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  • 19 Apr 2015

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Thief's confession fails to sway case

Appeal in Francke murder hinges on prowler's admission


JOHNNY CROUSEPetty criminal Frank Gable never confessed to killing Oregon Corrections Director Michael Francke 25 years ago, but Johnny Crouse, another petty criminal, repeatedly did.

Crouse’s documented admissions may be the most chilling revelations in the new appeal filed on Gable’s behalf by the Federal Public Defender’s Office.

Crouse, who died in 2013, later recanted his confessions, the ones he made to an Oregon Department of Justice investigator just months after the 1989 murder are emotionally compelling and filled with details that only the killer could know for certain.

In fact, the story Crouse told DOJ investigator Randy Martinek is the exact version of the killing that prosecutors used to convict Gable nearly two years later. Martinek still believes Crouse was telling he truth.

Martinek’s versions of Crouse’s confessions are included in two sections of the massive appeal filed with the U.S. District Court in Oregon in mid-October. They are summarized in the main brief and detailed in one of several supporting documents. They are also supported investigative reports from the time.

Gable is serving a sentence of life without parole for killing Francke. The appeal requests that he either be granted a new trial or that he be made eligible for parole. The Oregon Department of Justice had 90 days from the filing to respond.

All a mistake?

Francke was stabbed to death outside the Oregon Corrections headquarters in Salem (known as the Dome Building) on the night of Jan. 17, 1989. An autopsy revealed he died of a stab wound to the heart and was also wounded in one arm. He had a bruise on the left side of his forehead and his glasses were bent. His car was found in the parking lot with the driver’s side door open. Nothing was apparently missing from the car, and Francke still had his wallet and watch on him.

The only possible eye witness to come forward at the time was corrections custodian Wayne Hunsaker, who said he was outside leaving work around 7 p.m. when heard a “surprised, hurt sound...like someone had their breath knocked out.” When he turned around, Hunsaker said he saw two men approximately 40 feet from him, standing just feet apart and facing each other. One man walked hastily towards the headquarters building. The other man ran west out of the parking lot.

At the time, Crouse was a convicted car prowler and known to carry a knife. According to the appeal, Crouse was visiting a parole officer near the crime scene shortly before Hunsaker apparently saw the killing. The next day, after Franke was first identified as the victim, Crouse told his apartment manager he was going to “split” because “something heavy was going down.” Crouse then suffered stomach cramps so severe that he went to the emergency room the following day.

Soon after that, Crouse told his brother that “he had done something wrong” and would be on the run. He never returned to his job and failed to appear for his next scheduled meeting with his parole officer on Jan. 19, 1989.

Crouse saw his parole officer in February, however, and told him a fantastic story about witnessing Francke being killed by five Hispanic men and chasing one of them for miles to no avail. The parole officer passed the story on to the task force investigating the killing, which interviewed Crouse the next day. He repeated the story and passed a lie detector test denying any personal involvement in the killing.

Martinek, a DOJ investigator who had previously worked for the Oregon State Police, was assigned to the task force in February or March 1989. He started by reviewing all of the police reports done to date and was struck that Crouse had injected himself into the case. After looking into his criminal history, Martinek decided to interview Crouse, who had stopped seeing his parole officer again. But when Crouse was arrested for assaulting and attempting to rob a woman sitting in her car a short time later, Martinek immediately arranged to see him.

Martinek and another DOJ investigator, Kathy McLaughlin, interviewed Crouse at an OSP patrol office across the street from the Oregon State Penitentiary. Martinek and McLaughlin did not bring a tape reporter with them, but Martinek described the interview to Wendy Kunkel, an investigator with the Federal Public Defenders, for the appeal. This is what she wrote:

“During the interview, Crouse repeated the story he had told detectives during his first interview. Eventually, Mr. Martinek talked with Crouse about how stabbing a guy is such an ‘up close and personal’ act. All of a sudden tears started forming in Crouse’s eyes. Crouse told Mr. Martinek that he didn’t want to talk further in front of Ms. McLaughlin, so she left the room. Once alone with Mr. Martinek, Crouse began sobbing. His head was on his hands and he had mucus coming out of his nose. Crouse admitted that he had killed Michael Francke. Mr. Martinek described Crouse’s initial confession to him as very genuine, explaining that Crouse was crying, snottynosed, with his head in his hands, saying ‘it was a mistake . . . an accident that went bad.’ ”

Crouse told Martinek he was breaking into Francke’s car when Francke caught him and said words to the effect of “you’re coming with me.” Francke touched Crouse, and Crouse instinctively shook loose and hit Francke with a right to the left temple. Crouse told Martinek that Francke was taller than he was and had longer arms and was getting the better of him physically. Crouse grabbed his knife from a sheath in the back of his pants and began slashing. During the scuffle, the knife fell to the ground, but Crouse recovered it. Crouse told Martinek that he stuck Francke in the chest. Francke stopped fighting immediately. All of the wind went out of Francke. Mr. Francke made a sound and retreated toward the building. Crouse turned and ran.”

A short time later, Martinek and another investigator brought Crouse to the scene of the crime, where he described what had happened with specific details, including some known only to investigators. Martinek told Kunkel that Crouse began to walk off at one point and he grabbed him by the shoulder. When that happened, Crouse spun around looking for a fight and Martinek said he understood what might have happened if Franke had grabbed him.

Martinek was able to confirm parts of Crouse’s story with records, including the sign-in sheet for a visit with his parole officer near the scene on the night of the murder, and hospital records of Crouse’s visit to the emergency room two days later.

Martinek arranged for Crouse to take another lie detector test. This time, Crouse admitted killing Francke but said he didn’t mean to do it. The polygraph examiner said his statement about the car prowl was truthful. Crouse later told his mother, brother and girlfriend that he killed Francke, and all of those conversations are documented.

‘The wrong guy’

But Crouse was not charged with the murder. Instead, Martinek eventually learned that the Marion County district attorney intended to pursue a case against Gable. Crouse had been granted immunity for interfering with the investigation.

This upset Martinek because he believed Crouse’s confession was genuine. But, according to Martinek, when he told his superiors at the Oregon Department of Justice “they had the wrong guy,” he was told that that District Attorney’s office believed it could convict Frank Gable for the murder. Martinek says he responded that even if they could convict Gable, he did not think Gable did it. According to Martinek, his superiors told him to stand down and keep his mouth shut — he had not been put on the task force to solve the crime, but to assist the OSP.

When Gable went to trial in May 1991, prosecutors argued that Francke caught him burglarizing his car, and that Gable stabbed him trying to escape, exactly what Crouse said in his confession. The defense called Crouse to stand outside the presence of the jury. He denied killing Francke and the defense moved to impeach his testimony, intending to enter his confessions into evidence. The judge denied the request and the jury never learned of them.

Gable was convicted at the end of the trial and sentenced to life without parole. He exhausted his state appeals before the Federal Public Defender took over several years ago.

Martinek retired from the Oregon DOJ in 1998 and later worked in Bosnia, East Timor and Iraq. The Portland Tribune has been unable to reach him for comment.

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