Blog Feed


The Blind Side of the story Hollywood screen writers left out of the movie Brian Banks

Author: Bill Clutter

Freddie Parish III and his wife, Sylvia, with Brian Banks. Photo provided by Freddie Parish.

The star of the movie Brian Banks is a lawyer, Justin Brooks, played by actor Greg Kinnear. Brooks, 54, co-founded and directs the California Innocence Project, based at Case Western Law School in San Diego. Since starting the project in 1999, Brooks and his project have exonerated 26 people who were wrongfully convicted, making his project one of the most successful in the country.

Greg Kinnear (left) with Justin Brooks 

But, as in many cases, the unsung hero behind the scenes, often out-of-sight from the media limelight, is the private investigator whose work made the outcome of the case possible.

The story that didn’t make the big screen is how two best friends, Brian Banks and Freddie L. Parish IV, high school football teammates who dreamed of becoming NFL stars, reconnected after Banks returned home after serving six years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Freddie Parish, son of a private investigator, Freddie Parish III, became best friends with Banks after Freddie transferred to Long Beach Polytechnic High School at the end of his sophomore year. 

The same school Snoop Dogg and Cameron Diaz attended, known for having one of the best academic and sports programs in the country. listed Brian Banks among “Juniors to Watch,” an elite class of high school players.

“Banks has great size and speed, you don’t find many linebackers with Brian’s 6-4 height and his 4.5 speed [running the 40-yard dash],” said the scouting report. He received letters from college coaches all over the country, from Illinois, Nebraska, USC, Cal, Oregon, Oklahoma, Utah and Ohio State, inviting him to play for their programs.

Freddie and Brian were both juniors when they played varsity football for the Jackrabbits, on the team that won the state championship. Freddie made a key defensive stop playing nickelback, forcing a fumble that helped seal their victory against Edison High School.

“We were like special team heroes,” said Freddie. Their ability to stop a run was fearless.

They were looking forward to playing their senior year together on a team that was ranked one of the best high school football teams in the country, having five of the top 100 players in the nation on the same team. But it all ended the summer between their junior and senior years.

On July 8, 2002, Brian Banks was arrested by the Long Beach Police Department on forcible rape charges. He had been accused by Wanetta Gibson, a sophomore going into her junior year, of forcing her into a school stairwell and sexually assaulting her.

The false allegation started with a note Gibson handed to a classmate, Sharell Washington.

“Sharell I went to the bathroom in the 700 building and Brian Banks was in there and he is so big he picked me up and put me in the elevator and he took me downstairs and he pulled my pants down and he raped me and he didn’t have a condom on and I was a virgin and now I’m not. Don’t tell anyone.”

The school principal heard about the allegation and alerted authorities. When Gibson was interviewed by a school nurse, she added that he anally raped her, after she was vaginally penetrated.

“He did it in the front, then in the back,” she said. She described a gooey substance that was “white and sticky” dripping from her “private parts.”

Brian and Freddie were walking past the practice fields on their way to take their senior pictures when Brian learned police were at his house looking for his brother. A short time later, Banks found out it was him police were looking for.

It was a Monday when Gibson said she was raped by Banks. They were attending summer school. According to Brian, he left class at 11:15 a.m. with a hall pass, telling his teacher he needed to excuse himself to call a film producer who was doing a documentary on the football team. In the hallway, he saw Wanetta coming out of the girl’s bathroom. She agreed to follow him into the elevator, downstairs to another floor and into the stairwell known by students as the “make-out” area. He said they began to kiss, and he admitted kissing her breasts as she caressed his penis. They planned to “mess around,” but he denied having intercourse.

After being interviewed by detectives, Banks was handcuffed, and taken to jail. He was expelled from high school. He missed his senior year of varsity football. Although he was still a juvenile, just 16 years old, Banks was charged as an adult. His dream of getting a scholarship to USC, to play for the Trojans and coach Pete Carroll, came to an end before it began. Instead of hearing sounds of joy, graduating with his high school class of 2003, he heard the clank of prison bars ringing in his ears.

Exactly one year later, on July 8, 2003, Brian Banks pled “no contest.” At his sentencing hearing, his attorney explained to the judge, “Mr. Banks is honest when he tells the court he did not want to run the risk of facing life in prison.” The year he spent at the Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center awaiting trial convinced him—he didn’t want to die in prison.

District Attorney Lesley Klein questioned the teenager about his decision to plead guilty.

“At your trial, you have the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right to present a defense and to testify in your own defense, the right to use the subpoena power of the court . . . Do you understand all of the rights that I have just explained to you?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied, nervously calling her the wrong gender.

“Do you give up each of those rights?” Klein asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“Now, the maximum sentence that you could have received on this case is 41 years to life. Do you understand that?”

Banks politely replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

“But you want to plead in exchange for the sentence that I indicated on the record, is that correct?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Klein went on, “You will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Judge Mark C. Kim accepted his plea of guilty and sentenced him to serve six years in the Department of Corrections. He faced a maximum eight-year sentence on the single count of forcible rape that he pled guilty to, in exchange for the dismissal of the other counts that carried aggravated penalties.

“It was Banks’s word against Gibson’s. Banks was faced with an impossible decision at the time—either fight the charges and risk spending the rest of his life in prison, or enter a plea of no contest,” said the petition that was later filed by the California Innocence Project. He “chose the lesser of two evils when he pleaded no contest.” He had never been in trouble with the law before this happened.

His dream of playing in the NFL was shackled by a criminal justice system that too often sends innocent people to prison.

“Yes, sir,” he replied, nervously calling her the wrong gender.

“Do you give up each of those rights?” Klein asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“Now, the maximum sentence that you could have received on this case is 41 years to life. Do you understand that?”

Banks politely replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

“But you want to plead in exchange for the sentence that I indicated on the record, is that correct?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Klein went on, “You will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Judge Mark C. Kim accepted his plea of guilty and sentenced him to serve six years in the Department of Corrections. He faced a maximum eight-year sentence on the single count of forcible rape that he pled guilty to, in exchange for the dismissal of the other counts that carried aggravated penalties.

“It was Banks’s word against Gibson’s. Banks was faced with an impossible decision at the time—either fight the charges and risk spending the rest of his life in prison, or enter a plea of no contest,” said the petition that was later filed by the California Innocence Project. He “chose the lesser of two evils when he pleaded no contest.” He had never been in trouble with the law before this happened.

His dream of playing in the NFL was shackled by a criminal justice system that too often sends innocent people to prison.

While in prison, Banks discovered, through the civil lawyers in the lawsuit filed by Wanetta Gibson against the school district, that DNA testing of the rape kit and of the underwear that police collected as evidence had contradicted Gibson’s preliminary hearing testimony that landed Brian in prison. He was upset that his attorney didn’t use “CSI” to clear his name sooner. The results of the DNA test proved he didn’t rape Wanetta Gibson like she claimed. The report from the crime lab concluded not a single sperm could be found on the vaginal and anal swabs, and none on her underwear.

Brian wrote a letter to the California Innocence Project.

“They told me they couldn’t help me,” said Brian. They wrote back and said because the DNA report was available to his attorney at the time he pled guilty, it wasn’t considered new evidence. To overturn a conviction, one needed new evidence. The only way to reopen the case, they told him, was to get the victim to recant her testimony.

“I knew that wasn’t going to happen,” said Brian.

He tried filing a habeas petition on his own, pro se, to reverse his plea of guilty, alleging that his first attorney was ineffective, but the judge denied his claim of innocence.

Freddie and the team quarterback, Leon Jackson, were the only team members that kept in touch with Brian, sending him letters, and hope, while he was in prison. Freddie visited his friend in prison while others shunned him.

“Not too many others, to be honest with you,” said Freddie, kept in contact with Brian.

Brian was finally able to return home after completing his six-year sentence, but was still on parole. His father was homeless, according to the elder Freddie, and his mother had problems she was going through. Brian confided to his best friend that his home life was not good.

“I knew the shit he was going through at his house,” said Freddie. He declined to elaborate.

Brian was spending a lot of time with Freddie and his family. One night, Freddie went upstairs and left Brian at the kitchen table with his parents. When he came back down, he found his mother and father deep in conversation with Brian. They announced to their son that Brian would be moving in with them. Condemned in the eyes of the law and society as a sex offender, Freddie’s family opened up their hearts and home to Brian.

“I didn’t know Mr. Banks at all. He was just released from prison, and he didn’t have a place to stay, so my wife, Sylvia, and I invited him to stay at our house,” said the elder Parish. He didn’t have a car when he started living with them, so Sylvia loaned Brian hers. She believed in him. She would sometimes walk to work because she had given her car to Brian. For about a year, Brian Banks was a member of the Parish family.

The younger Freddie recalled the time he invited Brian to go to the park with him and his little kids. Brian said he couldn’t be around children. The elder Parish said they couldn’t have children come to their home on Halloween because Brian was a registered sex offender.

Months after he was released from prison, on February 28, 2011, Brian received a friend request on Facebook from his accuser, Wanetta Gibson. She sent him a message telling him she was sorry. “Let bygones be bygones.”

He didn’t intend to respond. Brian showed the message to his friend, Freddie.

“Naw, fuck her!” Freddie responded.

“I said, ‘I feel you, but now’s your opportunity,’” said Freddie. “I told him, this is chess, not checkers. Get her to tell the truth. I knew my Dad was a private investigator, and his office, like, any time you walked into his office, it’s being filmed and recorded. I told Brian, if only you could get her there.”

Brian sent Gibson a message asking if she would meet with his private investigator. She agreed.

Freddie Parish III got his start as a private investigator working for Huntington Beach private investigator John A. Demarr.

“I started off doing skip tracing,” said Freddie. “John DeMarr did a lot of high-celebrity surveillance.” It wasn’t long before his boss asked Parish to join his surveillance team.

One of his first assignments reads like a Hollywood comedy. Parish was part of a team conducting surveillance at a marina, and their target was aboard a luxury yacht that was docked. They forgot some equipment, so Parish walked back to the car to retrieve it. Walking back, distracted—Parish’s mind was focused on the case—he stepped into the night, one foot in front of the other.

“I walked right into the ocean,” said Parish. “I fell off the dock.”

Although embarrassed, it didn’t blow his cover, and within 15 minutes, Parish captured video images of their target.

“I was able to successfully resolve the case,” he said. “We still laugh about that today.”

After 36 months working for DeMarr, Parish obtained his PI license and started his own business, Vantage Point Investigations. He rented an office suite on Orange Boulevard in Signal Hill. His wife Sylvia helped run the business, working as an executive assistant. Not long after that, his son came to him for help. The private investigator took on the case of Brian Banks pro bono.

“I charged him nothing,” said Parish.

Wanetta Gibson came to the private investigator’s office and admitted she fabricated her story.

“No, he didn’t rape me,” said Gibson. They planned to have consensual sex in the stairwell, she said, but she had her period. She later saw Banks with two of his sophomore friends laughing as she walked by. She thought they were making a joke about the smell of her menstrual cycle.

“She assumed they were laughing at her because of the odor,” said Parish.

After Wanetta Gibson left his office, Freddie Parish thought he had the evidence to “blow the doors off” the case, but got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach when he checked the video monitor and discovered an investigator’s worst nightmare.

“We had total electronic failure,” said Parish. “Everything failed. The equipment was junk!”

Parish ordered new cameras, the best equipment he could find, an out-of-pocket expense of $5,800. He paid extra for overnight shipping. He instructed Banks to invite Gibson back to his office.

This time, Parish arrived at 6 a.m. and set up a total of eight surveillance cameras throughout the room where the meeting would be held. If one failed, there would be plenty of back-up. Gibson was scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. He tested and retested the equipment. Everything was working perfectly.

“We started to get nervous when she didn’t show up,” said Parish.

She finally arrived at 11:15 a.m. His wife Sylvia was working at the reception desk when Gibson walked in. Sylvia led her into the room where Brian Banks was seated. Banks was still on probation and was restricted by a court order to remain more than 100 feet away from the Gibson, but she agreed on her own to meet face-to-face with Banks. Parish watched from a monitor in his office, then decided to introduce himself and took control of the interview.

Parish started off the interview with some light-hearted questions. After he got Gibson laughing, he asked about the first time she had sex and lost her virginity. It was not Brian Banks, she said, and the date she lost her virginity happened well after Brian Banks was in prison. Parish asked when was the first time she had anal sex? She answered, “Never.”

That admission blew the doors off the case.

Wanetta Gibson had the dilemma of living with a lie that sent an innocent man to prison. She explained to Parish how she tried to undo the lie she told police and to prosecutors. She had reservations about getting in front of a jury and lying again under oath. She wanted to take it back, before Banks went to prison. But her mother, who filed a lawsuit against the Long Beach Unified School District, alleging there was inadequate security at the school, convinced Wanetta to stick with her story. Citing the transcript of Parish’s interview, the petition later filed by the California Innocence Project stated, “When she voiced her concern, her civil attorney said, ‘Don’t say nothing.’”

It wasn’t until much later that the truth finally spilled out.

The school district, like Banks, mitigated the severity of a civil jury verdict, and agreed to pay a $1.5 million structured settlement in reaching a plea agreement. The school district paid half the money up-front, with the other half promised at some date in the future.

According to Parish, the attorneys took 60 percent as their fee, while Gibson’s mother split the remaining 40 percent with her daughter.

“All that money they gave us, I mean gave me, I don’t want to have to pay it back,” she told Parish.

Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project acknowledges that without the videotape, they had no evidence to work with. And the fact that Banks pled guilty was another obstacle.

“We would rarely look a plea bargain case to start with, so we rejected it. In fact, we rejected it twice,” said Brooks. But after seeing the video of Wanetta Gibson admitting she fabricated the rape allegation, Brooks felt there was enough evidence to finally accept the case.

The California Innocence Project, like other projects around the country, depends so much on fact investigation, explained Justin Brooks.

“Ninety-eight percent of what we do is investigation, and only two percent involves litigation,” he said.

Banks with his legal team awaiting Judge Kim’s decision 

The California Innocence Project filed a motion to clear Brian’s name. Long Beach Superior Court Judge Mark C. Kim ordered the State of California to vacate the conviction of 26-year-old Brian Banks. He was officially exonerated.

“I’m here today and I remain unbroken,” Banks declared after the hearing. “No matter what you’re going through, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Later that night, Freddie Parish IV and his best friend, Brian Banks, sat on the back patio of his parents’ home, on a hillside overlooking the city lights of Long Beach, a spectacular view of the harbor, and the twinkling of stars above the Pacific Ocean. They reflected on what had happened. Brian broke down crying, and this time, it was “tears of joy,” said Freddie.

As time passed, the two friends lost touch with each other.

Banks playing for the Atlanta Falcons.
Photo courtesy of the California Innocence Project. 

“People grow apart,” said Freddie. “I still love him like a brother.” Brian developed new, celebrity friends, said Freddie’s father.

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll invited Brian to attend a preseason minicamp, but he didn’t make the team. On April 3, 2012, the Atlanta Falcons offered him a contract to play in the National Football League. He made his first appearance in a preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals and made two tackles. 

After the game ended, Banks told reporters, “It was definitely the best day of my life.”

But the years he spent in prison not playing football were a detriment to his dream. Brian was cut from the team.

Three years later, on June 17, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown authorized a payment of $142,200 from the court of claims to compensate Banks for the nearly six years he spent behind bars.

After Parish’s video came to light, the Long Beach Unified School District filed a lawsuit against Wanetta Gibson on April 12, 2013, to recover the $750,000 it had paid out on the $1.5 million structured settlement. The school district refused to pay the remaining balance of $750,000. It was reported that Gibson went into hiding and dodged efforts to serve her with papers.

When the story broke, Freddie Parish was given credit for his work that helped exonerate his son’s best friend. The NBC affiliate in Los Angeles led with the headline, “How a Private Investigator Elicited the Confession That Helped Exonerate Brian Banks.” The New York Daily News the next day had the headline, “Brian Banks Investigator had One Shot at Accuser’s Confession.”

The media doesn’t always get the story right. In fact, Freddie had two bites at the apple.

Brian wrote a book about his story called What Set Me Free, which became the basis for the movie Brian Banks.

The private investigator was flooded with phone calls and had more work than he could handle. He picked up a new corporate client that paid him $10,000 a week to conduct surveillance on a CEO who was suspected of impropriety. He followed the CEO into a spa, a place where men have sex with men, anonymously. Parish concealed a small camera, attaching it below his scrotum, and hid it with a towel. He captured the CEO harnessed in a sex swing, with men lining up to have unprotected anal sex. As Parish crept up in the darkened room, several men groped him.

“I was afraid they would touch the camera,” said Parish. The CEO was fired by the board. After the man’s wife saw the video, she filed for divorce. The newspaper reported she received a settlement of several hundred million dollars. It was far less than Parish had made, but on that one case, Parish made more money than most PIs dream of.

Freddie Parish with Jay Leno
during a taping of the Tonight Show,
which featured Brian Banks making
a guest appearance.
Photo Provided by Freddie Parish.  

One would think this story ended well for Parish. I expected to hear how Brian Banks was eternally grateful for the many uncompensated hours Parish put into his case, and the money he spent out-of-pocket. But as Banks walked out of courthouse, finally exonerated, he told his PI to “Fuck off! You’re just using me.” Parish and his wife were heartbroken.

Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, explained why Banks may have felt that way.

“The problem with the new evidence is the way it was obtained,” said Brooks. “California has very strict rules on non-consensual recordings.” Since California law requires two-party consent to record conversations, Brooks was concerned that the judge would throw out the evidence as being illegally obtained.

“The investigator had signs posted in his office that they were being monitored, but she never was told that she was being recorded,” said Brooks. “So, I was worried that the judge wasn’t going to let it in. And, as I predicted, she recanted her recantation once she found out she would have to pay the school back.”

Francie Koehler, past President of the California Association of Licensed Investigators (CALI), explains the obligation of a private investigator is to comply with the laws that govern attorneys, as well as private investigators.

“That’s the value of joining an association of private investigators, like CALI, because you have training,” said Koehler. The fact that he had signs posted in his office disclosing that invitees to the business were being monitored “saved him” from any repercussions, said Koehler. According to Koehler, only when there is an expectation of privacy that two-party consent is required in California.

“There is no expectation of privacy in a public place, like a restaurant or hotel lobby,” said Koehler. No criminal charges were filed against Parish, and no adverse action was taken against his license.

As a rule of thumb, investigators should be consulting with attorneys before embarking on investigations, especially one this sensitive. The right move would have been for Parish to offer his services pro bono to the California Innocence Project and work as a part of the legal team, taking his cues from a lawyer.

“So, you have to remember, the Innocence Project that took over his case turned him down. They wouldn’t even touch his case,” said Parish. “They wouldn’t talk to him. They said if you get something really outstanding, that would blow the doors off, maybe then we can do something. Then I get the tape, and suddenly, everybody wants to talk to him.”

The case was resolved without an evidentiary hearing, so there was no court challenge to the methods the PI used to obtain Wanetta Gibson’s recantation. Brooks used his charm, something his colleagues have seen before, to persuade the prosecutor to meet with Brian Banks, to get his side of the story.

“That’s the beauty of representing a client who is already out of prison,” said Brooks.

And when the prosecutor and Brooks met together with the alleged “victim,” her story fell apart.

“She said she never contacted him on Facebook,” Brooks recalled. He asked Gibson how did she know where to go for the meeting if that wasn’t her communicating with Banks on Facebook?

She didn’t have a good answer to that question. The prosecutor agreed to join the motion to vacate the conviction, and Banks had his name cleared.

A few years later, in 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court declared the state’s eavesdropping statute unconstitutional. That case involved a private citizen, Annabel Melongo, who spent 20 months locked up in the Cook County jail for recording phone conversations without the consent of the other party, which she hoped to use in court.

The Chicago Tribune reported, “She was charged under the law—one of the strictest in the country—that makes audio recording comments made by any person, even in public, illegal unless their consent was obtained first.”

The justices pointed out that, in an age of widespread cell phone use, innocent citizens were in violation of the law every day when they record conversations, and cited possible abuse by prosecutors by charging citizens who record the misconduct of police officers.

It’s hard to fault Freddie Parish. When he asked if she would sign a declaration attesting to what she had told him, Gibson refused.

“She said she did not want to sign anything,” said Sylvia Parish, in an affidavit that was filed in support of Bank’s motion to vacate his conviction.

What if Wanetta Gibson was told up-front that the interview was being video and audio recorded? What if she refused to cooperate? If that had happened, there would be no happy ending, no movie, and Brian Banks would still have the stigma of being a convicted sex offender.

“The most important thing about the movie for people to realize is that 96 percent of cases end in pleas,” said Brooks. “And if the investigation isn’t done, then witnesses are never questioned, that’s the end. So, in most cases, they end in a plea bargain, and no one will ever know the real truth of what happened.”

Freddie Parish was disappointed in Brian Banks, both the movie and the person. There was no one cast in the movie to play the role of Freddie Parish, either son or father, who teamed up to clear his name. He and his wife closed the doors to Vantage Point Investigations. While his PI license remains active, in August of 2018, he was offered a position as Branch Manager of Paramount Residential Mortgage Company in San Pedro, California.

 “My family took him in and gave him a home when no one else would,” said Parish.

The movie Brian Banks, with actor Aldis Hodge playing the title role, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in September 2018. Parish and his wife and son didn’t attend the premiere. The film was released on August 9, 2019, in theaters. The movie had a short run in Louisville, where I live, and it was gone before I could see it.

Freddie Parish said the movie hasn’t become a blockbuster hit, like The Blind Side, the sports drama about an African American teenager, Michael Oher, who like Brian Banks was taken in by a kind-hearted family after his father was murdered in prison, and his mother, addicted to drugs, was unable to care for her son. The Blind Side was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of Leigh Ann Tuohy, the woman who invited Michael Oher into her home to live as a member of her family, won Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. The offensive tackle became a USA Today High School All-American, was recruited to play college football for the Ole Miss Rebels, and was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens, helping them win the 2012 Superbowl. It’s the humanity of the human heart that made the story of The Blind Side so endearing to critics and moviegoers.

Brian Banks begins his autobiography by saying, “I have chosen in writing my book to name only the heroes.” The name Freddie Parish never appears in the book. The man who made it possible to clear Brian’s name is generically referred to as “the private investigator.”

Despite what happened, Parish remains committed to donating his professional time to those in prison who are innocent.

“I try to take one [pro bono] case a year. I get joy out of helping people,” said Parish. He helped to free another innocent man from prison, who spent over a dozen years, deprived of freedom. He never charged the man a dime.

“I’m batting a thousand,” said Parish.

Freeing the innocent is rarely accomplished by a star player alone. From the investigators, who doggedly pursue new evidence, to the attorneys and law students who draft the pleadings, to the lead counsel who interacts with the prosecutor and judge, the outcome of a case is a team effort. They are all heroes.

“Republished with permission of PI Magazine.”

Investigating Women And Innocence

By: Bill Clutter

This picture was taken after Julie’s release on bond when her conviction was vacated. The Dominican Sisters provided major funding toward the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project and towards Julie’s 2004 bond.

When we mention the words “wrongful conviction” we usually think of men, perhaps because semen – the source of evidence typically tested for DNA – has lead to the exoneration of 266 men.

But there are infamous cases in U.S. history involving the wrongful conviction of women. The Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America involved the hanging of 19 people, mostly women, falsely accused of being harlots of the devil. To avoid execution, one had to con­fess sin. The only proof a church elder needed to see was the mark of the devil. Women were stripped of their clothing and all it took was a birthmark, or a mole to be offered as evidence. Even in modern America, there are some crimes for which wom­en are often blamed – es­pecially when children are murdered or die for unexplained reasons.


In June 2000, Katharine Llell, a Bloomington, Indiana defense attorney, called to discuss the case of Julie Rea, a Ph.D. student at the University of Indiana, who was being investigated for the murder of her ten-year old son, Joel. The crime happened on Oct. 13, 1997, in Lawrenceville, Illinois. Llell explained that a special prosecutor was trying to indict her client on capital murder charges, a curious development, since the elected state’s attorney of Lawrence County had already announced that there was not enough evidence to ethically indict anyone.

That statement aired during a special local TV report, Getting Away with Murder. Part one of the story focused on the murder of Joel. Julie’s chief accuser was her ex-husband who bluntly seated he believed Julie was “getting away with murder.”

The ex-husband suggested a motive theory—that the special prosecutor later embraced— that Julie couldn’t bear the thought of him having won custody of their only child two years before the murder.

The reality in Illinois is that courthouse politics can be a fac­tor. Judges and state’s attorneys are elected officials, as are the circuit clerks who manage the court records. Julie’s ex-husband married into political power. His new wife was Circuit Clerk of Coles County, home of former Governor Jim Edgar (1991- 1999).

After entering his appearance, Julie’s attorney sent a letter to her admitting his concern that he might alienate the Coles County Circuit Clerk by representing her. He de­scribed feeling a cold shoulder from the Circuit Clerk’s staff and withdrew as Julie’s attorney.

The second segment of the TV report focused on the unsolved murder of the Dardeen family in Ina, Illinois, not far from Lawrenceville. In Nov. 1987, Ruby Dardeen was eight months pregnant, and the mother of three-year-old Peter. When police entered the crime scene of their home, Ruby was laying on her back and had given birth while being beaten to death with a blunt object. The baby, and Peter, who was lying next to his mother, were also beaten to death. The body of Ruby’s husband, Keith Dardeen, was found in a field a mile away, shot execution style in the back of the head, his penis severed and stuffed in his mouth. Their car, with blood evidence, was found 17 miles away, parked near the Benton County Courthouse.

Ironically, over a decade after the Dardeen murder, a television news reporter would link the two stories together.


A few months before that call from Attorney Liell, a breaking news story that the Dardeen murder had been solved caught my attention. A serial killer facing the death penalty in Texas had just confessed.

This license (above) was issued to Sells in Missouri not long after he killed Joel Kirkpatrick. He received a traffic ticket in St. Louis in December of that year. His height and weight matched the suspect description that Julie gave to police, and commented to the description she gave of her attacker for this police sketch, the similarities are strong.

Tommy Lynn Sells, who lived in St. Louis when he wasn’t roaming the country as a drifter, had confessed to committing as many as 70 murders over a 20 year period. Texas Rangers described Sells as one of the most notorious serial killers that ever roamed this country. His killing spree came to an end in Del Rio, Texas. On New Year’s Eve of 1999, Tommy Lynn Sells made the mistake of leaving one of his victims alive.

At about 4 a.m., he slipped into a Del Rio home, took a knife from the kitchen and killed 13 year-old Kaylene Harris. Her mother and two siblings slept through the horrifying carnage. However, Krystal Surles, a brave young girl who was sleeping in the other bunk bed, survived. She pretended to be dead after he cut her throat. She assumed everyone had been killed, waited until the intruder left, then staggered a quarter mile for help. She recognized Tommy Lynn Sells as someone who had earlier visited the home.

It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out the similarities.


A traumatized victim (Julie Rea)

Julie’s attorney explained the facts of her client’s case. It was Julie’s weekend for visitation. At 4 a.m., Julie was awakened by a child screaming, something alien to anything she had ever heard. She jumped out of bed, so rattled she left her glasses on the nightstand. She bounded across the hall to Joel’s dark bedroom where she bumped into someone. Later, police would find a bloody knife from Julie’s kitchen at the spot where they collided. Thinking her son was having a bad dream, Julie tried calming him. Suddenly, he punched her and darted out of the room. Her heart started racing. Joel’s bed was empty. Her first thought — was he kidnapped?

Rug burns on Julie’s Knee

Confused, Julie ran after the man and caught up with him in the living room. As she attempted to grab him, he wheeled back and punched her again. She fell to the floor, grabbed hold of his left and held on tight as he dragged her across the carpet. A nurse at the hospital later observed rub burns on Julie’s knees.

The man exited through the kitchen and banged hard against the storm door leading out to the garage. He also broke out the glass of the other storm door leading out to the back yard. Police would later observe blood transfers that DNA identified as Joel’s. Julie continued her chase and caught up with the man in the back yard where he punched her hard, knocking her on her back. She got the best glimpse of him under a security light before he disappeared into the night. Julie ran across the street to a neighbor’s house, who called 911.

Police found Joel, barely alive, lying on the floor between the bed and his bedroom wall. He had been repeatedly stabbed and died at the scene. One of the deputies wanted to arrest Julie on the spot, but her injuries required five sutures to close the gash on her arm. Her eye had been blackened and a nasty bruise had formed around her eye.

Julie described the man as a 5-10, 130 lbs, brown hair. He was so skinny she thought he was a teenage boy. But the modis operandi and physical description seemed very familiar to me. I told her attorney that my investigation would focus on determining if Tommy Lynn Sells had been in the area at the time of Joel’s murder.


Since prosecutors made it clear that they would be seeking the death penalty, Julie would receive the benefit of the new reforms in Illinois. The Capital Litigation Trust Fund had been created that year by lawmakers to provide funding for the appointment of investigators, experts, and private defense attorneys.

Chicago PI Paul Ciolino, and his staff, made it possible through investigation of the Anthony Porter case. Porter was 48 hours away from being executed when a stay of execution was issued by the Supreme Court to explore his mental fitness. Ciolino, and students from Northwestern University’s Journalism School, followed leads to the doorstep of the real killer, Alstory Simon. Ciolino’s videotaped confession from Simon led t Porter’s immediate release from death row.

This dramatic exoneration was one of many that occurred during the 1990s leading the governor to declare a moratorium on capital punishment while lawmakers worked on laws to prevent conviction of an innocent person facing the death penalty. A key reform was funding for pre-trial investigations to help develop evidence of ones innocence before trial.

Evidence photo of Julie’s eye injury.

The special prosecutor threatened to have Julie’s Indiana attorney sanctioned for practicing law in Illinois without a licence if she appeared in Lawrenceville to defend her client. After which, Julie filed a pro se petition seeking the appointment of two capital qualified attorneys citing a new Illinois Supreme Court rule that required minimum standards of legal competencey for attorneys defending a person accused of capital murder. This reform was intended to provide the best representation possible for a person facing the death penalty.

But, after julie filed this motion, prosecutors were able to manipulate the process to strip her of the resources essential to adequately defend her by announcing they would no longer seek the death penalty. That was the last contact I had with her attorney. Julie was assigned a public defender.


Julie’s persecution was based on suspicious evidence not seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials.

Venue was changed to Fairfield County where the prosecutor elicited testimony from her ex-husband that Julie spoke of wanting an abortion after learning she was pregnant with Joel. Even if true, that testimony is impermissible for a jury to consider, but Julie denied it. As the daughter of a Free Methodist minister she embraced the life God gave.

During the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois, there were two African American candidates, Alan Keyes and Barack Obama. Keyes ran on one issues — outlawing abortion. Obama won Illinois by 70% of the popular vote, but lost fairfield County to Keyes, who won with 72% of the vote. This was the electorate from which Julie’s jury was selected.

Her ex-husband also testified that Julie was obsessed with the number 13. The prosecutor tied it all together for the jury:
“Now what about the obsession with the number 13? Well, I will tell you what about it … She was born on December 13th, 1968. Her husband … was born on July the 13th. She insisted – from the evidence, she insisted that they be married on the very first 13th of he month following his 18th birthday … she drank a concoction on the 12th of July so she could have Joel on the 13th … Is it coincidence that Joel died on October 13th?”

The prosecutor’s reliance on this emotionally charged evidence was done with devastating effect. Julie was convicted in March 2002 and sentenced to 65 ears, what amounted to a life sentence.


After she was convicted Julie’s parents contacted the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield.


The turning point in Julie’s case was a story aired by ABC 20/20. Julie appeared on the program and told her story for the first time. True crime writer Diane Fanning, who was writing a book about the Texas murder of Kaylene Harris, happened to be flipping through channels and stopped at the statement of the special prosecutor:

“No one in this world except Julie Rea fits the killer … To believe her, you would have to believe that this assailant came into her home in the middle of the night … for the sole purpose of killed a 10-year-old boy. And yet he also forgot to bring a murder weapon along and used her kitchen knife to do it with … Total nonsense.”

The story prompted Fanning to writer to Sells:
“The other night I was watching a story on TV about a woman who was in jail for killing her son … After hearing that garbage, I believe it is very possible that woman is telling the truth. Tommy, I think if I never heard of you, I still would have thought these guys were idiots.”

Sells wrote back:
“About that woman claims someone brak (sic) in to her house? Was that maby (sic) 2 days before (sic) my Springfield MO murder? Maby (sic) on the 13th?”

The details of Sells’ confession to the murder of Julie’s song appeared in Fanning’s book “Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross-Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells.”

The special prosecutor reacted in typical fashion discounting the confession and accusing Sells of being a “serial confessor”. But it was the post-conviction investigation of the Innocence Project, particularly our video interview of Alan Berkshire, who encountered a drifter in a Lawrenceville diner the day before the murder that convinced the one lawman who knew Sells the best. I sent the video interview FedEx on a Friday. One Monday morning, I received a call from Ranger Allen:
“I just watched that interview of Alan Berkshire. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck.” he said. “He described Tommy Lynn Sells to a T.”

Mr. Berkshire had immediately gone to the sheriff after hearing the news of Joel’s murder. “Now now Alan, we’re busy with a murder investigation.” said the sheriff. “But Sheriff, I saw your suspect.” Berkshire knew the drifter had come from St. Louis and that he had seemed focused on talking to Berkshire’s 11-year old son. But the sheriff made no report; the lead was never followed. Police could have caught Joel’s killer and the other victims might be alive today.

The state police already had a lead from a Greyhound ticket agent in Princeton, Indiana that a man appearing nervous and matching the suspect description Julie provided had purchased a bus ticket to Winnemucca, Nevada on the morning of Oct. 15, 1997. But, by the time investigators met the bus in Denver, the man had disappeared. He got off in St. Louis and traveled to Winnemucca on a later date. Ranger Allen cited this evidence as further support that Sells was the person responsible for Joel’s murder. “My timeline,” said Ranger Allen, “places him there on Dec. 15, 1997, verified by motel records at the Overland Motel.”

Texas Rangers are very conservative when it comes to confession since the embarrassment of Henry Lee Lucas, who falsely confessed to crimes he couldn’t have committed in the 1980s. Sells however, had provided details that only the killer would have known in the Dardeen case and the murder of Stephancey Mahaney in Sprinfield, MO, two days after Joel was murdered. Ranger Allen provided an affidavit in support of Julie’s petition requesting that her conviction be vacated based on the newly-discovered evidence of Sells’ confession. The appellate court vacated her conviction.

Prosecutors nevertheless, retried her for Joel’s murder. This time Julie was represented by a team of pro bono attorneys from Northwestern University Law School. A second jury, hearing the evidence of Sell’s confession and the testimony of Allen Berkshire and the Greyhound ticket agent, found her not guilty in July of 2006.

Crime Scene Reconstruction and Blood Stain Pattern Analysis: The Case of Christopher Vaughn


Around 5:20 a.m. on June 14, 2007, a man driving to work along the frontage road of Interstate 55 south of Joliet, Illinois encountered Christopher Vaughn, 32, limping away from the Ford Expedition he had been driving. He had two survivable gunshot wounds. One bullet pierced his left wrist, while another went through his left leg. When the man asked if he had been in a motorcycle accident, or if he had been stabbed, he replied, “No, I think my wife shot me”.

His family, Abigayle, 12, Cassandra, 11, and Blake, 8, were found dead, seated together in the rear passenger seat, each shot twice. His wife, Kimberly, 34, was in the front passenger seat, slumped over the center console with a single contact gunshot wound under her chin. Chris’s 9mm Taurus handgun was found on the floorboard near her feet.

A few years before, Chris Vaughn had started Stone Bridge Security, a licensed private detective agency in Bellevue, WA. Kimberly planned to get her degree in criminal justice and join him as a PL In 2004, Chris purchased a 9mm Taurus and joined the Washington Association of Legal Investigators (WALI). One of the members suggested he get a gun for serving process. But Chris’ specialty was computer forensics. His wife passed a certification course and practiced shooting at a Seattle range.

Plans changed when Chris landed a job with Chicago-based Navigant. He moved the family to Oswego, Illinois. He traveled all over the U.S and Mexico downloading computer hard drives and mobile devices for some of the largest law firms, Navigant clients. It was a lonely life for Kimberly.

Transported to the hospital, Chris Vaughn believed his family was still alive. He told a nurse, “You should call my wife. She gets mad when I don’t call her.”
Interviewed by detectives, the only memory Chris had was that Kimberly wanted him to pull off the highway because she was feeling nauseous, a symptom of her stress-induced migraine headaches. He remembered pulling off, parking in front of a cell phone tower along a frontage road and getting out of the car to check the back tires. He had re-secured the strap on the topper, got back into the vehicle, noticed that his leg was bleeding, but had no memory of being shot.

The ISP crime scene investigator listed Kimberly as Suspect #1 and Christopher Suspect #2. The contact wound under her chin was a classic sign of self-infliction. The CSI said he was persuaded by the physical evidence that this was a murder-suicide committed by the wife.

So why was Christopher Vaughn arrested?

Police detectives found at the Vaughn home a copy of PI Magazine with a cover story called Crime Scene Staging and Alterations: The CSI Effect On Criminal Investigations. The magazine was collected as evidence and sent to the crime lab in an attempt to prove chat Chris had read the article, and became an expert on crime scene staging. The lab was able to find his fingerprints on the article. He told investigators he had been too busy to read the magazine.

The ISP CSI described how the phenomenon of tunnel vision infected the Vaughn case. He said, “Every time I would come up with something that the evidence would suggest or support or you would be able to at least follow the evidence to come to a logical conclusion, basically I was just given some other crazy way that this could have occurred or they would change their theory of what happened to try to match the evidence rather than letting the evidence dictate to you the events that occurred”.

After this, the CSI was excluded from the investigation and the Will County State’s Attorney wrote a letter to his supervisor asking that the CSI no longer be assigned to Will County cases.

During a case review with investigators and the crime lab, the State’s Attorney stated that a woman’s hand would be unable to squeeze the trigger of the 9mm Taurus. However, a state police ballistic expert from ISP crime lab who was present when he made this remark disputed this chauvinistic assumption saying that her own hand was able to test fire the weapon with no difficulty.

The State’s Attorney was also convinced that the barrel of the gun had been forcefully jammed underneath Kimberly Vaughn’s chin, based on his interpretation of what they called a “snowman” like soot impression on the bottom of Kimberly’s chin. The State’s forensic pathologist later disagreed with this conclusion and testified in deposition that the soot pattern fanning away from the entrance wound meant that this was loose contact with no force. There was no bruising around the margins of the skin. The gun bad not been jammed under her chin, as investigators initially suspected.

I was appointed as the fact investigator in 2007 after prosecutors declared their intent to seek the death penalty. I was brought on to the case by a St. Louis criminal defense attorney with whom I had worked before.

Gov. Patrick Quinn signed the bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois on March 9, 2011. That stripped away resources to defend Vaughn. Funding his defense reverted back to Will County. Gone was the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, a $20 million statewide fund created as one of the reforms to “level the playing field” by providing funding for defense experts, investigators, and experienced criminal defense attorneys. Created after PI Paul Ciolino obtained a confession that freed Anthony Porter from death row in 1999, the fund was intended to provide resources for proving innocence before trial rather than after conviction.

On the case for four years, Chris’s defense team, now preparing for trial, was yanked from the game. The Will County board denied a completion budget and appointed a local attorney.

At the National Innocence Conference in Cincinnati in April 2011, I ran into an old friend—Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School. After hearing the evidence that supported our defense theory, he recruited a defense attorney to assist pro bono. Without a good explanation, the appointed local attorney left a voice message to cancel the meeting and declined the assistance of the Center.

It was a sickening feeling, as the architect of our defense experts and strategy, watching the case swirling around the toilet bowl. The defense experts we recruited for trial were flushed down the drain. Key experts were never called to testify.

Eight months later, a jury deliberated 30 minutes before finding Chris guilty.

For the first few months, I had assumed this would be a sentencing case. At first blush, it looked like Chris was guilty. There were chat messages recovered from his computer to a guy in Canada revealing he was contemplating strapping on a backpack and leaving civilization and his family to disappear into Alaska’s Yukon. That spring he went on a vacation alone to explore the Yukon. He chatted that he was resting out the fantasy of going off the grid for good.

It didn’t make sense that a guy, like Chris, an expert computer forensic investigator, would leave damaging evidence on his computer if he were contemplating killing his family. In discussing his fantasy to trek into the wilderness, he suggested he could fake his own death so his stay-at-home wife could collect on his three and a half million dollar life insurance policy. He said he wanted the family to be taken care of financially.

There was a life insurance policy on his wife worth a million dollars, but if Chris was motivated by money, why would he leave a job that paid him $200,000 a year to hike into the wilderness to live off nature? His insurance agent told me she had suggested they take out a life insurance policy as part of sound financial planning. She set up a total financial package, but when she suggested insuring the lives of his children, Chris declined.

Another incriminating fact was Chris’ visit to a strip club near O’Hare Airport two nights before his family was killed. He spent over $4,000 on one stripper during two visits a week apart. She told police he only wanted to talk. There was no sexual contact, not even a lap dance.

The blood evidence on the back of his jacket suggested he was seated in the driver’s seat at the time his wife suffered the fatal contact wound under her chin. She slumped toward the driver’s seat and a river of blood flowed onto the center console, causing secondary spatter stains on the side of the driver’s seat adjacent to the center console. The back side of Chris’s jacket had a transfer stain in a straight line just under the right shoulder blade extending down to the waist of the jacket. This evidence suggested he was seated as his wife was bleeding and he leaned back, pressing the jacket against the leather seat, making contact with the secondary spatter stains.

Police investigators used this in their affidavit for probable cause, concluding that his statement of having looked down at his leg and then exiting the vehicle to summon help was inconsistent with the evidence of his wife’s blood on the back of his jacket. They noted that he had to have been seated inside the vehicle when his wife was shot and killed, yet he failed to remember his wife and kids being killed. He was arrested as he was about to attend their funerals.

It was only after I read the transcripts and watched the 20 hours of video interrogation by police that I realized Chris might be innocent. Reviewing his statements, it was apparent that he had no memory of what happened to his family.

It was clear that there were key events that he was unable to remember. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-IV), I found a condition known as Dissociative Amnesia, a form of memory loss caused when a person witnesses a traumatic event. The DSM-IV gave an example that a person may suffer this condition if they are the sole survivor and witness their entire family die in an automobile crash. The manual said a person would remember everything up until the trauma producing event, but would have no memory of the events that produced the trauma. In some cases the memory may be restored days later, or not at all, according to the DSM-IV I recommended that we appoint an expert in psychiatry to evaluate the statements Chris made to police. Our expert called me and said he was convinced by watching the 20 hours of video that Chris may be innocent.

Police had given him every opportunity to blame his wife, but he responded, “There was no way she could have hurt the kids “.

He genuinely appeared unaware that his family had been killed. The psychiatrist said he was using the present tense when he talked about
his wife and children. It was only after police showed him the photos of his dead family that he began to refer to them in the past tense. The psychiatrist said this nuance of detail would be difficult to fake.

Police then used trickery to illicit a confession. They told him that after 911 cell phone towers were equipped with security cameras. The mistake he made, they told him, was parking the vehicle under the cell phone tower. Chris pleaded with police to get the video so he would know what happened to his family.

On the second day, when police pressed him to try to remember what happened by telling him “do it for your children”, he had a fragmentary memory. After getting back inside the car, he said, “I looked over and thought I saw a gun, but I knew that was impossible — why does Kim have a gun? … It was like my mind shut off … I froze and I looked down and my leg was bleeding.” To have that memory in his mind of what happened next would be too painful to bear. So the mind blocks it out.

ln the video interview; he demonstrated raising his left arm between the gun and his head just as he noticed her pointing the gun at him. This would have been a fatal head shot, had he not worn his heavy, silver watch band imbedded with turquoise stones, that morning. The bullet deflected off the watch and went out the driver’s side window — evidence that was consistent with the CSI’s interpretation.

The gun was thrust into his jacket above the right pocket for the second shot. The bullet passed within a fraction of an inch over his penis and scrotum, entered the top of his left leg and exited through the side seam of his jeans. There were two holes in his jacket. The first entrance hole was the front right pocket; the second an exit hole near the back bottom left side of the jacket. A piece of his flesh was recovered around the margins of the exit hole of the back of the jacket. The bullet was recovered from the motor of the driver’s door window mechanism. Traces of his flesh and blood, and denim and polyester fibers consistent with the jacket and jeans were found on the bullet.

“If these were self-inflicted injuries, why shoot yourself twice?” the ISP CSI asked. This led him to question the state’s theory that Chris had killed his family.

Why would a father simply sit there after being shot and allow his wife to shoot and kill the kids and then herself without doing anything to prevent it? Before the death penalty went away, I was bringing in an expert to help explain this. One symptom of experiencing a traumatic event is the “freeze-response.” His statement to police ”I froze” is exactly what may have happened.

The best defense evidence was developed when we went to inspect the family vehicle stored in the old Joliet Penitentiary. The ISP crime scene investigator documented in his report that the bullet that struck Cassandra, seated in the middle between her two siblings, exited through the back of her seat and lodged in the rear cargo seat. Our crime scene expert Tom Bevel used a dowel rod to determine the bullet trajectory. The rod pointed in the direction of the passenger seat.

He recommended we retain ballistics expert Lucien Haag. During his second inspection of the vehicle, Haag attached a laser to the end of the dowel rod and was able, with the tip of his finger, to demonstrate that the shot that struck Cassandra had been fired from the passenger seat, Kimberly was seated.

DNA testing later invalidated a misinterpretation of blood stain evidence, which the State used to establish probable cause to arrest Chris. Initially, it was believed that he had unbuckled his wife’s seat belt after he shot her. When investigators arrived at the scene, they noticed blood stains on the strap of the seatbelt. When they extended the passenger seatbelt there was a heavy concentration of blood that had soaked through the fabric of the belt which had been concealed within the frame of the vehicle. When they latched the seat belt, the large bloodstain was located right at the point where the latch came together. Given the fact that the wife’s chin wound was directly above this, it was assumed that she had been the source of this blood.

However, a DNA report from the ISP crime lab contradicted this theory. This report was sent to the lead detective several days before he took the grand jury witness stand. He testified that it was the wife’s blood on the seat belt. However, the DNA report contradicted his testimony. All of the stains tested, including the latch, proved Chris was the source of the blood, meaning that his wife’s seatbelt had been latched at the time that her husband was shot. It was his blood that bled onto her buckled seat belt.

For some inexplicable reason, this report, received before the probable cause hearing, was marked “draft”. It was then re-dated to reflect that it was finalized a day after the lead detective gave his factually inaccurate grand jury testimony.

By analyzing the blood evidence on the wife’s right thumb, it all comes together to prove it was the wife who unbuckled her own seatbelt, after her husband had been shot. There is a transfer stain of blood on the inside of Kimberly’s right thumb.

Transfer stains occur when an object, like a thumb, comes imo contact with a bloody object. In this case, the seatbelt latch was soaked with Chris’s blood. There is a swipe mark on the latch, which corresponds with the transfer stain on his wife’s right thumb.

This analysis of the crime scene evidence not only disproves the initial police theory that it was Chris who unbuckled the seat belt, but it helps to establish evidence supporting a defense theory that this was a murder­ suicide committed by the wife. She had unbuckled her own seat belt co reach back to shoot her three children. Analysis of the bloodstain patterns on her left hand provides more compelling evidence that her death was indeed, a suicide.

At autopsy, the coroner was able to determine the orientation of the gun, based on the imprint of the gun’s site on Kimberly’s chin. During my investigation, I found a June 2003 American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology article entitled Back-Spatter Patterns: Hands Hold the Clues for the Forensic Reconstruction of the Sequence of Events that showed an illustration of the same orientation of a self-inflicted gunshot wound: “Blood spatter is mostly expected on the back of the thumb that is used for pulling the trigger … blood stains occur not only during the bullet impact or exit (back spatter or forward spatter) but also following blood seepage or dripping from the wounds.. “.

In some cases, the observation of back spatter on the hand that held the gun will provide unmistakable evidence of suicide. Back spatter is defined as a fine mist of blood that travels away from the entrance wound and creates a conical shaped pattern of blood stains usually measuring less than a millimeter in diameter. But not all entrance wounds produce back spatter. According to a study that used high speed photography to document veterinarians shooting cattle at close range, there were several occasions when no back spatter was observed.

Very little back spatter would occur with the bullet entering the soft underside of the chin. But what we see on the left thumb is seepage of blood from the wound, creating large patterns of passive blood drops. Autopsy photos of her left thumb show patterns of passive drops of blood in the location where it would be expected, if she had pulled the trigger.

The interpretation of blood stains on Kimberly’s lap and upper legs indicate she was leaning over the gun when it was fired, which further supports a suicide.

Even more compelling evidence supporting a murder-suicide came over a year after Chris was arrested when the Food and Drug Administration recommended a black box warning for a risk of suicidal behavior for the medicine Kimberly was taking to treat her stress-induced migraine headaches. After she enrolled in her online class, Kimberly began to experience migraine headaches that her doctor attributed to stress. It’s worth mentioning that when Christopher was interviewed by police they suggested that he had been “stressed out,” which caused him to shoot and kill his family.

But there is more than just stress involved here. Kimberly’s doctor began to prescribe a cocktail of medications to relieve her migraine headaches, including the prescription medications Nortriptyline and Topamax. Both medications were detected in the toxicology testing conducted at autopsy. The Illinois State Police followed up by issuing subpoenas to her physicians requesting her medical records “that may indicate suicidal or homicidal thoughts or impulses, or relating to Kimberly’s prescriptions for and utilization of the drugs referred to as Topamax, Avapro, and Nortriptyline.” She was taking Avapro for high blood pressure.

On December 16, 2008, the FDA released a report linking a statistically significant risk of suicide in patients taking the prescription medication Topamax. Approved by the FDA to treat epilepsy and seizures, Topamax has an off label use for the treatment of migraine headaches.

The prosecution won a motion to introduce all of Kim’s emails to show to the jury that she was a happy person who was planning for the future. The prosecution argued to the jury that nowhere in these emails was any hint of suicidal ideation.

Bue there was one email she wrote to her husband on May 24, 2007, three weeks before her death that provides the best supporting evidence that she was experiencing dangerous side effects of her medications. After visiting a new doctor who specialized in osteopathic medicine, Kim wrote that her new doctor told her, “stopping the migraine medication … will also help stop my anxiety … I told him that you had noticed and I had noticed a big personality change and anxiety change and that I was lethargic (tired all the time).”

According to the new medication guide published in May 2009, the FDA required the manufacturer to insert into the product labeling new warnings informing patients and physicians: “Effects on Thinking … TOPAMAX may cause depression or mood problems, tiredness, and sleepiness”. Other side effects: “acting aggressive, being angry or violent” and “acting on dangerous impulses.”

The new medication guide advised patients to inform their doctor right away if they experienced anxiety while taking the medication. Her chief complaint on the day she went to see the osteopath was for the onset of “high anxiety “.

We asked the doctor who prescribed the Topamax about his patient’s email to her husband. He said her big change in personality was of concern to him. Had he known this he would have taken her off the medication right away.

“Compared with what I knew about Kimberly, yes, that would be a big change… That would be significant”, he said.

Then the doctor was asked what the significance would be taking both medications Nortriptyline and Topamax together. He replied, ”Well, it would increase the risk of suicidal thoughts.”

Christopher Vaughn was sentenced on Nov. 26, 2012, to four consecutive life terms. He is at Menard Correctional Center, one of the most violent prisons in Illinois.

PI Bill Clutter is a board certified member of the Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council and received his training in bloodstain pattern analysis from Bevel, Gardner and Associates. He started the Illinois Innocence Project in 2001, and is the Director of Investigations for a new national innocence project called ”Investigating Innocence” that he created in January 2012.

Bloodstain Pattern Analysis: The Case of David Camm

By: Bill Clutter

The first use of blood stain analysis in an American courtroom occurred in 1966, in the re-trial of Sam Sheppard, an Ohio physician who spent over 10 years in prison before being freed. Sheppard had been convicted in 1954 of bludgeoning his wife to death in her bed, but maintained his innocence, claiming the attack was perpetrated by an intruder. This famous case inspired the TV series The Fugitive (1963-67) and the 1993 movie, starring Harrison Ford. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the original conviction because of pre-trial publicity that made it impossible to receive a fair trial. F. Lee Bailey, gained fame as a criminal defense lawyer by winning an acquittal on re-trial. Dr. Paul Kirk, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkley, conducted a reconstruction of the crime scene and provided the first expert testimony interpreting for the jury patterns of cast-off and impact spatter bloodstains that were present at the crime scene. His testimony helped win Sheppard’s freedom.

However, it was Herbert L. MacDonell, who is credited with establishing the profession of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis (BPA). In 1971, MacDonell wrote Flight Characteristics and Stain Patterns of Human Blood, the first authoritative BPA training manual. In 1983, he organized a meeting of his disciples whom he trained in Corning, NY and organized the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts (IABPA).

To acquire a better understanding of this specialty, I attended a bloodstain pattern analysis course sponsored by Bevel Gardner & Associates.

After giving an overview of BPA history, the instructor mentioned that the bloodstain profession has taken a few hits with the 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that was critical of some of the practices of BPA in American courtrooms. He noted that one case in particular, the David Camm case in Indiana, has given the profession “a black eye”.

I had watched the CBS 48 Hours story on the Camm case several years earlier, so I was aware that former Indiana State Trooper, David Camm’s alibi had been corroborated by eleven men. He had been playing basketball at a church where his uncle was the pastor. The game started around 7 p.m., about the same time that his wife and two children were last seen alive.

The men played basketball for about two hours and David was there the entire time, according to those who played ball with him. At approximately 9:26 p.m. he arrived home and called his old post at the Indiana State Police after finding the bodies of his wife and two children in the garage of their home in Georgetown, Indiana.

Crime Scene Photo of daughter, Jill Camm

David told police he found his wife lying on the floor of the garage. She had a single bullet wound to the head. He found his five-year-old daughter, Jill, in her seat belt in the back seat of his wife’s Ford Bronco inside the garage. Jill had been shot once in the head. His son Brad was slumped over the back seat as if he had attempted to escape to the back cargo area when he was shot. David said his son’s body felt warm, possibly still alive. David climbed into the back seat, carried his son out of the vehicle and laid him next to his mother so he could perform CPR. Brad died from the single gun-shot wound that entered just under his arm pit. At autopsy, the pathologist found possible evidence of a possible “sexual assault” in Jill’s vaginal area which immediately changed the dynamics of the homicide investigation. The demeanor of the questioning toward David became accusatory. However, a week earlier, the child’s pediatrician had noticed the same inflammation, but attributed it to aggressive wiping or possibly a reaction to bubble baths. A mandatory reporter, the family doctor was not alarmed. No report of child abuse had been made at that time.

Evidence Photo of David Camms T-shirt

Prosecutors decided to call in a bloodstain pattern “expert” who had a reputation for assisting in the prosecution of cases that were difficult to prove. Two days later, David Camm was arrested for first degree murder, based on an interpretation of eight tiny bloodstains on his t-shirt. The “expert” who had been called to the crime scene interpreted these stains as high velocity impact spatter from allegedly firing the gun that killed his family. Some of the leading experts in BPA, however, disagreed, and said the stains were caused by transfer from coming into contact with his 5 year-old daughter’s hair that was saturated with her blood when he removed his son from the vehicle.

Rod Englert and the cover of his book ‘Blood Secrets’

Robert Stites was the so-called “expert” in crime scene reconstruction and bloodstain pattern analysis who arrived in New Albany, Indiana to assist Floyd County prosecutor Stan Faith. Stites, however, was merely a crime scene photographer who was working at the direction of Rodney Englert. The real “expert” was Englert, who was a Charter Member of the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts (IABPA). Englert was not able to travel to the crime scene, so he sent his photographer.

Police were unaware at the time that Stites was unqualified to render opinions about blood-stain analysis, but he did. Prior to traveling to Indiana, Stites had never taken any courses on bloodstain analysis or crime scene reconstruction, and was not a member of any blood stain analysis organization. The Indiana State Police evidence technician, who was initially in charge of processing the crime scene, had strong reservations about the so-called “expertise” of Robert Stites. After watching Stites the seasoned CSI realized that Stites didn’t know what he was doing.

Blood trail crime scene photo

The CSI came to this realization after Stites claimed there was evidence of clean-up at the crime scene. He said there had been a clear watery substance added to the large volume of blood that flowed downward to the edge of the garage away from the wife’s head wound. It turns out that it was serum separation, which helped provide a timeline as to when the murders happened. A defense bloodstain expert calculated that it would have taken about two hours for the serum to separate, placing the time of death at around 7:30 p.m. Stites arrived at the crime scene on Sept. 30, 2000. On the following day, David was arrested based on Stite’s opinion that high velocity impact spatter was present on David’s gray t-shirt known as Area 30. The police officer who served the arrest warrant, had reservations about arresting David based on the opinions of Stites.

The affidavit that prosecutors drafted that provided probable cause to arrest Camm relied entirely on the opinions of Stites. Stites observed eight small blood stains on the front left side of David’s t-shirt that were less than one millimeter in diameter. The size of stains, he said, meant this had to have been high velocity impact spatter from being in close proximity to a fired gun.

Backspatter and forward spatter from a bullet penetrating a blood source at high velocity can project a fine mist pattern of blood stains; backward as the bullet penetrates the object and forward as the bullet exits. Blood stains from high velocity impact spatter typically are less than a millimeter in diameter, as is found on David’s t-shirt.

However, as I learned from my BPA training, “Both expectorate blood [aspirated from the mouth] and flies produce patterns that an analyst can misidentify as impact spatter”, according to Tom Bevel’s book Bloodstain Pattern Analysis: with an Introduction to Crime Scene Analysis. Bevel cautions that it is, therefore, important for the analyst to consider the full context of the crime scene.

Blood stain experts Bart Epstein, Terry Laber, Stuart James, and Paul Kish, some of the most respected bloodstain experts in the country testified for the defense. They expressed their professional opinions that the small spots of blood on David’s t-shirt were transfer stains caused by the t-shirt coming into contact with blood saturated strands of his daughter’s hair.

However, none of the State’s bloodstain experts reported observing high velocity impact spatter stains on David’s shorts. The absence of spatter stains on David’s pants adds strength to the conclusion that the stains on Area 30 were caused by transfer from the shirt coming into contact with his daughter’s blood soaked strands of hair.

The linear pattern of the stains is also not consistent with high velocity impact spatter. One would expect to see a conical pattern of dispersal from high velocity impact spatter (both forward and back spatter) when a bullet fired from a gun impacts a body of blood. However, the bloodstains on Area 30 form a straight line, a pattern that is more consistent with a transfer of blood from strands of hair from a head wound.

My first case involving Rodney Englert, was a Lawrenceville, IL woman who was facing the death penalty. In June of 2000, I received a phone call from Katharine Liell, a criminal defense attorney from Bloomington, IN. Ironically; she would later represent David Camm. Her client, Julie Rea, was a Ph. D. student at Indiana University. It was a cold-case. Three years had gone by since the murder of Julie’s son, 10 year-old Joel Kirkpatrick. On Oct. 13, 1997, at 4 a.m., Julie was awakened by her son’s screams for help. When she went into his room, she startled an intruder. He had just stabbed her son to death with a knife that came from her kitchen.

The elected state’s attorney resisted pressure from the sheriff and her ex-husband to place her under arrest. The prosecutor made a public statement that there was not enough evidence to arrest anyone. After he left office, a special prosecutor intent on charging Julie Rea with a capital offense was appointed to take charge of the investigation. The special prosecutor hired Rodney Englert.

Englert was able to see evidence of cast off bloodstains in his interpretation of the night-shirt Julie was wearing when she encountered the intruder. Englert opined that the cast-off stains were allegedly caused when the mother drew back the knife after repeatedly stabbing her son to death. Bloodstain interpretations previously made by forensic scientists from the Illinois State Police could only find transfer patterns consistent with the mother’s story about colliding into an intruder and struggling with the man. She had a black eye where the man had punched her in the face, and she had a gash on her arm that required sutures.

I told Julie’s attorney that if I was appointed to her client’s case, I would want to investigate whether Tommy Lynn Sells had been in the area at the time of the murder. A child serial killer, Sells had just been arrested in Del Rio, TX, for a similar crime in which he broke into a trailer at 4 a.m and used a knife from the kitchen to kill Kaylene Harris while her mother slept. However, prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty in a maneuver to avoid reforms that would have leveled the playing field by providing Julie’s defense with financial resources to investigate her innocence prior to trial. After Julie was convicted in March of 2002, Diane Fanning published Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross-Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells. Sells had told Fanning about a murder in Illinois in which he had killed a child and was startled by the mother who came into the room. He said he would have killed her too, if he hadn’t dropped the knife. Crime scene investigators found the bloody knife on the floor at the doorway, where Julie said she encountered the man.

I was able to corroborate the confession with witnesses who reported to their sheriff an intruder who matched Sell’s physical description. Based on this evidence, Texas Ranger John Allen provided an affidavit supporting Julie’s petition seeking to overturn her conviction. However, after her conviction was overturned the same prosecutors and police investigators who got it wrong dug in their heels and decided to disbelieve the confession before consulting with Texas law enforcement authorities. They re-arrested Julie just as she was about to be released from prison and set her case for re-trial. A new jury, hearing the evidence of the serial killer’s confession found her not guilty in 2006. She was represented by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School pro bono. She subsequently received a Certificate of Innocence.

On June 2, 2003, a year after Englert’s testimony was used to persuade juries to convict David Camm and Julie Rea, an ethics complaint against Englert was filed with the American Academy of Forensic Science by some of the most respected bloodstain experts in the country alleging that Englert had misrepresented his education, training and experience. Subsequent to this, Englert filed suit against Herb MacDonell (regarded as the father of the BPA profession) alleging slander for calling Englert among other things “a forensic whore”, “liar-for-hire”, “a very smooth charlatan”, and “the Bin Laden of bloodstains”.

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a critique of forensic science practices in U.S. courtrooms, noting that since the introduction of DNA testing in 1989 that “faulty science” was found to be responsible for the wrongful convictions of a number of post-conviction DNA exonerations. BPA was one of several disciplines that were faulted because of the interjection of “examiner bias” that may lead to erroneous conclusions when interpreting evidence like bite marks, tool marks and bloodstains. The report noted “many sources of variability arise with the production of bloodstain patterns, and their interpretation is not nearly as straightforward as the process implies”. The report found, “some experts extrapolate far beyond what can be supported”, and went on to conclude that “extra care must be given to the way in which the analyses are presented in court. The uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous”.

Four years after David Camm was arrested, his conviction was reversed in Aug. 2004, because prosecutors had unfairly inflamed the jury by introducing testimony about his extramarital affairs. Some of his affairs were with women with whom he worked at the Indiana State Police Sellersburg Post, which had taken charge of the homicide investigation.

A new team of investigators were called into the case to be “fresh eyes”. They discovered from their review of the file that there had been a grey sweatshirt that was foreign to the crime scene. The sweatshirt was found underneath Brad Camm’s body, where his father laid his son next to his wife.

The inside collar had the moniker “BACK-BONE” written in black ink. At the very beginning of the investigation the collar had been swabbed by a forensic scientist to identify the wearer’s DNA. An unknown male DNA profile was identified. Prior to David’s first trial his defense attorney asked the prosecutor, Stan Faith, (who had charged David) whether this DNA profile had been entered into CODIS, the FBI offender DNA database. The prosecutor told the defense attorney that it was submitted, but there was no hit. This was a false representation, which obstructed justice for David Camm.

Photo: Charles Darnell Boney

Years later, after an appellate court reversed David’s conviction, Camm’s new attorney, Katherine Liell, requested that the DNA be entered into CODIS. In Feb. 2005, a CODIS hit came back identifying a career criminal named Charles Darnell Boney whose prison nickname was BACK-BONE. He had been released from prison a few months before the Camm family was killed. Known as the “Shoe Bandit”, Boney had a foot fetish and was sexually aroused by holding women at gunpoint and stealing their shoes.

One of the female troopers who arrived at the crime scene had noted in her report that it was odd that the shoes of David’s wife had been removed from her feet and were placed on top of the vehicle.

Crime scene photo of Kim’s bare foot

Now, it all made sense.

Although his wife’s shoes and pants had been removed, there was no evidence of a sexual assault in the conventional sense. So investigators dismissed the idea that the crime was motivated by the behavior of a sexual predator. But knowing Boney’s sexual predilection of being aroused by women’s bare feet and legs, the artifacts of the crime scene fit perfectly with his MO.

Chicago Sun Times reporter Tom Frisbie described the “Prosecution Complex” in his book Victims of Justice, about the infamous Nicarico case. Instead of seeking justice when new and exonerating evidence was found proving the innocence of Rolando Cruz, which included DNA and confession of a serial killer, the police and prosecutors who got it wrong tend to circle the wagons to fend off the attack on the original conviction. In that case, police and prosecutors were eventually indicted for a conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Less than a month after DNA identified Charles Boney, his palm print was found on the door frame of the passenger side of David’s wife’s Ford Bronco. This palm print is consistent with Boney having reached inside the vehicle to fire the shots that killed 7 year-old Brad, and his 5 year-old sister, Jill, who was still seat belted inside the vehicle.

Earlier, a judge had lowered David’s bond. He was released to what remained of his family. His uncle, Sam Lockhart, who had been playing basketball that night with David, bonded him out of jail.

But now Boney was given a choice. He could be charged with the death penalty, or he could cooperate and assist prosecutors with their theory that Boney provided the gun to David Camm that he allegedly used to kill his family. Boney initially denied knowing David when he was interviewed in February. A month later, with this new and compelling evidence of his palm print, Boney’s life depended on which choice he made. Despite his previous series of proven lies, Boney changed his story, and now said he met David playing basketball and after this first meeting arranged to sell him a gun that he wrapped in his sweatshirt. However, this does not explain why David’s wife’s DNA is on the left sleeve of the sweatshirt. The autopsy revealed that David’s wife had struggled with the assailant and had injuries suggesting she had been choked.

Nevertheless, David was re-indicted for conspiracy to commit murder and has been confined to a prison cell ever since. Although Boney was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and remains in prison, he recently said he has every expectation of being a free man someday.

The highlight of my BPA training was the arrival of Tom Bevel. He had been on the road most of that week testifying in court. During the noon break after his presentation, he told me about his work on a case in North Carolina where he had provided testimony of his interpretation of bloodstain evidence that had helped to exonerate an innocent man

On Feb. 10, 2010, he provided testimony for the North Carolina Innocence Project before an independent panel of three judges. This special commission was created by the state’s Supreme Court to establish an independent review of inmate claims of actual innocence called North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first of its kind in the nation. Bevel’s testimony persuaded the three judges that there was clear and convincing evidence demonstrating the innocence of Greg Taylor. Taylor was granted a full pardon on May 21, 2010, and was released from prison. He had been wrongfully convicted in 1993 of first degree murder based on erroneous testimony concerning bloodstain evidence. He spent nearly two decades in prison for a crime he did not commit.

A few years before that, Bevel had also assisted with the release of Tim Masters, an innocent man who had been convicted of murder in Colorado. In that case, Bevel reversed the previous opinion he had given that originally helped to convict Masters, after he had been provided additional evidence that had been concealed from him by the police detective who was later indicted for his alleged misconduct in the case.

Some of the real heroes in cases like this are guys like Tom Bevel, who dare to reveal their humanity by admitting when they get it wrong, but are willing to work to make it right.

Investigating Innocence founder Bill Clutter (center) with exoneree Ryan Ferguson and David Camm (right)

(On October 24, 2013, David Camm, walked free after 13-years in prison after a jury in Lebanon, Indiana found him not guilty in a third re-trial. His case was the first exoneration for Investigating Innocence, which was started earlier that year. Bill Clutter, who started the project, was a member of Camm’s defense team and suggested conducting an animated crime scene reconstruction, which helped persuade the jury that David Camm is innocent. Students at the University of Indiana assisted Clutter and the Camm defense team in reviewing the case and provided a fresh set of eyes. (Read more about the exoneration here. )

Bill Clutter is a board certified member of the Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council. He started the Illinois Innocence Project in 2001, and is the Director of Investigations for a national innocence project called Investigating Innocence that he started in January 2013.

%d bloggers like this: