'Dead' man sentenced in 1990 assault

March 05, 2006
WEST CHESTER AP — A man long suspected of having faked his suicide 16 years ago to escape prosecution was in court last week to face the music.

A few weeks after Arthur D. Ritter Jr. of Kennett was charged with misdemeanor indecent assault in January 1990, he disappeared. Police found his abandoned car on a pier near a remote Delaware beach with an empty pill bottle and a brief suicide note.

"I don't swim very well," Ritter wrote, "but I'm gonna see how far I can go."

Authorities, however, never bought it. The report filed by the investigating state trooper said he believed that "Ritter did not commit suicide, but is hiding to avoid prosecution."

Two subsequent missing person's investigations pointed to similar conclusions, but no one could prove that. So, at the request of his family in 1998, Common Pleas Judge Paula Francisco Ott signed an order declaring the defendant dead.

But around November 2004, authorities said, Ritter mailed letters from a Massachusetts post office to his ex-wife and former in-laws, saying he was alive and planned to turn himself in.

He was ultimately arrested Oct. 1 following an investigation by Chester County and Westmoreland County authorities and went on trial Tuesday and Wednesday before Common Pleas Judge Thomas G. Gavin, who had signed the original 1990 bench warrant for his arrest.

Ritter, now 47, was convicted of indecent assault after the non-jury trial. The alleged victim, now 31 and married with two children, traveled from California to testify.

"This all came out of the blue for her," Assistant District Attorney Charles Gaza said. "She had moved on."

The judge granted credit for time served and eligibility for immediate parole. Ritter's attorney, Mark Rassman, said his client then boarded a bus to go back to Westmoreland County, where he will live with family.

"He was relieved with the fact that this was over with," Rassman said. "He may not agree with the verdict, but at least it's over with."

As to what his client had done during his decade-and-a-half off the grid, Rassman said he was told Ritter spent part of the time as a homeless nomad living in the woods of Virginia and another part as a member of a religious commune in New England.

"It's amazing there is very little record of what he did during those 15 years," Gaza said. "I guess if you are willing to live a minimalist lifestyle, you could do it."

He said his office has not yet decided whether to charge Ritter in the purported suicide.