The long haul toward justice
Why is it so much harder for a reporter to help get an innocent person out of prison than to help put guilty ones behind bars?
I've dug deeply into three unsolved murders as a reporter. All have been time consuming and emotionally challenging. In two of them, I helped arrest and convict the killers. In the other, I've struggled for far too long to help get a wrongly convicted killer out. Why is that?
I was the first reporter to say Portland police suspected former Starry Night nightclub owner Larry Hurwitz of killing Tim Moreau, his music promoter, in 1990. I reported on the case for more than 10 years before Hurwitz was finally arrested and pleaded no contest to the crime.
I was also the first reporter to identify Ward Weaver as the prime suspect in the murders of Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis in 2002. It only took a few more months before Weaver was arrested and pleaded guilty and no contest to multiple charges in what has become known as the Oregon City Missing Girls Case.
I'm not claiming credit for the convictions. Far from it. Investigators and prosecutors worked hard to build and win both cases. But I believe my reporting helped. Some of them told me so.
But I have spent nearly 30 years questioning whether petty Salem criminal Frank Gable killed Oregon Department of Corrections Director Michael Francke in 1989. And I am not alone. So did former Oregonian and Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford, former Salem Statesman-Journal reporter Steve Jackson, former Willamette Week and current Portland Tribune reporter Nick Budnick, current Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss, and Eric Mason, a longtime Portland TV reporter who is now a private investigator. Most of us repeatedly revisited the case over the past three decades, frequently breaking news that didn't seem to make a difference.
Then, on April 18 of this year, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta ruled that Gable is probably innocent, did not receive a fair trial, and should be either retried or released in 90 days. The state also has 30 days to file notice of appeal with the 9th Circuit.
The ruling came after Oregon judges repeatedly upheld Gable's 1991 conviction and life sentence during state appeals.
But, in his federal appeal ruling, Acosta completely destroyed the original case against Gable — who had already spent most of his life in prison.
Reading Acosta's ruling, I was struck about how many of his points had been reported over the years. Stanford and I had both written about the numerous trial witnesses against Gable who had recanted their testimony against him. Budnick had written about the abusive use of lie detector tests that pressured them into committing perjury. And Jaquiss was the first to fully document how another petty Salem criminal, Johnny Crouse, had confessed to the murder with details only the killer could have known before Gable was arrested and ultimately convicted.
Much has been made of the theory — first raised by Francke brothers Kevin and Patrick and amplified by Stanford — that Michael was killed by corrupt department officials who feared he was investigating them. There are reasons to believe he was investigating corruption within his department, which I and other reporters have documented over the years.
Acosta did not support that theory in his ruling.
But it is now reasonable to consider Michael Francke's death as an unsolved murder, so no theory should be ruled out.
Conviction fails to answer questions
I did not know I was embarking on a 30-year story when I first looked into the killing. I was writing for Willamette Week and editor Mark Zusman was quick to realize that Stanford was pushing the theory embraced by Kevin and Patrick Francke much harder than his paper's reporters. So I went to Salem to find out what was going on, meeting Stanford and the Francke brothers for the first time, and soon realizing how complex the story was.
Michael, the former director of the New Mexico corrections department, had been hired by Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt. He took the job after a 10-month investigation had revealed evidence of drug trafficking in the Oregon prison system and among state department employees. However, only a few low-level workers had been fired or disciplined.
His murder was a classic whodunit. Michael's body was discovered on the grounds of the corrections department headquarters in Salem on Jan. 17, 1989. Evidence said he had been stabbed in the heart near his car in the parking lot, and had staggered back to the building, breaking a window with his fist to get back in before bleeding to death. A state groundskeeper had seen what appeared to be a confrontation by Francke's car in the parking lot, but he was too far away to identify anyone and did not think it was serious.
Killing the head of the corrections division was obviously a big deal. But no arrests were immediately made, and very little suspect information was quickly released. Two composite sketches of unidentified men seen in the department headquarters eventually were released, but they did not result in any arrests. One of the sketches resembled another Salem criminal, Timothy Natividad, who was killed by his girlfriend during a domestic dispute a few weeks later.
In this information vacuum, I and other reporters soon learned about the previous corruption investigation. We also uncovered evidence that Michael Francke was aware of it — and also was apparently in fear for his life before he was killed. A pump shotgun and .45 caliber handgun had been found at his house by investigators, along with evidence that he had been practicing with them.
Then, in early 1990, Gable was indicted and charged with stabbing Francke to death, supposedly when he was caught breaking into his car.
What we did not know at the time was that Crouse had previously confessed to doing the same thing, with details of the crime scene that had not been released to the public. But he was not arrested and, according to police records, recanted his story after associates told him he was making a mistake.
As the case against Gable proceeded, it became apparent the prosecution was built mostly on the testimony of people who, like Gable, were part of a criminal subculture in Salem that included drug dealers, drug users, thieves and such. In other words, not the most reliable witnesses. I and some of the other reporters interviewed many of them who claimed to have inside knowledge of the killing. We plunged into a tight-knit community built in large part by its proximity to the Oregon State Penitentiary, where many of our interview subjects had imprisoned friends and relatives — and who said drug trafficking and other prison-related crimes were commonplace.
But those of us covering the case at the time did not know that many of the witnesses against Gable also had been subjected to abusive lie detector tests to coerce their testimony, as Acosta said in his ruling.
Justice delayed is justice denied
The injustice of Gable's conviction only became more apparent after he was sentenced to life in prison without parole, an incredibly harsh sentence for an unintentional killing — if you believe the case against him — and far more than the 10 years Hurwitz was offered for killing Moreau in the Starry Night case.
For reporters like myself and the others, pursuing this story has been an uphill battle ever since. State prosecutors have never once conceded they could have possibly made a mistake, and their supporters have accused us of pursuing crazy "conspiracy theories," even though we've only been offering reasons to believe that an innocent man was in prison.
Although I've done more than a dozen stories on the case for the Portland Tribune, each one has been a leap of faith for me — I've had to convince myself they could make a difference against all odds.
I admit that I was stunned the first time I read the appeal prepared by the local Federal Public Defenders Office on Gable's behalf. It was based on more than two years of work that documented all of the questions I and the other reporters had been raising, including sworn statements by trial witnesses who recanted their testimony, additional expert testimony on how the lie detector tests were abused, and Crouse's docuemented confession. And it was backed up well-reasoned legal arguments well above my pay grade.
I was even more stunned when I read Acosta's ruling that agreed with so much of it. Why did it take 30 years for someone in a position of authority to understand this? An innocent man has been in prison the entire time.
We may yet find out. The story isn't over.
Find out more
You can read Acosta's ruling here.
For a collection of writings on this case, go to Pamplinmedia.com/FranckeMurder