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November 24th, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

The Murder that WOULD NOT DIE

Columnist Phil Stanford is obsessed with a decade-old conspiracy theory. What if he's right?

     
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A few weeks ago, tossing back beers at his habitual dive-bar hangout in Salem, Kevin Francke had a surprise visitor. A reporter from The Oregonian walked in and asked about Kevin's brother Michael, who was killed back in 1989 when he was the chief of Oregon's prisons. Kevin has long believed that the man convicted of killing his brother was framed.

Francke says the reporter, Noelle Crombie, was like a charging "rhino." Could Kevin show her the documents that prove his case? And give her a tour of the 15-year-old crime scene? Like now, maybe?

Crombie "was very, very tense," says Francke. "Her problem was she didn't know anything about anything." He agreed to let her look at his files--all 68 boxes of them--but she didn't have time.

Last Wednesday, Crombie again contacted Francke, this time by email. She'd just finished reviewing stories in The Portland Tribune, Willamette Week and on KATU about a new document that had surfaced in the case. Could he fax it to her?

The message, he says, was "rather terse."

Back in Portland, Tribune columnist Phil Stanford was as relaxed as a pair of Dockers. And why not? Sitting in the corner of his living room were a dozen boxes of the very documents Crombie was seeking. Documents he had collected over 15 years--first as a star columnist, then as a disgraced freelancer, and now, reborn as a writer at a twice-weekly--were sparking new interest in a case that authorities claim was closed long ago.

When he was at The Oregonian, Stanford devoted 84 columns to Francke's murder and mentioned it in 17 others (one-ninth of his total of 898 columns over seven years), a staggering total of some 69,000 words--enough to fill a book. His repetitive drumbeat of stories all played the same theme: that the knife murder of the chief of corrections was not, as authorities ruled, a car burglary gone bad. Instead, Stanford argued, it was part of a larger conspiracy that reached at least into the Department of Corrections.

Stanford's theory has many doubters. "A bunch of hogwash," says Dale Penn, the former Marion County district attorney who oversaw the case. "Do I believe there was a conspiracy or that high-ranking corrections officials were involved in the murder of Michael Francke? Absolutely not."

In 1989, Stanford was a lone journalistic wolf, baying this theory into the canyons of doubting Oregonians. His screeds helped lose him his job, strained his marriage and cost him the respect of many of his peers.

Now, though, he's back in the hunt. And, with the daily newspaper that once drummed him out now following his trail, Stanford, 62, is sniffing something he hasn't smelled in a long time: vindication.

"The Oregonian really doesn't know anything about the Francke case," he says. "This is going to be fun to watch them try to catch up."

SHORTLY AFTER 6:30 pm on Jan. 17, 1989, Michael Francke, a tall, athletic man, walked out of the Dome Building, headquarters of the Oregon Department of Corrections. Six hours later, his blood-covered body was found, outside the office building's north entrance. He had been stabbed in the heart.

It took the Oregon State Police more than a year to arrest Frank Gable, a small-time drug dealer, and in June 1991 prosecutors persuaded a jury to convict him. The prosecution's theory: Gable killed Francke when the prison director caught him breaking into his car. He was convicted of seven counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

It was an undeniably weak case. No physical evidence, no credible witnesses tied Gable to the crime; prosecutors relied on testimony dominated by drug dealers and meth users. Elyse Clawson, probably Francke's closest deputy at the Department of Corrections, says she doesn't think we know the real story. "It was never cleared up to my satisfaction," says Clawson, now living in Boston. "I thought there were a lot of unanswered questions."

Indeed, despite the conviction, there are many enduring oddities about the case. Among them:

The Car: Francke's white Pontiac Bonneville was one of only a few cars left in the parking lot at Corrections headquarters that night. What sane burglar--let alone a drug-addled, paranoid one--would choose this car, in an open lot at a state law-enforcement building? The car was found with its door open; neither Francke's car phone nor his stereo was tampered with.

The Body: Francke's watch, wallet and cash were still on him, suggesting money was not a priority for the killer.

The Timing: Francke's brothers say that shortly before his murder, he'd told them he was going after an "organized criminal element" within the prison system. Francke's employees told police he'd received threats shortly before he was murdered and on several occasions sent security to guard his wife at home. Chuck Sides, a former state lawmaker who played basketball with Francke, told WW that, shortly before his murder, the prison chief said he carried a pistol in his gym bag for self-defense because he'd taken steps to disrupt drug trafficking inside the prisons.

The Trial: Prosecutors relied on a handful of witnesses whose stories changed repeatedly. For example, three witnesses who testified against Gable had earlier told police that people, including Gable, had talked of killing Francke in the months before the "random car burglary." But prosecutors did not allow them to divulge that aspect of their stories in court. Two witnesses have since said they lied when they told police Gable killed Francke.

FRANCKE'S MURDER immediately looked fishy to Stanford. A Dartmouth dropout who came to The Oregonian in 1987 after bouncing around between the Army and surfing in Hawaii, Stanford had written for magazines and newspapers (including the newsletter by legendary muckraker I.F. Stone) and worked as a staffer for a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin. He'd also been a private detective in Florida.

Back then, Stanford was a hard-drinking reporter more skeptical than most; one of his favorite journalistic expressions was "They always lie."

At the O, Stanford held the coveted spot now held by columnist Steve Duin. He had wide latitude to choose his topics, which often centered on championing the little guy. He defended maligned cabbies, railed at outrageous parking fees and lamented the decline of the downtown strip club.

Stanford was unwilling to accept that a high-ranking state law-enforcement official was the victim of a random homicide. "I kept waiting for reporters to jump on it, and they didn't," he explains.

So he did.

Stanford had help: Kevin Francke, a real-estate agent who moved to Salem from Florida to investigate his brother's death and who was convinced there was more to the story than was appearing in the O's news section.

Stanford began writing about the murder almost immediately. His columns explored the murder probe's deficiencies, which did nothing to win the favor of police. He tried to solve the crime, highlighting evidence that Tim Natividad--a drug dealer killed before Gable's trial--had actually committed the murder. Stanford also focused on Scott McAlister, an assistant attorney general who'd had great influence at the prisons before Francke pushed him out--one week before the murder.

"Of course the timing was an unfortunate coincidence," wrote Stanford in 1992, in a typical innuendo-based column. "Just as two years or so earlier, McAlister's apparent connection to prison officials being investigated for gambling could have led you to the wrong conclusions."

Stanford makes no bones about it: He was trying to keep the pressure on to solve the crime. "I was raising questions," he says simply. "I was grabbing whatever I could."

Stanford even became part of the story. In June 1989, the columnist testified before the grand jury that indicted Gable. A year later, Gov. Neil Goldschmidt dismissed Stanford's work as "B.S." and "garbage."

Inside The Oregonian, his co-workers read his columns with growing skepticism.

"There was a huge division in the newsroom over this," recalls longtime Oregonian investigative reporter Jim Long, who recently retired. He says Stanford has done some great work--which is why his Francke fixation was "so strange."

"The prevailing wisdom at the newsroom--and I guess I was a subscriber to it--was that the whole conspiracy theory was bullshit," he says. "I really think he broke his pick on the Francke thing."

Stanford's editor, Judson Randall, shielded him from the criticisms, arguing a columnist should be given free rein. Stanford, says Randall, was like a pit bull gnawing on a bone. "He's one of the most intense people I ever worked with," Randall says. "He's tenacious. He's a gumshoe."

In June 1991, the jury gave its verdict: guilty. Jurors held a press conference blasting the media, singling out Stanford, as well as Steve Jackson of the Salem Statesman-Journal, for presenting what they called a deceptive picture of the case.

Even The Oregonian's own reporters on the case joined in the Stanford-bashing. Phil Manzano and John Snell wrote an op-ed piece that appeared on July 21, 1991, complaining that "based on the flimsiest of evidence, and frequently no evidence of all, Stanford suggested in his earliest columns that Francke was the victim of a plot by everyone from the Mexican mafia to the highest levels of state government."

Stanford felt besieged.

"I was in a war not just with the governor and the attorney general and the state police and the Marion County district attorney," recalls Stanford. "I was in a war with many of the editors in the newsroom, who didn't believe such a thing could happen in little old Oregon."

But Stanford achieved some results, forcing Goldschmidt to name a special task force, parallel but separate to the state-police murder investigation, to probe a possible corruption connection.

Publicly, the probe found "plausible theories" but no solid evidence. Privately, Art Barger, an ex-FBI agent who led the corruption probe, criticized the separate state-police murder investigation in a defense-investigator interview in July 1990. Barger, who has since died, considered it an open question whether Francke's death was engineered by a drug-ring conspiracy, referring to evidence that Francke may have been carrying evidence of prison corruption in a briefcase.

"Knowing whether or not Michael Francke was carrying a briefcase when he was murdered is so essential to the investigation," said Barger, "that I cannot believe the state police did not establish that fact one way or another at the outset."

Nevertheless, by 1993 Stanford's star had faded. Kevin Francke, by then Stanford's friend and de facto partner in the murder case, told WW Stanford's dedication was never the same after Manzano and Snell's public thrashing. "It was like a prizefighter who'd been sucker-punched by his own people one too many times."

Still, Stanford would not let it go. In June 1993, two years after the verdict, he wrote three columns on Francke over three weeks--the same month as a fateful change in leadership. The previous year, The Washington Post had beaten The Oregonian on Sen. Bob Packwood's sexual misconduct, prompting an identity crisis and a shakeup at the local paper. The O hired its first out-of town editor, Sandra Mims Rowe.

Stanford wrote his last column April 1, 1994, saying he had run out of things to say. In what looks like a final flip of the bird to his editors, he mentioned Francke: "A lot of people think I'm nuts on the subject. I don't."

He says the decision to give up the column was his--but based on signals from the top. "You can tell when people don't like your stuff," he recalls, "so I asked to be on the crime team." There, he did a five-part series on the Happy Face Killer case that eventually freed two innocent people from jail. "And they still didn't like it," he says of his superiors.

Indeed, in a column about the Happy Face series, then-Public Editor Bob Caldwell took a jab at Stanford's Francke coverage--informing readers that the conspiracy theories were, in his opinion, "bunk." (Caldwell, now the editorial-page editor, declined to comment for this story.)

Six months after dropping the column, Stanford quit, an uncommon occurrence at a newspaper that pays well and never fires anyone.

"I felt I was forced out," he told WW, adding that he doesn't think it was the Francke case alone that led to his drop in stock. "I think it was one of many things."

Indeed, Stanford was a controversial figure. He'd alienated much of Oregon's law-enforcement community, and his thinly researched columns defending a Holocaust revisionist's free-speech rights in 1992 sparked an apology on The Oregonian's editorial page. But perhaps the most damaging to him was the change in management. Stanford's former coworkers say editor Rowe did not tolerate edgy or prima donna types.

Long says Rowe wanted the paper more rigorous and businesslike. Stanford's Francke columns didn't fit that bill. "You couldn't get stuff like that in the paper now, I don't think," he says. "You can't just wing it." (Rowe was out of town at business meetings earlier this week; executive editor Peter Bhatia declined to comment.)

"If I were Sandy Rowe, I would probably not want to have someone like me around either," Stanford says. "I am not her style."

AFTER LEAVING The Oregonian in 1994, Stanford's career continued its arc from celebrity to anonymity. He went back to being a private investigator, freelanced a few articles (including some for WW), tried starting a newspaper, briefly had a radio show and even co-wrote a made-for-TV movie on the Francke case. Starring a young Angelina Jolie, Without Evidence got lousy ratings and reviews, which Stanford blames on the producer's last-minute editing.

He worked on a book about Portland's government corruption in the 1950s. (Portland Confidential was released Sept. 30.) Asked about the perception that he struggled financially and emotionally, Stanford doesn't want to get into it, saying only, "I think I paid a real price at times for doing what I consider the right thing."

Then, a little under four years ago, Stanford came back from the journalistic dead. Bob Pamplin Jr., heir to a lumber and textile fortune, founded the Portland Tribune, assembling a variety of retread Oregonian staffers. Joining Stanford there was Jim Redden, a former WW reporter who shared Stanford's skepticism about the Francke investigation.

In his first three years at the Trib, Stanford hardly wrote about Francke. That all changed this summer, however, when WW reporter Nigel Jaquiss forced former Gov. Goldschmidt to admit he'd sexually abused a 14-year-old when he was mayor of Portland, a situation that continued for three years.

This long-hidden statutory rape renewed Stanford's interest in unearthing Oregon's secret history, particularly since he always wondered why Goldschmidt seemed so unwilling to investigate Francke's death.

Over at The Oregonian, which was again criticized for getting scooped on a political scandal, reporters were told to vigorously investigate any leads about public wrongdoing, including events that took place decades ago

As if on cue, the Francke case heated up. After his conviction, Gable appealed his case, continuing to claim innocence and arguing that his first attorney was an ill-prepared drunk who failed to present evidence that someone else was the murderer. Judge Frank Yraguen rejected that notion in January 2001. This year, however, lawyer David Celuch took over the case and filed a new appeal.

This summer, in a remarkable act of faith, Gable, who now sits in a Florida prison, told his attorneys to turn over all their evidence to the brother of the man he was convicted of killing. In August, Kevin Francke received the boxes of evidence, police reports and defense-investigator interviews. He promptly shared them with Stanford, Redden and KATU-TV's Eric Mason (until recently, the only other journalist in the state still following the case).

Stanford, Redden and Mason are finding things that Gable's first attorney either overlooked, did not have, or chose not to bring up at trial. That information concerns the two people who have been central to Stanford's alternate theory of Francke's death: Tim Natividad, a Salem drug dealer, and Scott McAlister, formerly the state's lawyer for the prisons.

For instance, the reporters found notes of a private meeting recorded by lawyers for Jodie Swearingen, one of the prosecution's two eyewitnesses to the murder. They show that, to her lawyers, she fingered not Gable but Stanford's main suspect, Natividad, as the murderer.

Also, a statement by McAlister's ex-girlfriend said that at a private gathering, Francke's rival complained that the people who murdered him "fucked up," and they had been supposed to make it "look like a suicide" (see "Out of the Francke Files," WW, Nov. 17, 2004).

Stanford's critics deride his recent reports as a pathetic attempt to regain his previous glory.

"Twelve years ago this story made him a celebrity, and he hasn't been a celebrity for a long time," says Penn, the former prosecutor, who was recently appointed director of the Oregon Lottery.

McAlister, who after being pushed out of his prisons job by Francke was convicted of possessing child pornography he'd obtained from an Oregon case, dismissed Stanford's attempts to link him to the murder as "absurd." Now a lawyer in Tempe, Ariz., he thinks the Trib columnist is trying to rescue himself from "reporter oblivion."

McAlister says Stanford started writing about him because the lawyer once dated the columnist's wife. Stanford says McAlister's claim is ludicrous: He didn't even meet his wife until after the trial was over.

One thing is clear: The newspaper that was once embarrassed at Stanford's coverage of the Francke case now can't take the chance that their former columnist is right. Along with Crombie, an up-and-comer at the O, the daily has assigned its top investigative reporter, Les Zaitz--who years ago had been critical of Stanford's Francke coverage. (Zaitz declined to comment on Stanford's work or the O's current interest in the murder.)

Jackson, the former Statesman-Journal reporter, says "it's too bad" the Portland daily waited 15 years to take a serious look at answering the questions Stanford raised.

"Phil believes an injustice occurred," says Jackson, now the editor of the Canyon Courier, in Evergreen, Colo. "Whether it did or not I guess can be argued. But how do you fault a journalist for asking questions and refusing to back down, even when it hurt him professionally or personally?"

The fact that The Oregonian may finally come around, says Stanford, is merely a bonus to the real prize: solving the mystery and freeing an innocent man.

"They've got my blessings. I hope they do catch up," he says. "This is not a grudge match. Did they push me out? Yeah, sure. So what? I'm sure they're happy with what they got. I know I am, because if I was still at The Oregonian, I'm sure I would not be writing about the Francke case."

Research assistance was provided by Dave Fitzpatrick, Sho Ikeda and Elizabeth Schuster.

Love at the Crime Scene

Among the odd twists in the Francke case are the bonds that it formed--many of them involving a ring and flying rice. For example:

* One of Frank Gable's defense attorneys, Karen Steele, was so convinced of his innocence that she married him. She dropped off the case, and the judge took a mid-trial recess in 1991 so the ceremony could be performed. They divorced six years later.

* During the murder investigation, some journalists, including Phil Stanford, were chasing rumors that Tim Natividad, a low-level crook, might be involved. But in 1989, before Gable's trial, Natividad was shot to death by his girlfriend, Elizabeth Godlove, who convinced authorities it was self-defense. Kevin Francke, who believes Natividad killed his brother, married Godlove in 1993. They're still married today.

* During the case, Gable's primary defense attorney, Bob Abel, started dating one of his defense investigators, Jackie Page. They married after the trial and later divorced. Another post-trial marriage fared better: The two deputy district attorneys prosecuting Gable, Tom Bostwick and Sarah Moore, are still hitched.


The Michael Francke murder investigation was described as the largest in Oregon history at the time. The number of investigators fluctuated between 30 and six. The media coverage was intense.

Former Salem state Rep. Chuck Sides says his contacts at the Oregon State Police told him then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt was putting them under intense pressure to make a bust and "bring closure" to the case.

PHOTO COURTESY KEVIN FRANCKE

Frank Gable's name did not surface as a suspect until eight months after the crime, when the murder investigation was at a standstill. At that time, according to documents reported by Phil Stanford and Jim Redden at the Portland Tribune, Goldschmidt was opposing a broader investigation into prison corruption, including involvement of the FBI.

Two people initially pointed the finger at Gable. One was Mike Keerins, who according to a cellmate, had admitted his motive was revenge against Gable for being a police informant. The other tipster was Janyne Vierra-Gable, Frank Gable's wife, who reported being the victim of domestic violence.

Although Phil Stanford's book, Portland Confidential, wasa Pacific Northwest Booksellers bestseller for three weeks running this fall, The Oregonian has thus far declined to review it.

Stanford was the first reporter to obtain a Washington County court record that, while not mentioning Neil Goldschmidt, eventually led to disclosure of the ex-governor's long-held secret of statutory rape. At a standstill, he passed it to state Sen. Vicki Walker, who subsequently gave it to WW.

 
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