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Published: Tuesday, 11/14/2006

Noe's high life falls before our very eyes

During Tom Noe's theft trial, I found myself face-to-face with the defendant one afternoon.

This happened during a recess, when somehow we were the only ones in a corridor too narrow and short to pretend we didn't see each other.

Not that Noe tried to dodge the media.

No, the defendant looked right at me and smiled - that wide, ear-to-ear, confident grin of his, the one everyone grew used to seeing in the newspaper photos and TV footage documenting his years of social and political triumphs.

"Hello, Roberta!" he boomed cheerfully.

I'm telling you, you'd have thought the guy came to the courthouse to renew his county charisma license - not stand trial on 40 counts related to the theft of millions of state dollars.

But the Tom Noe who walked into Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Tom Osowik's courtroom yesterday afternoon? The guy who came to face the next chapter of an unwanted new life?

That was not the same guy we've observed all these years.

Let me ask you: Have you ever seen anyone look both ashen and flushed at the same time?

For everyone looking to see the public humbling of a man who earned a president's fund-raising appreciation and wielded a big Ohio GOP scepter - they sure got their wish yesterday as the judge all but chanted the word "guilty" a total of 29 times.

A trial that wound down with closing arguments sweeping enough to include passing reference to Copernicus, Galileo, Mark Twain, and even a metaphorical grilled-cheese sandwich ended with a judge's unemotional recitation of the jury's conclusions.

"There's not to be any outburst by either side, or you're subject to arrest," warned a court security officer as a horde of prosecutors and some of Noe's family settled into the courtroom to await the defendant's arrival.

It had already been a long day by then.

Journalists passed the hours amusing ourselves with the macabre brand of humor that I sometimes think only cops and emergency-room workers might understand.

And we spent time trying to weigh down even the most minor turn of events with meaning.

What did it mean, that the jury ordered lunch and it wasn't quite yet noon? And what was it a sign of exactly when we noticed someone deliver water to jurors around 2:45 p.m.? Would Noe be found guilty on all counts? Just some counts? No counts, possibly?

Just after 3 p.m. I went downstairs for a soda and caught a ride back up in an elevator with a court security officer.

"We've got a verdict," he said, so matter-of-factly that at first I thought he was just yanking my chain.

Any doubts about the jury's willingness to pronounce Noe guilty ended as soon as the jury filed into the courtroom.

To a person, they did not so much as glance in Noe's direction.

Defense attorney Bill Wilkinson laid a steadying arm on his client, who looked in person - there is just no other word for it - awful.

Directly behind the defendant, in the front row on the other side of the rail, sat Bernadette Noe - in jeans and a sweatshirt - along with her daughters and step-daughter.

As a bailiff instructed the defense to rise, she locked hands with one of the girls and her tendons were taut white cords that fanned across her hands. Throughout the reading of the verdict, Bernadette's right leg jiggled ceaselessly. and her eyes occasionally fluttered closed as if in prayer.

When the droning legalese that sealed Noe's fate ended, Judge Osowik spoke.

"At this point, Mr. Noe, you are remanded in the custody of federal marshals," he said, and even as he did, Noe cooperatively snapped his head up and down in a series of quick, sharp nods.

Reaching his hands behind his back, the cuffs clicked over his wrists. Moments later, as the one-time GOP rainmaker was led from the courtroom, the shutter of the lone pool photographer's camera clicked in rapid succession.

In the courtroom, the man's daughter and step-daughters broke down and wept.

I don't know that we'll ever again see that guy we once knew as "Tom Noe."

Oh, he might get that wide, confident smile back after the shock of imprisonment wears off.

But he's never going to be the same guy. Never.

Roberta de Boer's column appears in The Blade Tuesdays and Thursdays, and in Behind the News on Sundays. Watch her on-air column this month during the 11 p.m. news on WTVG, Channel 13.

Contact her at:

roberta@theblade.com

or 419-724-6086.



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