DEDHAM — Last summer, it seemed the past had caught up with ex-Milton Academy drama teacher Reynold J. Buono, who was arrested in Thailand in June and returned to the United States to face charges of raping a teenage boy he tutored at the elite school in the early 1980s.
But Wednesday, Buono, 73, walked into Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham with a major legal victory in hand: A judge on Dec. 26 dismissed a six-count indictment accusing him of offering beer to the 15-year-old boy at a campus apartment in Milton and then raping him in 1981 and 1982.
The ruling from Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Connors dealt a serious blow to prosecutors and stunned former Milton Academy students who say they were molested by Buono, according to attorney Eric MacLeish, who represents seven alleged victims.
“The idea that this monster would go free after so much work by victims and the police and DA’s office is unthinkable,” MacLeish said in a phone interview.
In a letter addressed to the Milton Academy community shared with the Globe, Todd B. Bland, the head of school, and Lisa Donohue, president of the board of trustees, wrote they “are deeply saddened that Buono’s survivors and others affected by his egregious transgressions may not receive the justice they deserve.”
“This ruling does not in any way exonerate Buono or excuse his heinous deeds,” they wrote, citing an investigation commissioned by the school in 2016 that found Buono molested male students. “We again offer our sincerest apologies for the failure of this institution to protect students.”
At a status conference Wednesday afternoon, Connors gave prosecutors until Jan. 28 to decide their next steps. Norfolk Assistant District Attorney Lisa Beatty said she is contemplating whether to ask Connors to reconsider his decision or send the case to the state Appeals Court.
“It’s our intention to consider a variety of different options,” she said. A spokesman for the DA’s office said prosecutors are grateful for “additional time to present information on this important issue.”
Flanked by his lawyers, Buono declined to comment after his court appearance. He was placed on house arrest in mid-August after posting $50,000 bail and wears a GPS monitoring device.
In a 16-page decision, Connors concluded that in presenting the allegations against Buono to the grand jury, prosecutors failed to meet the evidentiary threshold required for child sexual assault cases that fall outside the 27-year statute of limitations.
Connors cited a 2016 Supreme Judicial Court case which found that prosecutors need to present “independent corroborating evidence” to pursue child sex crime charges if the alleged offense occurred more than 27 years prior to an indictment.
Buono, who led the theater department at Milton Academy from 1975 to 1987, was indicted in November 2017 on three counts of child rape and three counts of rape of child with force. He has pleaded not guilty.
The indictments relate to allegations that Buono offered the boy, then in the ninth grade, beer and dinner and then sexually assaulted him during tutoring sessions at an on-campus apartment between Sept. 1, 1981 and July 7, 1982.
Milton Academy fired Buono in 1987 after he admitted to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy, Connors wrote in his decision. That boy and his family did not want to have Buono prosecuted, Connors wrote, citing testimony that former headmaster Jerome Pieh gave to the grand jury. Pieh was headmaster at Milton Academy from 1973 to 1991.
In 2017, an investigation conducted by a private security company hired by Milton Academy found that Pieh had “some knowledge of Buono’s misconduct in 1982” but didn’t fire him until 1987 when he learned that the 14-year-old boy had been abused.
Connors said prosecutors offered corroborating evidence — Buono’s own admissions — of the alleged attack on the 14-year-old boy in 1987 and a separate attack on the 15-year-old victim during a bike trip in 1981 that didn’t result in an indictment.
“The Commonwealth has failed to provide the grand jury with independent corroborating evidence of the charged conduct and for that reason, the indictments are barred by the statute of limitations,” he wrote, with the italics his emphasis. “Evidence of the defendant’s misconduct on the bike trip in the summer of 1981 and towards another student in 1987, however, cannot serve as corroborating evidence . . . because those actions do not ‘relate to the specific criminal act at issue,’ ” Connors wrote.
In the bike trip incident, Buono allegedly attacked the 15-year-old boy while they shared a bed while biking in Venice, Italy, Connors wrote.
The boy disclosed the incident to a friend, Connors wrote. The friend confronted Buono, who acknowledged what he did and promised not to do it again, court papers show.
After the bike trip, the mother of the 15-year-old boy, who was unaware of what happened in Italy, invited Buono to a family home on Cape Cod and requested that he serve as her son’s academic adviser, Connors wrote.
The student continued to tell his friend about the abuse. The friend told his own mother about the alleged misconduct.
In the spring of 1982, the families of the student and the friend approached Milton Academy about Buono, court papers show. Buono was removed as the student’s academic adviser but remained employed by the school, prosecutors said.
Attorney Inga Bernstein, who represents Buono, said Connors’s ruling was “well-reasoned.”
“The Legislature and the Supreme Judicial Court have been quite clear that evidence that the Commonwealth doesn’t have in this case is required to prosecute someone,” she said.
MacLeish said he spoke with three clients, who would be willing to testify before a grand jury about how Buono allegedly molested them if prosecutors could present their stories as corroborating evidence. The attacks on all but one of his clients can’t be prosecuted, MacLeish said, because the statute of limitations has expired.
One Milton Academy graduate who said Buono molested him in the 1970s attended the hearing on Wednesday.
The man, who asked not to be named, said he is “incredibly frustrated” by the ruling.
“There are so many people like me who are past the statute of limitations and our hands are tied,” he said. “What this guy did is a fact.”
In a letter issued after Buono’s arrest in June, Milton Academy cited the 2017 investigation that found Buono molested students during his tenure from 1973 to 1987. An October 2017 letter from the school said Buono sexually abused at least 18 students.