HARTFORD, Conn. -- The arrest of Connecticut congressional candidate Thomas Gilmer on the eve of this week's Republican primary threw the race into disarray. But details of his alleged violent domestic assault were known in Republican circles for more than two months before anyone contacted authorities.
Gilmer's primary opponent, Justin Anderson, spent weeks showing a graphic video of the alleged attack to his fellow Republicans as he worked to defeat the party-backed Gilmer. The state party chairman, J.R. Romano, acknowledged he knew about the allegations as early as May.
Anderson did not report the matter to the police until his back-channel criticism of Gilmer was made public on social media in late July -- two months after the party's nominating convention. Other Republicans who were shown the video or informed of the allegations also did not contact the police, nor did party leaders alert rank and file Republicans, who selected Gilmer as the nominee.
At a time when the #MeToo movement has triggered a national reckoning on sexual harassment and violence against women, top Republicans are facing strong criticism for failing to take decisive action as Gilmer continued to seek the Republican nomination for Connecticut's 2nd Congressional District.
The victim -- who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about her safety -- said Republican party officials had several opportunities to vet the allegations against Gilmer, but did not seem interested in taking action.
"They had multiple opportunities to make this situation right but they turned a blind eye," she said. "This is exactly why people don't come forward to report these things."
Rob Simmons of Stonington, a well-known Republican who held the 2nd District seat from 2001 to 2007. said Republicans in the 2nd District deserve a full accounting of who within the party leadership knew about the allegations against Gilmer before he was overwhelmingly endorsed at the May 11 nominating convention.
"It's disgraceful," he said "We rely on our party structure to vet candidates ... it's tremendously embarrassing to have the party promote a candidate who's been involved in a vicious attack against a woman."
"If, in fact, it is important to have a healthy two-party system here in Connecticut," Simmons said, "then the party leadership must be held accountable (for) what seems to me to be a major failure of leadership. A coverup."
Gilmer, who said he is withdrawing from the race, was charged by Wethersfield police late Monday with felony charges of first-degree unlawful restraint and second-degree strangulation. He is free on $5,000 bond. While he has yet to enter a formal plea, he says he plans to fight the charges.
Simmons said many rank and file Republicans, including some delegates who supported Gilmer at the May convention, had no idea the candidate was facing such serious allegations. Many voters, including an untold number who voted early by absentee ballot, did not learn of the charges until after they cast their ballots in Tuesday's primary.
Romano said he never saw the video, but became aware of the allegations against Gilmer just before the convention. He said he strongly urged Anderson to take the matter to the police and provided him with the name of a domestic violence counselor to pass along to the victim.
GOP Vice Chairwoman Sue Hatfield, who works as a prosecutor in northeastern Connecticut, said she never saw the video and criticized Anderson for not taking the evidence to the police.
"When approached by Justin Anderson, he alluded that he had information on Tom Gilmer involving an ex-girlfriend that would hurt him politically. I immediately stopped him and unequivocally stated that if anything he was going to tell me was criminal in nature or if he believed that anyone was at risk of harm, he needed to go directly and without delay to the police," Hatfield said.
"Further, I told him that if he informed me of any criminal wrongdoing or if I believed that anyone may be in harms way that I have a duty and obligation to go to the police myself," Hatfield said. "Consequently, Justin never told me the details, never showed me any evidence that he had, and when I hung up the phone, I was hopeful that Justin would do the right thing. My response to Justin was simple and clear: I urged that the matter be reported to the police."
Anderson defended his actions, saying the victim provided him with the video on the stipulation that he not share it with the police. The woman told Anderson she was terrified of Gilmer, her former boyfriend, and only agreed to share the video because she believed Republicans needed to know about Gilmer's background.
"She told me 'don't make this public and don't go to the police. If you do I'm going to fear for my safety,"' Anderson said. "My goal was always to give it to law enforcement but she flat out said no."
The woman said she told Anderson not to send the video to anyone but she authorized him to share it with party leaders. "It took a lot for me to trust Justin to show it to right people," she said. She also said she went to the police herself in May, but did not provide them with the video because she said she was still processing the trauma of the abuse.
Given the brutal nature of the alleged crime, Anderson said he now regrets not alerting police sooner.
"In hindsight, I wish I had but I gave her my word I wouldn't. At this point, we can second guess a lot of stuff but I went with the victim's wishes."
Scrolling through Facebook one day last spring, a Hartford County woman came across a sponsored post for a political newcomer named Thomas Gilmer, a Republican running for Congress in Connecticut's 2nd District.
The ad rattled her. "In my head, I said 'this has to be a joke,"' she said.
She had dated Gilmer from Dec. 2016 to June 2018. Initially, she said, he was charming and they bonded over a shared love of travel and music; they recorded some songs together for fun. But soon, she said, his behavior changed, culminating in the alleged attack.
"I saw that Gilmer was running for Congress and when I realized he was advancing further and had a chance to represent a part of the state, I said this is wrong," the woman told the Courant.
Through a quick Google search, she learned Gilmer had a Republican opponent, Justin Anderson, a U.S. Army combat veteran who served in Afghanistan. Both men were vying for the chance to unseat veteran Democratic Congressman Joe Courtney in Connecticut's sprawling 2nd District.
The woman messaged Anderson and eventually provided him with a copy of surveillance video of a violent attack in 2017. The video shows Gilmer punching the victim in the face, jumping on top of her as she falls to the ground and attempting to choke her, according to information contained in Gilmer's arrest warrant.
The investigating officer notes in the warrant that it appears that the victim is "struggling for her life" and is kicking and flailing to try to escape the choke hold.
"Gilmer then performs a martial arts move and wraps his legs around the victim, subduing her arms and legs from flailing around," the warrant reads. At that point the 30-second video clip ends.
Wethersfield police also investigated a case involving the victim on June 3, 2017, according to the warrant. The victim suffered fractured to multiple teeth and a cut on her forehead, but told police it was a result of a seizure. In May of this year she spoke to police again and told them that she lied in 2017 because she was scared, and told police that Gilmer assaulted her, according to the warrant.
Karen Jarmoc, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she finds the details of the case troubling.
"By giving someone your endorsement, you are holding up that candidate as someone who is ethically and morally positioned to represent the interests of people," Jarmoc said. "If (party officials) were aware that the person had an abusive history, that should call into question his ability to serve in office."
Allegations that Gilmer strangled his victim are particularly concerning, Jarmoc said, citing a study that shows a history of strangulation places a victim at a higher risk for more serious injuries or homicide by the hands of an intimate partner.
Gilmer, who is 29 and lives in Madison, had never run for public office before and has no record of community or public service in Connecticut. Born and raised in Ohio, he moved to Connecticut in 2014, after graduating from Liberty University.
He could not be reached for comment but in a letter Tuesday, he said he intends to quit the race and fight the charges.
"Our movement -- built on the tenets of good, old-fashioned Yankee conservatism -- is too important to be sidetracked by the allegations facing me -- allegations which I intend to fight," Gilmer wrote.
The 2nd Congressional District sprawls across the eastern half of Connecticut, from Enfield in the North to Madison along the shoreline. Rumors about Gilmer began spreading in many of the district's 64 communities as more and more Republicans saw the video.
Lori Hopkins-Cavanaugh was part of a group of people who saw the video in mid-July, at a gathering in Sprague.
"It was shocking," she said. "I couldn't watch the whole thing."
Hopkins-Cavanaugh said she felt obligated to speak out about the case. so she posted a statement on social media. She said she felt Romano and other party officials had failed to act.
"I think personally the Republican Party has an obligation when one of their candidates is accused of something so serious to be open to the information so the voters will know that these allegations are out there," Hopkins-Cavanaugh said.
Other prominent Republicans agree.
Tim Herbst, who ran for governor in 2018, said Republican leaders did not adequately vet Gilmer.
"Elizabeth Esty lost her seat in Congress for not acting on a complaint," said Herbst, referring to the former Democratic congresswoman from Connecticut who decided not to run for reelection after coming under fire for mishandling a sexual harassment complaint against her chief of staff. "If this is true, this is much, much worse."
Herbst is calling for an independent investigation into the Republican Party's response to the charges against Gilmer.
Despite Gilmer's announcement that he is quitting the race, he has yet to formally notify the Secretary of the State's office.
Meanwhile, Gilmer and Anderson are locked in a near tie and the race is likely to result in a recount. If Gilmer wins the primary and drops out, as he said he would, Anderson would not automatically become the nominee: The Republican Party would select a candidate to run against Courtney, who is heavily favored to win reelection.
The woman says she believes both she and Anderson were treated badly by the party and deserve an apology.
"They need to say, 'we messed up,"' she said. "They could make this a way to stand up for (victims of) domestic violence but they're not doing that. They're still covering up. They didn't take the opportunity to listen to me when they could have."
(c)2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.