State Seeks Pardons for Defendants Wrongfully Convicted in 1985 Nebraska Murder

Kathy Gonzalez had to make a decision. It was October 1989, and Gonzalez had been in jail in Beatrice, Neb., for months, accused of a murder she did not commit.

Gonzalez hadn't heard the name Helen Wilson in the four years since her elderly downstairs neighbor had been raped and murdered, until the day police swept into the basement of McCormick's seafood restaurant in Denver and led Gonzalez out in handcuffs.

She'd waived extradition from Colorado, saying recently that she figured she could quickly clear up the misunderstanding and go home. But when she got back to Beatrice, Gonzalez discovered several suspects were already in custody, and they were telling police she was involved in Wilson's murder.

Gonzalez, then 29, says she had never even met some of her co-defendants. They, like her, were people at the margins, drifters, some with drug problems, others suffering from mental illness.

For months, Gonzalez says, the police hounded her and called her a liar. She met with a police psychologist, who suggested the murder was so horrific that she simply blocked it out, and offered to work with her to help her remember. When Gonzalez protested that she didn't know one of her co-defendants, the psychologist, Wayne Price, told her, "You apparently don't want to."

"The odds are that at this time, it looks like you were in [there] but did in fact block it," Price said. "And if you can help you out by remembering, it will help you."

"Yeah," Gonzalez sighed.

Now, she says, she was being given 24 hours to decide, either plead to a lesser charge or go to trial for first-degree murder and face the possibility of the death penalty. She says the police kept telling her she would be the first woman to be executed in state history. The police deny threatening her, and her lawyer said he could not recall.

"When you've got the state of Nebraska trying to kill you, it's a little unnerving," she said recently. "They said they had all these people saying I was there, a blood type that matched mine, and they were going to get a conviction."

"I was going to die in prison," she said. "And I caved. I got scared and I caved."

Six People Wrongfully Convicted; Four Implicate Themselves in Murder

Gonzalez pleaded no contest to aiding and abetting the murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In all, six people were convicted of Helen Wilson's murder. Five of them pleaded guilty or no contest. Four gave detailed statements to the police implicating themselves and the others in the murder.

The Nebraska Attorney General's Office now says DNA evidence shows they were all innocent. Another man, Bruce Allen Smith, acting alone, raped and killed Wilson, the Attorney General says.

At a hearing scheduled for this afternoon, the attorney general's office plans to ask the state to pardon the Beatrice Six, as they have come to be known, bringing what lawyers have called one of most baffling cases in the state's history one step closer to conclusion.

The former Gage County district attorney, Dick Smith, declined to discuss the case. Investigators who worked on the case, however, continue to insist that the Beatrice Six were involved in the murder, though their DNA does not match the crime scene evidence. A lawyer who represented one of the six admits he still has his doubts that the truth about the Wilson murder has come out.

"I have no doubt that we had the right people," said Jerry DeWitt, who was Gage County Sheriff at the time of the investigation. "As far as the one who raped her, his DNA showed up. As far as the actual murder, I think they were all involved."

"A criminal can say anything he wants, whether it's true or not," DeWitt said. "Are you going to believe a cop of 43 years or a drug addict?" (DeWitt says when he arrested Gonzalez in McCormick's she said, "I've been dreading this day for the last four years.")

Suppressed Memories, Intimidated Suspects Involved in Confession

But the case files, released by the attorney general's office, show a combination of unorthodox interrogation techniques, outdated forensics and defendants who were susceptible to intimidation and manipulation all contributed to the apparent wrongful convictions.

In interviews, several of the Beatrice defendants now say they were so frightened by the prospect of the death penalty and what appeared to be overwhelming evidence against them that they confessed to avoid execution. "We were threatened with our lives," said James Dean. "When you're life's on the line, you do things that normal people wouldn't do."

Several defendants were told they probably repressed their memories of the murder. They were encouraged to remember, sometimes through their dreams. Debra Shelden, one of the defendants, has said she initially "blocked out" her memories but remembered much of the night of the murder -- including the fact that Gonzalez was there -- from her dreams. According to her pardon application, Shelden, who could not be reached for comment, continues to claim she witnessed the attack.

Another defendant, Ada JoAnn Taylor, changed her version of events several times in interviews with police. Taylor, who has a history of drug abuse and mental illness, said in a recent interview that there were times when she "doubted" whether or not she was involved in the murder and ultimately confessed out of fear and because the police "kept badgering me so hard."

Price, the police psychologist, had treated Taylor in the past as a private therapist and diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder. Price did not return a call for comment.

"I've never seen anything like this in 25 years," said Jerry Soucie, a lawyer with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy who is representing Tom Winslow, another co-defendant. "I can't believe this."

It's hard to argue with a confession. For many jurors, it defies common sense to think that someone would admit to a crime they did not commit. But according to the Innocence Project, about one quarter of documented wrongful convictions that have been cleared by DNA evidence were the result of false confessions or guilty pleas.

Saul Kassin, a distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies false confessions, said the Beatrice Six case fits the pattern of other false confession cases.

He said defendants who are easily worn down and influenced by police often hit a breaking point, after which they will confess to escape from the interrogation.

"What happens is the person feels trapped by the weight of the evidence. They start to look for a way out. As soon as they show a sign of weakness, the interrogator is trained to swoop in and make minimizing remarks," he said. "All of that is a way of disarming the person into thinking a confession is no big deal."

Another, less common, form of false confession also appears to have played a part in the Beatrice case. Some innocent people, especially those who are emotionally vulnerable or mentally unstable, come to believe they committed the crime.

"They believe the police have good evidence. They start to say maybe I did do it," Kassin said. "At that point the interrogation shifts to getting them to imagine how it happened."

Helen Wilson Murder Discovered

Florence Arnst went to check on her sister, Helen Wilson, at about nine in the morning on Feb. 6, 1985. She'd last seen Wilson, who was sick with pneumonia, the previous evening, when Arnst brought her a hamburger for dinner.

Arnst let herself in to the small one-bedroom apartment and found her 68-year-old sister lying on her back in the middle of the living room. Wilson's blue nightgown was pulled up to her chest and her hands were bound in front of her tied with a towel. A yellow and brown afghan was tied around her head, covering her face.

Vicious Struggle Before Helen Wilson Rape, Murder

It looked like there had been a vicious struggle. Blood stained the bed and bedroom walls. Police would find that Wilson died from suffocation and had been raped, probably after her death. About $1,300 in cash was still in the apartment.

The neighbors hadn't heard a struggle. Wilson, a quiet woman who babysat for children at her church, always locked her door. Arnst couldn't think of anyone who would want to kill her sister.

Not long after the murder, Beatrice police considered Bruce Allen Smith as a possible suspect. Smith had been seen near Wilson's apartment on the night of the murder and had left town not long after. He was a suspect in a different murder in which a woman had been bound, raped and suffocated.

Police tracked him down and obtained blood samples. But a blood test, using forensic evidence available at the time, excluded him as the killer.

Around the same time, Burdette Searcey, a farmer and sometimes private investigator, began looking into the case. Searcey, who knew Wilson's family, had retired from the police department and had turned to farming, growing wheat and raising hogs.

Searcey said an informant told him that a woman named Ada JoAnn Taylor had admitted that she was involved with the murder and had asked for $500 to leave town. According to police reports, Taylor told the informant intimate, and accurate, details of the murder and crime scene.

Searcey also learned that a man named Joseph White was considered a suspect in a recent attempted robbery of an elderly woman. White, who went by the nickname Lobo, knew Taylor. They both were known as drug users and known to spend time with the people who would become the other suspects in the murder -- James Dean, Debra Shelden and Thomas Winslow. White had also lived with Kathy Gonzalez for a short time.

Shelden, who was Winslow's grand-niece, moved into Wilson's apartment shortly after the murder and lived there for a few weeks. She would later say she did not immediately recall the murder but began having nightmares about it, in which she saw the other co-defendants. She would later testify that she had trouble differentiating between her dreams and her memories. She and her husband both implicated Tom Winslow, White and Taylor in the murder, saying Winslow had threatened them if they talked to the police.

Price, the psychologist, told Shelden it was likely she was having memory problems because of stress and told her she might remember more of the murder in her dreams, according to Price's deposition. She said she only remembered, through her dreams, that Gonzalez and James Dean were present for the murder years after the murder took place, after Price continually asked if she was sure she had named everyone who was involved.

Dean, during a July 1989 deposition, said that most of his memories of the murder came from dreams. A psychological report from 1989 says that Dean "continued to deny being in the apartment but as the interview progressed he began to show that he was doubting the voracity of his statements."

Police initially told Winslow, who was in jail for an unrelated assault charge, that they would get him a deal on the assault case if he offered up details of the murder, his lawyer says. In taped interviews, Winslow gave police three different version of events. His lawyer said he was threatened with the death penalty if he did not confess to being involved in the Wilson murder.

DeWitt and Searcey denied that they threatened any of the defendants and said defense lawyers were present for all the interviews.

Of the six co-defendants, Joseph White was the only one who continued to deny being involved in the murder. "They kept talking about repressed memories," White said recently. "I said this is crazy."

Defendants in Helen Wilson Case Change Their Stories

The other defendants were not so steadfast. Taylor told several different stories, at times implicating herself in the murder and at times denying being involved. At the time of the murder, Taylor was often drunk or high, the kind of person, she said recently, who couldn't get out of bed without pouring some whiskey down her throat. She often had trouble with her memory.

"I don't remember it but the officers said that they could prove I was up there at the time," she told police in one of her taped interrogations. "I don't remember much of '85 at all."

Taylor had a history of mental illness and memory problems. She told a psychologist that as a child she used to beat her head against the wall when she was angry, and often spoke to her imaginary twin sister, whose voice she claimed to be able to hear.

She told attorneys that she could communicate telepathically with her fiancé, who she described as a "white warlock." She also said she had an "all-seeing eye" in her jail cell that protected her from evil spirits and that she had five past lives.

Though she implicated herself and White in the murder, she initially got many of the details of the crime wrong, saying Wilson lived in a house rather than an apartment building, putting different people at the crime scene.

"Is it possible since you're having a rough time bringing this to your mind that you could be confused as to maybe the location of the residence, is that possible?" Searcey asked.

"Yeah, with my personality disorder it's hard," she said.

Taylor said she and White drove to Wilson's house in the evening in a light blue car, though police knew Wilson was killed late at night or in the early morning hours and suspected the car was brown and green.

After a 19-minute gap in the interrogation tape, Taylor said she remembered the brown and green car, a brick apartment building and said different people were with her.

"Do you remember a struggle in the bedroom, do you remember the light in the bedroom, was there blood on the sheets, was there blood on the walls?" an investigator asked.

"Yeah, yeah I do."

"Okay. There was a very big battle in that bedroom wasn't there?"

"It was scary."

"Was it a violent battle?"

"It was gross."

"Okay. You was out of your mind, wanted to get out of there weren't you?"

"Yes."

"And there was a knife involved in that bedroom?"

"Yes."

Later, an investigator asks if another woman could have been present for the attack.

"There could have been," Taylor said.

"Was there another female JoAnn?"

"Yeah."

"Was there a Beth?"

"Yeah."

Police ultimately concluded that Beth was not there during the attack.

Taylor and Shelden eventually pleaded guilty and testified against White. Taylor testified that she held a pillow over Wilson's head and smothered her while White raped her. It took a jury less than three hours to convict White of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. Taylor was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Wilson pleaded no contest after White's conviction. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison. All three were released from prison last year.

On the night of Feb. 5, 1985, Bruce Allen Smith, the actual killer, was getting drunk at the R&S Bar. A police investigation would find that he left with some friends to go to Jamie Southwell's house.

Witnesses would tell police that Smith threatened to rape Southwell, saying he always gets what he wants. Smith passed out in her bed before being thrown out of the house. Witnesses said Smith, who died of AIDS in 1992, was drunk and angry when he left. As he was stumbling to the car, he said, "I'm going to get a piece of ass no matter what."

A friend dropped Smith in Beatrice at around 3 a.m. that morning. He last saw Smith walking down the street, heading north towards Helen Wilson's apartment.

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