Gell investigator ignored blatant clues

Staff WriterOctober 4, 2009 

  • Joseph Neff is an investigative reporter who joined The News & Observer in 1992. In 2002, he wrote "Time of Death," a four-part series on the murder of Allen Ray Jenkins and the wrongful conviction of Alan Gell. His stories helped lead to the exoneration of Gell.

    In addition, Neff's reporting helped lead to the investigation and conviction of former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps. His investigative articles have included Blackwater, the V-22 Osprey, Mike Nifong's misconduct and the state probation system.

  • Alan Gell was sentenced to death in 1998 for the murder of Allen Ray Jenkins. A judge ordered a new trial in 2002 because prosecutors withheld evidence that pointed to his innocence, and he was quickly acquitted after a second trial in 2004. Dwight Ransome of the State Bureau of Investigation was the lead investigator on the case. He locked in on Gell as a suspect early and disregarded evidence to the contrary. Life outside prison has been difficult for Gell. He pleaded guilty to indecent liberties and is serving a five-year sentence.

In 2006, the lawyer for State Bureau of Investigation agent Dwight Ransome evaluated the civil rights lawsuit filed against Ransome by former death row inmate Alan Gell.

Gell was demanding $9 million in damages -- $1 million for each year he wrongfully spent behind bars, four of those years on death row.

Ransome's lawyer offered Gell $2,500. Gell and his lawyers continued the case.

In March, Ransome's lawyer,Gary Clemmons of New Bern, wrote a 19-page memo re-evaluating the case.

"In conclusion, I believe that [Gell] would be more likely than not to win ... and that the damages could reach as high as four million dollars," Clemmons wrote.

The SBI and its insurance companies agreed this past spring to pay Gell $3.9 million to settle the case. The amount was unsealed Thursday in federal court. The settlement is likely the largest the SBI has paid to resolve claims of misconduct.

Ransome botched the case early on and has no regrets, according to memos from his lawyer, depositions, SBI files and other case documents. He locked in on Gell as the suspect and disregarded conflicting evidence.

Ransome discounted or ignored statements from 17 witnesses who saw the murder victim alive after Gell was jailed on unrelated charges. He chose to base a death penalty case on the tales of two drug-abusing 15-year-old girls whose stories changed each time they testified or were interviewed.

"I don't know any stronger proof of innocence than 17 independent, impartial, unrelated witnesses, all interviewed within three days after the body was found, all corroborating that Alan was in jail when the murder occurred," said David Rudolf of Charlotte, a lawyer for Gell. "Were they all hallucinating?"

Despite the legal fallout, Ransome still works at the SBI. He now is on administrative duty in Raleigh; he is paid an annual salary of $72,849. Taxpayers paid $731,062.40 to defend against the lawsuit.

Conviction and acquittal

Gell was charged with murder in 1995 and sentenced to death in 1998. In 2002, he won a new trial because prosecutors had withheld evidence that pointed to his innocence. A Bertie County jury acquitted him in 2004; he is now in prison for having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend.

The State Bar reprimanded the prosecutors in the first trial, David Hoke and Debra Graves of the Attorney General's Office, for withholding evidence and not reading their files. The AG's Office stepped in when the local prosecutor recused himself.

Gell sued Hoke, Graves, their boss, the chief of police of Aulander and Ransome. A judge dismissed the lawyers from the case because prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity. The town of Aulander settled with Gell for $93,750 in 2007.

That left Ransome. And he proved to be a big target.

Making the case

A graduate of N.C. Central University, Ransome worked three years with the Ahoskie Police Department before joining the SBI in 1983. He had conducted more than 50 murder investigations before he was assigned to be the lead investigator into the murder off Allen Ray Jenkins, whose decomposing body was found April 14, 1995, in his home inAulander, a small town in Bertie County in northeastern North Carolina. The SBI often assists local law enforcement with murder cases, particularly in rural areas.

The time of death was a central issue in the case. Gell was out of state or jailed from April 4, 1995, until after Jenkins' body was found.

The prosecution agreed that April3 was the only day Gell could have killed Jenkins.

In the first hours and days of the investigation, officers interviewed Jenkins' neighbors, family and acquaintances. Seventeen people told police they had last seen Jenkins alive in the previous week, between April 7 and April 10, while Gell was in jail.

Investigators learned many details of Jenkins' sordid life. A retired truck driver, Jenkins held wild parties each weekend where he often dressed in women's underwear and traded drugs for sex.

During the first few hours of the investigation, police heard the names of two teenage girls known to hang out at Jenkins' house: Crystal Morris, a Hertford High School dropout, and Shanna Hall, who was Gell's girlfriend.

Morris went on to be the star witness against Gell. Her testimony was the only evidence tying Gell to the murder.

In their first interview, the two girls said they knew nothing about the murder. About three weeks later, Ransome interviewed Morris' boyfriend, Gary Scott, 19.

According to Scott, Morris had said that Gell had confessed to her over the phone that he, Gell, had robbed and killed Jenkins.

On May 5, 1995, Morris told Ransome the same thing: Gell had admitted to the murder over the phone. The murder date was April 3, 1995, Morris said.

On May 17, Ransome organized a polygraph test for Scott, who told the polygraph examiner that he did not kill Jenkins or have anything to do with the murder. The test strongly indicated deception on Scott's part.

Scott's failed polygraph poked a "big hole" in Morris' story, Ransome later testified in a deposition during the lawsuit.

That night, Ransome had Scott secretly record a phone conversation with the girls. During the rambling call, Morris was profane and manipulative, and admitted that she "had made up a story" for police.

By the next day, however, Ransome had locked in on his version of the case: He would rest everything on the truthfulness of the two girls. Ransome never asked Gell to take a polygraph test.

His attorney, Clemmons, summed it up in March: "By May 18, 1995, Ransome had chosen to believe Morris and Hall, two young drug abusers, about the date Jenkins was killed, despite having statements from 17 non-interested witnesses who said they had seen Jenkins alive after April 6, 1995, a failed polygraph test from Scott about whether he has shot Jenkins, a recorded phone call in which Morris admitted she had 'made up a story' to corroborate Scott's story, and Ransome's own belief that Morris and Hall were not telling the truth 'about everything' they had said."

'Eyewitnesses'

Ransome never looked for documentary evidence that could corroborate or contradict the girls' account that Gell murdered Jenkins. Ransome did not check Jenkins' phone records to see when he last made a phone call, or bank records to see when he last made a deposit or wrote a check. He didn't check postal records, pharmacy records or sales receipts, all of which could have showed days when Jenkins was alive.

Ransome never challenged Morris or Hall on whether April 3 was accurate, though the girls changed their stories each time they testified or were interviewed.

He did not think it necessary to re-interview any of the witnesses who saw Jenkins alive after Gell was jailed. Ransome said in lawsuit testimony that he discounted those witnesses because they were "lay witnesses" testifying about when they last saw the victim alive. Ransome said the girls' testimony was more valuable because they were "eyewitnesses" to the murder.

He went to District AttorneyDavid Beard and asked that Beard indict Gell on capital murder charges.

Beard testified in the lawsuit that Ransome gave him the impression that only a few witnesses saw Jenkins alive after April 3.

Ransome did not tell Beard that he considered Scott a suspect in May, nor did he tell Beard that Scott had failed a polygraph that asked whether Scott had shot Jenkins.

And Ransome didn't tell Beard about a surreptitiously taped phone call of Gell that was favorable to the defendant; told that fingerprints had been found on the murder weapon, Gell replied "that's good" because he had nothing to do with the murder: "I'm really happy because I ain't done [expletive deleted]."

Beard testified that he probably would have never charged Gell had he known of all the favorable evidence.

Exculpatory evidence

SBI policy has been to share all evidence with the prosecutor, including exculpatory evidence favorable to the defendant. But Ransome wasn't thinking that way in 1995.

"That's not something I was focusing on," he said in a 2007 deposition. "I'm not even sure I even thought about that. That's not something I would think about in an investigation."

"You wouldn't think about the statement being exculpatory during an investigation?" asked Barry Scheck, a lawyer for Gell.

"No," Ransome said. "Why would I?"

The two girls struck a plea bargain with Beard to plead guilty to second-degree murder, testify against Gell, and receive 10-year sentences.

No regrets

Beard was not the only official misled by Ransome.

On the eve of Gell's 1998 trial, Ransome and the prosecutors met with Dr. M.G.F. Gilliland, a forensic pathologist who would be asked to estimate when Jenkins was murdered.

Gilliland asked about a statement in the medical examiner's report that said a neighbor had last seen Jenkins alive April 8, two days after Gell was jailed.

"That has been retracted," Ransome said, according to Gilliland's testimony.

Gilliland later found out that the neighbor, who lived next door to Jenkins, had never retracted her statement. At Gell's retrial she testified Jenkins was killed when Gell was in jail.

SBI director Robin Pendergraft said her agency conducted several thorough investigations into Ransome's handling of the case. Gell's lawyers don't buy that.

The SBI took no action against Ransome until Gell's civil lawsuit pried open the day-by-day facts of his investigation.

After the lawsuit, the SBI permanently removed Ransome from investigations and assigned him to a desk job.

Ransome declined to be interviewed for this story. But during a deposition, he was asked to reflect on his conduct.

"Do you regret anything having to do with how you actually conducted the investigation?"

"No," Ransome replied.

"Do you have anything you regret about having convicted Alan Gell of a capital murder that you now admit he might possibly be innocent of?"

Ransome's lawyer interrupted, saying time had run out. Ransome did not answer the question.

joseph.neff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4516

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