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Mario Batali found not guilty of sexual assault in Boston trial

Mario Batali listens during testimony on the second day of his sexual misconduct trial in Boston. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald/Pool/AP)
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BOSTON — Mario Batali was found not guilty on Tuesday of charges of indecent sexual assault and battery following a two-day trial in which the celebrity chef never took the witness stand in his own defense.

The case against Batali, 61, was a #MeToo landmark: the first time a chef accused of sexual misconduct faced criminal charges in court. On Monday, the first day of the trial, Batali waived his right to a jury trial, opting to leave his fate in the hands of Judge James Stanton, who on Tuesday said that evidence showed the accuser was motivated by financial gain.

Mario Batali’s accuser details alleged assault as his trial begins

The case hinged almost exclusively on the testimony of Natali Tene and the selfie photos she took with Batali on April 1, 2017, at a restaurant in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, not far from Eataly, an Italian marketplace that counted Batali among its owners.

“It’s an understatement to say that Mr. Batali did not cover himself in glory on the night in question,” Stanton said in announcing his ruling. “His conduct, his appearance and his demeanor were not befitting a public person of his stature at that time.”

But Stanton said it is the court’s job to determine how much weight to give to the testimony of witnesses. “The complaining witness has significant credibility issues,” he said. “The issues were highlighted in her testimony.”

Batali left the court without any public comment. Tene was in the courtroom Tuesday afternoon but slipped out as the judge was delivering the not-guilty verdict.

The Washington Post does not typically name alleged victims of sex crimes, and Stanton had ordered that her name not be spoken during the trial or her image recorded in the courthouse. But the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office said that Tene, 32, had agreed to allow her name to be used in the case.

On Monday, Tene testified that, while dining at Towne Stove and Spirits, she was caught trying to take a furtive photo of the chef who, before the #MeToo era, was a multimedia star. He wrote cookbooks, appeared on daytime television, was a regular on “Iron Chef America,” had his own cookware and was known virtually everywhere he went for his iconic footwear: orange Crocs.

After Batali motioned her over to his bar stool, Tene testified, she was prepared to apologize for snapping his picture without permission and even ready to delete it. But Batali, she said, encouraged her to take selfies with him. Off and on, over the course of three minutes or so, she testified, she snapped photos and short videos with Batali, who remained seated while she stood next to him.

‘I want to see you naked’: When alcohol flowed, Mario Batali turned abusive, workers say

Nina Bonelli, Suffolk County assistant district attorney, asked Tene to describe what was going on in the photos and short “live photo” videos — and what was occurring outside the frame.

“His right hand is all over my breasts, all over my rear end, in between my legs, grabbing me in a way that I’ve never been touched before like that — like squeezing in between my legs, squeezing my vagina to pull me closer to him, as if that’s a normal way to grab someone,” she testified. She also said that at one point, Batali, who she said was drunk, put his tongue in her ear.

“I was really shocked, surprised, alarmed,” she testified.

The lone witness Tuesday was Rachael Buckley, a friend of the accuser’s, who testified that Tene had told her about the alleged assault a few days later. Buckley said that what was at first a selfies session “turned into groping.” When Bonelli asked what parts of the body that Tene had told her Batali touched, Buckley said, “She told me that it was her thighs, her groin and her breasts.”

During cross-examination, Courtney Caruso, one of Batali’s attorneys, asked Buckley to explain why, in her 2019 deposition for Tene’s lawsuit against Batali, she didn’t mention any of these body parts, even when pressed to provide details.

“Is your memory somehow better today than it was three years ago on this issue?” Caruso asked Buckley.

“I believe so,” Buckley responded, “because I’ve thought a lot more about the case.”

Caruso pressed the witness further, asking her to focus not on what she thought happened but on exactly what Tene told her that day.

“What she told me is that he groped her,” Buckley said. The witness acknowledged under questioning that Tene didn’t mention anything more specific than groping, but Buckley said the term says enough on its own.

“You don’t grope ankles,” she said.

In his closing arguments, Anthony Fuller, another Batali attorney, said Tene had “made a mockery of this trial.” He accused her of being a serial liar, referring to her testimony on Monday admitting that she faked a real estate lease to break a gym contract and to text messages that showed she once tried to get out of jury duty by claiming to be clairvoyant.

Stanton cited both of those as examples that “support the defendant’s contention that her motive was financial gain.”

“Her conduct as a sworn juror in another case … was egregious and was offensive to the rule of law,” the judge said. “Testimony about her scheme to evade a $200 gym membership fee, while creating a fictitious legal document, is indicative of that lack of credibility.”

Fuller said Tene’s own photos worked against her case.

“She’s being physically assaulted holding a camera up for the first 10, 15 seconds and then comes back for more after three minutes,” Fuller said. “Not only that, but if you look at the photos, if somebody gooses you, grabs your butt or your privates, you’re going to make a face. You’re going to flinch. You’re going to blink. You’re going to do something. You don’t see any of that in these photos.”

The photos and videos alone, Fuller said, “provide reasonable doubt that this assault supposedly occurred.”

Bonelli, in her closing arguments, accused the defense of creating distractions to take the focus off the alleged assault. It’s not the court’s job to judge Tene for her past behaviors, her language, her texts, she said: “We are here to judge the defendant and the sexual assault he committed.”

“How is a sexual assault victim supposed to react when a powerful celebrity” commits such an act? Bonelli asked. “Regardless of this, in all of these text messages, she’s saying it happened. This happened to her. Never once does she say this is a scam or a lie or made up for fun. Not once in over two years of her private text messages.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden said he was disappointed with the verdict but will continue to “support the victim in this case.”

“It can be incredibly difficult for a victim to disclose a sexual assault,” Hayden said in a statement. “When the individual who committed such an abhorrent act is in a position of power or celebrity, the decision to report an assault can become all the more challenging and intimidating. I’m grateful that the victim in this case made the decision to come forward, and to every survivor of sexual assault who makes that difficult decision.”

Had he been found guilty, Batali would have faced up to 2½ years in jail and would have been required to register as a sex offender. Batali still faces a lawsuit that Tene filed in 2018 over the same encounter. Her attorneys did not immediately return a phone call and email for comment on how Tuesday’s verdict may affect their case.

The trial is the latest chapter in Batali’s fall, one that Stanton acknowledged from the bench when he delivered his verdict. “He has paid a high cost in terms of diminished reputation and financial loss,” the judge said.

Batali has all but disappeared from public view after media outlets such as Eater, the New York Times and The Post began reporting about the chef’s alleged sexual misconduct. Batali issued an apology, saying in an email newsletter the week after the initial allegations were reported that he took “full responsibility” — and offering a recipe for cinnamon rolls.

One woman accused Batali of raping her at the Spotted Pig, a Manhattan restaurant where the chef was an investor. In 2019, the New York City Police Department shut down three investigations of Batali’s alleged sexual misconduct, either because there was not enough evidence or the incidents occurred outside the statute of limitations.

In 2019, Batali dissolved his longtime partnership with members of the Bastianich family, with whom he once operated dozens of restaurants and other food establishments, in locations from New York to Hong Kong. Batali also sold his shares in Eataly. Last year, Batali, his former business partner Joseph Bastianich and their company agreed to pay $600,000 to more than 20 former employees after an investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office found that Batali, restaurant managers and others had sexually harassed workers.

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