Fourteen months in the making and with a $36,000 price tag, Twin Falls private investigator Stuart Robinson’s report investigating the 1997 murder conviction of Chris Tapp has been released by the Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office.
Robinson concludes that Tapp’s confession to involvement in the killing of Angie Dodge, the 18-year-old woman whose murder has kept him behind bars for nearly half his life, was “either tainted, questionable or unlikely.”
And his report points to no other evidence that Tapp was involved in the murder.
Robinson does conclude that Tapp was a witness to the crime, a conclusion disputed by other investigators, who say that the new report does not change their original assessment.
“At this time no decisions or conclusions have been made by this office as to the content and/or impact of this report, but we will continue to review and analyze the report and wait for feedback from (the Idaho Falls Police Department, Tapp’s defense attorney and Judges for Justice,)” Prosecutor Danny Clark wrote in a news release.
The report contains many serious criticisms of the Idaho Falls Police Department’s handling of the case, including findings that detectives seriously compromised the investigation by feeding Tapp nonpublic information about the crime, showing him crime scene photos and even making an unrecorded trip with him to the crime scene.
Some actions taken by police during the interrogations, he wrote, were “unethical.”
And he agreed with prior reports finding that polygraphs administered to Tapp weren’t conducted in a manner that would have determined whether or not he was lying, but were instead used as an interrogation tool. (Polygraph expert Charles Honts previously stated that the polygraphs were used as a “psychological rubber hose.”)
The report, commissioned by prosecutors, doesn’t point to any evidence that Tapp participated in the murder. The only evidence of that was Tapp’s confession, the report states, and that confession was too contaminated by detectives to be reliable.
“From reviewing investigative reports, interviews and trial transcripts, the charges stem largely from Tapp’s own statements which, from analysis, prove that most of his statements as to his personal involvement were questionable,” the report states.
Tapp specifically confessed that he slashed Dodge’s breast after the other alleged participants in the murder threatened him. The report finds that story was suggested to him by Detective Steve Finn, the polygrapher, and that it doesn’t match the physical evidence at the scene — Tapp confessed that he cut Dodge while her shirt was pulled up, the report states, but there is a slash on her shirt that precisely matches the place where she was slashed across the breast, indicating that her shirt was pulled down.
The report also raises questions about whether police gave truthful testimony during the trial.
The report notes that then-Detective Jared Fuhriman, who would go on to serve as mayor of Idaho Falls, testified at trial that Tapp wasn’t given any specific information about the crime by police. But Robinson found that Tapp “was provided numerous details during his interrogation about the crime and the crime scene which should have been withheld by detectives.”
And the jury never saw the full 20-plus hours of interrogations and polygraph sessions during which Tapp was fed these details, including that a knife was used in the murder, that Dodge was killed at night and that a teddy bear was likely used to muffle her screams.
“An interviewer should never disclose to a suspect any facts of the crime; especially what type of weapon was used,” Robinson wrote.
Robinson also found that detectives broke from sound investigative procedure by repeatedly telling Tapp that he would face the gas chamber.
“Tapp was told continually throughout the interviews of the possibility of a death sentence,” Robinson wrote. “I believe that the repeated consequences stated to Tapp and the fact that he could end up with the death penalty had started to affect his credibility as to the truthfulness of his statements.”
Finally, Robinson said a jury might have a hard time concluding that Tapp participated in the murder, given that there are numerous DNA samples at the crime scene, none of which match Tapp.
“The lack of Tapp’s DNA in this case, in my opinion, would be a huge factor,” he wrote.
The report concludes that Tapp must have witnessed the murder based on the totality of evidence Robinson reviewed, though it doesn’t clearly spell out which pieces of evidence lead him to that conclusion. Robinson didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
The report points to two pieces of information that may have contributed to that conclusion: that Tapp said Dodge was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants and that one side of her sweatpants was pulled down farther than the other. Robinson wrote that he could find no place where police had fed Tapp these details.
Former FBI Supervisory Special Agent Steve Moore, who headed up terrorism investigations at the FBI field office in Los Angeles in addition to investigating murders in Indian country and by the Aryan Nations, reviewed the same statements and came to the opposite conclusion.
Dodge commonly wore sweats, Moore wrote in his original report, and Tapp knew her so it is likely he had seen her wear sweatpants before. Moore also pointed out that Tapp was incorrect when he stated the color of the sweatpants.
“My assessment of that evidence is discussed in detail in the report,” Moore said in an interview. “His opinion has not moved my conclusion a nanometer. I stand by everything I said.”
Robinson’s report takes issue with Moore’s on numerous points, mainly his analysis of the physical evidence at the scene.
Retired Judge Mike Heavey, co-founder of Judges for Justice, said he found the report “contradictory” and “underwhelming.”
“The conclusions are not supported by any credible evidence that Chris Tapp was present in that room,” he said.
Carol Dodge, Angie Dodge’s mother, found that equally unconvincing. She pointed out that Angie’s body was found by co-workers at Beauty for All Seasons, who had seen her clothing. And Angie was visited by several of her friends the night of her murder, who also would have seen her clothing, she said. What Angie was wearing had become common knowledge, she said.
Dodge met with Prosecutor Danny Clark ahead of the report’s public release.
“I begged him to set Chris Tapp free,” she said in an interview.
And she fears that the report won’t be enough to make that happen.
“I’m heartsick,” she said shortly after the report’s release. “Vera (Tapp, Chris’ mother,) is waiting for a call. How do I tell her, ‘I’m sorry?’”
Carol says she’s angry. Angry that the new report reveals that at the time of the murder the police were under pressure to cut expenses, such as limiting the number of photographs that were taken at the crime scene, only to have taxpayers 20 years later pay $700 a page for a report that she called “appalling.”
She thinks there still isn’t enough money being dedicated to the investigation and to new DNA testing of long-shelved evidence. She thinks her quest to identify of the man who “brutally murdered my daughter” isn’t getting the resources it deserves.
“It’s time that we all stand up and start asking questions,” she said.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.