Crime

After 20 years, Chris Tapp walks free – and he wants Angie Dodge’s killer not to

The fallout from a 20-year-old unsolved homicide leaves an Idaho woman struggling with the killing of her teenage daughter, the death of her broken-hearted husband and the realization that the police have not caught the perpetrator.

It leaves a man, now 40 – who has spent half of his years in prison for a crime he says he had nothing to do with – trying to rebuild his life and deal with the loss of his wife, who died while he languished behind bars.

It leaves a new prosecuting attorney trying make sense of an old case he inherited.

And it leaves many people in a community that once reviled one of its own now rallying behind him and the victim’s family, demanding truth and justice.

At the core of this fallout remains an enduring question: Who killed Angie Dodge?

There is hope for solving this mystery: a prime DNA sample from the killer. It sits in a police lab.

“We know exactly who this person is by DNA,” said an expert at Boise State University. “But we do not have their name.”

Dodge’s death

The case began after 18-year-old Angie Raye Dodge graduated from Idaho Falls High School. She moved out of the house where she had grown up with her mother and father and into an Idaho Falls apartment.

Three weeks later, on June 13, 1996, she was raped and killed in that apartment. Her body was discovered by co-workers who checked on her when she didn’t show up for work.

Idaho Falls police investigators interviewed dozens of young men in the city, particularly those who hung out at the recreational boat docks on the Snake River, a place frequented by teens, including Dodge. They took DNA blood samples from more than 20 men. None matched the semen found on Dodge’s body.

Several months went by without any arrests. Then police learned that an acquaintance of Dodge’s, Ben Hobbs, had been arrested on Jan. 6, 1997, in Ely, Nev., on charges of raping a woman at knifepoint. Police turned their sights to him as a suspect.

While Hobbs was still in custody, Idaho Falls police began trying to connect him to Dodge’s murder. They started interviewing Hobbs’ friends, including a 20-year-old Idaho Falls High dropout, Christopher Conley Tapp.

Tapp said he went to the police station voluntarily to be interviewed and to give a DNA sample. His DNA was not a match. He said he wanted to help the police.

On Jan. 7, 1997, police started questioning him. Four days later, they arrested him on a charge of being an accessory to a felony. They gave him limited immunity in exchange for full cooperation with the investigation.

Tapp told police that he could name the rapist. But he gave police several different stories. He also named different people as the killer, including Hobbs, Jeremy Sargis and some of Tapp’s other friends.

But DNA samples from Hobbs and Sargis did not match. Police eliminated them as suspects. Investigators said Tapp was lying. His immunity deal fell apart.

Tapp underwent more than 20 hours of interrogation and multiple polygraph tests over three weeks. Finally, he told police that he had held down Dodge by her arm while Hobbs and another unnamed person, whom Tapp said he did not know, sexually assaulted and fatally stabbed her.

On Jan. 29, 1997, police arrested Tapp on charges of rape and first-degree murder.

Police made no other arrests. Hobbs was subsequently convicted of the rape in Nevada, where he remains imprisoned.

Tapp went to trial in May 1998. His public defender argued that no physical evidence linked him to the crime scene and that his confession was coerced. Prosecutors said Tapp confessed without coercion.

The jury convicted Tapp of aiding and abetting the rape and murder. He was sentenced to life with a minimum of 20 years for aiding the murder and a minimum of 10 years for aiding the rape. He would be eligible for parole in 2027.

Inmate No. 56265

When he entered prison in 1998 at age 21, Tapp became Inmate No. 56265.

He appealed his conviction to the Idaho Supreme Court. He lost. Over the years, he filed five cases seeking post-conviction relief. Three failed. Two were pending until recently.

Tapp insists today that he was not there when Dodge was killed. He says his confession was false.

“Everybody always says they would never admit to something they did not do,” Tapp told the Statesman. “I want everybody to understand that I was tricked, manipulated, lied to and preyed upon. ... I should have stayed strong and held true to my convictions. I had nothing to do with her murder.”

In 2012, NBC’s “Dateline” ran a two-hour special about Dodge’s killing and the questions surrounding Tapp’s conviction. Lori Hollandsworth, a Tennessee resident, watched the program and wrote to Tapp.

“She felt very strongly about my innocence,” Tapp said. “She wanted to become an advocate.”

They exchanged letters and phone calls. Hollandsworth traveled to Idaho to visit Tapp at the Idaho State Correctional Center south of Boise. “We fell in love,” Tapp said. They were married on July 28, 2013, in a short ceremony at the prison.

Hollandsworth was killed in a car crash in Tennessee on Jan. 5, 2016, a little more than one year before Tapp’s release.

“She saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” Tapp said. “She truly believed in me. She was my strength.”

Let’s make a deal

Last fall, Tapp’s attorneys, John Thomas and Rocky Wixom, approached Bonneville Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Clark with a proposal to settle Tapp’s two pending appeals. Tapp’s murder conviction would stay on his record, but his rape conviction would be dropped, he would be released from prison and he would drop the two cases.

Tapp spent many hours discussing the proposal with his lawyers, his family and his close friends.

“It finally just came to the point where I am able to come home,” he said. “I do not have to worry about any more hearings. I do not have to worry about the next court case, the what-ifs.

“It sucks to have a murder conviction on me for something I did not do. But on the other side of that coin … Do I come home with this, or do I continue something from prison and maybe I never come home?”

On March 22, Tapp agreed to the deal. It meant he would immediately be released from prison. It meant the lengthy, costly court challenges, which had yet to yield a positive result, would end. That day, Tapp walked out of the Bonneville County Courthouse to freedom.

The agreement was the quickest, surest, cheapest path to that freedom. But it came at a high cost: He remains a convicted murderer.

“I took the lesser of two evils,” he said. “I’ve been fighting this for 20 years. When you lose so many hearings and lose so many battles, you continue to lose faith in the justice system.”

With his release came a flurry of local and national media interviews. Tapp did them, but he had two other priorities.

Within hours, he went to visit his father’s grave. His father had died while he was in prison and Tapp could not get permission to go to the funeral.

Then Tapp made arrangements to fly to Tennessee to meet his deceased wife’s family: two stepdaughters and his in-laws.

“I wanted to come out and prove to them that I was real,” he said. “After Lori passed, I did not stop. I continued to be part of my in-laws’ life.”

‘It is ... overwhelming’

Now Tapp is back in Idaho Falls, slowly and cautiously working at rebuilding his life.

For 20 years he had nothing but time to sit in his cell and think about all things that might have been. Now he must make a lot of decisions — something he never had to do in prison. Little things — where to eat, which shirt to buy, things most people do without a second thought — can be a challenge.

“It is sometimes overwhelming and sometimes scary,” he said.

At one point he had a panic attack and fled a department store. So many choices — colors, styles, sizes, prices.

Initially Tapp said he wanted to leave Idaho as quickly as possible, to leave the past behind and start over. But now that he has been out for a month, he has reconsidered heading out on his own.

“I need the support” of family and friends, he said. “I need to be able to get my feet established and underneath me before I decide to, A, venture off and make a life for myself, or B, make my life here. It is baby steps for me.”

Tapp said he is rebuilding his life with one goal in mind: “Not to fall. I don’t want be one those statistics where I get out of prison and just go right back. I don’t want to be that guy.”

However, Tapp also believed that getting a job had to be the first step. A job would give him money, purpose, responsibility and a routine. He found one, he said, working for a construction company in a nearby state. To protect his privacy, he declined to say where. The job starts next week.

Carol Dodge, ‘an amazing woman’

When the judge released him, Tapp stood up in the courtroom and walked over to hug two of his biggest supporters. One was obvious: his mother, Vera Tapp. The other? Angie Dodge’s mother, Carol Dodge.

“For over 10 years Carol Dodge hated me,” Tapp said. “She thought I was the worst person in the world.

“Then Carol became one of the biggest advocates I have had in my life. Carol is an amazing woman. She is one of the strongest women I have known.”

Dodge’s husband, Jack, suffered mental collapse after their daughter’s death. He died in 2004 of a “broken heart,” Dodge said later.

“She is the worst victim, besides Angie, in this,” Tapp said.

After her husband died, Dodge decided she could no longer ignore questions being raised about how police handled the investigation. She started doing her own investigating. She contacted the Idaho Innocence Project, which had already started looking at Tapp’s conviction, to learn more.

“I am just overwhelmed. Sitting here today, a whole lot of memories came back,” Dodge said at Tapp’s March 22 release hearing. “Chris, the day that we were here and chose your jury, the jury that convicted you, little did we know what we know now.

“For 13 years, I was really angry at you and, of course, you were angry at me. …. I remember visiting you at the jail, asking you what my baby’s last words were. Little did I know that you just did not know. ...

“I had a hardened heart, because for 13 years they programmed my mind to believe that you were part of my daughter’s killing.”

Angie Dodge’s brother, Brent, also spoke.

“This is quite a day, Chris,” he said. “Last time we stood face-to-face it was a different conversation. I was wrong. … Although the agreement is not perfect, it does provide the catalyst by which healing can take place. So, your honor, on behalf of our family and Angie, we absolutely recommend Chris be set free. Absolutely.”

Danny Clark, a new prosecutor

When Daniel “Danny” Clark was appointed Bonneville County prosecuting attorney in January 2015, he inherited the Dodge case.

Two wrongful-conviction advocacy groups had continued working on behalf of Tapp: the Idaho Innocence Project and the Seattle-based Judges for Justice, which took up the case in 2012.

Judges for Justice identified what it said were numerous problems with the police interrogation of Tapp. Police threatened Tapp with the death penalty. They provided him details of the crime and showed him crime-scene photos early in the interrogation. They punished Tapp by rescinding his immunity agreement when the DNA evidence excluded their prime suspect, Hobbs. They had the polygrapher provide Tapp details of the crime and suggest correct answers to the questions.

Clark reviewed reports and statements from the groups and decided in July 2015 to commission an investigation by an independent party. Clark told the Statesman he kept several things in mind while contemplating the case.

First, when the case went to trial, the defense told the jury that the DNA found at the scene did not belong to Tapp or any of the people he had implicated, and that Tapp’s confession was coerced. Nonetheless, the jury convicted Tapp.

Second, Tapp was convicted as a participant in the killing and rape, not as the killer or the rapist. Tapp never confessed to that. He told police he had helped hold her arm down.

Third, a suspect is considered innocent until proven guilty. But once convicted, the suspect is considered guilty until proven innocent.

Though there are still concerns about how police interrogated Tapp, and the DNA evidence does not point to Tapp, those do not prove innocence, Clark said. The investigation ended last fall after finding no “ ‘new, credible and material’ evidence that Tapp is innocent,” Clark concluded.

On the day of Tapp’s release, Clark issued a statement explaining his support for the deal. “To be clear, there is not sufficient evidence to prove Tapp is innocent — which is the proper legal question at this time,” he said.

Clark told the Statesman the agreement was a “means to an end.”

“From the state’s perspective, justice has been served in regards to Christopher Tapp,” he said. “The state will continue to pursue justice for Angie Dodge.”

With the rape conviction dismissed, Tapp will not have to register as a sex offender, Clark said.

DNA then and now

Tapp’s case was one of the first taken by the Idaho Innocence Project, led by Greg Hampikian, a Boise State biology and criminal justice professor. The nonprofit organization, housed at BSU, is funded by federal grants and donations.

About 10 years ago, Hampikian asked Sara Thomas, then of Idaho’s appellate public defender’s office, whether there was a case she thought warranted a closer look. She suggested Tapp’s.

Hampikian assigned a student to review the case and watch the more than 20 hours of video of Tapp’s interrogations. The student reported that detectives had told Tapp all the details, which Tapp repeated in his confession, and that police had DNA that did not match Tapp’s.

“We started meeting weekly on that case, and we met weekly for nearly 10 years,” Hampikian said.

“A lot of people were involved. Probably hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised and spent. Even when we were out of money I had 10 volunteers still working on this case.”

The big break came last year, when a judge agreed to new DNA testing on every piece of evidence collected at the crime scene using a new forensic DNA collection system, called M-Vac. A Jerome, Idaho, microbiologist, Bruce Bradley, invented the system in the 1990s after an E. coli outbreak that killed six children. The technology was initially used to collect food pathogens from surfaces.

“All of those items were tested and they all pointed to one man. Not Chris Tapp,” Hampikian said. “The science spoke clearly and contradicted everything they fed him.”

The science also spoke clearly about who killed Dodge.

“We know exactly who this person is by DNA. We have clues about what their eye color may be, their hair color, their complexion, their heritage, their genealogy,” Hampikian said.

Hampikian wants the state to run the DNA through a federal crime database to try to find a relative of the suspect. This controversial testing is banned in some states, but not Idaho.

He thinks this type of testing should be done only in exceptional circumstances after a careful ethics review.

“We are not talking about trying to find somebody who soaped somebody’s windows,” Hampikian said. “We are talking about a rape, murder. … The person who did it is still out there. So this is the time to pull out all of the stops and try and find this person.”

New life for a cold case

In 2014, Idaho Falls police submitted the DNA to a public genealogy database owned by Ancestry.com. The results showed that the DNA had similarities with a man who lived in Louisiana.

Police traveled to Louisiana and met the man, Michael Usry Jr. He quickly became of interest to the police. He had visited Idaho once, at the same time as Angie’s killing, and he is a filmmaker who has made a dark film about a woman’s brutal murder, “Murderabilia,” Clark told the Statesman.

Police tested Usry’s DNA. It did not match.

Now Usry, whose life was jolted when those Idaho Falls policemen knocked on the door of his New Orleans home, has joined Carol Dodge in her quest to find Angie’s killer. He has traveled to Idaho and is making a documentary about the case, “Angel Falls: The Death of Angie Raye Dodge.”

Meanwhile, Idaho Falls police are exploring a new DNA technology that creates a composite sketch from the sample. Once it is complete, it will be released to the public, and investigators will use it to conduct genealogy research.

Tapp said he, too, wants the killer found, not only because it will exonerate him, but for the sake of Angie’s mother.

“I don’t want people to forget about Carol,” he said. “I don’t want people to forget about Angie.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

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