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Cigarette butt leads to arrest in Angie Dodge murder case

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Editor's note: This article has been corrected to properly attribute a quote to Police Chief Bryce Johnson.

For hours Idaho Falls Police Department detectives followed Brian Dripps around Caldwell, waiting for him to leave a DNA sample. A spit of chewing tobacco, a cigarette butt, anything left in a public area with his DNA.

Eventually, Dripps threw a cigarette out of his car while driving.

This was the break they were waiting for. But the detectives had to wait for Dripps to drive on, then step into traffic to grab the sample.

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Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson discusses the arrest of Brian Leigh Dripps for the murder of Angie Dodge in 1996.

“By the time detectives got out, they were dodging cars, playing a Frogger game,” Chief Bryce Johnson said at a Thursday press conference announcing Dripps’ arrest.

The cigarette butt was lost among others on the road, so the officers had to again follow Dripps for several more hours before he threw out another cigarette. That cigarette and Dripps’ DNA on it helped solve a 23-year-old murder that has haunted the family of Angie Dodge as well as the city of Idaho Falls.

For 23 years the question of who killed Angie Dodge has been dominated by a DNA sample retrieved semen found at the crime scene. Suspects have come and gone in the investigation, each having had their DNA tested. None of them tested positive as a match, including Christopher Tapp, who was convicted in 1998 for the murder.

That mystery appears to have been solved with the arrest of Dripps, 53, a man Tapp said he never heard of until Thursday.

“His DNA matches the DNA sample left at the scene of the crime, and he has also confessed to the crime in an interview, of both rape and murder,” Johnson said.

For Angie Dodge’s family, the news of the arrest parted the clouds that had hung over them since her murder. That’s especially true for her mother, who tirelessly pushed police and prosecutors for decades to bring the case to closure.

“What an overwhelming day,” Carol Dodge said at the press conference, holding back tears. “I can’t even express how hard this journey has been.”

Carol Dodge thanked the officers, both current and former, who worked on the case over the years. Brent Dodge recalled when his mother attended the March 22 press conference after an arrest was made for the murder of Stephanie Eldredge. Carol Dodge had been happy for Eldredge’s family, he said, but upset her daughter’s case was still unsolved.

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Brent Dodge, the brother of murder victim Angie Dodge, speaks at a press conference. Angie’s murder has been solved and now Brent Dodge is raising funds to help solve other cold cases.

“My mom came home from that and asked, ‘When is it our turn?’” Brent said. “Little did we know it was right around the corner.”

Brent Dodge said he recalled that feeling of grief and knew the arrest would remind other families of their own unsolved cases. He cited that feeling for a GoFundMe page he started to raise money for DNA genealogy tests like Moore’s to help solve cold cases.

“Advancements in criminal investigations of applying DNA technology, with proper collection and analysis, can convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent,” Brent Dodge said.

Johnson appeared with Capt. Bill Squires, Lt. Joel Tisdale, Sgt. Josh Deede, Sgt. John Marley and Detective Sage Albright. Next to them were Carol and Brent Dodge.

“Carol, for 23 years, every second of every day, she’s been looking out for her daughter,” Johnson said.

The investigation started to gain traction a year-and-a-half ago when the department began working with Parabon, a genetic analysis company that has used novel genetic genealogy techniques to help solve 56 other cold cases around the country.

Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore compared the semen DNA from GEDmatch, a company that allows people to submit their DNA for research or to identify relatives. Moore found DNA taken from the semen sample was distantly related to a few samples and found a common ancestor for the matches.

Moore said the testing can find partial matches that can identify a relative of the DNA donor at a crime scene. From there, genealogical research is performed to build a small family tree in which the donor likely belongs. Then conventional police work takes over and DNA is used to hunt down the true donor.

“It’s a lead generator. It’s a tip,” Moore said.

Police searched the family tree Moore generated for men who were in or around Idaho Falls at the time of the murder and of the proper age. They obtained DNA samples from each of them, however, none of the six matched.

“At some point we thought we would never get here,” Johnson said.

Moore, however, learned there was a seventh man who fit the profile. The suspect’s mother had divorced and remarried shortly after his birth. It was only after his mother’s name appeared in an obituary for his grandmother that investigators learned that a man named Dripps belonged in the family tree.

Dripps was arrested Wednesday and interrogated for five hours. Squire said Dripps denied the allegation at first but later confessed.

Dripps lived across the street from Angie Dodge at the time of the murder. Police had questioned him along with other residents in the area after her death, but he had not been a suspect.

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Christopher Tapp hugs Carol Dodge at the conclusion of a May 16 press conference where the Idaho Falls Police announced that Brian Leigh Dripps had been arrested for the murder of Carol’s daughter Angie in 1996. Tapp who had been charged, tried and convicted of the crime more than 20 years ago was released two years ago due in large part to Carol’s belief that he was not the murderer. Carol’s son Brent is pictured left.

The elephant in the room during the press conference was the conviction of Christopher Tapp, who sat with his wife in the audience.

Tapp spent 20 years in prison after his arrest. He was released in 2017 after his attorney, Public Defender John Thomas, argued his confession was false and had been coerced by police. Tapp accepted a plea deal that dropped the rape charge and allowed him to be released from prison with no supervision 10 years before his first parole hearing would have been held. His murder conviction still stands.

A 2014 investigation by Judges for Justice, a national nonprofit that investigates suspected false convictions, found that Tapp’s confession was demonstrably false — obtained by threats of life imprisonment or death, and with promises of immunity — and that the physical evidence in the case did not match detectives’ conclusions.

Police refused to answer questions about Tapp or say if there was evidence anyone other than Dripps was involved with the murder.

Bonneville County Prosecutor Daniel Clark did not speak at the press conference. Clark stood by the murder conviction after Tapp’s confession came under scrutiny.

“Anyone who says the evidence proves Tapp is innocent is operating from a biased agenda or his or her own personal belief,” Clark said in 2017.

Tapp and Thomas both said he plans to seek exoneration now that another suspect has been arrested.

“I’m an innocent man, and I’ve been an innocent man for 22 years,” Tapp said.

Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.