Friends, family and supporters packed into the Centennial Courtroom at the Bonneville County Courthouse on Wednesday to watch Chris Tapp go free.
Among them was Carol Dodge, the mother of murder victim Angie Dodge, who has for years worked tirelessly to bring about Tapp’s release from prison. Carol Dodge believes in Tapp’s innocence even though his murder conviction for her daughter’s death remains on his record.
The gallery also included two men Tapp implicated as suspects in his confession to the 1996 murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge, a confession a wide group of experts have roundly condemned as both false and coerced.
Tapp gave Jeremy Sargis’ name after police suggested it to him. But when police interrogated Sargis he told them they were making fools of themselves. When his DNA was tested, it didn’t match that found at the crime scene.
Sargis was briefly charged as an accessory, but the charges were dropped. Nonetheless, he previously said the insinuations that he was involved were ruinous. He had to leave town, moving to where no one knew his name.
“It’s the end of a 20-year nightmare,” Sargis said outside the courtroom.
Tom Brown was Tapp’s best friend and another name that Tapp gave to police as someone who was involved in the murder. On the courthouse lawn, Brown said he easily could have been in Tapp’s shoes.
Brown said he was brought in and forcefully interrogated for hours. He was given a polygraph and told he had failed. He said police fed him many details of the crime, asking him to fill in the blanks.
The only difference, Brown said, was that he had a rock-solid alibi.
“I’d be sitting right next to him if I hadn’t been working a night shift,” Brown said.
Tapp’s yearslong quest for freedom has drawn a national audience. A scrum of camera crews crowded the courthouse entrance. Reporters and documentary film crews from as far away as New Orleans and Washington, D.C., traveled to Idaho Falls to play witness to Tapp’s release.
But the case has particular resonance for locals, especially those who lived through the initial 1996 murder trial. Paralegal Anne Marie Poirier attended the hearing during a break from work. The longtime Idaho Falls resident remembers the case from the beginning.
“It had everyone on edge (in 1996) wondering if there would be repeat killings,” Poirier said.
Following the case 20 years later, Amanda Luce, also a paralegal, understood the importance of the occasion Wednesday.
“This is big history in our little town,” Luce said.
Others went to the hearing to see a man they believe to be innocent walk away free. Idaho Falls resident Donna Atkins said she has watched the videos of Tapp’s interrogation by police where he was fed details of the crime.
“No thanks to the Idaho Falls Police Department that sent him to prison to begin with. They should be ashamed of themselves,” Atkins said. “It was very obvious he was coerced into confessing. They had no evidence. No fingerprints. Nothing to convict him on except his coerced confession.”
The Idaho Falls Police Department stands by its investigation that led to Tapp’s conviction, which remains on his record.
“We believe the agreement, which has upheld the first-degree murder conviction, is fair and just,” a department statement read.
The statement went on to say the department is “very invested in the Angie Dodge homicide. We have great empathy for Angie’s family, especially for her mother, Carol. We will continue to do all we can to investigate this case fully and will not stop until we can bring justice to those involved.”
Carol Dodge’s friends who have stood by her for 20 years as she sought answers to who killed her daughter also attended. Philip Jenkins said he thinks Carol Dodge played the largest part in securing Tapp’s freedom.
“It’s pretty significant when the mother of the victim goes to bat for the person that was convicted of her daughter’s murder,” Jenkins said. “It says a lot about Carol’s character and it says a lot about his innocence.”