The courtroom was full of tears. Tyler Gassman, a 22-year-old Spokane kid, had just learned his fate -- 25 years in prison -- and his sister, mother and friends wept. So did David Partovi, his lawyer. Partovi had lost cases before, but this felt different. He couldn't understand how the system he believed in could railroad someone like Gassman, who, despite troubles at age 15, had become a hard-working young man.
Partovi, goateed and stout as a football player, strode to the lectern and addressed the court, red faced, with tears welling.
"I just want the record to reflect and mankind to know that this is the worst thing I've ever seen come out of the courts," Partovi says. "For the first time in my entire career, I'm ashamed to be an officer of this court."
Last February, a jury found Gassman and two friends guilty of robbing drug dealers in April 2008 -- despite the men's insistent pleas that they were innocent. Their conviction was the final stroke in a long and, at times, bizarre case.
Indeed, just hours before the trial was set to begin, prosecutors changed the date of the crime from April 15 to April 17, wiping out the men's alibis.
"I've never seen somebody who was not only so obviously innocent, but against whom the evidence was so thin," Partovi says. "The system had so many clear-cut opportunities to step in and stop it, but it never did."
To evaluate the men's claims of innocence, The Inlander examined hundreds of court records and interviewed scores of people.
Among our findings:
Taken separately, none of the evidence alone definitively proves that Gassman or the others are innocent, Partovi acknowledges. But by assembling all the pieces and seeing the whole story, he says, a troubling picture emerges.
"There was some sneaky effort put into this, and a lot of effort was required," Partovi says. "Anybody could have been Tyler Gassman. What's to stop somebody from accusing me of doing something like this tonight?"
CHAPTER 1: The Crime
"Get the f--- down! Get on the ground! Empty your pockets!"
Armed with a shotgun and wearing a mask, a 20-year-old drug addict named Anthony Kongchunji burst in the front door of a Spokane Valley apartment on April 23, 2008. According to sheriff's and court records, this is what happened next: Kongchunji barked orders, sending people to the floor. Kongchunji had bought Oxycontin at the apartment many times before, but now, addicted and broke, he was there to steal the pills.
With Kongchunji came a 17-year-old skinny kid named Matt Dunham, who held a baseball bat to a woman's head, ready to swing.
Two other accomplices ransacked the apartment looking for drugs. But as Kongchunji shouted his orders, his mask slipped down, and the drug dealers recognized him. They also recognized one of the accomplices as Matt Dunham's older brother, Larry.
About an hour later, Kongchunji (pronounced "coh-jen-JEYE"), the Dunham brothers and a fourth accomplice were in handcuffs. They all quickly fessed up, except for Matt Dunham, whose story kept changing. But it didn't matter -- it was an open-and-shut case.
The robbery, it turned out, was only the latest in a series of similar crimes where armed men busted in the doors of people suspected to have money or drugs:
But until the robbery team of Kongchunji and the Dunham brothers was caught red-handed, investigators had not solved any of these other crimes.
That would soon change.
CHAPTER 2: The Snitch
Matt Dunham, a tall, thin 17-year-old with a mess of dark brown hair, was treated as an adult and housed in Spokane County Jail. Through his attorney, he contacted detectives, saying he had information for them. The investigators, however, didn't need any help shoring up the case against the Dunham crew. It was a slam dunk. Instead, Dunham offered them something they didn't have -- details about the other unsolved crimes.
Dunham told investigators that he was the getaway driver in several robberies, according to a sheriff's detective's report. But his older brother wasn't involved in any of these crimes, he said. This is when he started giving detectives other names.
In regard to the April 21 robbery, for instance, Dunham said he had done that particular job with Kongchunji and two others guys: A 21-year-old named Paul Statler and someone called Andrew. (He had yet to claim that Gassman was involved in that robbery.)
Detectives and prosecutors quickly struck a deal with Dunham: He would plead guilty, testify truthfully as a witness and spend 18 months in a juvenile facility.
Sheriff's investigators re-interviewed Dunham a week later. "We asked Dunham again to explain who he had been with," the detective's report reads.
This time, Dunham added that Tyler Gassman had been involved. He also clarified that the guy he initially called Andrew was actually someone named "Bobby." It just so happened that detectives had brought with them a photo montage of Paul Statler's cousin, Robert Larson -- whom Dunham soon confirmed was just the "Bobby" he was talking about.
The next day, detectives sought arrest warrants for Gassman, Statler and Larson. And with Dunham's cooperation, authorities would soon charge the men in other unsolved crimes.
While Dunham was helping detectives, his brother Larry was cutting a deal of his own. He would plead to the one robbery in exchange for four years in prison -- a light sentence on charges that could have put him behind bars for 20 years or more.
Like the Dunhams, Anthony Kongchunji hoped to get leniency as well. Kongchunji, with jet black hair and cheeks pocked with acne, contacted detectives to see if he could help them. The investigators questioned him but decided not to offer him a deal.
As it turned out, Matt Dunham and Kongchungi were housed in the same wing of the county jail and could mingle whenever they were let out of their cells. During this time together, Kongchunji would later say, he and Dunham formed a plan: Pin their crimes on some other guys to get sweet deals for themselves and protect their actual robbery partners, Dunham's brother Larry and a friend named Nicholas Smith.
"[Matt Dunham] is pretty much like, 'I know this sounds kind of f---ed up or messed up or whatever that I'm going to do this, but we should say that these guys did it, not us, and I'll get my brother off I'm going to try to get a good deal. I'm sure you could get a good deal, too,'" Kongchunji says.
It wasn't entirely random that they chose to frame Gassman, Statler and Larson, Kongchunji says. As a kid, Kongchunji knew Gassman and Statler from the neighborhood and occasionally rode bikes with them. He also knew that the two friends had been arrested at age 15 for robbing a pawnshop. Kongchunji says, "I told [Dunham] about when that stuff happened when they were juveniles."
The attorneys representing the three men didn't know any of this yet. One day, Kongchunji, having failed to cut a sweetheart deal for himself, seemed ready to spill his guts. The next day, however, he clammed up, asserting his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
Kongchunji now says that he suddenly stopped talking out of fear: He was left alone with sheriff's Detective Doug Marske, who, Kongchunji claims, threatened him with perjury charges if he testified. (Actually, because Kongchunji had never given any sworn statements, he was in no danger of perjury.)
"Marske just looked at me and pretty much called me a liar," Kongchunji recalls. "He said, 'If you get on that stand, I guarantee you're going to do a perjury charge and I will make sure you do more time than you already have to do. I will make your sentence hard.'"
Marske declined to comment for this article. However, the other main investigator, Detective Bill Francis, says he doubts Marske threatened Kongchunji. But Francis says Marske may have advised Kongchunji that by talking now he could be making a "false statement or perjury-type statement.
"I don't think there was an intimidation," Francis says. "Again I think [Kongchunji] was informed probably of the process that could take place."
Francis points out that he was the one who arrested Gassman and Statler back when they were 15. "They're convicts," he says. "They con people. They con you, they con me. After they get in that prison environment, they know how to manipulate people."
CHAPTER 3: The Dismissal
With Dunham's help, the detectives could finally close some of the unsolved cases. It would prove to be a little trickier in court, however.
First, there was the Feb. 28 robbery in which three men burst into a Valley apartment, demanding cash and jewelry. The authorities charged Paul Statler and Tyler Gassman in that one.
But two facts killed the trial as soon as it started: 1) It came out that the victims had inadvertently been shown two photo montages in two consecutive days, one by a deputy and another by the follow-up detective, Doug Marske. The first time, the victims didn't recognize anyone. The second time -- when shown a different montage with the same suspects -- the victims picked Statler out. 2) The other problem involved Marske's report. In his first version, he wrote that one of the victims identified "Gassman as looking like one of the robbers." Later Marske revised the report to read, "[the victim] identified Tyler Gassman in a photo montage" -- a subtle but important change that was made without ever interviewing the witness again.
Prosecutors quickly dropped the charges and sent the jury home.
The second case to reach court wouldn't fare much better. This one centered on the April 21 robbery where armed men tried to break into a mobile home, but were blocked at the doorway. Based on Dunham's statements, prosecutors charged Gassman, Statler, Larson and Kongchunji.
But as the trial date got close, Kongchunji took a plea bargain and was off the case. Then Paul Statler was out, too; his lawyer had a death in the family and asked the court to try Statler's case later. Which left only Gassman and Larson. (Larson, it's worth noting, had a solid alibi, as he was clocked in at work at the exact time of the April 21 robbery.)
The trial was scheduled to continue on a Monday, but the Friday before, prosecutor Eugene Cruz simply dropped the charges. Instead, Cruz announced, he wanted to start a new trial on Monday for the next robbery case in line -- leaving little time for the defense to prepare.
The facts of the case were similar to the rest: Drug dealers were robbed, this time of $4,000 outside their home. No one ever reported the crime to authorities, so it only came to light when Matt Dunham began talking to detectives. Again the 17-year-old was the sole link connecting the robbery to Gassman, Statler and Larson.
Their attorneys would spend the weekend cramming to get ready.
CHAPTER 4: The Trial
When the three defense attorneys came to court on Monday, they arrived to find another surprise: Cruz had a motion in hand, asking to revise the date of the crime from April 15 to April 17.
It wasn't an insignificant change. For one, it was the only day that week that Larson hadn't clocked in at work, and Cruz knew that. Prosecutors had actually known for months that Larson worked an overnight shift at a tile company on April 15 -- making it unlikely that he was involved in the robbery -- because Partovi had sent them Larson's entire timecard.
In fact, the day after prosecutors learned of Larson's alibi, Detective Bill Francis went out and re-interviewed one of the victims. The victim remembered calling a friend after the robbery, and Francis looked at some of the victim's phone records and concluded the crime probably occurred on April 17.
No one bothered to tell the defense attorneys. Until the day of trial.
"This is a big deal -- this changes the case," Judge Tari Eitzen said. The defense attorneys urged her to toss out the case, but instead the judge came up with an unusual solution: She would fine prosecutors $8,000 and delay the trial three weeks. Eitzen would later say that the case would "undoubtedly" end up in appeal.
"I am sanctioning the state for what I consider to be -- I'm not willing to say purposeful -- but for a careless handling of these cases," she said. Prosecutor Cruz declined to answer questions for this article, but he is appealing the judge's sanctions.
At trial, several other facts would get murkier. For one, the victims, who themselves were involved in the drug trade, couldn't specify what day or what time the robbery occurred, saying everything from 6 pm to midnight. Matt Dunham would also be questioned about how he named "Andrew" as an accomplice and later changed it to "Bobby."
But before that, Detective Francis took the stand. Defense attorneys tried to paint his investigation as flimsy. Why hadn't he checked the shotgun investigators recovered to see whether any of the accused men's fingerprints were on it, the attorneys wondered.
They also pressed him on why he hadn't done more to determine when the robbery occurred. The phone record used to pinpoint the date was an incomplete print-out of five calls the victim made. Francis hadn't bothered to subpoena a more complete phone record.
"You don't know that the incident actually happened on April 17, do you?" asked Larson's public defender, Anna Nordtvedt.
"No. Not exactly," Francis said.
At the end, the defense had one final question for the detective.
"Other than the statements of Mr. Dunham made while he was negotiating his plea agreement, what independent corroborating evidence do you have that either Mr. Statler, Mr. Gassman or Mr. Larson were involved in this alleged robbery?"
Francis said, "I have no additional other than Mr. Dunham."
It was finally Matt Dunham's turn to take the stand. With the prosecutor questioning him, Dunham talked about the April 17 robbery. They arrived at the house, purportedly to sell Oxy, and instead robbed the people of $4,000.
"How confident," the prosecutor asked, "are you that the persons who were with you [were] Paul Statler, Tyler Gassman and Robert Larson?"
"A hundred percent confident," Dunham said.
On cross examination, the attorneys pressed Dunham about how he mistook Andrew for Bobby. Then they drilled to the heart of their defense.
"Isn't it true that the whole point of your testimony today is to insulate your brother Larry from criminal prosecution?" one of the attorneys asked.
"Excuse me?" Dunham said.
"You're here today to protect your brother Correct?"
"No. My plea bargain had nothing to do with my brother at all," Dunham said.
The attorneys then brought in family and friends as alibi witnesses, all of whom believed they had been with the men at the time of the robbery. They also called Statler's probation officer, who said Statler was at home at 10:14 that night, taking an alcohol test.
The case was finally put in the hands of the jury. But first the judge read off instructions on what to consider in their deliberations.
Then, as required, came this specific caution: "Testimony of an accomplice given on behalf of the state should be subject to careful examination [and] you should not find the defendant guilty upon such testimony alone unless, after carefully considering the testimony, you are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of its truth."
The jury began deliberations on a Friday. They had Monday off and upon returning to court on Tuesday reached a decision. They came into the courtroom seeming upbeat and relaxed, say the attorneys. Then the jurors delivered their verdict: guilty, guilty, guilty, all three defendants.
Gassman was later sentenced in the tear-filled hearing to 25 years. Larson, who had a drug offense on his record, got 20. Statler, because of his robbery as a juvenile, got 41 years.
CHAPTER 5: The Confession
Kongchunji followed developments in the case from his Spokane County Jail cell, poring over the Spokesman-Review for any news. He says he read about the judge sanctioning prosecutors $8,000 and thought everything would work out -- the men accused by Dunham seemed poised to beat the rap. Then he read about the men being convicted.
"I didn't think there was any way" a jury would find them guilty, Kongchunji says. "I honestly didn't."
It all became real then, Kongchunji says. He felt guilty that he helped put away innocent people. What must their families think? He decided to write Paul Statler's dad. "I just wanted to let him know. I didn't want him to be disappointed in his son or in any of them," he says. "If anything, be disappointed in me."
The letter was postmarked March 2, about two weeks after the verdict. He writes, "I thought that I should let you know that Paul, Tyler and Robert were not involved with any of the alleged incidents and the reason I know this is because I was involved. The other individuals involved were Larry Dunham, Matthew Dunham and Nicholas Smith."
This seemed to open the door to retry the case. The three defense attorneys filed for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence and attached the letter and other testimony from Kongchunji. To them, Kongchunji's admissions qualified as "newly discovered" because in their previous attempt to interview him, Kongchunji asserted his right to remain silent.
Judge Michael Price disagreed. Price took over the case for Eitzen, who had a scheduling conflict, and in his ruling said the defense attorneys erred by not calling Kongchunji as a witness during trial. Kongchunji, the judge said, didn't have any Fifth Amendment protections because he had already pleaded guilty. Price said he would have ordered Kongchunji to talk, had anyone put him on the stand.
"The fact that Mr. Gassman's lawyer chose not to call Mr. Kongchunji at trial does not make Mr. Kongchunji's testimony, whatever it may have been, 'newly discovered.'"
The motion for a new trial was denied.
CHAPTER 6: The Prison
Kongchunji isn't excited about re-telling his story when I visit him at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. None of his cellmates know what he's doing, and he'd like to keep it that way.
"I don't want it getting out like I'm some kind of rat or something like that because that's not the kind of thing you want to have, especially in here," he says, sitting across from me at a table, uncuffed, wearing a T-shirt. He adds ominously, "I wouldn't be able to walk out there."
Kongchunji talks candidly but without much emotion, as though a whole lifetime has passed. He dropped out of school around 16, he says, when he started doing meth and then began selling it to pay for his own use. This went on for a couple of years until he met a nice girl and cleaned up. But when was about 20, that relationship soured, and he tried Oxy for the first time.
"There's nothing like it, to be honest with you," he says flatly, squirming at the memory. "They grab a hold of you like no other way that I've ever had."
He got kicked out of his house and ended up living with the Dunham brothers. "They were all addicted. They probably spent more money on [pills] than I did," he says. A big weekend might cost him $1,000, and so they were soon robbing drug dealers. He talks about Larry and Matt Dunham as though they are still close, and he can't bring himself to condemn Matt for snitching.
"He did what he had to do He's got to live with that," he says. "I'm not going to hate anybody. Once you care about somebody, you can't just turn away."
After Kongchunji returns to his cell block, guards escort Tyler Gassman to the interview room and lock him in a small holding cell. Unlike Kongchunji, Gassman is wearing an orange jumpsuit and is cuffed behind his back. Gassman lives in segregation -- meaning he's got a small cell to himself and gets out for only a couple of hours a week. It's where troublemakers often end up, explaining the increased security. But that's not why Gassman is in segregation. He's there by choice, for his own safety.
His cellmates, he says, ordered him to do a "mission."
"I was supposed to haul off and assault a guy," he says. "I didn't get it taken care of in time. I didn't do it. I thought about it too much, and it got to me I pissed off a lot of people and they said, 'Look, if you don't do it by this time, we're going to send a missile after you.'"
So Gassman ended up in segregation. "I don't want to screw up," he says. "I have two strikes If a fight happened bad enough, I could get struck out from that fight."
Gassman talks about getting arrested at 15. He was living at a friend's house -- his mother had lost the family home -- and one day he was drinking with Paul Statler and a third teen. They got drunk and decided they wanted a gun they had seen at a local pawnshop. Statler, who grabbed it and ran, got five years in prison. Gassman got 14 months.
"Everything kind of woke me up when I did that 14 months and I got out," he says.
Once released, he worked at a restaurant, fixed up cars with a friend, remodeled houses and got into construction. He completed his probation. Life wasn't bad. He had money in his pocket, a car and a girlfriend.
But then came the accusations. The arrest. The trial. Matt Dunham accusing him in court: "In my head, I wanted to jump up and call the kid a liar. I was like, 'Dude, I've never even seen you. I don't know who you are.' I didn't know what he looked like until he came in and sat down on the stand."
Then the guilty verdict. And, finally, the sentencing hearing.
"Once my family got on the stand and started crying, it was too hard for me," Gassman says, tearing up again as he recalls it. A prison administrator who listened to Gassman recount his story begins sobbing, too. "Even though I know I didn't do it, I felt disappointed because I let my family down."
Gassman says he's trying to remain positive, and he's hopeful for his appeal. He's written the attorney assigned to his case but hasn't heard back. "If I have to do the time, I don't want to have to sit in here and tear myself up about it, because it's just going to make it worse on me," he says. "I just want to do the best I can."
At the end of the interview, three guards return to the room, handcuff Gassman and escort him down a long hallway to his cell.
CHAPTER 7: The System
Gassman and the others weren't convicted by the detectives, the prosecutor or even the judge. A jury found them guilty. Twelve people heard the evidence, listened to Matt Dunham testify and found the men guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. One of them was Stephen Coyner.
"We felt the defense just did a terrible job," says Coyner, who's employed as a driver for Pepsi. "They just did an awful job with the evidence and the presentation of the case They used the moms [as witnesses]. Who's going to take the word of the moms? Every one of them -- you could tell that they wanted to protect their kids."
By contrast, the prosecutor was effective: "I'm going to give kudos to [Eugene Cruz] on this. He was right on target. With the evidence he had and the way he presented himself -- he was very professional and, you know, people notice that."
Nearly all the jurors, Coyner says, found Matt Dunham's testimony compelling. "He did come across very credible, and we went back and forth," he says. One of the jurors had reservations. But the fact of Dunham's plea deal -- which required that he testify "truthfully" -- sealed it in Coyner's mind.
"We went over the plea deal very carefully, and it looked like he had everything to lose if he wasn't telling the truth," Coyner says. "That was kind of a factor in it."
Told of Kongchunji's version of events, Coyner says it gives him some pause. "You never know," he says. "If I had to do it all over, with what I was given, I would do the same thing. The exact same thing."
Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has written extensively about snitches and their use by law enforcement, including her 2009 book, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.
Snitches are notoriously unreliable. Natapoff points to the 2004 study by Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Convictions that showed that snitches are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases; about 46 percent of those bad verdicts can be traced to false snitch testimony.
Still, the use of snitches by police has skyrocketed in recent decades, especially in drug cases, Natapoff says. For one, they are cheap; police can cut deals with snitches, rather than spend resources on longer, more thorough investigations. "You can make a snitch for free," Natapoff says.
But snitching accomplices have been shown to be so unreliable, in fact, that a dozen or so states now require their testimony to be corroborated by some other evidence. Washington is not one of those states. It's hard to overturn convictions based on snitches, Natapoff adds, because jurors are the ones empowered to assess a witness' credibility.
"Our criminal justice system is very bad at finding and fixing its own mistakes," she says.
Tim Note, Paul Statler's attorney, doesn't blame jurors. He strongly believes in the system. "Jurors have a tough job," he says. "However they reach their decision, as long as they reach it legally I don't want them to feel bad about their decision."
He says the problem in this case, though, is that jurors never got to hear the testimony of Kongchunji, who, if you believe him, was told not to talk by a detective.
"That's when the irreparable harm took place," Notes says, "and it raises the question: What were the detectives afraid of?"
Justice at this point, Note adds, would be a new trial for the men where all witnesses get their chance to testify, including Kongchunji.
"If the results were still the same, that's the system," he says. "Justice doesn't mandate any outcome. It mandates a process."
CHAPTER 8: The Homefront
Paul Statler's dad, Duane, is a high school custodian and lives in a small house near the train tracks in the Valley. On the kitchen table, he's assembled the artifacts of his son's life -- photos, court records, notes, newspaper clippings, scraps of paper and Kongchunji's letter to him. Just look, he says, "There's enough evidence right here, in black and white, to send our boys home."
Statler tosses blame in several directions: at the detectives, at prosecutor Eugene Cruz, at Judge Price, at himself for not being able to spend more on his son's defense and at Matt Dunham.
"Matt ruined my life," he says. "He's ruined the last two years of my life. I need to stay away from Matt Dunham. I'm sorry I want to hurt him. I want to hurt him bad."
Statler says if his son or the others were guilty, they would have fessed up, cut a deal, pleaded guilty to avoid spending the next 40 years behind bars, like his son got. His son is being housed at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, 500 miles away on the Olympic peninsula.
"I'm trying to figure out why Eugene Cruz wanted our kids so bad and when he found out that Anthony Kongchunji and Matt Dunham conspired to frame our kids, why did he let it go this far?" Statler asks. "At what point and time does common sense come in and say, 'Let's give them another shot?'"
All three of them are decent young men, Statler says. Before his arrest, his son had just filled out paperwork at Spokane Community College and planned to go back to school. Gassman, meanwhile, had recently landed a good construction job. And Larson was a fixture in the neighborhood, tending the lawns of several elderly women and working at the tile company a couple of blocks down the street.
Duane Statler points again to the stack of paper on the kitchen table, his evidence, and is left with only questions.
"Why did they put my family through this? Why not go back and right the wrong? Explain to me why."
Matt Dunham is back home. After a year and half in a juvenile facility, he walked out a free man on his 19th birthday in September. On a Saturday in January, he is at his mom's split-level house in the Valley, a big boat parked in the backyard and the getaway truck he used in the robberies parked out front.
He answers the door after several knocks. It's 11:30 am. Dunham's clothes are wrinkled and his hair matted against his head. He just got up, he says, standing just inside the doorway.
I tell him that I'm writing about the case and ask him to chat. Not right now, he says. How about one question: Were Gassman, Statler and Larson with you for those crimes, or are they innocent?
"They're not innocent," he says, adding before shutting the door, "I don't want to talk right now. I've got your numbers, and I'll call you."
He never did.
The Inlander is committed to exposing miscarriages of justice. We focus on cases in Eastern Washington and North Idaho of people who have credible claims of innocence. Send tips and story ideas to injustice@Inlander.com or call the news tip line at (509) 325-0634 ext. 264.
Also visit our "WA State News & Activism" section.
Also visit our "Informants: Resources for a Snitch Culture" section.
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