A decades-old Idaho Falls murder investigation resulted in a grave injustice — sending an innocent man to prison and allowing a murderer to roam free.
Those are the conclusions of two reports on the 1996 sexual assault and murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge. The reports were released by Judges for Justice, a national nonprofit that investigates suspected false convictions.
In 1998, Chris Tapp was convicted of Dodge’s murder after he confessed during a series of interrogations. He has been in jail or prison for 18 years, nearly half of his life.
The Judges for Justice reports were completed by Steve Moore, a retired FBI supervisory special agent who formerly headed up the Los Angeles-based investigations into al-Qaida, as well as Gregg McCrary, a retired supervisory special agent who formerly trained FBI agents in interrogation techniques at Quantico.
Moore’s 85-page report is a scathing critique of the Idaho Falls Police Department’s investigative work. It found that Tapp’s confession is demonstrably false — obtained by threats of life imprisonment or death, and with promises of immunity — and that the physical evidence in the case does not match detectives’ conclusions.
“In the final analysis,” Moore concluded, “the actions of the IFPD detectives in this matter, even if well-intentioned, were egregious. In their zeal, they abandoned even the most basic investigative cautions and proceeded on a course charted by their uninformed hunches, not the evidence.… In the end, the failure of this investigation has resulted in freedom for a vicious murderer, the incarceration of an innocent man for 18 years, and it has denied Angie Raye Dodge the justice she deserves.”
Bonneville County Prosecutor Bruce Pickett said his office is reviewing the reports.
“We have an obligation, both to Mr. Tapp and to the citizens of Bonneville County, to go back and review it,” Pickett said. “If we think it is a credible report, then we have the obligation to either hire our own expert or … at that point make a decision as to which is the best course of action.”
The reports took eight months of investigation to complete, Pickett said, and it will take time for prosecutors to fully review them.
Pickett said additional evidence, obtained after the trial, has been turned over to Judges for Justice so their experts can review that evidence and incorporate it into their reports.
Police Chief Mark McBride said Tapp has avenues to challenge his conviction.
Retired detectives Ken Brown and Jared Fuhriman, who led the investigation, did not respond to requests for interviews. Fuhriman served two terms as mayor of Idaho Falls following his police career.
Dodge’s mother, Carol, who has long maintained that Tapp was innocent, said the report is the most comprehensive look at the case that has been completed in the more than 18 years since her daughter was murdered.
“These individuals did this investigation out of the goodness of their hearts and because they want justice for all,” she said. “(Judges for Justice) had nothing to gain, but by exposing the truth about their findings, it is possible that the real killer can be found and prosecuted.”
A good investigation that was derailed
Dodge’s murder was followed by weeks of solid investigation that unfortunately turned up no solid leads, said Mike Heavey, a retired Washington judge who co-founded Judges for Justice. Then Benjamin Hobbs, Tapp’s friend, was arrested for rape in Nevada.
“Ben Hobbs was a good suspect,” Heavey said.
Once detectives had come to the conclusion that Hobbs was the killer, Moore said in the report, they stopped looking for suspects and began working to extract a confession.
The problem: “There was not one piece of credible evidence, physical, circumstantial or testimonial of Hobbs’ involvement in the Dodge murder. It existed only in the minds of the IFPD detectives,” Moore wrote.
Hobbs never was charged in the Dodge murder. He is serving time in prison for the Nevada rape.
After days of interrogation, Tapp confessed, saying he and Hobbs committed the crime. But McCrary said the interrogations were deeply flawed.
“This is a false confession,” interrogation expert McCrary wrote. “The authorities manipulated Mr. Tapp through a series of explicit threats and promises, used false evidence ploys, asked a host of leading questions and continually contaminated the interrogation by disclosing nonpublic details of the crime and the crime scene, all of which was improper.”
In order to verify that a confession is accurate, Moore said, police should find in it “single source information” — information that only the killer could know. That can include things such as what a victim was wearing, where a victim’s body was found or the time when the victim was attacked.
Virtually every detail of Tapp’s confession was fed to him by detectives, Moore said in the report.
Interrogators characterized the crime scene as “sick,” and Tapp repeated it back to them, Moore said. They told Tapp that Dodge had been menstruating at the time of her murder, that she lived in an upstairs apartment, that she had been killed at night, that her body had been found on the floor lying face up, that there were stuffed animals in the room and that her body had been ejaculated upon.
They showed Tapp diagrams and sketches of the apartment, as well as photographs of the crime scene. Those photographs showed Dodge’s breast had been slashed — an act Tapp would later confess to committing himself.
Of the 21 pieces of information police believe indicated that Tapp had inside knowledge of the crime, 17 had been revealed to him in the course of the interrogations, three were untrue, seven had been published in the Post Register and four were common knowledge in the community, Moore said.
Police interrogators made extensive use of a polygraph during the course of the investigation, but Moore said the operator was demonstrably unable to tell the difference between truth and lies.
Detective Steven Finn, who administered the test, accurately called truthfulness and deceptiveness only 55 percent of the time, Moore said. The “lie detector,” in effect, was little better than flipping a coin.
“This is far below professional standards and calls into question every single decision in this case made by polygraph,” Moore said.
And Tapp’s confession was incorrect on a number of points, Moore said, including the color of Dodge’s clothing, the position of her clothing and the number of times she was stabbed.
During the course of the interrogation sessions, Tapp, at different times, indicated Dodge was wearing red, black, gray or blue clothing, none of which were correct, Moore said. Tapp said Dodge’s sweat pants had been removed from one of her legs, which was false. And he said Dodge had been stabbed one to three times. The autopsy estimated she had been stabbed 16 times.
The existing physical evidence pointed toward the falsity of Tapp’s confession.
Dodge’s body temperature was not taken by investigators, a critical oversight, Moore said, because it would have allowed accurate determination of the time of death. Instead, her body immediately was put into refrigeration “destroying the possibility of determining the time of the attack.”
Taking a victim’s body temperature, Moore said, is “investigation 101” and failing to do so is like “forgetting to take fingerprints.”
Using the amount of urine contained in Dodge’s bladder at the time of her death, Moore concluded that the murder probably couldn’t have happened any earlier than 4 a.m. And Tapp was known to have been with a roommate from 3 a.m. until later that morning.
After being shown a single-edged folding knife, Tapp indicated it was similar to the murder weapon. But the autopsy indicated Dodge was stabbed with a double-edged knife.
And blood-pattern evidence gathered from the scene did not match Tapp’s description of the crime, Moore said.
Further, Moore found the police theory of the crime — that Dodge was attacked and subdued by three men: Hobbs, Tapp and an unknown third — is inconsistent with physical evidence found at the scene. The 6-by-10-foot bedroom in which she was found showed few signs of struggle.
And it beggars belief, Moore said, that three men attacked Dodge but only one still-unknown man left all of the physical evidence. DNA from semen, hair and other sources at the scene were tested and did not match Tapp or Hobbs.
“A fight with three men leaves hairs, skin cells, blood, fingerprints and other physical evidence for three men at the crime scene — not just one,” Moore said.
Moore completed a criminal profile of the likely killer:
He probably lived close enough to Dodge to walk to her home, knew where she lived and that she was alone, and knew how to enter the home undetected, Moore said. The killer also was probably socially inadequate, of below-average intelligence and the subject of harsh discipline.
It likely was a spur-of-the moment crime, a “blitz-style” attack launched while Dodge was sleeping, Moore said.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.