Southern Illinoisan from Carbondale, Illinois on April 7, 1996 · Page 29
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Southern Illinoisan from Carbondale, Illinois · Page 29

Carbondale, Illinois
Issue Date:
Sunday, April 7, 1996
Page 29
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- -' The Southern Illinoisan The murder of an elderly woman, the confession of a retarded man, and a nine-year odyssey to By Sharon Cohen The Associated Press nn is own words had done him in. His confes sion to the murder of an elderly widow had put him behind bars for life. Johnny Lee Wilson was doomed. Later, when the young retarded man said police had bullied him into confessing, that he didn't do it, that it was all a mistake, authorities didn't buy it. They wouldn't change their minds even after a convicted killer confessed to the crime. But the peculiar chain of events haunted two men. One knew Wilson as a child and couldn't believe the meek kid with an IQ of 76 had grown into a crafty, cold-blooded killer. The other knew the murderer who claimed responsibility and couldn't believe he was lying. So Dean Rodgers, a building contractor, and Warren Ormsby, a bail bondsman, joined forces for the challenge of their lives: to free Johnny Lee Wilson. Naively, Ormsby figured it was a four, maybe five-day job. "I thought it was a matter of telling the law and the law would straighten it out," he says. Rodgers, though, sensed it would take much longer: "I told Warren it will be years before we get this done. I said, 'We're going to be in trouble for a long time if we do this.' " One year passed, then two, then five. Wilson sat in prison as one court, then another, rejected his appeals. And still, the men soldiered on for eight long years. "I said, 'Dean, there's only one way we'll ever win this damn case,' " Ormsby recalls. " 'Don't ever give up. Regardless of what happens, don't give up.' " Keeping Johnny in the limelight The bid to free Johnny Lee Wilson is more than a tale of righting a wrong. It's a story of how two men in a small Ozarks town cajoled and connived, told some truths and concocted some lies, manipulated the media and lobbied the law, were admired by some and despised by others. Their basic strategy was to keep Wilson in the limelight. That wasn't hard: They had a good yarn. "The case was so appealing," says Mike Atchison, a Kansas AP photo Confessed: Chris Allen Brownfield, a convicted killer, confessed to the murder of Pauline Martz. But Johnny Lee Wilson served nine years for the crime. City lawyer who joined their cause. "You had this murder in a small town of an elderly woman, a town afraid, a kid with mental retardation, the other guy who confesses to it. It is stranger than fiction. It was very compelling. You didn't have to be a good storyteller to make it interesting." By the time Ormsby and Rodgers stepped in, Wilson was J ; - v serving life without parole for the April 13, 1986, murder of Pauline Martz, a 79-year-old widow who had played bridge with his grandmother. Martz had been beaten, bound and burned alive when her ransacked house was set afire. After the police received a tip from a former special ed classmate of Wilson's who later recanted they and members of the sheriffs office interrogated Wilson, who swore he didn't kill anyone and had an alibi: He was with his mom at the grocery store. For nearly four hours, he was threatened and intimidated, fed facts only the killer would know and told there were eyewitnesses. At the end, authorities had their confession. Wilson, only 20 at the time, entered a plea in which a defendant doesn't admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have a strong case to convict. By doing so, he avoided the death penalty. When he appeared in court that day in 1987, he at first didn't seem to understand the judge. Then, when asked again to explain why he was pleading, he responded tentatively: "I'm guilty, I guess." He was in prison the next year when Ormsby received a call from a Kansas inmate he had bailed out several times for burglarizing carwashes and coin laundries. "I've never known him to be a liar," Ormsby says in his husky smoker's drawl. "But he's ornery and meaner than the dickens." Brownfield was imprisoned for robbing, beating and murdering an elderly woman in her Kansas home, 1 6 days after Martz's killing and about an hour from Aurora. According to Ormsby, Brownfield asked him if he knew about Martz's murder. "He said, 'I got something to tell you,' " Ormsby recalls. "He said, 'That kid didn't do it.' " The stuff of pulp fiction For three decades, Warren Ormsby was a small-time bail bondsman for small-town criminals, putting up $25 for drunken drivers, petty thieves and jthe like. His world is the stuff of pulp fiction. His craggy, hound-dog face and the soot-gray circles under his eyes make him look older than 53, and a cheap cigarette constantly dangles from his pursed lips. His right arm sports a scar from a .12-gauge shotgun wound, a remnant of a long-ago scrape. He revels in telling tales of his years of chasing bail-jumpers, wolfing down bologna sandwiches and sleeping in his Dodge van. Once, he spent nine days in Texas to snare a guy who skipped out on a $ 1 00 bond. Ormsby describes his moral code with typical bluster: "I may be a little slick on the sides and I may hustle you for every nickel ... but I'm not going to put some damn innocent kid in the penitentiary if he ain't got sense enough to blow his nose." Dean Rodgers, 64, was more respectable, a ruddy-faced former horseman who builds homes. His desk is adorned with the nameplate "Boss Hogg," a gift from his daughter marking his resemblance to the short, paunchy county boss on TV's "Dukes of Hazzard." "Dean was a lot bigger man in the society," Ormsby explains. "He was a Sunday school teacher in the church and, hell, I was just a little roadrunner, running up and down the alleys to make my living." The two got together after Ormsby failed to make headway with authorities regarding Brownfield's confession; Ormsby approached Rodgers because the builder's nephew was the prosecutor. There was one more media-tantalizing twist: Rodgers once i Sunday, April 7, 1996 mow FT. , .v ! 'v S'-h , . v. , illiiil. 1;, ; t ' ... " .',: 1 - ' ., ' :, ' " " a J Plilii i ' .. " ' ' f -n -1 ! 111 ; .. ' . : .: isssip?; . . : s ! ' r " : ' ' , I' - ; .(am.ww j X I - w"-vw - I ' ' ' ' '"" ' I " - f ; it ,i :: v s- . i1 ' , s ! f A i ' -is; ;.; ; ". v- . , : w I 1 "S Justice: Johnny Lee Wilson (from left); Dean Rodgers, a building contractor; and Warren Ormsby, a home in Aurora, Mo., in February. Rodgers and Ormsby were instrumental in getting Wilson, wno is Missouri State Prison after serving nine years of a life sentence. lived next door to Wilson. He remembers a mild-mannered, bike-riding kid who was so protected by his mother and grandmother that he needed permission to leave his yard. At first, Rodgers was leery of Ormsby's unsavory reputation and skeptical about Wilson's innocence. But his doubts quickly disappeared as the two men began checking out Wilson's story. Ormsby knocked on every door from Wilson's home to the murder victim's, but found no one who saw him that night. T-shirts and billboards After an investigator the duo hired turned up nothing, they launched a massive publicity campaign, printing bumper stickers, spending thousands of dollars on T-shirts and doing scores of interviews, trying to create news. Rodgers called a news conference early on to announce a petition to recall the sheriff, even though a reporter had told him the night before that state law didn't allow it. He went right ahead. "Got a lot of coverage," he says, smiling. The two men also put up a billboard which later was firebombed reading "Aurora Home of... Johnny Lee Wilson The Boy Without A Trial." (Wilson had, of course, waived that right). They organized and promoted a 1 50-mile march to the capitol, Jefferson City. It began with 200 people; a week later, Rodgers says, a few stragglers remained, including a handicapped man, pushed most of the way in a wheelchair. "We just got mouth exercise from some people from the government," he says. But it was one more week of news coverage. They pressured a newspaper in nearby Marionville to write about the case. And when it did, Ormsby, who helped sell ads, and Rodgers paid to print 10,000 copies instead of the usual 800 and blanketed the area with them. When the paper ran into money trouble, the two men poured in a few thousand dollars. Over the years, newspapers and magazines, including the Kansas City Star and U.S. News and World Report, weighed in with editorials and stories. The prospect of a young-man-wronged story also lured "20-20," "The Reporters," "Unsolved Mysteries," and "Saturday Night With Connie Chung." "The fact these two guys were almost obnoxious about it certainly got me going, and I don't know that I would have," says Maria Patrick, a New York free-lance producer who spent months working on a piece for the Chung show. Lawrence County Prosecutor Robert George, who inherited the case and still believes Wilson is guilty, dismisses it all. "It's a prime example of how people can use the media and fool the public," he says. "There wasn't a Million Man March coming down to Aurora to let this man go free." He suggests an ulterior motive: money. Years ago, the two men and Wilson signed a $100,000 deal for a made-for-TV movie (the option has since lapsed), but the state claimed the money under a law preventing criminals from profiting from their deeds. Both men cashed their first installment and were sued. But still, their crusade continued. Ormsby and Rodgers gumshoed their way to Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas where they met Brownfield several times. In a bid to win Wilson a trial, they also hired Dee Wampler, a savvy Springfield attorney and former prosecutor whose 10-page resume includes the book "Defending Yourself Against Cops." In arguing for Wilson to have a trial, Wampler also presented evidence of Brownfield's confession and motel receipts and phone bills suggesting he and an accomplice were in the area when Martz was killed. But a judge rejected the request. 'I just wanted to help the kid' By then, Maria Patrick, the TV producer, had immersed I said, 'Dean, there's only one way we'll ever win this damn case. Don't ever give up. Regardless of what happens, don't give UD.' Vewen Crntiy to Doca Cod-ers, Ihe two men who wero tailrunsntcl la freeing Jehnny Lee Wilson from a Kte sentsncs far a ciurdsr Ihey knew he didn't commit herself in the case. She called Vern Miller, a former attorney general of Kansas, and asked him to visit Brownfield in prison. She also sent him Wilson's confession. "I was amazed how bad it was, how absolutely terrible that case had been handled," he recalls. When Miller drove 170 miles to interview Brownfield, the convict repeated his story: He and an accomplice had robbed Martz and burned the house because they had lost a stun gun that had fingerprints on it. Miller knew Missouri officials had dismissed Brownfield as not credible after investigating his story; they cited too many discrepancies and noted he was not able to identify a photo of Martz. George, the prosecutor, still brands Brownfield a liar who initially was out to collect a reward. But Miller didn't see it that way: Using his clout, he got Brownfield temporarily transferred to a county jail near his Wichita home. Using his AT&T credit card, he and Brownfield tracked down the con's purported accomplice in Oklahoma. In a taped conversation between Brownfield and the man, Brownfield mentioned the Martz confession and said he couldn't "leave the kid laying in there." The man replied, "It took you a whole hour to cop me out, man." For Miller, it showed Brownfield and the alleged accomplice were guilty and that Wilson was innocent. The tape was presented in an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, but Wilson's plea was upheld in 1991, though the court said it was not the venue to determine guilt or innocence. It cited other avenues of appeal including a pardon. It was later in 1991 that one of Kansas City's largest law firms took on the Wilson case pro bono after being approached by Maria Patrick. "I just thought this kid was never going to get out," she says. "Every point along the way, he had fallen through the cracks. I just wanted to help the kid." Section 12 AP photo bail bondsman, relax in Ormsby's mentally retarded, released from the Psychological tests on Johnny Mike Atchison, who began tackling the case while a law clerk, and his senior colleague, Dave Everson, had an uphill battle: to prove a man's innocence beyond a reasonable doubt and explain why he would enter a plea. IC I knew I ' would get out. I didn't know exactly how it would happen. I never gave up the faith that I'd be coming home. Johnny Wilson Bob Perske, a free-lance writer who attended some of the court hearings, says Wilson's predicament wasn't unique. He has chronicled more than 1 00 cases of mentally retarded people wrongly accused of heinous crimes. To explain Wilson's behavior, attorneys called on Denis Keyes, an assistant professor of special education at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, who conducted psychological tests on him in prison. Mentally retarded people, , Keyes says, typically acquiesce to what police tell them. "You give them an inch, they'll take a mile," he adds. "The more,, approval they get, the more they'll feel like they're buddies with you." Wilson, Keyes says, is very shy and "would have said anything they wanted to get himself out of the situation he found himself in." l See FREEING, 4D

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