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Cosby accuser testifies she blamed herself for alleged assault during Reno acting lesson

Bill Cosby's lead defense lawyer on Tuesday cast Andrea Constand as a "con artist" and "so-called victim," who cozied up to the 80-year-old comedy icon, not because she was attracted to him but because she was "madly in love with his fame and money." From the moment the two met 14 years ago, attorney Tom Mesreau said in his opening statement to jurors, Constand plotted to capitalize on their relationship and fabricated false sexual assault claims to do it.

Heidi Thomas leaves after taking the stand during the second day of the sexual assault retrial of actor and comedian Bill Cosby at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa. on April 10, 2018.
Heidi Thomas leaves after taking the stand during the second day of the sexual assault retrial of actor and comedian Bill Cosby at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa. on April 10, 2018.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The first of six women expected to testify that they were drugged and attacked by Bill Cosby told jurors in his sexual assault retrial Tuesday that she initially blamed herself and was too embarrassed at the time to tell anyone what had happened.

Heidi Thomas said her memories of the 1984 encounter with the comedy icon grew hazy after he pushed a glass of white wine on her during an acting lesson in Reno, Nev., at the start of a four-day visit arranged by her agent.

But of one thing she was certain: She had been sexually abused.

"I must have said something that made him think that this was acceptable," she said. "I must have given him some signal of that classic, 'She's going to sleep her way to the top.' I was pretty sure whatever had happened was my fault. … So I was just going to move on, and I did."

That testimony from Thomas, a 58-year-old mother and music teacher from Castle Rock, Colo., set the stage for the string of other women Montgomery County prosecutors intend to call as witnesses over the next several days.

Each has lodged allegations against Cosby that District Attorney Kevin R. Steele hopes will bolster the account of the case's central accuser, Andrea Constand, and win the conviction that eluded him at Cosby's first trial in June.

But in his opening statement to jurors earlier Tuesday, the entertainer's lawyer Tom Mesereau accused Steele of attempting to capitalize on the #MeToo cultural moment to win a case unsupported by the facts.

He also attacked Constand as a "con artist" and "so-called" victim who he said cozied up to Cosby not because she was attracted to him but because she was "madly in love with his fame and money."

"This was a big score she was working on," Mesereau said, referring to the nearly $3.4 million Cosby paid her to settle the 2005 lawsuit she filed over her alleged assault. "She knew exactly what she was doing, and, ladies and gentlemen, she pulled it off."

Throughout his 45-minute statement, Mesereau spoke in a flat, measured monotone, far different from the energetic opening delivered at the June trial by Cosby's previous lawyer, Brian McMonagle. Mesereau's decision to make the settlement a centerpiece of his defense also marked a significant shift from the defense tactic during the earlier proceeding.

Last year, McMonagle sought to remind jurors of the warm feelings the nation held for Cosby at the height of his popularity. He needled Constand for inconsistencies in her numerous statements to police but was restrained by a court order from mentioning the payout she accepted.

This time, Mesereau, under no such constraint, signaled his intention to make the settlement a focal point of his defense. And he painted Cosby as a sad-sack star, lonely and trapped in a Hollywood culture where every friend wants a handout.

"Mr. Cosby is no criminal," he said. "He was foolish. He was ridiculous. He was lonely and attracted to a younger woman."

The defense lawyer dismissed Thomas and the other accusers expected to testify in the coming days.

"See it for what it is," Mesereau said. "It's called prosecution by distraction."

The Inquirer and Daily News normally do not identify alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent. Thomas and the others being called to the witness stand have previously gone on the record with their names and allegations against Cosby.

Throughout the two hours she spent there Tuesday, Thomas came across far differently than the portrait the defense lawyer had sought to paint of each of his client's accusers: fame-obsessed starlets eager to take advantage of their proximity to a wealthy celebrity.

Armed with a scrapbook of photographs from her trip to meet Cosby in Reno and a homespun, Midwestern manner of speaking, Thomas portrayed herself in the '80s as a wide-eyed naïf who worked in a musical theater restaurant by night and dreamed of making it on the stage by day.

She was 24 when her agent set up the meeting with the celebrity twice her age, whom she referred to again and again Tuesday as "Mr. C." Thomas said she could hardly believe such a man would take an interest in her career.

"It was so important to me that I not look like an inexperienced little thing from Colorado," she said. "I wanted to look professional. I wanted to look like I was taking this seriously. I wanted to look like I wasn't expecting any favors, and I was willing to work hard."

Cosby, she said, greeted her at the front door of a ranch house outside of Reno. Quickly, he handed her a script that he said he wanted them to run through together – one where she would play an intoxicated woman – and urged her to sip on a glass of white wine to better step into the role.

Thomas, who said she hardly drank at all at that stage of her life, compared the images of what she remembered happening – not just during the alleged assault that first day but over the next several days of her trip – to the snapshots in her scrapbook.

"I remember waking up on a bed. I don't know whose bed," she said. "I had my clothes on. He did not. I was lying down, and he was forcing himself into my mouth."

Later, she recalled, waking up again with Cosby abusing her and referring to himself as "your friend."

"And I remember thinking, 'How did I get here? This isn't what I'm here for,'" she said.

As on most of his days in court, Cosby betrayed little emotion during the testimony – though he appeared at points to be focused, if not scowling.

On cross-examination, defense lawyer Kathleen Bliss attempted to discredit Thomas' account, questioning how it was possible she began blacking out in less time than it took to read through a three- to four-minute scene after only taking a sip of wine.

Thomas brushed off the question with the verbal equivalent of a shrug.

"That's what I've got," she said.

Bliss is expected to continue her cross-examination of Thomas on Wednesday.

Keep up with every development in Bill Cosby's case with our day-by-day recapstimeline, and explainer on everything you need to know about the case and its major players.