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Bluffton woman's sexual assault trial begins

Susan Tappeiner looks on as the victim testifies during her trial at the Beaufort County Courthouse in October. In the foreground is defense attorney Mike Macloskie.
Susan Tappeiner looks on as the victim testifies during her trial at the Beaufort County Courthouse in October. In the foreground is defense attorney Mike Macloskie. JONATHAN DYER | The Beaufort Gazette

The husband of a Bluffton woman accused of sexually assaulting a boy more than 27 years her junior told jurors Tuesday he and his wife had been drinking the night of the alleged incident but that he noticed nothing out of the ordinary that evening or the next morning.

Arguments began Tuesday in the trial of a 42-year-old Susan Tappeiner of Lakeside Drive, who in February was charged with sexually assaulting the boy she had been baby-sitting. She faces a charge of second-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor after she allegedly assaulted the now 15-year-old boy in August 2008 while baby-sitting him and his sisters. She was taken to the Beaufort County Detention Center on Feb. 27 and released the next day on her own recognizance.

Judge Carmen Mullen said closing arguments are to be made this morning, and the trial is expected to conclude today.

The boy told a Bluffton Police school resource officer at his former school, H.E. McCracken Middle School, about the alleged encounter in February, the officer testified Tuesday. The boy is now an eighth-grader living in West Virginia, according to testimony.

The boy testified that on Aug. 15, 2008, he'd been watching movies with Tappeiner, her husband and two daughters, his sisters and another neighborhood girl at the Tappeiners' house.

After everyone fell asleep, he said Tappeiner grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to her daughter's bedroom. She allegedly locked the door and struck him when he tried to escape. He testified that Tappeiner forced him to perform oral sex on her before forcing him to have sexual intercourse. He said Tappeiner told him not to tell anyone what had happened.

Tappeiner, represented by Beaufort attorney Mike Macloskie, declined to testify Tuesday.

Her husband, Mike Tappeiner, told jurors both had been drinking. He said they went upstairs to bed together and that he did not hear her get up during the night.

Mike Tappeiner said that though the boy said he yelled for help, he heard nothing. He said that he had been asleep in the master bedroom across the hall when the alleged incident occurred and that he never awoke.

The boy testified that he returned to his mother's home, two doors away from the Tappeiners' house, after the alleged incident occurred because he was afraid. He said he climbed through a window because the doors were locked and his mother had not yet returned. When she arrived, he said he asked her for Excedrin because he felt ill.

Mike Tappeiner testified that the boy was asleep on his living room floor with the other children the morning after the alleged incident and that nothing seemed amiss.

Asked by the assistant solicitor Dawn Burke why he hadn't made a statement in his wife's defense before the trial began this week, Tappeiner said Bluffton Police never asked for one.

The boy testified that Tappeiner had been wearing a red sundress and black underwear with explicit words on them -- the only physical evidence presented Tuesday -- during the alleged incident.

Bluffton Police Sgt. Christian Gonzales, who interviewed the boy after he reported the incident to the school resource officer, said the boy told him about the clothing before being interviewed by Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, a children's advocacy and rape crisis center.

Police executed a search warrant on the Tappeiner residence in March and found both items the boy described, Gonzales said Tuesday.

Mike Tappeiner testified Tuesday that he didn't recall his wife wearing the dress the day of the alleged incident, adding he thought the dress shown to jurors was a maternity dress his wife hadn't worn in years.

He said that the boy's younger sister and another neighborhood girl in the past had baby-sat his 6- and 9-year-old daughters. He testified that the girls and the boy sometimes went into their home without their permission while they weren't home.

Mary Beth Hefner, an employee of Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, testified as an expert witness Tuesday that victims of sexual abuse -- like the boy, who reported the incident about six months after it allegedly occurred -- sometimes wait months to report what happened to them because they're embarrassed or ashamed.

The boy's mother said in March that following the alleged incident, her son became withdrawn from family life and his grades plummeted.

She said she pleaded with him to speak with a school guidance counselor about what was wrong but was unaware of any suspected abuse until Bluffton police called her after he told them about the alleged attack.

The mother's name is being withheld to protect the identity of the boy.

Tappeiner could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted, according to South Carolina sentencing guidelines.

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