Innocence lost, regained
Robert Dewey dreamed of riding.
Interviewed in January by investigators behind the walls of Colorado’s Limon Correctional Facility, the 51-year-old Dewey said he chose “the easy way” to live in prison over the course of nearly 16 years.
This, while maintaining he had nothing to do with the 1994 rape and murder of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor in Palisade.
“When asked why he isn’t more upset about being in prison for a homicide he didn’t commit, Mr. Dewey said that being upset would not help him deal with being in prison and that he dealt with the situation by ‘going to my happy place,’ riding his motorcycle into a beautiful sunset,” an investigator wrote in a 25-page arrest affidavit for Douglas Thames Jr., 39, who is now accused in Taylor’s death.
The events that led to Dewey’s exoneration are outlined in the affidavit.
Robert Dwain Dewey — a motorcycle enthusiast nicknamed “Rider” and known within the Grand Valley’s methamphetamine culture in 1994 — walked out of custody after a hearing Monday in District Judge Brian Flynn’s courtroom. lt came on the heels of his exoneration because of new DNA testing of evidence.
It’s the first exoneration of its kind since Tim Masters was cleared in the 1987 murder of Peggy Hettrick in Fort Collins. Thames’ arrest affidavit also suggests it was the product of dogged representation over more than 10 years by a Denver-based attorney, and the work of the Colorado Attorney General’s Justice Review Project.
Scene of a killing
“There’s still a killer out there,” Dewey told District Judge Charles Buss during sentencing on Oct. 16, 1996, which followed a monthlong trial after which Dewey was acquitted of first-degree murder after deliberation, but convicted of felony murder and first-degree sexual assault.
Buss sentenced Dewey to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Taylor was found in her apartment at 855 Inness Court, Unit 1, in Palisade, on the morning of June 4, 1994, partially clothed and floating face up in a bathtub with a pink dog leash tied around her neck, and several pieces of bath soap inserted inside her privates, according to court records.
Neighbor Benjamin Hamm went to check on Taylor’s unit after he heard water running for a long time and then saw it drip through the ceiling.
There was evidence of struggle on Taylor’s body: Fingernails on her right and left hands were broken off. An autopsy showed evidence she’d been beaten and sexually assaulted prior to being strangled to death.
A silver ring with two hearts and a brown rock were lying on her abdomen when she found.
Blood was found in the bathroom sink.
In the living room, investigators found drops of blood and spatter on a sofa and on a wall behind the sofa, along with pizza box and a white blanket.
Joseph Snyder, with the private firm, Forensic Science Consultants, testified during Dewey’s trial he tested the blanket after receiving it Oct. 24, 1994, and found a semen stain.
“(Snyder) testified that John Moran from (Colorado Bureau of Investigation) had previously tested the blanket and did not find the semen stain on the blanket,” according to the affidavit.
Lies to police
Jacie Taylor had moved in with Brandy Bledsoe at the Inness Court apartment — the street was eventually renamed as “Iowa” — roughly a month before the slaying, the affidavit said. Cynthia “Sam” Mallow had also been staying there around the same time.
Bledsoe told investigators Mallow provided her and Taylor with methamphetamine, and it was Bledsoe who said she met Robert “Rider” Dewey, in the days prior to the slaying.
“Brandy said Rider came to the apartment with Sam Mallow and that he appeared to be extremely paranoid,” the affidavit said. “She described him looking around the apartment as if he was casing it.”
On June 6, two days after the discovery of Taylor’s body, then-Palisade Police Chief Greg Kuhn contacted Dewey at Palisade’s C & F Food Store. Dewey agreed to an interview, when he twice lied about his identity, providing a false name to the officer.
Dewey’s stories continued to raise suspicion.
Explaining a large gray sock he was wearing over his right forearm, Dewey said he was injured working on a friend’s car when the battery exploded, spraying battery acid. Dewey in a subsequent interview said he was trying to hide scarring from meth use.
He said he’d been arrested in Missouri on an assault charge and Palisade police, using that information, confirmed Dewey’s true identity with fingerprints.
Dewey would later tell investigators he was twice inside Taylor’s apartment on Friday, June 3, the day before she was found murdered. On one of the visits, he said he shaved off his beard.
Sam Weaver, who lived down the street at 951 Inness Court, Unit 7, said Dewey had given him a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun to hold onto. The weapon had been reported stolen to the Grand Junction Police Department.Before being charged in Taylor’s death, Dewey told investigators he’d shaved his beard June 3 at Taylor’s apartment because he knew police were looking for him, which was also why he lied initially about his identity.
Dewey and his then-wife fled the Grand Valley for Pueblo soon after his initial contact with Palisade police, fearful, he’d later say, of being tied to the stolen gun. He was arrested in Pueblo on June 22, 1994, in connection with the Grand Junction gun case.
Barbara Holt, who had been staying with Dewey and his wife, told Pueblo police in a June 1994 interview that Dewey told her that he had gone to Sam Mallow’s apartment, where Taylor lived, and partied there with at least four others, “shooting speed.” Holt told the Pueblo officer that Dewey told her he didn’t kill the woman, but was there when it happened.
Fast-forward to April this year, Holt told another story to investigators, saying she couldn’t recall making the statements attributed to her and insisted Dewey never said he was present at the time of the murder, according to the affidavit.
“She further clarified she was drunk at the time she spoke with the Pueblo Police Officer,” the affidavit said.
Dewey on Nov. 23, 1994, struck a deal with Mesa County prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon by a prior offender and he was sentenced to one year in prison.
Also notable, the changing account from another prosecution witness, Mike Palmer, according to the affidavit.
During Dewey’s 1996 trial, Palmer testified he gave Dewey a ride to a store early in the morning of Saturday, June 4, when Taylor’s body was found. Palmer testified Dewey told him, “A girl was strangled with a dog chain right up there.”
Such facts would likely be known only to the killer so early on, prosecutors suggested.
Dewey, however, said it happened on Sunday morning, by which time, crime scene tape surrounded the building and a police cruiser was parked nearby.
Interviewed again this past March, Palmer agreed with Dewey’s account, telling an investigator, “I honestly think it was Sunday.”
Subsequent to the trial, Dewey told investigators he learned the jury foreman in his trial knew Palmer.
Experts were sought out in 1995 for analysis and opinion on DNA, a relatively unknown tool for Mesa County law enforcement.
In Taylor’s murder, CBI recommended to Mesa County authorities that a Texas-based firm, Gene Screen, perform analysis on a Texaco work shirt owned by Dewey that contained blood stains, in addition to other items, including clippings of Jacie Taylor’s fingernails.
At Dewey’s trial, Judge Buss accepted Judith Floyd, a forensic DNA analyst with Gene Screen, as an expert witness, allowing her to express opinions to the jury.
Floyd testified she had seven years of experience in her field.
She told jurors that Dewey’s Texaco shirt was consistent with having a mixture of DNA from both Dewey and Taylor.
At the same time, “45 percent” of the entire Caucasian population could have contributed to the DNA mixture, she testified.
A defense expert, Moses Schanfield, at the time laboratory director for Analytical Genetic Testing Center in Denver, told the jury “there’s certainly no evidence” Taylor’s blood was on the shirt, according to the Sentinel’s trial coverage.
Both DNA experts agreed Dewey’s DNA was not present in the material scraped from underneath Taylor’s fingernails, or in the semen stain discovered on a blanket in Taylor’s living room. Prosecutors in the 1996 trial would use the conflicting DNA evidence to argue a second, unknown person was involved in Taylor’s murder.
Palisade Police Chief Carroll Quarles, issuing a statement to the Sentinel announcing charges against Dewey in Taylor’s death after an arrest warrant was issued on April 12, 1995, suggested Dewey might not be the only suspect.
“Right now we don’t have enough probable cause to make further arrests,” Quarles told the newspaper.
Mesa County Sheriff’s Department investigator Steve Stogsdill led the investigation, working with Palisade police.
Colorado Department of Corrections records show Dewey was formally charged in connection with Taylor’s murder April 18, 1995, five days after being released on parole stemming from the sentence on the gun charge.
Upon hearing the guilty verdicts at trial in 1996, Dewey shot a hard stare at Dave and Jackie Taylor, Jacie Taylor’s parents, slumped forward in his chair before his face turned stony, and he crossed his arms and looked at the ceiling, according to the Sentinel’s account.
Prosecutors and law enforcement pledged to continue looking for a second suspect.
“We will be here when they find that person,” Jackie Taylor told the newspaper.
An expert with CBI suggested DNA technology used in the mid-1990s is now so outdated, she didn’t bother training on it, according to the affidavit.
“Agent (Yvonne) Woods said the current DNA technology, including YSTR which looks at the male chromosome, has only been around for forensic DNA testing for about the last 10–12 years,” the affidavit said.
Dewey over 10 years has had the support of an advocate described in the affidavit as his “staunch believer,” attorney Danyel Joffe.
“Someone,” an investigator wrote in the affidavit, “who had spent a considerable amount of her own time and resources in her quest to exonerate Dewey.”
Joffe was supported financially in her efforts by the New York Innocence Project, a policy organization dedicated to exonerating those wrongfully convicted, using DNA.
Other separate, yet related factors started working in Dewey’s favor.
The Colorado Attorney General’s Office’s Justice Review Project, a grant funded effort by the National Institute of Justice, took interest in Dewey’s case in 2011.
The Justice Review Project reviewed cases of inmates currently jailed for murder, manslaughter and sexual assault, in search of situations where post-conviction DNA testing could exonerate an innocent person.
Only cases in which the identity of the perpetrator was an issue, and biological evidence remained preserved for testing, were considered for review. To be considered, inmates had to have maintained innocence throughout their case, not pleaded guilty to a crime associated with the case, or raised an affirmative defense during the trial.
Dewey’s case was accepted for the project, while Senior Assistant Attorney General Julie Selsburg, coordinator of the project, Larry Adkisson, an investigator with the Attorney General’s office, and Assistant Mesa County District Attorney Rich Tuttle started poring over Dewey’s files in early 2011.
Tuttle was a deputy prosecutor who helped put Dewey in prison for Taylor’s murder in 1996.
The affidavit said Joffe played a key role coordinating modern DNA testing of the disputed Texaco work shirt in Dewey’s case, approaching a private entity, Forensic Analytical Sciences Inc.
The firm issued a report in January 2011: Dewey’s DNA was present, but not Jacie Taylor’s.
“This exclusion of Taylor on the shirt was later confirmed in 2011 and 2012 by forensic testing by CBI,” the affidavit said.
Working with the Justice Review Project, Tuttle sent CBI additional evidence for testing: Taylor’s fingernail scraping and the dog leash used to strangle her, along with the semen and blood-stained blanket found in her apartment.
The Justice Review Project provided dollars to expedite the testing.
“As a practical matter, this meant DNA testing that normally would take months to years to complete would occur at a much faster rate ... within weeks to months,” the affidavit said.
The results were detailed in a December 2011 report:
A DNA profile on the blanket didn’t match Dewey’s DNA.
It did match 39-year-old Douglas Thames, an inmate serving life in prison in connection with the 1989 rape and murder of Susan Doll in Fort Collins. Thames was arrested for the slaying in 1995 in Mesa County.
The match happened when the unknown DNA was placed into the Combined DNA Index System, a computer system that checks state, local and national databases of DNA profiles from convicted offenders.
Dewey was excluded as a contributor to a mixture of DNA found on the leash.
Thames was also found to be a potential DNA contributor to the fingernail scraping, the dog leash and the soap bars found inside of Taylor.
In a February 2011 prison interview, when showed a photograph of Thames, Dewey told investigators he didn’t recognize him but might have heard the name before.
“(Dewey) added that he hears a lot of names in prison and might have heard the name in a prison unit,” an investigator wrote in the affidavit.