Men Spend 17 Years in Jail Based on Apparent False Confession

Theresa Fusco, a 16-year-old who aspired to be a ballerina, was last seen in November 1984, leaving her job at a Long Island roller-skating rink.

Her disappearance hit the town of Lynbrook, N.Y., hard, especially when three local men were charged with her rape and murder. The three men were eventually sentenced to 33 years to life in prison, which was based in large part on one of the suspect's confession to police.

But after the men had spent nearly 18 years behind bars, new DNA evidence cleared them. So why would an innocent man confess to a crime he didn't commit? The fact is, false confessions aren't as unusual as people might think. According to the Innocence Project, about one-fifth of all post-conviction DNA exonerations involve false confessions

'It Was Just a Blur'

Theresa was the second teenager to disappear from the quiet, suburban area in less than a year, and the police were under tremendous pressure to find whomever was responsible. For days, there were no clues, not a trace of Theresa anywhere.

But then on Dec. 5, 1984, two boys were playing near train tracks in a wooded area of town when they stumbled upon a pile of leaves covering a naked body. It was Theresa, who had been raped, strangled and dumped two blocks from her home. DNA evidence also suggested she had been raped.

Police searched frantically for clues, and they eventually set their sights on Dennis Halstead, 31, a local contractor and father of two girls.

The police tracked down some of Halstead's friends, including John Restivo, the owner of a moving company, and John Kogut, a 21-year-old landscaper. Kogut, who'd spent most of his life in the foster care system, volunteered to speak to police at the end of a long day on the job.

When he went to the police station, Kogut said he was locked in a small, dark interrogation room. He was given no food, only coffee and cigarettes, and he said that when he wanted to leave, he was told to sit down.

Kogut was given a lie detector test and said he was told by police that he failed. The police, he said, continued to ratchet up the pressure, and his denials were met with hostile disbelief.

Kogut said the cops began to describe Fusco's murder in excruciating detail, repeating detail after detail, over and over -- for hours

"And it just went on and on and came to the point where it was just a blur," he said.

The police told him he might not remember committing such a gruesome crime because he probably blacked out, said Kogut.

His lawyer, Paul Casteleiro, says it was too much for the young man with a diffcult past. "He was a foster kid. He had nothing. He had no family. He had nobody looking out for him," Casteleiro said.

Police also told the 21-year-old that they had scientific evidence pointing to his guilt. Kogut said he never left the room, never slept nor spoke to anyone but his interrogators.

He told "Primetime" that at the time he was overtaken by a feeling of hopelessness. "I guess it's just like, they're not letting you go. They're not letting you go until you get what you want," he said.

Almost 18 Years in Jail

Kogut says after 18 hours of interrogation and 30 hours with no sleep, he was put in front of a video camera, where he confessed to strangling Theresa: "I wrapped it around her neck twice and then I tightened it like this and then her body went limp."

Kogut continued the confession in chilling detail: "I was pretty scared at this point. I had laid out a white blanket in the graveyard, because the blanket, it's got green trim on it."

Did Kogut know those details from his own experience, or was it so firmly etched in his mind from those hours with the police that he really believed he was there?

Kogut said the police told him the whole story. "I couldn't even come up with a story; I couldn't even think about doing something like this, no less come up with a story to fit it," he said.

So why in the world did he confess?

"Sit in a room with police for 18 hours when they just refuse to budge," Kogut told "Primetime." "I mean, everybody's got a breaking point."

Kogut even signed a confession, he says, thinking that the police could never prove in court that he murdered Fusco. "I never knew how powerful a confession could be, until then," he said.

Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at Williams College and expert on false confessions, says that a confession changes everything in a criminal investigation.

"Once a confession is taken, the police close the case file, the investigation usually comes to a stop, the prosecutor takes that confession forward as a basis for prosecution, and takes the confessor to trial," Kassin said. "The jury typically convicts the confessor whether he's guilty or innocent, because they have this confession."

But then Kogut went a step further in his confession and implicated Dennis Halstead and John Restivo in the rape and murder.

Restivo said he couldn't believe it when he found out he had been named as a suspect. "I was floored; I was shocked," he said. "But then I took into account what the cops did to me, so I had an understanding of how that interrogation probably progressed. There was a witch hunt going on."

Later, the police searched Restivo's van, where they found a hair that apparently matched Theresa Fusco's hair. Over and over, Restivo insisted he'd never met Theresa, but to no avail.

In 1986, the three men were convicted of Theresa's rape and murder and sentenced to 33 years to life in prison.

The years behind bars would be hell for the men; Kogut was beaten, and Halstead was desolate without his family. Eight years into their sentence, Restivo sought help from Centurion Ministeries, a group that works to overturn wrongful convictions.

And with the help of new technology, a shocking discovery was made: The DNA evidence from Theresa Fusco's rape did not match any of the three men. The scientific evidence directly contradicted Kogut's signed, videotaped confession.

But that wasn't the end of their ordeal. It took nine more years of appeals before the convictions were overturned.

"Just thank God there wasn't a death penalty in 1985," Restivo said. "I mean, the three of us might have been toast."

Finally, after spending nearly 18 years behind bars, the three men finally walked free in June 2003.

How Many Others?

That should have been the beginning of the end of this case, but it wasn't. All three men were still under indictment for murder, and Kogut's confession would continue to haunt them.

Even though the DNA evidence clearly pointed to someone else as Theresa's rapist, the district attorney decided to retry Kogut, relying on his confession and the hair allegedly found in the van but saying now that Theresa must have had sex with someone else on the night of her murder.

"They constantly evolved the story to fit what they had, which was this videotaped confession which they extracted," said Paul Casteleiro, Kogut's attorney.

The Nassau County Police Department would not comment on any aspects of the case.

When a judge finally ruled in the second trial, he found Kogut not guilty, basing his decision on some key facts: that hair in Restivo's van must have been a plant or got comingled with other evidence; that no match had been found to the DNA found on Theresa Fusco; and that too many of the "facts" in Kogut's confession were simply not true.

Finally, by late December 2005, the charges against all three men were dropped. But it was a bittersweet victory. All three men have lost years they can never get back. Halstead said his and his family's lives will never be the same.

"The system, and I really don't want to get blunt about it, messed my damn life up," Halstead said. "And my children's lives, their lives too. I'm still messed up about it. I been messed up for a long time."

Even applying for a job is a major challenge. Kogut has spent the past several months looking for work, scouring the storefronts of downtown Princeton, N.J., for help-wanted signs. But with a decades-long gap in his resume, he's had no luck.

"For 20 years, you can't just be a ghost," Kogut said.

Restivo takes a longer view of the situation, wondering just how many innocent people might be behind bars because of a false confession.

"The important question here isn't why," he said. "The important question is how many more people has this happened to?"