DNA family tree leads to new suspect in Angie Dodge murder case — and a confession

Almost 23 years to the day, 18-year-old Angie Dodge was raped and killed in her Idaho Falls apartment.

All that time, police have had the killer’s DNA but could not identify to whom it belonged.

Idaho Falls police officials on Thursday announced that this time they think they got it right: The man whose DNA police say matches that collected at the crime scene in 1996 has been arrested. Brian Leigh Dripps Sr., of Caldwell, has been charged with rape and first-degree murder in connection with the June 13, 1996, death of Dodge.

But Dripps is not the first person arrested for the crime. Chris Tapp, whose DNA did not match that collected at the scene, spent 20 years in prison in connection with Dodge’s killing.

[Related: Who is Brian Dripps? Here’s what we know about the suspect]

During a press conference in Idaho Falls on Thursday announcing the arrest, Carol Dodge, Angie’s mother, thanked police, the media and God for keeping her daughter’s case in their hearts and top of mind.

“What an overwhelming day,” Carol Dodge said. “I can’t even express how hard this journey has been. (There are) hundreds of people who have been affected by one person’s choice to take my daughter’s life. Not only did he take her life, he took a piece of all of our lives.”

Cigarette butt breaks Dodge case

Investigators have spent more than two decades trying to find the man who matched the DNA at the scene.

About two years ago, Tapp was released early from prison after reaching a deal with prosecutors. Around the same time, with new DNA technology coming online and an increase in family DNA genealogy services, Idaho Falls police started taking a serious look into the Dodge case.

Enlisting the help of DNA geneticist Cece Moore and Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA analysis company in Virginia, they identified a family tree and began submitting dozens of DNA samples for testing. The tests came back “negative, negative, negative,” Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson said. The suspected killer’s DNA sample was “extremely degraded,” Moore said.

“What we’ve learned from this case is going to go on, and it’s going to inform other cases,” Moore said. “So Angie’s given us something here. It is going to be felt in ways that go far beyond just this one case.”

After doing more research, they identified someone who initially did not appear on the family tree: Brian Dripps.

Officers spent hours doing surveillance on Dripps, waiting for the right time to get a DNA sample. One day, Dripps tossed a cigarette butt out of a car window. Officers scooped it up and sent it to the lab, and they finally had a match.

Idaho Falls police interrogated Dripps for five and a half hours. Initially, police said he lied to investigators, but they said that under further questioning, he confessed to killing and raping Dodge. Dripps, who has a misdemeanor conviction for drug possession in 2002 in Adams County and several driving infractions, including two DUIs, was booked into the Canyon County jail on Wednesday. He is en route to Idaho Falls, where he will be arraigned.

A brief encounter during the investigation

This is not the first time investigators and Dripps crossed paths.

In the days immediately following Dodge’s killing, police began canvassing the neighborhood and interviewing people. Among those interviewed was Dripps, who at the time lived at 459 I St., directly across the street from Dodge, who lived at 444 I St.

“There was a field contact with (Dripps),” Idaho Falls Police Capt. Bill Squires said. “There was a canvassing interview with him back then, just days following the homicide. So, yes, we had his name in the file back then.”

Nothing came of that interview, and Dripps fell off investigators’ radar, but he apparently kept tabs on the case over the years.

“He has seen some of the news shows over the years,” Squires said. Not only was the Dodge case a high-profile one in Idaho, it was also the subject of national news shows.

Remembering Angie

Boisean Tina Barker worked with Angie Dodge at a bookstore in Idaho Falls for about a year. They were part of a staff of about 20 to 25 who opened a new Barnes & Noble.

Barker remembers Dodge as a tall, broad-shouldered blonde with a big personality.

“She was loud. She was funny. I would say she was a happy person,” Barker said. “She was someone that you enjoyed talking to and being around.”

Dodge thought she had big feet and wore shoes that were too small in an effort to hide that, Barker said.

“She was kind of a character,” Barker said. “When you work retail, you talk about your feet a lot — because you’re on your feet all the time.”

Barker was off work the day that the news broke about Dodge’s death.

“They called me at home and told me,” she said. “I just felt very sad for a young life cut short, so horribly.”

Chris Tapp’s connection to the case

Soon after Dodge’s death, investigators set their sights on Chris Tapp, then 20 years old. Even though his DNA did not match evidence collected at the scene, police interrogated him for more than 20 hours. He was subjected to multiple lie detector tests. Finally, he confessed.

In May 1998, an Idaho Falls jury convicted Tapp of aiding and abetting in Dodge’s rape and killing. He was sentenced to life with a minimum of 20 years for the charge of aiding the murder and a minimum of 10 years for aiding the rape. He would be eligible for parole in 2027.

The police investigation and Tapp’s conviction did not sit well with people familiar with the case, including Dodge’s mom, Carol.

“For over 10 years Carol Dodge hated me,” Tapp told the Statesman in 2017. “She thought I was the worst person in the world. Then Carol became one of the biggest advocates I have had in my life.”

After Carol Dodge’s husband, Jack, who suffered mental collapse after their daughter’s death, died in 2004, Carol 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.

That started the ball rolling. Judges for Justice investigated the case; appeals were filed.

Prosecutors eventually cut a deal with Tapp: His murder-related conviction would stay on his record, but his rape-related conviction would be dropped, and he would be immediately released from prison and would drop his two appeals.

After spending nearly half of his life behind bars, Tapp was released on March 22, 2017.

But prosecutors refused to say Tapp had been cleared.

On the day of Tapp’s release, Bonneville County Prosecuting Attorney Danny 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 that 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.”

Shortly after his release, Tapp met with Statesman and talked about being a free man. But that was not the only thing on his mind.

He said he wanted the killer found, not just because it would exonerate him, but for the sake of Angie’s mother.

“Everyone is so happy that I am home, and I am free and I am able to do what I want now,” Tapp said at the time. “But I don’t want people to forget about Carol. I don’t want people to forget about Angie. That is the story that needs to be told.”

Reporter Katy Moeller contributed this report.
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Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.