The trial of Thomas Gilbert Jr., the former Georgica Association resident accused of murdering his father and then staging the scene to make the death look like a suicide, began in Manhattan last week with a reading to perspective jurors of a list of potential witnesses.
Because the trial is expected to last two months, the process of choosing a jury has been broken down into two parts, a preliminary screening, which began May 13, during which only Justice Melissa Jackson asked basic questions. That was followed by detailed questioning of potential jurors by the attorneys involved this week. After screening 500 candidates, 12 jurors and five alternates were chosen. Opening arguments will commence the day after Memorial Day, May 27.
Jackson began the process by telling the first 100 potential jurors who filled her criminal courtroom the basic facts of the case: Gilbert is accused of murdering his father on January 4, 2015 at Thomas Gilbert Sr’s Beekman Place apartment in Manhattan, and that the defense is going to argue that Gilbert is “not responsible,” Jackson said, for the killing, due to being insane or suffering a mental defect at the time.
The names the potential witnesses sounded like a mystery novel with a “Great Gatsby” feel, and included socialites and those in the circles they run in. One of the names was the general manager of the exclusive Maidstone Club in East Hampton, Ken Koch; another the GM of the exclusive River Club in Manhattan, Gene Pandolas.
Gilbert, who was a member, along with the rest of his family, of both clubs, was banned from the Maidstone Club after allegedly threatened an employee there.
Justice Jackson kept reading. One of those named is a leading plastic surgeon in Manhattan, Dr. Melissa Doft, whose work has been written up in Vogue Magazine and The New York Times, according to her website. Another named was an ex-girlfriend of Gilbert’s, Anna Rothschild, as well as his wealthy patrician uncle from Greenwich, CT, G.S. Beckwith Gilbert; along with Gilbert’s sister, Clare, and his mother, Shelly Gilbert.
Shelly Gilbert has attended almost every one of her son’s 75-plus court appearances since his arrest on multiple charges, including murder, on January 5, 2015. He has been held on Rikers Island since then, deemed a flight risk by the court, given the severity of the charges.
Also on the list is Lizzie Frazer, along with Peter Smith, a former friend and roommate of Gilbert. The Smith and Gilbert families were described by one common friend after his arrest as being close at the time.
Reportedly, Gilbert was jealous of Smith’s relationship with Fraser, and assaulted him in Brooklyn in 2013. The assault charge the New York Police Department brought was later either dropped or reduced to a simple violation charge of disorderly conduct, and the record was sealed.
However, a permanent order of protection was issued on Smith’s behalf against Gilbert, requiring that he have no contact whatsoever with him. According to Southampton Town Police, that order was violated by Gilbert around Labor Day, 2014, when he approached Smith on Sagg Main Beach.
A series of bizarre events followed, culminating with the fiery destruction of the Smith home in Sagaponack, a historic structure dating from 1650 on Sagaponack Main Street. Police suspect arson as the cause of the fire. After Gilbert was picked up by the NYPD following Thomas Gilbert Sr’s death, Southampton Town Police said they considered Gilbert “a person of interest” in the Sagaponack arson case.
Witnesses with a socialite or East End connection include Ralph Isham, Hunt Lawrence, and John Jay Bennett. Of the 15 NYPD detective names read aloud by Jackson, six are now retired.
Another potential witness is Christopher Kelly, a downstairs neighbor of Thomas Sr. and Shelly Gilbert’s 20 Beekman Place apartment where the father was killed. Kelly told police that he heard the sound of the body hitting the floor above him a little before 4 PM on January 4, 2015.
In addition to the numerous police officers, pathologists, and criminologists whose names were mentioned, Jackson told the perspective jurors that they could also hear from “various representatives from the New York City Transit Authority, the NYPD tape room, Apple, Facebook, Google, the New York City Department of Corrections, and Princeton University.” As with his father and his uncle, Gilbert is a graduate of Princeton.
Thomas Gilbert Jr. was dressed in a white, button-down shirt, and neatly-pressed dark slacks. During a trial, a defendant being held in custody has the right to dress in street clothes, as opposed to jail-issued garb, to prevent the jury from forming a conclusion before learning the facts of the case.
Before the perspective jurors were led in on May 13, Arnold Levine, Gilbert’s attorney, entered into the record an objection concerning some of the evidence the prosecution intends to use. When Levine concluded, Gilbert, who has become quite involved in the case, addressed Justice Jackson, saying that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. “There are about 100 people standing in the halls outside right now,” Jackson answered, promising Gilbert that the trial he has been asking for was commencing.