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Johnny Crouse confessed to killing Oregon corrections director before investigators focused on Frank Gable


CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Johnny Crouse was briefly a suspect in the killing of Michael Franke.A deceased former suspect in the 1989 murder of Oregon Corrections Department Director Michael Francke unexpectedly dominated the closing stages of a Wednesday federal court proceeding on the appeal of the man convicted of killing him.

After several hours of sparring by federal public defenders representing Frank Gable and lawyers from the Oregon Department of Justice, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta focused on the confession made by Johnny Crouse approximately three months after Francke’s death. Lengthy summaries of the confession were included in the briefs filed by the federal public defenders representing Gable, who has always claimed he did not kill Francke, but is currently serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

According to Acosta, the confession, which was blocked by Marion County prosectors from being admitted at Gable’s trial, appears to include many details that only the killer could have known at the time it was made. Crouse said he unintentionally stabbed Francke to death after the corrections director caught him burglarizing his car — which is the exact case that prosecutors successfully pursued against Gable, who was arrested many months after investigators decided Crouse did not commit the crime.

“How does he know all those details?” Acosta asked about Crouse’s confession, which accurately described him stabbing Francke through an arm and in the heart before running from the scene along a route described by an eye witness who did not understand the seriousness of what had happened.

State lawyers argued that Crouse had made previous confessions to the killing that were different, and that certain details — such as being punched hard by Francke — could not be confirmed. But Gable’s attorneys replied that Crouse provided information that had not been released to the public at the time, including saying that he had hit Francke before stabbing him. The medical examiner determined that Francke’s temple was bruised for unknown reasons.

Earlier in the day, Gable’s attorneys played excerpts of audio tapes my by investigator of Crouse admitting to killing Francke to his brother over the phone. “I didn’t mean to kill him,” he said. “It got out of hand.”

Crouse, a prolific Salem car thief, died several years ago.

Acosta did not say whether he believes Gable is innocent or that Crouse is the real killer. But his questions near the end of the hearing suggest he is struggling with the possibility.

Acosta will next decide whether to accept recantations from numerous trial witnesses against Gable. If not, he may order a hearing where they can explain why they changed their stories in court.

The Portland Tribune will have more about the proceeding in Tuesday’s issue.

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