 and married man 10 years her senior. (They are still married). They farmed near the Briard Hog Farm and Briard helped them out, earning her public thanks in 2002. The woman also let Briard baby-sit her children, Gray said.

On the night the woman told her secret, the group of women had drunk "a substantial amount" of wine, he said.

Before going to the authorities, the alleged victim and her husband -- a Detroit Lakes small business owner -- had a number of angry encounters with Briard when they went to see him and "he did not agree with them," about his sexual behavior, Gray said.

Gray cast doubt on the plausibility of her account of the molestation.

"She said it happened between 5:30 and 6 p.m. on her birthday," with a half-dozen other children and at least one other adult present at the Briard home, he told the jury.

Gray suggested it was unlikely that Briard would come into the house after doing chores and molest her in the living room at that time of day, with so many people in the immediate area.

And Gray said the woman was interviewed by a psychiatrist on two occasions after notifying authorities and never talked about there being penetration during the molestation.

Gray also criticized Sieling for using a tape recorder during his interview with Briard without his knowledge.

"Robert told him he was aware of the allegations. He told (Sieling) he never penetrated (the alleged victim)," Gray told the jury.

A number of family members who grew up with the victim will testify that they never noticed any change in her after her eighth birthday and that "she is not a believable person," Gray said. "She exaggerates. She's not credible -- never has been."

Also, Gray said, during the summer of 2006, when the family controversy was at its peak, she allegedly told Briard's son Ashley, "get out while you can -- I'm bring this farm down."

She also started writing a book about sexual abuse and once told family members that she hopes to become a motivational speaker when the book is finished, Gray said.

The trial resumes at 9 a.m. Thursday.

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